Any reference to anime naturally conjures up the image of shoujo. ‘Shoujo’ refers to manga and/or anime that caters to an audience of young women, in a liminal stage between “the social roles of child and wife or mother” (Berndt, 2). The word literally translates to “young woman,” though in the contemporary it signifies less of a point of affiliation and more of an archetypal figure, one that provides “a stock of aesthetic conventions and narrative tropes, a whole [‘shoujo– scape’]… (2)” Seen as a product of kawaii culture (‘cute’ culture), the shoujo is a fictional incarnation of an aesthetic that “although was principally about childness,” was too essentially about a “sense of weakness and disability (236).” The typical shoujo woman often embodies this kawaii aesthetic: big round eyes, small body, and an accompanying demeanor of childlike innocence (or stupidity). Criticized in Japanese society for promoting the ‘infantile’ or the ‘unproductive,’ and critiqued in the West for a retrograde view of women, shoujo has engendered varying opinions. The shoujo figure can be conceived of as a prototypical representation of girls, as it relates to the entirety of Japanese manga and/or anime; shoujo is “a model of selfhood shaped by patriarchal society and men’s desire,” one that reflects the particular gender disparities in Japan. However, shoujo is also a model of selfhood shaped by “girls themselves, swaying between resistance and conformity as all subcultures do (Berndt, 4).”
Though not exactly of the shoujo category, Satoshi Kon’s films Perfect Blue (1997) and Millennium Actress (2001) portray the shoujo figure and use her for subversive means, revising some of anime’s gendered stereotypes and grounding her in socio-historical realities. As ‘sister’ productions, Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress pay keen attention to performativity––which is essential in understanding the shoujo figure herself:
“‘Girlhood itself is a performative process.’ Indeed, girl culture has often been associated with role-playing and masquerade, escapism, and the indulgence in fantasy, preferably in relation to non-reproductive sexuality (Berndt, 2).”
Both films have central female protagonists who occupy professions necessitating performativity: Perfect Blue’s Mima Kirigoe (Junko Iwao) is a former idol turned actress, and Millennium Actress’ Chiyoko Fujiwara is a movie star. Kon displays a keen fascination with “notions of spectatorship, perception and…the ‘dynamics of identification and identity,’” which is displayed through an overt preoccupation with the gaze. Mima and Chiyoko retreat––whether a function of trauma or memory––into “liminal worlds in which the real and the unreal mingle.” It is precisely in this liminal space that the films perturbs the protagonists and the audience’s perception of reality; Mima and Chiyoko must question their perceptions of the self, of the gaze of others and too of their own gaze at themselves.
Perfect Blue, Kon’s debut film, is Millenium Actress’ dark counterpart. The anime follows Mima Kirigoe, a member of idol group CHAM!, which she leaves to venture into acting. At the whim of the men who control her career, she undergoes horrid exploitation: enduring a traumatic filming of a rape scene and a particularly degrading nude photoshoot. Mediating between the expectations of a loyal––if not psychotic––fanbase and her own desires for the future, Mima finds herself spiraling into “a surreal world of madness and illusion.”
Two characters obsess over Mima: her manager and former-idol Rumi Hidaka (Rica Matsumoto) and a grotesquely portrayed fan, who calls himself ‘Mimania.’ Mima’s career transition, her rejection of a former kawaii pop persona is to them, the greatest betrayal. Both of them look at her in a way that is, if not male-coded (as in Laura Mulvey’s conception of the scopophilic male gaze), shaped by societal patriarchal forces. Mimania’s view of Mima is explicitly threatening; there is an inherent nature of desire in his view of her––as a fan, he desires to obtain her, and too it is implied that he desires to be her. In a destructive sphere of overidentification, Mimania’s obsession with Mima transcends into murderous aspirations. On the other hand, Rumi appears to be on Mima’s side. Towards the end of the film however, it is revealed that Rumi is responsible for impersonating Mima online, for murdering men involved with Mima’s new career, and for manipulating Mimania. Her violence could be explained as an attempt to protect her fantasy version of Mima from the very scopophilia of the male gaze. Rumi’s victims are all male, and it is no coincidence that her method of murder involves gouging their eyes out–– punishing them and forbidding them from ever again objectifying Mima. Ultimately, as suggested by Susan Napier, this interpretation seems less plausible, as Perfect Blue presents Rumi as insane. Her fanatical identification propels her to dress up as her fantasy idol Mima. This suggests that Rumi desires to become the object of the male gaze; she is not quite a powerful feminist presence but rather a victim of a world in which, as depicted, is “largely a creation of the men who control the entertainment industry.”
