By Maeve Houston | February 22, 2021

Though it is known by most that sexism exists within filmmaking, there are more prominent cases of this inequality in certain aspects of film, is animation one of these? Some have claimed that in this industry, “Historically a woman had no voice at all in animation. The field was occupied by men in the conception, rendering and distribution.” This is especially true when considering the social and cultural expectations of women in non-Western cultures, like in Japan. Overall, the cultural and social factors that actively worked against Japanese women animators, especially in terms of the environment for women in animation holistically, the conditions for Japanese “in-between” freelance animators, the challenging social structure for Japanese women wanting to go into the workforce, and the many issued faced that were unique to Japanese women in Commercial Animation.

Comparatively speaking, both to North American women and Japanese men, Japanese women face many more difficulties due to societal institutions in Japan, both in the Animation Industry and in society as a whole. Women in animation, and in the larger, encompassing film industry, have had to combat institutionalized sexism that still remains to this day. For example, at the onset of the Commercial Animation Industry (1930s-1950s), Walt Disney Animation Studios, previously called Walt Disney Productions, famously rejected well-qualified animation applicants or sent them to work in the Ink & Paint Department on the grounds of their gender. In a rejection letter to applicant Frances Brewer, the studio wrote: “Women do not do any of the creative work in preparation of Cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men.” The Ink & Paint Department had a reputation for being dominated by women, with the women not doing any creative work on animations and being tasked with transferring the original artwork onto sheets of celluloid. Even though there were a handful of women working in other departments, they were still abnormalities in the studio, and still had to cope with sexist double standards present for women in their line of work, like strict dress codes and fraternization policies that women were often fired for violating, even if they were not at fault. Additionally, these women were subject to sexual harassment while working, and were constantly criticized for making complaints.

  In Japan, whose Animation Industry relies upon the work of entry-level freelance artists, the working conditions and pay are unimaginable upon considering common labor laws in place around the world. Also known as “in-between” animators, these artists use storyboards that the top directors drew and illustrate all of the “in-between” frames after “key animators,” the middle-tier animators, draw the scene’s most important frames. From its beginning to today, freelance Japanese Animators face brutal hours and pay that can be below the poverty line in Japan ($20,775 a year once converted to USD), which is anywhere from $10,000 to $31,000 (once converted to USD) a year. In-between animators are paid per drawing instead of an hourly wage, which can come to less than two dollars per illustration (once converted to USD). This is especially grueling work considering the time and effort it takes to draw a frame of a Japanese animated film, which can take up to five times longer to work on after considering each frame’s detailed nature in comparison to those drawn for North American films. When studying the conditions that animators work in, research conducted in 2015 by the Japan Animation Creators Association found that:

84% of animators (both full and part-time) report working more than 8 hours a day. 15.9% of animators work more than 350 hours per month. Data about pay, hours worked, and more all indicate the same conclusion: those in the most precarious positions often provide the most work for the least pay

Jacqueline Ristola, “Blood, Sweat, Ink, and Tears: Exploitation of Labour in the Japanese Animation Industry“, pp. 87.

In addition to this, there have been instances of what has come to be known as “Anime Syndrome” where “animators had to be hospitalized for exhaustion as a result of the ‘unremitting late nights, irregular diets of junk food and cramped, repetitive labour,’” with some even having to be hospitalized. At the Animation Studio Madhouse, it was found that “Employees were working nearly 400 hours per month and went 37 consecutive days without a single day off.” Animation Studios can do this through a loophole in the system: as freelance animators are independent contractors, they are not required to provide salaried pay or benefits of any kind.

Many in-between animators who have dealt with these difficulties throughout the entirety of their careers have claimed that despite the harsh working conditions, hours, and pay, they will still remain working in the Japan’s Commercial Animation Industry for the sheer love of the artistry that comes from the work they do. One freelance animator states, “everything about my life is utterly horrible, however the artist in me is completely satisfied.” A large part of this is its pervasiveness within the culture and the presumption that, due to how common this laboriousness is, and how it has been present for animators since the beginning of animation in Japan, the artists do not seem to realize the gravity of the situation, which only continues to instill these standards into society. The perceptions of these animators bring them to the unnecessary action of “accept[ing] pain and suffering as a necessary component of making good art.” This extreme negative consequence of freelance work is a carried over and exaggerated interpretation of Japanese workplace culture:

Karōshi, or ‘death from overwork,’ is a visible trend among Japanese workers, a cultural expectation where individual workers are expected to work hard with determination as the company burdens them with intense workloads. It is the negative result of Japanese cultural expectations of diligence and hard work…

Jacqueline Ristola, “Blood, Sweat, Ink, and Tears: Exploitation of Labour in the Japanese Animation Industry“, pp. 89.

One could argue that these cultural expectations of freelance Japanese animators have become naïve to the insignificance of painstaking hard work with no financial compensation, instead of realizing what is really taking place: worker-exploitation.

