Reiko Okuyama’s a legend in the anime industry for her artistic achievements and as an icon at the forefront of the fight for women’s rights in this industry. Now that her name’s entering the public discourse again, though, we have to address an uncomfortable topic: gender discrimination within the anime industry is far from over.
News about Natsuzora, the 100th series in NHK’s popular TV drama slot Asadora, have been circulating for over a year. When it was revealed that it’d revolve around a female animator during the early days of the anime industry, fans were quick to speculate about which real-life figure that tale would be modeled after; though Asadora series are fictional, they’re known to mirror people’s lives every now and then, and this seemed too specific of a scenario not to draw inspiration from a real industry figure. Would it be Kazuko Nakamura, the first woman to act as lead animation director in anime? Or would it instead be Reiko Okuyama, who stands on equal footing as the first woman to supervise the animation in a feature-length movie all by herself despite adverse circumstances (The Little Mermaid, 1975)?
In the end, it seems like the answer was the latter. Late Okuyama’s husband and similarly iconic artist Yoichi Kotabe is being consulted and acting as a supervisor of sorts for the series, which essentially confirms the rumors that were already floating around. Though Natsuzora should be no means be treated as a biography, the intent is to create something that lives up to Okuyama’s legend, and so far they seem to be taking the right steps to achieve that goal. But what was Okuyama like in the first place, and what did she fight for? Let’s find out.
Reiko Okuyama animation reel compiled by Josh H.
Reiko Okuyama joined Toei Douga in 1957 entirely by accident, after misinterpreting the company’s name and assuming they’d specialize in illustrations for children but powering through the trial anyway – and that’s the kind of attitude that’d define her career as a whole. As an artist, versatility was her number one trait. She’d adapt to the geometrical shapes and snappy, caricaturesque animation of The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon just as well as the fluidity and roundness on display in Puss in Boots, a movie that embodied Toei Douga at its most energetic. After an already successful run in the commercial animation scene (first at Toei and later as a freelancer) she branched out even further; illustration work for children as she’d always intended to do, mentorship at the Tokyo Designer Gakuin, even a passion for copper etching works that flourished in the latter stages of her career.
And just as important as her artistic achievements is how hard she had to fight to realize them. As you might imagine, the anime industry in the 50s and 60s was hardly a welcoming place for women with aspirations higher than assisting men with tasks seen as lesser like painting. Her mere presence climbing the production ranks against all odds was subversive, but she wasn’t content with that alone. It’s been documented that Okuyama took a very active role in the labor disputes at Toei, putting her outspoken attitude and natural charisma to good use during the studio’s union conflicts. Risking not only her own career but also her husband’s, suffering multiple setbacks but persevering, she was one of the driving forces in a collective fight that this industry has unfortunately never been able to replicate ever since. Okuyama faced the corporative pushback that also punished her comrades with an extra layer of sexism, a situation that only got more extreme after she gave birth and made it a point to fight for the right of women not to renounce to neither work nor family matters. Her legacy in this regard should be held just as highly as her oeuvre.
This overview of her career, albeit quick, should give you a good idea as to why Okuyama’s life would become the basis for a new entry in a wildly popular drama series. Not only do her achievements warrant that treatment if you observe them objectively, but her whole story’s also got that inspirational vibe that we all love in fiction. Even though the real-life details will be blurred away in this dramatized version, the core of her tale is that of a fight against an oppressive system which can only be won through perseverance – a classic, very relatable scenario. Easy to root for and a good fit for Asadora’s tradition of brave heroines.
The problem comes when you realize that we’re always faster to condemn issues in fiction than we are to effectively address them in real life. Okuyama joined Toei Douga over 60 years ago, and yet that very same studio is still capable of deliberately ruining women’s careers – and they’re not alone in that shameful position. As recently as October 2018, a creator working with Toei (who chose to stay relatively anonymous but whose identity and reports have been verified) opened up about the various forms of harassment that pushed her to sever ties with the studio. After being told that as a woman she didn’t have the right mindset to be a director, justifying lesser remuneration because of her gender, and being disrespected in many other ways, she ended up depressed and with little hope left in anime. An extreme example for sure, but eye-opening nonetheless about attitudes that simply refuse to disappear.
