A ‘Japanese’ Cinema of Reassurance

Queering, Passing—and Reifying Normativity in Hosoda Mamoru’s Wolf Children

Andrea Germer, Rafael Vinícius Martins, Tianqi Zhang, Kyushu University [About | Email: Andrea Germer, Rafael Martins, Tianqi Zhang]

Volume 17, Issue 2 (Article 3 in 2017). First published in ejcjs on 27 August 2017.


Animation is a genre of popular culture that is particularly suited to enact tropes of transgressing, queering and overcoming boundaries. This paper discusses the 2012 animated film Wolf Children (Dir. Hosoda Mamoru) that portrays the socialisation process of two hybrid wolf-human children. Our analysis employs queer theory (Butler) and the concept of stigma (Goffman) to elucidate how the wolf children’s deviation from normativity and their attempts to ‘pass’ as normal can be read as references for passing modes of non-normative identities, i.e., of social, ethnic, and sexual minority groups in Japan. In this and Hosoda’s other major films, however, the potential for disturbing fixed notions of identity is contained through the gendered frame of the Japanese ‘good wife and wise mother’. As his family stories reify the heteronormative (gender) order, his work presents a ‘Japanese’ version of a Disney-like ‘cinema of reassurance’ (Napier): it contains diversity and difference by incorporating it in a reification of the national heteronormative imaginary.

Keywords: queering, passing, heteronormativity, stigma, Hosoda Mamoru, wolf children.


In her seminal study on Japanese animation, Susan Napier noted that anime carry enhanced possibilities of simulations, and of creating possible states and identities. She also pointed out that animation offers ‘a vision of difference in which identity can be technological, mythological, or simply an ecstatic process of constant metamorphosis’ (Napier 2005, p. 292). The non-human characters that populate animations, however, ‘can suggest both the threatening possibility of dehumanisation and the empowering possibility of going beyond any categorical notion of the human’ (ibid.). This twofold view of existential threat or liberating alternative vision of contemporary society, along with a process of constant metamorphosis, are core themes in the work of Hosoda Mamoru—particularly his film Ōkami kodomo no Ame to Yuki (Wolf Children), which he directed and co-wrote, and which was released in 2012. In this story of hybrid wolf children, animation’s most attractive features—its casual transgressions of seemingly fixed boundaries, identities and spaces—are the crucial elements that drive the plot, and perhaps the main ingredients that made this film an instant and international success.1

As of October 2016, the film ranked within the top 20 anime of all time on the social network site My Anime List.2 However, the film’s popular success might, in fact, be due in part to the ways in which it ends up reifying existing boundaries and norms. In this paper, we argue that it is not the liberating aspects of border crossing that dominate the plot in Wolf Children, because metamorphosis is presented as causing anxieties that are arduously contained, and are in the end ‘resolved’ through a form of self-imposed expulsion/diaspora of one of the main characters. 

Wolf Children tells the story of Hana, a college student who falls in love with a wolf-man, but is left alone to raise their two wolf-human children after he dies in an accident. Hana struggles to deal with her hybrid children, who constantly change their outer appearance from humans to wolves and then back again. She eventually decides to move to the countryside, where she hopes to be able to hide their difference from others, and to provide the space they need to grow up free from the judging eyes of society. As the children reach school age, however, Hana sees them both following their own respective paths, and choosing either human or wolf life. The hybrid existence of being in-between and part of both worlds is not shown to be an option.

Major interpretations of Wolf Children have been provided by Hioki Shunji (2014) and Hikawa Ryūsuke (2015), as well as within a Hosoda Mamoru Special Issue of Eureka (September 2015). Hioki (2014, p. 216) emphasises the systematic ‘distance’ (kyori) in the depiction of characters as a major narrative device in this film, writing of ‘a distance that overcomes the muddled rawness and denseness of reality and provides a fresh view that contains a sense of “admiration” (akogare) and “nostalgia” (natsukashisa).’ Meanwhile, Hikawa (2015, p. 72) affirms that ‘the superb balance and control between “reason” and “emotion” is the main appeal of Hosoda Mamoru’s direction works.’ With the exception of Saiga Keiko (2015), these interpretations along with those in the essays in the Eureka Special Issue—as well as a number of interviews with Hosoda, his staff and other experts (Hosoda 2012, Hosoda & Yamashita 2012, Hosoda & Azuma 2013, Hosoda, Okudera & Kanazawa 2012)—offer elaborate praise for Wolf Children. Their commentary, however, remains mostly on the level of intra-film dramaturgical explorations, and largely recur to approaches of auteur theory that limitedly base the ‘meanings’ found in the film on the director’s personal life, as well as on his own explanations of the film. 