These cultural facets, the treatment of women in animation holistically, the working conditions of Japanese freelance animators, and the impact of Japanese societal expectations, all create what one can interpret as a largely unequal environment for Japanese women animators. Comparatively speaking, women had much different roles in animation compared to men, specifically in the type of work that they did. While men dominated the creative aspects of the films, women commonly did work in finishing, also referred to as shiage.

Shiage consisted of outlining, inking, cleaning-up, and coloring in illustrations, which were the final parts that drawings went through in animation. Typically seen as more low-level, menial work, studios relied upon women to do this work, though not because of their talent, although talent was and is still used today as an excuse to deny promotions to women colorists, using the reasoning that “since women are better colorists than men, they should not be promoted and moved to another area of animation.” Women were sought out for these positions from the 1930s, when cel technology in animation was introduced and allowed the division of labor, up through the 1990s since they were seen as more temporary workers due to the societal expectation for them to no longer work when they were married and had children, there was less of an expectation for them to be on a contract and rise to higher-level positions, with some employers going as far as to require them to resign upon getting married. This also gave rise to the reasoning that it was not worth it to train them due to the expectation of their jobs being short-term. Studios could also get away with paying women less than men for doing the same work, so hiring women was ultimately the most economical choice.

Even if women in animation in Japan continued to do shiage work once married with children, there was the “1.03 million-yen wall” that discouraged all women who had jobs both to stay at them and to earn more money. Beginning in 1961 and still lasting today, this “wall” gives two-income households a financial incentive in the form of a tax break, social security benefits, health care benefits, and the possible bonus for the higher-paid spouse’s (the husband’s) employer if the lower-paid spouse (the wife) makes less than 1.03 million yen (about $9,100 USD) a year. This, in addition to lack of childcare availability, are the primary reasons why there are so many women who do not work in Japan to this day.

For the women who worked in shiage, the work they did was referred to more as “homework” than anything else, because the vast majority of women in animation in Japan worked from home, although there few a handful of exceptions who tried to pursue a career in animation. Advertisements in popular women’s magazines pitched women jobs in shiage, both as a job and a hobby. Typically, “Ads promised to enrich women’s lives, allowing them to monetize leisure pursuits during the ‘free time’ they were otherwise unable to use productively due to domestic duties.”

Instead of a typical day of work where an employee is supposed to work for a given number of hours a day, with a starting time and ending time, these “homeworkers” were expected to work whenever they had the chance, as these positions were also advertised to mothers raising children, appealing to mothers and wives who wanted to make supplemental income, wanted something interesting to do in their “free time,” and needed flexibility in regards to when they worked. Even though this might sound like the perfect thing for women to do, “…these ads contrasted starkly with the realities of homework, and ever since, problems with the distribution of labor in the Japanese animation industry have become increasingly difficult to ignore.” This overall combination of cultural and social factors worked against Japanese women animators, especially when considering the environment for women in animation holistically, the conditions for Japanese “in-between” freelance animators, the challenging social structure for Japanese women wanting to go into the workforce, and the many issued faced that were unique to Japanese women in Commercial Animation.

 Japan’s Studio Ghibli, founded in 1985 as a leader in Japanese Commercial Animation, has made a name for itself among consumers wanting films with empowering leading girls and women. This particular aspect of Studio Ghibli’s films has been a talking point in the media, with ideas being introduced in articles like: “How Studio Ghibli Became the Mecca of Strong, Spirited Female Characters That Defy Stereotypes,”  Why Studio Ghibli Might Just Be the Most Feminist Film Franchise of All Time,” “What Hayao Miyazaki’s Films Taught Me About Being a Woman,” and “Here’s a Powerful Tribute to Studio Ghibli’s Badass Heroines.”

There have also been a few prominent women to take part in the making of these progressive films, with a couple working on all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, including Futaki Makiko, who was especially notable for her detailed work. Similar to Makiko, Megumi Kagawa also took part in almost all of Miyazaki’s films. Additionally, animator Tanaka Atsuko did much of the heavy lifting with the character Yubaba in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001).

  Despite these favorable and encouraging claims about the meaning behind what is on the screen, and the notable women who took part in their making, the same cannot be said about the people behind it. Following Hayao Miyazaki’s departure from Studio Ghibli, the films’ feminist themes were soon contradicted by his predecessor, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who claimed in 2016:

…with animation we have to simplify the real world. Women tend to be more realistic and manage day-to-day lives very well. Men on the other hand tend to be more idealistic – and fantasy films need that idealistic approach. I don’t think it’s a coincidence men are picked.

Chris Michael, “‘Women Are Realistic, Men Idealistic’: Studio Ghibli on Why a Director’s Gender Matters”, The Guardian.

On the contrary to this, there have been many individuals to reject this assumption. For example, animator Anne Koizumi once stated that she “believes that gender differences in animation may exist, but she feels more comfortable saying that every animator is different regardless of his or her gender.” Even though Yonebayashi went on to retract this statement, it still poses questions about the motivations of the Japanese Animation Industry: what is the overarching goal of the directors? Is it about the storytelling and artistry or the money? There is no clear way to fix the problems that come with years of social and cultural expectations, but, what we can do is support the women who fight this battle first-hand.

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