***This article originally appeared in the March 22 issue of Animation magazine (No. 318)***

Over the past few years, animators in Japan have created an impressive array of heroines who are layered and unique individuals. Unlike many of their American counterparts, these girls don’t have to be brave: they can be outgoing, shy, athletic, artistic, talkative, quiet, clumsy, talented, and/or smart.

Suzu, the heroine of Mamoru Hosoda Beautiful, is the last of his well-realized contemporary young women. Although the film is a story of The beauty and the Beast, Suzu is not a beauty. A solitary resident of a declining city of Shikoku, she faces the death of her mother. Suzu cut herself off from the world, unable to express her impressive musical talent – except as Belle, her alter ego who is the reigning diva of the cyber world of U.

stories of The beauty and the Beast usually focus on the Beast and his need to reveal the gentle heart hidden within his monstrous form. Suzu tries to help an abused boy who haunts U as an evil dragon: she learns that when she sings herself, she reaches both the boy and her own hurt heart. Belle’s glamorous trappings are as limiting as the Beast’s grotesque body. Suzu’s victories allow her to discover who she really is.

Your name.

stand up straight

Makoto Shinkai broke box office records in Japan in 2016 with Your name., a complex adventure that begins as a body-switching teen romantic comedy, but morphs into a meditation on the trauma of the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake (which Americans call “Fukushima”). Bored with life in her rural hometown, Mitsuha yearns for the excitement of Tokyo; Taki is a high school student from Tokyo who wants to become an architect. When they begin to wake up in each other’s bodies, the experience changes them both for the better. Taki loses some of his awkwardness with a woman he finds attractive; Mitsuha gains the confidence to take down her devious classmates. More importantly, she develops the courage to stand up to her stuffed father and save many of the townspeople from a devastating meteor strike.

At Keiichi Hara’s Miss Hokusai (2015) centers on a real person: O-Ei, the daughter of the famous artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Although only a few works can be attributed to her with certainty, O-Ei was an artist in her own right. Hara based the film on Hinako Sugiura’s manga, which depicts the father/daughter and teacher/student relationship between Hokusai and O-Ei as complex and contentious. She respects his immense talent, but loses patience with his inability to manage his money and despises his inability to care for a fictional, disabled younger daughter.

If O-Ei behaves awkwardly with a handsome admirer, she confidently turns down a suitor who hopes marriage will land her a job in her father’s workshop. Unabashedly independent and talented, O-Ei reflects the experiences of women in modern Japan increasingly free from the sexism of its traditional culture – including many of the female artists who worked on the film.

Miss Hokusai

Miss Hokusai

Brave adversity

At Masaaki Yuasa Ride your wave (2019), Hinako is a disorganized klutz on land, but in the water, she’s an ace surfer who moves with grace and authority. When she moves to a small seaside town, she meets first responder Minato. The two characters fall quickly and presumably in love. Minato admires Hinako’s superior athletic prowess and assures her that she will learn to handle life on earth as skillfully as she maneuvers her surfboard. She is moved by Minato’s selfless commitment to helping others and relishes his self-confidence.

When Minato is killed in an accident, Hinako refuses to accept the loss. She thinks she can call him back with their favorite song. A disaster makes her realize that she must let go of the past. To honor Minato’s dedication to helping others, Hinako becomes a highly respected lifeguard.

Interesting and complex heroines are not limited to feature films by great directors. In My Hero Academia: two heroesNerdy and insecure Izuku “Deku” Midoriya visits inventor David Shield on I-Island, a city-sized floating lab for the world’s top scientists. David’s daughter, Melissa, doesn’t have superpowers, but she’s a brilliant inventor in her own right. Melissa doesn’t cite irrelevant facts or flaunt her intelligence; she doesn’t need it. When she sees that Deku can’t use his strongest punch against the evil terrorists without breaking his forearm bones, she creates a high-tech wrist support for him.

The list of intriguingly complex female characters in anime is long. Hayao Miyazaki said of Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke, “His mercy and cruelty know no bounds.” At Isao Takahata’s Only yesterday, Taeko commune with herself in fifth grade to find out what she really wants in life. When Natsuki Defeats the A.I. Love Machine Terrorist Program in Hosoda’s Heyday summer wars, she is simultaneously scared of her power, grateful for the help Kenji and her cousin Kazuma give her, passionate about math, looking forward to her boisterous family’s kibbitz, moved by the support she receives from countless viewers and determined to protect people from a deadly threat. Why don’t its Western counterparts display more of a comparable complexity?

Charles Solomon’s Last Book The man who stood the test of time: the films of Mamoru Hosoda will be published this year by Abrams.

Ride your wave

Ride your wave