While taking into account some of the insights presented by these scholars, however, our analysis relies upon the lens of social context in order to discuss the issues of identity that surround the characters in Wolf Children. Tracing relations between the psychosocial situation of the main characters in the film and the issues experienced by ‘invisible minorities’ in Japan,3 we focus on the dynamics of stigmatisation and social discrimination that are dramatised in the film, while also carving out the symbolic violence and oppression that forces the children and invisible minorities to keep their non-normative identities secret.

With reference to queer theory (Butler; Kristeva; MacCormack) and the concept of stigma (Goffman), we critically observe the performances of the filmic characters in their socialisation as processes of queering, disturbing, and transgressing fixed boundaries on the one hand, and passing as ‘normal’ on the other; as well as the gendered means through which ‘transgressions’ are contained and (hetero-)normativity is restored. Understanding the mother as the agent that contains the disturbance of heteronormative order, we reflect upon this form of representing motherhood as the nationalist gendered notion of ryōsai kenbo (‘good wife, wise mother’), and as the major mode for reifying normativity.

Furthermore, we contextualise the film with references to wider social, cultural and political frames of modern Japanese society in a globalising world. Critically engaging not only the film itself, but also the ‘explanatory’ comments that the director and some film scholars provide for its proper understanding, we situate Wolf Children in a series of other works and the studio settings that form its material condition, as well as within a discourse of national and transnational cinemas. Napier (2001) argued that the creative trajectories of animation studios Disney and Ghibli can be distinguished as a ‘cinema of reassurance’ (Disney) and a ‘cinema of de-assurance’ (Ghibli/Miyazaki Hayao). While Hosoda has been connected to Ghibli and has been compared to Miyazaki Hayao, we argue that on the contrary, his oevre presents us with a Japanese version of a national ‘cinema of reassurance’ that incorporates—and at the same time contains and erases—any de-assuring dimensions.

Hosoda Mamoru: Filmography

Wolf Children had its world premiere in Paris on June 25, 2012, before being released in Japanese theatres the following month on July 21. Although it was not released commercially in many countries, the film was screened4 and won prizes5 at a number of major international film and animation festivals.

Wolf Children is the product of a highly-skilled team of character designers and voice actors. The film’s casting and staff team were high-profile, including character designer Sadamoto Yoshiyuki (Neon Genesis Evangelion), who collaborated with Hosoda in Toki o kakeru shōjo (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, 2006) and Samā Wōzu (Summer Wars, 2009); and famous film stars like Miyazaki Aoi and Osawa Takao as voice actors.6 As Ian Condry (2013, pp. 35-53) observed in his fieldwork at Hosoda’s studio, animation production is largely a creative group process whereby various staff contribute their specific expertise in order dynamically to drive the production forward. Hosoda played the main role for this film, however, in terms of drawing the storyboards and taking part in the writing of the script.7 He also wrote a novel version of Wolf Children (2012), which was published even before the film’s screening. Like other Hosoda films, such as Summer Wars and The Boy and the Beast, moreover, Wolf Children moved across media—being adapted as manga, light novel, and e-hon (illustrated book).8

One of the rising names in Japanese animation, Hosoda started his career with Toei Animation in 1991 where he worked as animator, episode director, storyboard artist and opening director for several anime series.9 It was in the Digimon franchise that he first occupied the position of director, being in charge of the short films Gekijōban dejimon adobenchā (Digimon Adventure, 1999—a pilot for the TV series of the same title) and Gekijōban dejimon adobenchā bokura no wō gēmu (Digimon Adventure: Our War Game! 2000) (Iida 2015a, pp. 206-223). Before he was hired by Toei, Hosoda had participated in animation contests for several studios, including Studio Ghibli. Although rejected by Miyazaki Hayao at the time, he was eventually recruited to direct Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle) in 2000. After working on the film for six months, however, he was—as Condry (2013, p. 46) puts it—‘removed from the project (for reasons left unspoken…)’. Miyazaki Hayao took over the role of director, finishing and releasing the film in 2004. This episode became a critical point in Hosoda’s career, which could well have meant his end as an animator. Nevertheless, he managed to return to Toei Animation, where he worked on several smaller projects10 before directing his first major film, Wan Pīsu THE MOVIE: Omatsuri danshaku to himitsu no shima (One Piece The Movie: Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island, 2005), which was the sixth full movie of the worldwide hit manga and anime series One Piece. Still in 2006, Hosoda moved from Toei to Madhouse, where he directed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars. In 2011 he founded Studio Chizu, where he created his first original films: Wolf Children (in collaboration with Madhouse), and Bakemono no ko (The Boy and the Beast, 2015).

