Thursday, January 31, 2013

1973: Onna Unchained

A junior pursuing a Biology major and Women's Studies minor, Natasha Hede (@illegenes) has had a fierce love for the animated world since she was a 4th grader sitting down in her living room and watching Toonami programming.The time remaining from her all-consuming studies is committed to sobbing about anime and television and secretly playing video games while eating Cocoa Puffs. She runs the anime blog Shibireru Darou? with her buddies from across the United States.

Feminism in the 1970's wasn't as prominent or stylish as it is now, but just as every movement has its beginnings, so did the movement toward putting girls in the spotlight. For us, the year of 1973 is where the embers of this cause ignited. During this time, the second wave of feminism had already begun. In Japan, this wave was led through the Women's Liberation movement, headed by the influential Mitsu Tanaka. Instead of just opting for economical equality, this group—and the second wave in Japan in general—sought to aim for something deeper and more powerful. In her "Declaration of the Liberation of Eros", Tanaka writes:
"As we continue to thoroughly question ourselves, in the mist of the struggle, we who can be none other than onna. By questioning men and authority, we will deconstruct our own fantasies of love, husband and wife, men, chastity, children, the home, and maternal love. As we design our own subjective formation, we would like to aid in the (re)formation of men's subjectivity."
These words echoed through media as Japan aired two critical TV shows and two movies that laid the tracks for future writers and works that enforce a sense of feminism: Kanashimi no Belladonna ("Belladonna of Sadness"), Cutie Honey, Êsu wo Nerae! ("Aim for the Ace!"), and Panda! Go, Panda!

(Editor's note: Warning! Not safe for work. Also, a trigger warning for rape imagery and discussion.)

Cutie Honey

Though incorrectly described as the first mahô shôjo title (which actually belongs to 1969's Himitsu no Akko-chan), Cutie Honey was the first of its own kind. Based off the manga by Go Nagai, the story is about Honey Kisaragi, a busty, sweet-natured android who only finds out after her father's tragic death that she has the ability to create anything from air: an ability that the mischievous organization, Panther Claw, wants to obtain. Determined to stop this evil, she resolves to defeat the organization by turning into her counterpart superhero, Cutie Honey, the Warrior of Love. Each episode featured a typical villain of the week as Honey must take leave from her school-life to transform into Cutie Honey to save the day.

There was no doubt that Cutie Honey was for the typical male gaze; Honey's transformation scene isn't just one of changing into a new set of clothes, but literally ripping off the previous one in the process and becoming full-fledged naked. Not only does every episode feature this strip scene, but there's also at least a boob joke or butt joke inserted into for comedy. As the opening suggests, the show focuses more on the sexual parts of Honey, mainly her breasts.

To look at the trees and not see the forest would be pointless in terms of creating history; Cutie Honey was also the first shônen series in the time to feature a female protagonist, in a time where shônen material was dominated by an all-male set of characters. The show is also much more violent (though not as violent and sexual as the manga material), as Honey doesn't just defeat her opponents or leaves them to drag themselves away out of humility—she kills them. She also has a brash, if not assertive, and confident attitude, as she often makes fun of and taunts her opponents, a rare quality for female characters at this time, let alone a female protagonist. There's even a point where Honey takes a sword and violently pierces all of the male robbers of Panther Claw, without a single ounce of remorse on her face!

For a shônen show with a girl as the main character, Cutie Honey did impressively well, sharing both a large percentage of male and female demographics. This was very rare back in the day, as shônen shows tended to gain a major percentage of male demographics only. The show was also so popular that it later aired in countries like France and Germany, and proved to be a large influence for later magical girl stories like Sailor Moon (which borrows the same sort of call—"In the Name of the Moon"—as well as the transformation scenes). Unfortunately, Cutie Honey was cancelled after 25 episodes due to its risque content, but it nevertheless had lasting impact for future stories and artists.

