Strong Female Characters: Gender, Gaming, and Digital Cultures in Japan
Asian Studies Program Spring Lecture Series, The University of Scranton
April 12, 2018
One of the first books written about Japanese video games in English was Chris Kohler’s Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life. In this book, Kohler identifies the two primary characteristics of Japanese video games as their emphasis on story and character development. During the 2010s, the connections between gender and gaming have become a major topic of academic inquiry and social contention, as have the related connections between gaming and online subcultures. Not coincidentally, elements relating to both story and character have come to be associated with debates regarding the intersections between gender and gaming, a set of critical conversations that are just as concerned with diegetic representation as they are with the treatment of real women working in the gaming industry.
Because multiple titles from gaming franchises originating in Japan have become keystone texts that continue to be played by people around the world even as they exert a strong influence of contemporary game developers, it is important to understand their history and cultural messages. This chapter examines several games from The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Pokémon franchises in order to present a broad overview of the evolution of the attitudes they express regarding gender. As demonstrated by these titles, a developing sensitivity concerning portrayals of female characters has both reflected and subsequently enabled the growth of a female-gendered player demographic. As video games continue to mature as a medium, online communities of female fans devoted to video games have collectively emerged as a major creative force shaping transnational mediascapes.
Anime, Manga, and Video Games in the United States and the Rise of “Cool Japan”
Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at George Mason University
October 25, 2017
The Pokémon animated series began airing on American television in 1998, significantly altering the media landscape of the United States. The products of Japanese entertainment media, specifically anime, manga, and video games, had been steadily increasing in visibility and profitability throughout the 1990s, however, and Pokémon was far from the only Japanese franchise to leave an impact on American popular culture. It was not just the content of Japanese media properties that affected the American market, but the means through which they were distributed and the demographics they targeted. Manga volumes and their associated magazines created a physical space for “young adult” readers in the stores of national chains such as Media Play and Borders, paving the way for the Harry Potter books to enlarge the market. Meanwhile, Japanese animation and video games helped to bring young women to “geek media” from which many girls had previously felt excluded. In this lecture I will use key titles and franchises to demonstrate how the mutually beneficial feedback loop between Japanese and American entertainment media during the early 2000s resulted in the creation of a cultural zeitgeist of “Cool Japan” that has since been capitalized on by Japanese governmental and para-governmental organizations.
The Female Gaze in Anime and Manga
Lunchtime Speaker Series, Maryland Institute College of Art Baltimore
March 22, 2017
The female gaze can be used by writers and readers to look at narratives from a perspective that sees women as subjects instead of objects. In this talk, I will use the graphic novels of a prolific four-woman artistic collective called CLAMP to demonstrate how writers are capable of applying a female gaze to the themes of their work. I will also discuss the Sailor Moon animation in order to demonstrate how female consumers of entertainment media are able to view and interpret texts in such a way as to subjectify female characters and emphasize feminist themes. I argue that the male gaze should not be taken for granted in the study of popular culture, as an awareness of an active female gaze can change the ways in which we understand consumer-oriented narrative media and fannish transformative works in a global context.
Big Eyes, Magical Girls, and the American Way: The Cultural Cross-Pollination of Shōjo Manga
Globalized Manga Culture and Fandom Symposium, CUNY Baruch College
February 19, 2015
On July 7, 2012, Japanese publishing giant Kodansha announced the launch of a new anime adaptation of the iconic Sailor Moon (Bishōjo senshi Sērā Mūn) manga. This announcement coincided with the twentieth anniversary of the series; and, in an acknowledgment of the continuing international popularity of the franchise, it was also announced that the new series would enjoy a simultaneous worldwide broadcast. In anticipation of the July 2014 release date of the new Sailor Moon television anime, Viz Media acquired the rights to the original animated series, the uncut and digitally remastered version of which would be made available to viewers in the United States on May 19, 2014 via Hulu, a popular online television subscription service. In a country in which media producers are hesitant to cast women as the starring protagonists of big-budget films and video games, what drives such strong fandom loyalty to a Japanese property that was televised briefly before being taken off the air almost twenty years ago?