Along this trajectory comprising more than 20 years of filmmaking, Hosoda developed a particular style that Iida (2015a, p. 207) describes as being marked by the use of same-positioned frames, long takes, O.S., impressive expressions of space and movement using CGI, and compositions using traffic lights and signs. Other common characteristics include recurring references to Buddhist images, the use of static and silent scenes, and the contrasting use of serious and funny sequences (Ibid.). Furthermore, Hikawa (2015, pp. 20-25) lists four elements that echo throughout Hosoda’s general work: characters that voluntarily take action, fantastic elements that reaffirm the real world, an entertaining and delightful space for people, and the challenge of the unknown.

From a thematic perspective, Hosoda’s animations during this period can be said to feature some broader common themes, such as the existence of ‘two worlds’ or the portrayal of family relationships (Iida 2015a). From Digimon Adventure to The Boy and the Beast, Hosoda has continuously created or directed stories that involve children who transit between two worlds—one human, and the other fantasy. Aesthetically, these fantastic spaces are represented by a bright white background onto which colourful elements are projected.11 In Wolf Children, as we argue later, these ‘two worlds’ are presented more abstractly as a choice that the children must make between ‘human life’ and ‘wolf life’.

‘Family’ is another recurring theme that can be occasionally tracked in Hosoda’s early works, and that becomes central to the development of storylines beginning with Summer Wars (2009). Hikawa (2015, p. 200) argues that the concept of ‘succession’ (keishō) plays a key role in the ways through which Hosoda stresses a sense of continuity between parents and children in his films. We will explore how family and family relationships play out in Wolf Children, while paying attention to the gendered configurations of such relationships, as well as the social, cultural and racial implications that they convey.

Queering: The Wolf Characters

Animation is a medium that is particularly well-suited toward visualising and enacting tropes of transgressing, queering and overcoming various boundaries, such as those between reality and dreams or fantasy; between human and animal worlds; or between genders and sexualities. Wolf Children explores transgressions in the form of overcoming human/animal boundaries, presenting the love relationship between a hybrid wolf man and a human woman, and portraying the growth and socialisation process of their two hybrid wolf-human children, Yuki and Ame. We can understand this hybridity as ‘queerness’—a term that was once used to abject a certain population, but turned to become ‘the site of resistance… spawning a different order of values’ (Butler 1993, p. 231). Although the father as well as his children carry hybridity and lead a queer existence, it is particularly father and son who act out the transgressive, while the daughter eventually manages to hide and subdue her difference and becomes a model for ‘passing’ as ‘normal’ in human society. 

The appearance of the wolf-man comes out of nowhere. His mysterious, closeted air creates the tension and suspense around the questions of who he is, where he comes from, what are his intentions, and what is his secret. Through his revelation to Hana that he is a wolf, one question is addressed while the others remain unanswered. Hana—who has already fallen in love with him before this secret and his ‘queer’, tainted, non-normative identity are revealed—nevertheless has sexual intercourse with the wolf man (Fig.1) and gives birth to his children. As she is shown to play a civilising role for him, and he is learning from her to the degree of becoming a caring and helpful husband when she becomes pregnant, the heterosexual gendered frame—at once queered and subverted by his wolf identity—nevertheless remains untouched. It continues to dominate the course of the story, as the wolf-man becomes the provider and ‘central pillar’ (daikokubashira) for the family they create. Even when the wolf-man dies in an accident while following his instincts of hunting (to provide for his family), he continues to occupy the place of the household head in the symbolic order: His driver’s license, the official document of his human existence, is also placed on the bookshelf at the centre of their living room, thereby continuing to function metaphorically as a placeholder for the male spiritual guide of the family.

Figure 1.