Perfect Blue pays attention to a larger plethora of male gazes, namely that of the men who control Mima: the film director, the scriptwriter, the photographer, and so on. Here, the male gaze is objectifying, rooted in sexual pleasure. Kon positions the audience to experience Mima’s emotional world, which displays the psychological effect of their violent sexual exploitation. Millennium Actress however, depicts the relationship between performer and audience as mutually empowering, and “the creation of a positive collaborative gaze between two men and a woman.” The film follows two filmmakers Genya Tachibana (Shozo Izuka) and Kyoji Ida (Masaya Onosaka) who pay a visit to retired acting legend Chiyoko. She tells them her life story, which unfolds in a blurred boundary between cinema and reality: both her films and her life run parallel, taking on the narrative of Chiyoko’s endless pursuit of a first love.
Unlike Perfect Blue, the audience identifies with two characters: both Chiyoko and Tachibana. This dual identification parallels the relationship between the two, whose respective perspectives intertwine to “produce a unique vision of 1000 years of Japanese culture.” According to Satoshi Kon himself, “[when] you listen to Chiyoko’s story alone, you can see only her subjective view of the story. But, when Tachibana’s story comes into the scene, you obtain a full-scale perspective.” In this regard, Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress can be seen as two sides of the same coin. The former subverts the gaze by explicitly displaying its negativity, while the latter shows its potential for fruitful positivity.
Each film ends with an affirmation of female agency. In Perfect Blue, this is an exploration of a third look: that of Mima at herself. She appears to regard her own identity with uncertainty, swaying between a trifecta of selfs: 1) a fantasy shoujo version Mima who is cute and innocent, 2) a new image of mature (anti-shoujo) actress Mima, and 3) a fundamentally true Mima, who is not object to the male gaze. The film’s ending suggests that Mima, rid of the destructive male gaze (and the grasp of a patriarchal world, as embodied in Rumi), finally obtains agency in her self-image: “Perhaps to underline this change, Mima is shown wearing sunglasses that reflect––nothing.” In Millennium Actress, Chiyoko lays in her hospital bed, likely nearing death. She suggests that perhaps in death, she will finally find her love. Tachibana, sitting beside her, affirms this sentiment: “This time you’ll find him.” She replies with no sign of discontent: “We’ll see. Though, maybe it doesn’t matter. After all…” Suddenly we are transported to a version of her younger self, who finishes her sentence: “After all, what I really love is the pursuit of him.” This statement is powerful, for it (not completely) re-configures what seemed like an endless pursuit of a man whom she barely knew but loved. Chiyoko is, like Mima, empowered in herself and never needed another (man) for completion.
While these two films are but a snapshot of the animescape, they offer paths towards an empowered shoujo figure. In an industry that is overwhelmingly male, the shoujo figure can be used to explicate selfhood, exploring gender in a way that proceeds past patriarchy.
*Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress are both available to rent on YouTube.
Berndt, Jacqueline. “Introduction: Shōjo Meditations.” Shōjo Across Media, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1-24.
Kinsella, Sharon. “Cuties in Japan.” Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan, The Curzon Press and The University of Hawaii Press, pp. 220-254.
Napier, Susan. “”Excuse Me, Who Are You?”: Performance, the Gaze, and the Female in the Works of Kon Satoshi.” Cinema Anime: Critical Engagements with Japanese Animation, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, pp. 23-42. Internet Archive.
Wakeling, Emily Jane. ““Girls are dancin’”: shōjo culture and feminism in contemporary Japanese art.” New Voices, vol. 5, no. 1, 2011, pp. 130-146. New Voices, https://newvoices.org.au/volume-5/girls-are-dancin-shojo-culture-and-feminism-in-contemporary-japanese-art1-the-title-girls-are-dancin-is-taken-from-a-key-collection-of-young-female-photographe/.