Earlier this week, a producer for the legendary Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli struck a profoundly offensive chord when discussing whether the studio would ever hire a female director. "It depends on what kind of a film it would be," Yoshiaki Nishimura (When Marnie Was There) told The Guardian. "Unlike live action, with animation we have to simplify the real world. 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."
There’s no need to break down the folly of the statement on its face; to pretend that gender limits a filmmaker’s ability to tackle certain genres would be to ignore the dramatic chops of Michelle MacLaren, the action prowess of Kathryn Bigelow, or the unnerving tension that Karyn Kusama wrings out of every frame of The Invitation. It would require one to subsequently pretend Nora Ephron’s entire body of work never happened, and to overlook the towering creative contributions that Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh made in writing and realizing the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
In a word, it’s bullshit.
US animation studios don't fare much better
But the comments shouldn’t be taken as an opportunity to rip into the reputation of Studio Ghibli alone, because animation studios in the US don’t fare much better. Between Pixar, Disney Animation, and DreamWorks Animation, only one recent feature has had a solo female director — 2011’s Kung Fu Panda 2 — with other movies like Frozen and Shrek only occasionally featuring women in shared, co-directing roles. (Brave could have been Pixar’s first film with a solo female director — if the studio hadn’t fired Brenda Chapman from her own project halfway through production.)
But what was singularly distressing about Nishimura’s comments was how they seemed informed solely by gender stereotypes. It’s not like Studio Ghibli has some sort of history with directors of different genders that Nishimura was forming his opinion from; Ghibli has never utilized more than a handful of different filmmakers, none more famous than co-founder Hayao Miyazaki himself, and they’ve always been men. Instead, his opinion seems pulled almost exclusively from dated, binary gender roles. Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum, and cultural context is undeniably important. Japan still wrestles with instances of gender discrimination that would seem beyond the pale in the US, like the notion that women can’t be good sushi chefs, and it’s been lagging behind other countries when it comes to live action directors as well. (According to a 2014 report, just 4 percent of Directors Guild of Japan members were women, while the Directors Guild of America sits at just over 22 percent.)
But the notion that women specifically can’t handle directing fantasy films — despite the legacy of manga work from illustrator-writers like Keiko Takemiya (Toward the Terra) to Hiromu Arakawa (Fullmetal Alchemist) — speaks to a problem that stretches beyond any single culture, and one that’s not-so-quietly reinforced by Hollywood’s own past inaction. We can point to the diverse group of talented filmmakers listed above, and we’ve recently been wowed by smaller films like Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous, but fantasy and sci-fi are usually the domain of the big-budget tentpole, and decades of disparity on the part of major Hollywood studios has created a collective lack of body of work that seems to support the most uninformed opinions. Like any form of discrimination or bias, it’s self-perpetuating, and the fact that studios are only now realizing they’ve got an incredible problem with diversity and representation makes it that much more difficult — and vital — to move beyond the White Guys Director’s Club.
Things are slowly inching forward at the studio level
Thankfully, things are slowly inching forward at the studio level, and in the years ahead we’ll see our first major superhero film directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman) and the dream team of director Ava DuVernay and Frozen writer / co-director Jennifer Lee are working on A Wrinkle In Time for Disney. While it’s a long-overdue beginning, it’s also a promising sign that when the proper pressure is applied, progress can be made. But the fact that it’s suddenly occurring after the dawn of broader societal discussion also underscores the most obvious point of all: that these are issues of opportunity, not talent or interest, and they always have been.
Ultimately, the best weapon for beating back the ill-conceived rhetoric of the Yoshiaki Nishimuras of the world is more movies made by more diverse filmmakers. Every time a film like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook or Ana Lily Amirpou’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night comes out, it becomes that much more difficult to hide behind shameful gender stereotypes, because the films themselves prove time and time again that there are incredibly talented creative voices across the world that haven’t yet been given the opportunity to share their perspective. And I don’t know about Yoshiaki Nishimura, but I really want to watch their movies.
Sam Byford contributed to this report.