Germer, Figure 1

The wolf-man impersonates transgressions of archetypical boundaries between human and animal, culture and nature, and city and rural areas; while simultaneously keeping the boundaries of gender norms, gender roles and the hegemonic gender order firmly in place. The inherent queerness of the wolf-man character supplies the required elements of tension, suspense and disorder for the story to become interesting and to propel the plot, but it is not meant to question broadly-fixed and gendered social structures.

This observation resonates with what Butler noted of queer ‘drag’, whose potential to denaturalise heterosexuality does not guarantee the subversion of heterosexual norms: ‘Heterosexuality can augment its hegemony through its denaturalisation, as when we see denaturalising parodies [i.e., drag] that reidealise heterosexual norms without calling them into question’ (Butler 1993, p.231; original emphasis). The queering that Hosoda employs with the characters in Wolf Children is skillfully enlivened in the awkward situations that their non-subject, non-fixed positions produce, such as when Hana, who needs to find a doctor for one of her sick children, is shown to be perplexed at whether to consult a pediatrician or a vet (Fig. 2). The ‘queerness’, however, as well as the ‘awkwardness’ and the impossibility of a subject-position for the queer children, are never meant to call into question the overarching divisions that structure society, including its hegemonic gender order.

Figure 2.

Germer, Figure 2

‘We all have secrets’: the social dimension of stigma

In a roundtable discussion between Hosoda and Azuma Hiroki (2013), Hosoda states that the scope of the film is limited to the unit of the family, and to the question of what it means to bring up children. In addition, Hosoda explains that the secrecy around the fact that the youngsters are wolf children means metaphorically that ‘we all have secrets and individual circumstances in real life too’ (Hosoda and Azuma 2013, p.17). Such individualising familial rhetoric, however, betrays the ways in which the wolf children and their father are emplotted in the film. Their plight goes far beyond the scope of secrets that we all have, but it metaphorically encompasses the secrets of identity—who we are. The secret that the children are wolves does not refer to an Aristotelian ‘accidental’ (in the sense of not essentially intrinsic) mode of being and action, but to a much more comprehensive scope of identity, and to the social acceptance or the stigmatisation of such different identities. 

Ervin Goffman defined stigmatised persons as possessing attributes that make them different from others and seemingly of a lesser kind, ‘reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one’ (Goffman 1986, p.3). Goffman distinguishes the stigmatised between the visibly obvious ones who cannot hide their difference, whom he terms ‘discredited’; and the ones whose difference is not known to others or is not immediately perceivable, whom he calls ‘discreditable’ (ibid., p.4). The danger of ‘discreditability’, of being perceived as tainted or of being in some form socially or physically rejected upon discovery of one’s ‘true’ identity, produces anxieties that are suffered by ‘invisible minorities’ in any society. In Japan, such anxiety is experienced by closeted sexual minorities or ethnic minorities such as Zainichi Koreans or social minorities such as the Burakumin. The latter have been called an ‘invisible race’, with attached race-like stigma that transforms social inequality ‘into part of the natural order presumably beyond the control of human beings and society’.12 In the film, it is the wolf children who are ‘discreditable’, always in fear of being outed and socially excluded.

The wolf children also carry characteristics of what Goffman calls the ‘tribal stigma of race, nation, and religion, these being stigma that can be transmitted through lineages and equally contaminate all members of a family’ (ibid.). Ame and Yuki do not only carry the biological—and one could call it ‘race-like’—stigma of their father. In a scene in the snow field which shows the mother happily playing with the children and then starting to playfully howl like a wolf, the children’s existence also implies a contaminating effect on the mother (0:53:34 to 0:56:19). ‘The person with stigma is not quite human’, notes Goffman (ibid., p.5), and this is what the wolf children and their father fully represent. The consequences of stigma, namely that it reduces the life chances of the ones who are affected by it, are also visualised in the film: The father loses his life, and the children have to make hard choices that require them to reject one part of their identities, potentials, social relations, and lives. 

The children, more so than their father, are portrayed closely through the dilemmas that their hybrid beings and their queerness engender as they grow up and unfold the differences at different levels: within themselves, between themselves, and between their own self and society. At first, it seems that Yuki—the girl who is showing her wild side much more clearly than her extremely shy and fearful younger brother Ame—is more at odds with normative human and gendered child behaviour. Throughout the course of the story, however, the two switch places as the girl makes a great effort to blend into human society, while the boy actively withdraws from it. 

