Sayo Yamamoto saved anime for me.
This seems like an exaggeration and, frankly, it is. But The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, my first exposure to her, moved me so deeply with its pointed critique of how writers treat female characters that I promised that I would hop on a plane to any anime convention where she was a guest. Her complex, unconventional heroines energized and inspired my blogging and made me feel like that, just maybe, someone out there behind the scenes felt the same way about women in fiction that I did. My effusive love for it helped me connect to one of my Anime Feminist collaborators, Vrai Kaiser. Every season after that I would scan the directorial credits in hopes of seeing her name, but she wouldn’t direct another series for over five years, until Yuri on Ice premiered and completely left the anime community shook.
At one panel at Anime Fest, a voice actor asked the Yuri on Ice staff which characters the creators most identified with. At first she demurred, saying that as director she must be more objective, but then interrupted the moderator to admit that before making Yuri on Ice, she had experienced setbacks akin to Yuri Katsuki. She described how years of rejected pitches had discouraged and disillusioned her, and she was on the edge of giving up on anime when her pitch for a story about a dejected figure skater was finally accepted.
I wouldn’t have quit watching anime if Sayo never made another series. Names have disappeared from the credits before, but I would have passed years quietly waiting to see her next work that was never coming.
Writing about anime as a feminist can be hard and discouraging. There’s a lot of detractors out there who claim we have no business writing about another culture’s stories, that feminism in Japan is completely incompatible with Western feminism, that nobody in Japan cares about fan service or dislikes moe. It takes a lot of conviction and stubbornness, but sometimes the haters worm their way in. It can feel like I’m banging my head against a wall, hoping and praying that anime will be better, that fandom will be better, that someday interesting, authentic heroines will be the rule instead of the exception.
Sayo Yamamoto bears little outward resemblance to her heroines. She’s reserved and shy, so much so that she wears sunglasses to public events and hates having her picture taken, but also kind and gracious, reassuring me when I was visibly nervous at the start of our interview and waving to me when she saw me on the street later. She’s also endearingly a total otaku dork, doing things like zooming in on characters’ butts during a panel or spending a full half of another panel talking about her favorite figure skaters and clearly fighting the temptation to return to the topic at every opportunity.
(She’s also incredibly beautiful, and I have more than a little crush on her)
However, up close, there’s a noticeable quiet determination in her. In our interview, which may or may not be up by the time this post goes live, she spoke of how Michiko’s complexity and rawness in Michiko and Hatchin was her way of making the show her own, when she had just been asked to make a show about two girls on a road trip, and how the sexuality in her shows is based on experience rather than the childishness of fanservice. Eunyoung Choi similarly spoke of her own dislike of fanservice and moe, and how series made by men tend to have idealized, unrealistic depictions of women. These two women, who are out there making waves in the industry, are devoted writing interesting, complex, and above all authentic female characters.
As an outsider, it’s not really up to me to change the anime industry. All I can do is examine and discuss it critically, and encourage others to do the same, while supporting the stories I think are worthwhile. It can be discouraging, as sometimes it feels like creators are competing to see who can appeal most to male fantasies while the female audience remains an afterthought. These fantastic women, Yamamoto and Choi, give me hope that the future will be better. They may not fix anime, but they are saving anime for me.