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Anime hit 'Suzume' premieres in German cinemas

Torsten Landsberg
April 13, 2023

The anime by Makoto Shinkai is a coming-of-age story that deals with the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster with an immaculately beautiful heroine. But gender roles in Japanese manga and anime are contradictory.

A young woman in a skirt holding a small chair in front of a flooded area.
Image: 2022 "Suzume" Film Partners

On her way to school, Suzume rushes down the mountain road on her bike and encounters Souta, a young man in search of a door. The 17-year-old high school student is immediately drawn to the mysterious stranger. Later, she finds out that he is traveling to abandoned places across Japan to find and lock doors to prevent a giant supernatural worm from causing earthquakes. The two join forces to lock doors and keep the terrifying creature at bay. 

In his latest visually stunning film, director and screenwriter Makoto Shinkai explores the social effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The anime came to Japanese cinemas last November and became a box office hit, becoming the country's fourth highest-grossing film of 2022. The movie competed at the Berlinale last February and premieres in German cinemas on April 13. It will be released in the USA and several other European countries on April 14. 

Like Shinkai's other works, "Your Name and "Weathering With You," it is a coming-of-age story. We learn that Suzume lost her mother in the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Raised by her aunt, she repressed the trauma of her mother's death.

Gender roles in anime

Suzume flaunts her long shiny hair during her journey to self-discovery. She has elegant features and an impossibly slender figure. The same goes for her handsome counterpart. Even her aunt Tamaki looks like a teenager. The film fulfills clichéd beauty ideals.

"In these big, expensive productions, questioning what appeals to the masses is inevitable," says Katharina Hülsmann, a research assistant in Japanese studies at the University of Cologne.

Her research includes transcultural phenomena in manga and representations of gender and sexuality. Yet the beauty ideals seen in "Suzume" are not always found in the genre. "Manga usually have a stronger subversive potential because there's not so much pressure to succeed in a single release," says Hülsmann.

Anime is a collective term for Japanese animated films; they are the cinematic equivalent of manga, the Japanese comic book. 

The Japanese comic scene has helped break down classic gender roles and is celebrated worldwide for Its androgynous characters who have challenged traditional images of macho men and women as accessories. They combat the traditional gender and family roles that are still prevalent in Japanese society.

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Manga's pioneering role

Hülsmann explains that in comics released in Europe or the United States, female characters typically only as accessories to the story: "Psychological themes, self-discovery, growing up, or being bullied did not appear in them." In this aspect, Manga culture has taken on a pioneering role.

Manga has been published in Japanese magazines since the 20th century. It is popular with girls and boys alike, though there is strict gender separation within the genre: Shōnen (boy) manga targets male audiences, while Shōjo (girl) targets young women.

In the 1950s, story manga —  a new style of manga — became popular. The pioneer of this new style was manga artist Osamu Tezuka, referred to as the "the Godfather of Manga." His series "Princess Knight," (1953-1956), is among the first Shōjo manga. "The Shōjo were also originally drawn by men," explains Katharina Hülsmann.

 Japanese Anime artist Osamu Tezuka.
"God of Manga," Osamu Tezuka paved the way for comics to become a cultural phenomenonImage: Kyodo/MAXPPP/dpa/picture-alliance

Women revolutionized the genre

It wasn't until the 1970s that also women began drawing manga. "They revolutionized the genre," says Hülsmann, mentioning female illustrators such as Moto Hagio and later Rumiko Takahashi. They played with gender roles and created more creative comic panel boxes. "Male editors vehemently criticized this until it became apparent that the stories and characters were also well-received by boys."

At the time, Western pop culture was also challenging typical gender roles; David Bowie appeared as the androgynous art figure Ziggy Stardust, while in glam rock, bands made sexual ambiguity part of their style. "The glam rock aesthetic definitely influenced manga culture," says Katharina Hülsmann. Female cartoonists increasingly used homoeroticism as a motif in the 1970s, she says.

An animated girl with black hair looks at the camera in surprise with blue sky and clouds in the background.
The anime heroine’s emancipation is overshadowed by impossible beauty standardsImage: SUZUME Film Partners, 2023

These days, the strict separation between Shōjo and Shōnen is more flexible. Boys can enjoy Shōjo manga and vice versa. There has long been a variety of manga and anime for adults, and the international success of Japanese pop culture has also contributed to this. More than 100 anime series and films are currently available on Netflix alone. Conversely, globalization — and with it the viewing habits of other cultures and countries — has also promoted awareness of strong female characters in Japan.

Becoming a leader

Suzume, too, quickly evolves from a shy teenager following her crush to a leader who asserts herself. This development, however, is nearly overshadowed by a beauty image that the advertising industry and fashion shows could be proud of — the size 0 heroine with a flawless complexion.

"Early mangakas (manga artists) based their figure drawings on fashion sketches, and their style was also inspired by art nouveau," explains Hülsmann. "These depictions have survived to this day, rendering a fantasy, an idealized image." While manga series like "Wandering Son" now focus on transgender characters, old rules still apply in a big-budget feature film targeting a broad audience says Hülsmann: "A female main character is allowed to be the heroine, but she should also look good."

This article was originally written in German and edited by Sarah Hucal.