As mentioned above, the father and the son in particular display and act on their queerness, difference, and hybridity; and both in the end leave the human world—either through death or withdrawal into the animal realm. The choice that the son is shown to make in the film can again be conceptually grasped through the relation of identity and stigma. Goffman describes this as producing a ‘discrepancy’ between someone’s virtual (i.e., only seemingly normal) identity and his or her actual identity: ‘This discrepancy, when known about or apparent, spoils his social identity; it has the effect of cutting him off from society and from himself so that he stands a discredited person facing an unaccepting world’ (Goffman ibid., p. 19). There are people and places that will accept such a discredited person, as Goffman concedes. In the film, Hana accepts her children and her son’s orientation to follow his wolf side, and the son finds a teacher—namely, a fox in the forest—who accepts and mentors him as a student. Ame’s human social identity is spoilt, however, and he can only continue to exist cut off from society.

The wolf children’s dilemma can easily be mapped on Goffman’s extensive articulations regarding the multiple forms that stigma can take. As such, it can be read as an inner approach to the psycho-social situation of various ‘invisible minorities’ in Japan: the need to stay closeted for sexual minorities, and the racialised prejudice against both Zainichi Koreans and Burakumin minorities. Such ‘racisms’ have recently been explored by Tessa Morris-Suzuki (2015) as operating within a nexus of interrelated forms of discrimination and marginalisation in Japan.

In an elaboration on the difficulty of visualising ‘invisible’ minorities in the medium of film, Saitō Junko (2016, p.38) takes up the filmic adaptations of Shimazaki Tōson’s novel Hakai (The Broken Commandment),13 whose main Burakumin protagonist ‘Ushimatsu’s pain and trouble constantly oscillated between becoming visible through coming out, and remaining invisible through passing’. Saitō notes that Burakumin who do not in any sense ‘racially’ or ethnically differ from other Japanese present a ‘dilemma of representation’ that cannot be easily overcome.

What such films ultimately throw into relief is the problem that… refers to the very form of films, i.e., to the question whether a difference that does not exist in the first place can only be represented as a difference that does exist (Saitō 2016, p. 38).

And from there another difficulty arises: namely that when visualising the invisible, stereotype and melodrama act as devices that by ‘making invisible difference’ visible, may end up not only ‘making things explicit but reinforcing’ alleged, non-existing difference (Saitō ibid; similarly Kurokawa 2011, p.50).

As animation, the wolf children’s constant oscillation between the danger of being outed or inadvertently outing themselves on the one hand, and passing as ‘normal’ on the other, can be rendered visible in a particularly smooth way. In the anime, their difference is visualised and therefore reinforced as a fundamental difference that forms the ‘natural’ basis for their discrimination. It does not call into question whether the difference really exists, since this is obviously the case in the film and in the shape of its characters. However, the anime film implies that for some people, this difference does not matter. This is the case for Hana, who falls in love with the wolf-man and raises and protects their children, as well as for the viewer, who is ‘in on their secret’ and who knows that the wolf children are no less human than others. Nevertheless, as animation, Wolf Children can be said to make difference even more strongly explicit than in melodrama, and to reinforce it through its bittersweet ending of the boy choosing a life cut off from human society in order to follow his calling.

Interestingly, a new wave of documentaries and books that portray the lives of Buraku communities and individuals are representing invisible minorities without reinforcing the illusion of a difference that does not really exist.14 By following Buraku individuals’ daily lives and business, these works of various genres manage to unravel prejudice by showing that there is nothing essentially ‘specific’ or ‘different’ from other Japanese.

Queering fixed identities

One may argue that by naming and visualising difference, one produces and reinforces them—while others stress that in order to overcome boundaries and differences, these must first be shown to exist. Presenting differences and then traversing their boundaries with ease could, therefore, be one of the prominent and liberating faculties of animation as a medium.

In Wolf Children, the children’s/minorities’ potential for disturbing fixed and normative notions of identity, system, and order are laid out in a love story and a coming of age plot that wrestles with the need to come to terms with a society segregated by fixed categories. The children break down the construction of identity, as they do not fit neatly into either the category of human being or wolf. Their transformations between wolf and human being are seamlessly and naturally carried out according to visible changes of mood. Yet the plot indicates that their queerness makes it difficult for them to conform to civilised city life and society: their howls at night make neighbours suspect that Hana keeps pets, and leads to a warning from the landlord; and their unpredictable transformations overwhelm Hana when dealing with inquiries from child-care officials, eventually impelling her to move to the countryside. Indeed, the remoteness of the sparsely-populated countryside provides the family with more space to allow the wolf children to live their queerness, as they can switch between their human/wolf forms ad lib. The snow scene mentioned before pushes the queerness of its main characters to its pinnacle: Hana and her wolf children run in the boundless field of snow and roll down the hill covered with snow, and in the end, all of them start a long howl of excitement towards the sky. At that moment, the boundary of human being and wolf is all but dissolved in play.

