Japanese animation is, in many ways, a boys’ club. That’s true not just of the people that create these shows and films, many of whom are men. The audience that many of the most internationally successful anime caters to also reportedly skews male—and so do their characters.
Kids around the world have been weaned on the teats of Ash and Pikachu through Pokémon, then grew up to watch misogyny subtly spiral out of control in shows like Btooom! and Katekyo Hitman Reborn! Mainstream TV anime, in particular, is often developed for teenage boys. The shonen subgenre, dedicated to supposedly boy-centric stories, is responsible for spawning international hits like My Hero Academia, Dragon Ball Z, and Attack on Titan. And even when those popular series do co-star women, they’re often given much less to do than their male counterparts—or objectified by everyone around them.
Basically, being a rarely featured woman in anime is rarely a fun time—and there’s only so much heavy lifting series like Sailor Moon and Violet Evergarden, or recent female-fronted films like Belle and Miss Hokusai, can do on their own. Even in these instances, the women-oriented shōjo subgenre of anime is like shonen’s little sister, who’s been left to fend for herself at her big brother’s frat party. Though the representation is there, it’s brushed under the animated carpet or separated completely. We all know that the best female heroes are just like the male ones—present, relatable, and aspirational.
Thankfully, director Makoto Shinkai (2016’s Your Name) has delivered a new female protagonist that scratches the itch for effective representation with his newest film, now in theaters. Enter Suzume, a 17-year-old high schooler that’s suddenly faced with the possible end of the world, after she opens a misplaced door. In the film of the same name (another green flag), Suzume meets a dashing stranger by the name of Sōta, who explains that it’s his job to travel the country closing these doors—or “gates”—to a mysterious in-between world, which our protagonists believe to be a paradise.
Suzume quickly learns that her curiosity has unleashed an evil spirit known as a “daijin,” locking her and Sōta into a race against time to save Japan from a mythical yokai known as Namazu, a giant worm that supposedly generates earthquakes.
Even outside of its spritely female protagonist, Suzume is a movie that ticks plenty of boxes that it needs to. It’s a film that’s both joyous and able to tap into an abundance of moral dilemmas, including family dynamics, childhood trauma, and the will-they-won’t-they of still platonic work colleagues. Suzume never overly explains itself, but it also doesn’t have to. Every scene has a clear purpose, driving the narrative (and Suzume) forward to bigger and better things.
That Suzume is such a stand-out hero is surprising, considering some of Shinkai’s previous female characters. Your Name’s Mitushua hid in the shadows of the film’s strong narrative, for example, while Weathering With You’s Hina is subject to a slathering of smutty jokes. But in Suzume, Shinkai successfully balances intimate character development with themes that he loves to work with, such as the effects of natural disasters in Japan and myths that are perhaps lesser known in the Western world. In doing so, the director establishes the groundwork for what allows Suzume herself to be so remarkable. Shinkai’s vision is now tried and tested, and it’s clever.
While Suzume stands out as a uniquely well-rounded female lead in a medium that stars so few of them, she’s far from the only one. In fact, in all her strengths, she reminds us of other anime women that came before her. Looking back into the canon of Japanese animation, some of the most well-received movies in its history hold the key to how to craft a well-rounded female character. These are the women who walked so that Suzume could run.
The first instance of a strong female hero arguably arrived in 1984. That’s when two extremely talented guys decided to make a post-apocalyptic drama with an incredibly ’80s feel: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Directed and produced by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Nausicaa adapts Miyazaki’s manga into a fantastic, empowering feature. A thousand years after an apocalyptic war that has destroyed civilization, the remaining humans are at odds with infuriated giant bug creatures called Ohm. Trying to protect her people after an invasion from a rival community, it’s up to Nausicaä to bridge the gap between human life and the reclamation of land by the Ohm.