That’s not to say that advances haven’t been made – Okuyama’s own achievements paved the way for that – or that things are just as bad as they were back then. You’ll even find voices in the know that’d argue that gender discrimination within the industry is essentially over. Terumi Nishii, who’s otherwise very critical of anime’s inner workings, has mentioned that she considers such discrimination to be vile but that she feels it has no place in anime’s complete meritocracy; quite the backhanded praise, since she thinks that’s simply a consequence of the industry being in such a messy state that no one’s got the energy to spare to be sexist in production environments.
Looking at her case, it’s easy to see how Nishii’s experience as a popular freelance designer and supervisor who’s actively sought after shielded her from that kind of attitude, but as others have attested, not everyone’s that lucky. It’s important to keep in mind that right about all anime workers suffer from more visible problems: unlivable low wages across the board regardless of gender, impossible deadlines, job insecurity due to the widespread freelancing system, and so on. Greedy corporations (and sometimes middle management) are a clear foe, so the conversation about improving working conditions in anime tends to revolve around addressing that.
On the other hand, sexism is inherently less visible. For starters, it’s a very uncomfortable topic to bring up by the people affected, and privileged groups attempting to maintain the unfair status quo is a harder concept to grasp too. It’s also worth noting that freelance workers can stand on relatively even ground regardless of their gender, as these problems are much more apparent within corporate environments. It’s when female creators are attached to a studio for long periods of time that they start facing a myriad of issues that hold back their career – dismissive attitudes, lack of chances for permanent promotions, lower salaries, no real support when it comes to matters like maternity leave… If we return to Toei, perhaps the biggest worry aren’t the admittedly unusual extreme examples of bigotry like the one we brought up, but rather the fact that there all 17 high ranking executives at the company are men. And while they may not be prejudiced themselves, it’s incredibly lopsided frameworks like that where sexist sleazeballs like the production manager who drove off one of the studio’s most brilliant prospects feel enabled in their beliefs.
As we mentioned, the problems that this creates manifest themselves in multiple ways, most notoriously in the form of glass ceilings. I believe that it’s a big mistake to frame this issue simply as “women struggle to get promoted to directorial positions,” though; not only does that ignore the many other paths in this industry where women have a harder time moving up, it also implies that directors stand on top of everyone else even though that doesn’t correspond to actual studio dynamics. Nishii also had a solid point when she said that anime’s other problems make the industry accidentally immune to certain kinds of discrimination, but that only seems to be in full effect with strictly animation-related duties as those are the positions that all teams are most desperate about. But when it comes to other key positions – producers, decisive management roles, supervisors, directors, you name it – then there’s an oh-so-mysterious sluggish rate of female promotions.
Now if you want some encouraging news, it’s worth noting that like in many other scenarios, discrimination in anime is fated to lose. For quite a few years at this point, most newcomers in the industry have been women, so even sheer inertia slowly moves us forward. While productions where all key positions are occupied by women were very rare a decade ago, they’ve been slowly becoming less exceptional – not that those are inherently superior nor a magical solution to this problem, but their increase is symptomatic of larger changes. It’s a tragedy that disgusting attitudes within Toei drove off a brilliant artist, but women like Haruka Kamatani and Megumi Ishitani have become new ace directors at the studio held in the highest regard by everyone in the production crews, so even a biased system won’t be enough to put a stop to their exceptional careers. If we look elsewhere, companies like Kyoto Animation (who recently improved their maternity leave system with a bulletin sent to employees on a break so that they don’t feel alienated from the productions) show the way forward.
And yet here we are, still having to report depressing cases and a disappointingly slow general progress. Things have indeed improved and are bound to get better, but we can’t get complacent, because the moment we look away these attitudes manage to perpetuate themselves for a few more years. So with the upcoming broadcast of a TV show inspired by an individual at the forefront of the fight for women’s rights in the anime industry, let’s issue another reminder that this battle is still being fought, even if it’s gotten quieter in recent times.