The queering of a given order, structure or worldview does not negate difference itself. Rather, it serves to question fixations and seemingly natural orders—most of all the power hierarchy that is associated with a given order of values, as well as the accompanying inclusions and exclusions. In Butler’s critical frame, which aims at the subversion of the identity concept itself, any idea of fixed or stable identity is called into question (Butler 1990). Identity formation is an always-messy and ongoing process that is implicated by the power structures that make up our social world. In this, even identities that resist the hegemonic order of gender, race and sexuality will be scrutinised and deconstructed. As such, the wolf children’s queer, unstable, non-fixed, multi-layered identities represent a major challenge and critique toward the given social order.

Passing: Gendered strategies of fitting in

The wolf-man’s and his children’s queer identities evince recurring dynamics of stigmatisation and social discrimination that form the subtext in Hosoda’s film, wherein the mother of the wolf children is constantly engaged in hiding the ‘difference’ of her children from mainstream, ‘normal’ society. Their deviation from normativity, but also their attempts to ‘pass’ as normal in a series of social spaces, can be read as references for passing modes of non-normative identities in Japan—i.e., of social, ethnic, and sexual minority groups. In the film, however, the children’s/minorities’ potential for disturbing fixed and normative notions of identity, system and order is at the same time contained through gender—i.e., the gendered frame of the ‘mother’ that we will analyse later on—and the passing mode of the daughter Yuki, which also takes on a decidedly gendered form and strategy.

In order to throw into sharper relief the measure and strategies of passing that the daughter Yuki employs, her character is initially designed as particularly gender non-normative. Pre-schooler Yuki presents mischievous, willful characteristics, constantly switching to her wolf form, chasing and provoking other animals in the fields, and displaying rough and physically active behaviour. She comes across as very ‘boyish’, even in her human form—defying stereotypically female gender norms. Her brother Ame, on the other hand, is depicted as shy, fearful, and clinging on to his mother in need of protection. This gender-switching frame of the characters presents an additional device that compounds the queerness of the hybrid wolf children—a queerness that is then ‘rectified’ through the specific gendered passing strategies that Yuki employs in order to fit into society. Saiga Keiko (2015, p. 91) notices this pronounced gendered ‘passing’ aspect in Yuki, even associating her to a transgendered existence that needs to be suppressed in order to pass and grow up as a girl.

Whereas the mother moves the family to a rural area in order to provide a space where the children can avoid contact with other humans, this retreat from society is no longer possible when Yuki reaches school age and starts attending elementary school. Entrance into public school marks a distinct level of socialisation, and of becoming a member of society beyond the family. At the same time, according to Goffman (1986, p. 33), the public school entrance often becomes the ‘occasion of stigma learning, the experience sometimes coming very precipitously on the first day of school, with taunts, teasing, ostracism and fights’. Therefore, school becomes the prime socialising and regulatory sphere wherein students are called to coordinate their social identities. Building on Goffman, Brian McVeigh (2000, p. 26) suggested in the case of Japan that within this socialising sphere, one’s circle of friends functions as a unit that checks untoward behaviours. In the anime, Yuki’s gender behaviour that starkly differs from that of her friends puts her in danger of becoming ostracised. While the girls are showing marbles and jewelries from their treasure chests, Yuki presents one that is filled instead with insects and bones, prompting the girls to run away and scream in horror and disgust (1:04:57). Kristeva noted in her essay on abjection that it is ‘not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection, but what disturbs identity, system, order. (…) The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite’ (Kristeva 1982, p.4), anything that highlights ’the fragility of identity’ will be seen as abject. In order to be accepted by her friends, Yuki realises that she must pass as a ‘normal girl’ and reconfirm the notion of a stable gendered identity. Her non-normative ‘wolf’ identity—which comes in the form of her outperforming the boys in a race, as well as in her boyish tastes and behaviour—is eventually covered up and disguised in the form of a beautiful feminine dress that her mother makes for her, which stresses her gender conformity and thereby helps her restore her popularity among her classmates. Passing takes the form of gendering, and a specific gendering at that: the dress prominently bears a flower pattern that serves as a symbolic representation of her mother Hana, whose name literally means ‘flower’, as well as an acceptance of the gender role associated with her.