Kanashimi no Belladonna

In September of 1970, Tanaka wrote an article entitled "Why 'Sex Liberation'—Raising the Problem of Women's Liberation", where she argues that women's traditional roles in sex had imprisoned them and that controlling a women's desire is almost heinous.
"We define women's liberation as a liberation of sex. We define the future nucleus of human liberation as a liberation of sex. We do not consider this to be a liberation or freeing of our sexual organs, meaning free sex. This is nothing more than a dirty form of expression which is based on men's biased consciousness toward women...Women's liberation of sex is actually a kind of self liberation from the structure of consciousness that denies sex..."
Kanashimi no Belladonna, a movie based on the book Satanism and Witchcraft by Jules Michelet, could be seen as a direct response to this article. Produced by Mushi Production, the story revolves around the young woman Jeanne, who is happily married to her husband, Jean, until she is raped by one of the people in her village, which leads to emotional breakdown and disillusionment as Jeanne finds everything around her to be a tapestry of deceit and lies, threaded by male dominance in society. However, refusing to give into despair permanently, Jeanne instead plots a revolution against the village that brutally tormented her, using her pain and trauma as a way of liberation and empowerment.

The artistic direction and unique style (similar to that of Gustav Klimt's works) mirrors the novel it was based on as well as experimental animation; a notable example would be the rape scene, which is conveyed through a series of minimalist and sensual images. Instead of sex as a symbol of shame and imprisonment, the use of sexual artistry in Kanashimi is ever-flowing, instilling life and color into Jeanne as she evolves into a Joan of Arc figure. The movie seamlessly switches between these moments of exotic clarity to a dull stillness that reflects the daily, mundane life that Jeanne sees in society for a woman. Rarely in this age would art be used to convey such rawness of emotion, but director Eiichi Yamamoto manages to blend it in with illustrative sequences of still imagery and special effects.

Belladonna for its time was considered to be a flop. No one watched it, no one wanted to watch it— anime in this period was aimed at a domestic audience, and Belladonna was far too avant-garde to appeal to the majority. However, its mark still lasts today on modern anime; the film is noted for its profound influence on writers like Kunichi Ikuhara and Masaaki Yuasa and the art style of works like Gankutsuou and Elfen Lied.

Aim for the Ace!

With the success of 1969's Attack No. 1, TBS started their next successful project Aim for the Ace!, which was an adaptation of the original manga by Sumika Yamamoto. Directed by Osamu Dezaki, Aim for the Ace! is about Hiromi Oka, a teenage girl attending her first year at Nishi High School, who is persuaded by her best friend Maki to join the tennis team. While Hiromi is a novice at the sport, her potential catches the attention of the coach Jin, who chooses her (to the surprise of everyone at the tryouts) to be on the team. For most of the other players, Hiromi is a klutz who can't even get some of the basic shots down, but Jin sees something in her, so Hiromi's harsh training and adventures with the tennis team begin.

The animation, for its time, is superb, showcasing a variety of color palettes with messy and thick lines for emphasis during the matches. In contrast to Belladonna's static imagery, Aim for the Ace!'s animation is constantly on the move. The camera is everywhere; there are closeups and background shots for each tennis match, and you feel like you're moving with Hiromi as she paces back and forth, hitting the ball. While it has a rather simple plot, the show has plenty of endearing characters—no one is portrayed as a true villain or justice in the show, and everyone has his or her own equal faults. Jin's constant berating at Hiromi could be seen as harsh, but it makes her improve exponentially.

Likewise, Hiromi, who looks like the run-of-the-mill girl in comparison to the gorgeous and talented star player Reika Ryuuzaki, has her own merits of being able to endure whatever comes at her. Thus, the girls of the anime are all incredibly multifaceted in personality and portrayal. Though feminine in appearance, they all share qualities that made them contrast harshly with the typical "damsel in distress" stereotype that was common at the time. However, more than anything, they make meaningful relationships with one another and help each other improve both physically and mentally. Hiromi and Reika's bond, for instance, starts off with a rocky start, but soon develops to become something of a friendly rivalry that wasn't just about boys. Hiromi herself slowly blossoms into a far more independent, self-sufficient, but good-hearted girl.