I argue that, despite relatively low sales in the United States, shōjo manga (and the animated adaptations of these manga) have had a strong cultural impact on successive generations of fans of all genders. During the past fifteen years, fan production has nourished diverse interests in Japanese cultural products, which are in turn beginning to exert a stronger influence on mainstream geek media. Using M. Alice LeGrow’s graphic novel series Bizenghast and Frederator Studios’s animated series Bee and PuppyCat as case studies, I demonstrate how it is not only the visual styles and narrative tropes of shōjo manga that have increasingly begun to influence American media, but the consumption patterns of shōjo fandom communities as well.
Nostalgic Environmentalism in Studio Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arrietty
Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival of Greater Philadelphia
April 11, 2013
The 2010 Studio Ghibli Film The Secret World of Arrietty is an animated adaptation of Mary Norton’s children’s novel The Borrowers. Norton’s story, originally published in 1952, reflects the frustrations of a generation of young women who came of age in the immediate postwar period, during which they were expected to resume their “traditional” gender roles. In director Yonebayashi Hiromasa’s version of the story, the feisty heroine Arrietty has a similarly conflicted relationship with the old-fashioned human house in which her tiny family dwells, but the generational shift she represents as a character concerns a changing relationship with the environment.
Although Arrietty and her family live in harmony with their domestic ecosystem, they are constantly threatened by the humans of the household. Only Sho, a gentle boy who has been sent to the country to rest in preparation for a dangerous surgery, attempts to communicate with Arrietty. Sho misunderstands the impact his ostensibly helpful actions have on the lives of Arrietty and her family, however, and the message of the film seems to be that humans can best respect the natural world by limiting their intervention into its processes. The development of a mutual appreciation between Arrietty and Sho plays out against the lush backdrop of hand-painted landscapes, whose beauty has impressed numerous reviewers. The peaceful and soothing atmosphere that permeates the film encourages an appreciation for nature, while the nostalgia associated with the charming and isolated setting imbues the environmental drama with positive affect.
Talking to the Dead: History and Memory in Koreeda Hirokazu’s After Life
Philadelphia Japan House Film Series
February 9, 2011
This brief introduction to Koreeda Hirokazu’s 1998 film After Life contextualizes the work with a discussion of Koreeda’s early career as a director of television documentaries. In this discussion I will trace the themes of personal and historical memory as they are expressed in documentaries such as August Without Him (1994). I will then explain how these themes are more fully realized in After Life, a film that blends the documentary aesthetic with a more conventional cinematic narrative. By writing a script that was inspired by hundreds of interviews, and by incorporating filmed interviews with non-actors into the story, Koreeda blurs not only the boundaries of documentary film making but also the boundaries between personal and public memory. I will argue that Koreeda therefore suggests that cinema, which functions by telling personal stories publicly, is one of the primary vehicles through which national and historic memory is created.
Kon Satoshi and the Animated Actress
Sewanee: The University of the South
November 23, 2010
Even though he only directed four feature films and one television series, the late Kon Satoshi established himself as an auteur of animation known for his distinct visual and animetic style. This style is most brilliantly manifested in the faces and movements of his protagonists, young women who are often depicted as literally running from or after something, be it a person or an ideal. The figure of the young woman is vital to Kon’s oeuvre, as it is to many contemporary Japanese directors working in the field of animation. Are these buxom heroines merely celluloid embodiments of the desires of their directors and their audiences projected onto a visually appealing female body?
Although the women of Kon’s films may function as empty vessels onto which the director can project his desires, it is possible that these female characters are also a projection of various aspects of the director himself. The protagonist of Millennium Actress especially, with her close connection to and mastery over the world of cinematic dreams, can be easily read as a movie director as well as an actress, especially considering the film’s deliberate self-referentiality. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Millennium Actress is Kon’s choice to put his own voice as an auteur into the animated body of a woman, and this talk seeks to explain this choice as well as explore its implications for the study of animation in general.