Women in the anime industry face sexism. That should be no surprise to anyone. What may be disappointing to know is that Studio Ghibli, renowned for its strong heroines, isn't sure a woman could be a director. Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura said in a 2016 interview when asked about female directors that "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.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Nishimura, women in the anime industry today are proving him wrong. Whether they've been in the business for years or have just started out, female directors are creating amazing work -- all the more amazing for the extra struggle they have to go through to get there.
The path of a female director can differ somewhat due to available opportunities and workplace environments. Female directors often work for years or decades under other directors, storyboarding or directing individual episodes. There tend to be certain projects and studios where these women cross paths, such as Kyoto Animation, which has a number of female directors, storyboarders and scriptwriters.
A perfect example of this is Naoko Yamada, who directed K-On!, A Silent Voice and Liz and the Blue Bird, all with Kyoto Animation. She is now trying a different style with the fall 2021 anime The Heike Story with studio Science SARU. This show is about war as witnessed by the blind girl Biwa, who travels as a musician and has the ability to see the future. It will be exciting to see how Yamada achieves this with the studio that produced Devilman Crybaby and Don't Mess with Eizouken.
While Yamada has had several directing opportunities in quick succession, this is not always the case. Sayo Yamamoto waited years for her chance, serving as storyboarder and assistant director for many projects before directing Michiko and Hatchin in 2008. However, Yamamoto's mainstream breakout as a director could be considered to be in 2016 with the premiere of Yuri!!! on Ice, the intensely popular sports anime.
The show was a true passion project and took years to eventuate. Yamamoto first entered the short film Endless Night into the 2015 Japan Animator Expo to showcase how she could create a show about figure skating, but there still seemed to be a lot of hesitation about the possible success of the show considering its late time slot, which normally would not have garnered many viewers.
This wait between projects is nothing new for female directors. Rie Matsumoto was involved in the PreCure series for years before 2015, when she was able to direct Blood Blockade Battlefront, the gruesome shounen title by Studio Bones that is almost as removed from PreCure as possible.
The dedication to a single show such as PreCure is nothing new for these directors; it's a good method for making connections and gaining valuable experience. Kotomi Deai is best known for her work on multiple seasons of Natsume's Book of Friends. Ai Yoshimura worked as an episode director for Gintama for many seasons and also directed Ao Haru Ride and Cheer Danshi. Noriko Takao was the talent behind Saint Young Men, but has remained with the [email protected] series in several different roles. Kotomi Deai working as storyboarder and episode director under Sayo Yamamoto for Michiko and Hatchin is a perfect example of female directors crossing paths and using prior experience to later earn a chief director position.
Of course, there are also a few exceptional cases of female directors who seem to come out of nowhere, and in a way that makes their talent impossible to overlook. Atsuko Ishizuka was interested in music and graphic design, not anime, and went to school to study those fields. However, her short animated videos set to music garnered anime industry attention. Her video Gravitation was featured at an international film festival, leading to Madhouse studio contacting her with an offer.
In 2004, Ishizuka directed her first professional work, The Moon Waltz. She has continued directing with Madhouse, including No Game No Life in 2014. Her latest anime series is A Place Further Than the Universe, which aired in 2018 -- a very impressive career trajectory for someone who once made AMVs for her own enjoyment.
Soubi Yamamoto is another young director who made her own place in the industry, primarily with a series of OVAs that capture the feeling of a new generation. Yamamoto delves into LGBTQ relationships that explore life beyond the romance, and her characters often have signs of depression and anxiety to which viewers can deeply relate.
Aside from directing Meganebu! with TOHO Animation in 2013, Yamamoto has been largely under her own guidance, writing and directing her OVAs and series, including This Boy Caught a Merman, This Boy is a Professional Wizard and This Boy Suffers from Crystallization. The last title is a great encapsulation of the stories Yamamoto tells. In this OVA, a high school boy finds he begins to crystallize when stressed, which only leads to more crystallization. This interesting and relatable depiction of stress and anxiety communicates the struggles of mental illness and the stigma against it. Time will tell if Soubi Yamamoto will continue to work independently or agree to begin directing with an established studio.
What does the future have in store for female directors? Several of the directors in this article have works soon scheduled for release. Ice Adolescence, the movie companion to Yuri!!! on Ice, will be coming out within the next few years, and Atsuko Ishizuka will direct the 2022 project Goodbye, Don Glees!, about which little is yet known. After The Heike Story, it will be interesting to see if Naoko Yamada decides to work more with Science SARU or has another studio she'd like to partner with.
Having Rei Matsumoto back in the chair for another show like Blood Blockade Battlefront would be amazing, and the end of Gintama in 2021 might give Ai Yoshimura the chance to direct a new project in the upcoming future. Atsuko Ishizuka has not directed an anime since 2018, so it would make sense for an anime announcement with her as director to appear soon. Meanwhile, Soubi Yamamoto is certainly a name to watch out for as she continues building her own brand.
Whether veterans of the industry or relative newcomers, all these women have proven that they have what it takes to direct great anime. In the meantime, women who will make their directorial debut five or ten years from now are storyboarding and working as episode directors, gathering the experience and connections they'll need to break into the industry as chief directors themselves.