Aim for the Ace! as a manga was a highlight in the time of shôjo genre, but it was an anime that paved the way for expressive and over-the-top sports series. The bold and dramatic poses and execution of the show would inspire Osamu Dezaki to pursue this trend, one that started with the sports series Ashita no Joe and would eventually lead him to adapt the shôjo classic Rose of Versailles, along with the bizarre Black Jack. It also inspired the hit Studio GAINAX show Aim for the Top! Gunbuster, which features a similar storyline, except with space travel, giant robots, and aliens.

Panda! Go, Panda!

Panda! Go, Panda! (titled Panda Kopanda, "Panda, Baby Panda", in Japan) is an animated short feature that was important for several reasons. Most of us familiarize it with being the first collaboration between Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, two men who would then go on to create the famous and popular Studio Ghibli. However, as someone who watched Panda! Go, Panda! as a young child, I connect it with the wonderful appearance of Mimiko, an orphaned redheaded girl (who looks extraordinarily like Pippi Longstocking) who connects with two pandas in her backyard as they form a "family" and go on comedic adventures. While the movie is written for children and is seemingly happy, there's a certain undercurrent of loneliness in it—Mimiko is a child who has never really felt the love of a parent before and thus struggles to fight for this fragile and new relationship she shares with these two beloved pandas.

If anything, Mimiko herself is inspiring. There's a certain scene in the movie where Mimiko is bullied by other children and comes close to crying, but it's only when her panda family arrives to the rescue that she has enough strength to shoo them off. This is then followed by Mimiko having the same strength to save her "panda brother" when he falls into a river and nearly drowns. Charming but capable, Mimiko was the ideal role model for little girls everywhere. While Hayao Miyazaki is known today for writing charismatic and compelling female protagonists in his movies, it was Panda! Go, Panda! that started this familiar trope. In fact, it was this movie that inspired his famous My Neighbour Totoro, as many similarities can be seen between the two (namely, the characteristics of Mimiko and Mei, as well as the characteristics of the father Panda and Totoro).


1973 was a year of both failure and success—while movies like Belladonna failed to capture the usual eye, shows like Cutie Honey and Aim for the Ace! were in the spotlight for creative writing and taking female characters to new heights. One thing that connected all of these shows was their influence that would continue to reshape and stylize the importance of women's place in animation all the way to today, where we now find it common to see a mahô shôjo show or a sports series featuring female characters. Today, we remember established classics like Revolutionary Girl Utena and modern works such as Michiko e Hatchin and Twelve Kingdoms, but tribute should always be paid to the works that laid the foundation for later successes, and we have four small, but adventurous anime to thank for that.
"What I want is not a man or a child. I want to have a stronger soul with which I can burn myself out of either heartlessness or in tenderness. Yes, I want a stronger soul." - (Tanaka, Mitsu. "Inochi no Tsuyosa ga Hoshii (I Want a Strong Soul)," trans. and cited by Dorothy Robins-Mowry in The Hidden Sun)


[A last note: 1973 was a fantastic year for developing the ladies in anime, but there were also some other influential anime that aired at the time, specifically Casshan, also known as Neo Human Casshern (which would inspire the sort-of spinoff, Casshern Sins, 35 years later). Directed by Takao Koyama, the apocalyptic cyberpunk show would establish the regular tropes for future mecha series, including the famous Mega Man. While generic in appearance, the show had very strong allusions to post-Nazi fascism, World War II, and the Holocaust, and even had hints of a post-Cold-War terrorized world.]

(Next time: whether we go forwards to 1974 or backwards to 1972, we're heading straight for that giant robot!)


  1. Very informative article. I am shocked but amazed that something as daring as Kanashimi no Belladonna existed in the early 70s. I am going to watch this movie.

    Aim for the Ace! also sounds and looks interesting.

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