That Nausicaa premiered two years before Miyazaki and Takahata went on to co-found Studio Ghibli worked in its favor. The film was not part of an established “brand” yet, and thus had no expectations working for or against it; instead, the film developed a style on its own. The result is one of the earliest instances of an effortlessly complex, dynamic young woman in anime history. Kind-hearted to the core, Nausicaä is a princess for her people. She always chooses to assume the best in those she meets, and her calm optimism is what ultimately resolves conflict; the Valley of the Wind villagers hang onto her every word.
Similar to Suzume, Nausicaä never shows any doubt in her own decisions. No maneuvers are second-guessed, and the antagonist’s acts of betrayal and narcissism are never a true obstacle in Nausicaä’s journey. Perhaps it’s because she has age on her side, or perhaps it’s an example of Miyazaki proving that if you want something done well, get a woman to do it. Nausicaä went on to set the tone for subsequent Studio Ghibli heroines, from Kiki (Kiki’s Delivery Service) to San (Princess Mononoke). The animation studio remains beloved by viewers and other creators for the blueprint it laid out for female heroes with Nausicaä.
But by the late ’90s, in the (rightful) wake of Sailor Moon mania, a different side of anime sprang up: darker shows and films, with female characters that took on new textures. These characters appeared in genre hits for older audiences, like Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. But one of the best examples comes in even more stark contrast to Studio Ghibli’s fantastical, colorful back catalog: Satoshi Kon’s feature directorial debut Perfect Blue.
Perfect Blue is a darkly depressing anime very much aimed at adults. At its center is Mima, a young woman who is conflicted between staying in her moderately successful girl band and setting out on her own to become an actress. While she grapples with the decision, Mima learns that an anonymous blogger has been posting her daily whereabouts pretending to be her without revealing their true identity.
Mima is a modern girl with modern problems, which are sometimes too timely for her to even comprehend. Whether it’s her inability to understand the significance of the World Wide Web or her implicit trust in the people hired to look after her, Mima’s greatest strength is her willingness to embrace her vulnerability. Suzume shares this trait, as she often leans into the pain she feels about losing her mother and her regularly fraught relationship with her aunt. There’s power in knowing your limits, and Kon used nuanced female characters to remind his audience of this. He continued to prioritize complex women in his following features—particularly the widely acclaimed 2006’s Paprika, his final completed film before his untimely death in 2010.
A final notable connection to Suzume brings us back to Studio Ghibli: Chihiro, Miyazaki’s lead in the 2001 Academy Award-winner Spirited Away. A 10-year-old girl stuck alone in a between-world of monsters and spirits, she is naturally scared and sad—and she lets us see it. In tune with her emotions, Chihiro’s fight to remember her own name is what ends up allowing her to battle through (utterly terrifying) bathhouse owner Yubaba’s terror to win her parents back. While Suzume is also beautifully in touch with her emotional well-being, her age means she can balance between teenage arrogance and childlike naivety. At 17 years old, Suzume meets Chihiro at her level of emotional awareness, then exceeds it.
By drawing from well-realized female leads like Nausicaä, Mima, and Chihiro, among numerous other women, Suzume has taken the baton as a powerful female lead for a new generation of anime fans. She’s a young woman’s woman—the kind that will meet you in the bathroom while you’re on a bad date to tell you that you’re beautiful and worth more than you think. Thrown into a life-defying reality that’s beyond normal comprehension, she deftly takes the challenges she faces in stride, trusting in her instincts to help Sōta save Japan.
The only thing Suzume fears is a world without those she loves, or one completely devoid of any strife or adversity to overcome. Instead, Suzume uses her ever-changing emotions to shape her rather than break her. It’s refreshing in the face of some of the more masculine or generic anime that dominate the mainstream today.
In hindsight, Suzume (the character) feels like a love letter to the women of anime who came before her, just like Suzume (the film) is an ode to everything that makes anime so spellbinding. She knows where she came from and exactly where she’s going—and what better lesson to leave us and the rest of the anime-viewing audience with?