In order to avoid revelation of the in-between (in this case, the human-animal identity), as well as to forego the social rejection by others that goes beyond the cognitive to encompass emotional and affective levels, stigma-prone individuals must manage the information about their ‘failing’ in order to accord to and to reconfirm binary systems. Goffman describes such managing of information as ‘[t]o display or not to display; to tell or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie; and in each case, to whom, how, when, and where’ (Goffman 1986, p. 42). In order to ‘pass’, however, such strategies of managing information only go so far. Yuki wins back her friends, yet she faces another challenge three years later when the newly transferred student Sōhei comes onto the scene. He is sitting behind Yuki, and during their first conversation, he asks if she has a pet because he detects the scent of an animal (1:08:35). This conversation makes her panic, and we see her next in the bathroom cleaning her hands while smelling herself. Smell here seems to be a ‘natural’ phenomenon, but in social contexts, it is a particular and recurring attribute that is associated with racist ideologies regarding minorities or foreigners in general. In her examination of Imai Tadashi’s filmic adaption of the famous Buraku novel Hashi no nai kawa,15 Kurokawa Midori (2011, pp. 44-48) analyses how ‘smell, body, and race’ configure as markers of an alleged Buraku identity. Smell is associated with ‘dirty’ professions, but also with biological and physical distinctions between majority and discriminated minorities cast as different ‘invisible races’. This smell is naturalised in Wolf Children, and Yuki anxiously keeps distance from Sōhei as she realises there is information she gives off that she can neither control nor fix. Sōhei continues pushing and questioning her, and driven into a corner like an animal, Yuki loses control, transforms into her wolf form and physically harms him.

Even though Sōhei ‘saw’ and was hit by Yuki the wolf, he cannot believe his eyes, just as in an earlier scene when neighbourhood farmers visit Hana at her house, the transformation of the children into wolves happened in front of their eyes without them realising it. These scenes exemplify that our vision is deeply normative, and often allows us to ‘see’ only what we already know and understand. The scenes also imply that passing is a mutual process that also requires the ‘overlooking’ of difference by the ‘normals’ of mainstream/majority society. Such active passing performances are ultimately about acceptance in society, while refusal to ‘pass’ is about acceptance of one’s own difference from society’s normative expectations. Two scenes in Wolf Children further exemplify this argument. Earlier in the film, Ame gets confused about his wolf identity when he reads a picture book in which wolves are ostracised by human hunters. At this moment of his life, he is criticised by Yuki for not being ‘as tough as a wolf should be’ (0:37:56). Later in the film, when Yuki is trying to pass as a normal school girl, Ame is experiencing life in the wild. This time, it is Ame who tries to persuade Yuki to embrace her wolf nature, while she tries to persuade him to assume a human identity, resulting in a fierce fight between the two wolves (1:22:20). Both siblings themselves cannot accept their queer existence, and fight to push each other into one singular frame of being.

Yuki, however, does not stay completely closeted—deliberately and partially disclosing her wolf form to Sōhei, who himself is to some degree a social outsider. Her disclosure can be seen as coming out to a person who accepts her queerness, although this is presented in a way that does not pose any threat or would cause affective abjection in the viewer (Fig. 3).16 This scene mirrors the one in the beginning of the film when Hana and the wolf man are about to have sexual intercourse, and it implies here as well that the attraction between the two teenagers will eventually lead to heterosexual intercourse. Yuki’s queerness can be said to be acceptable when contained in a heterosexual binary gender frame.

Figure 3.

Germer, Figure 3

Reifying Normativity: Motherhood and its discontents

The figure of the wife and mother Hana holds or is trying to hold all responses to her children’s queerness in check within her family, and chooses a rural, isolated neighbourhood in order to create a sealed environment for the children —a ‘protective capsule’, as Goffman calls it. He writes: ‘Within such a capsule a congenitally stigmatised child can be carefully sustained by means of information control” (Goffman 1986, pp. 32-33). However, even in the isolated, small and mutually-supportive system of her rural neighbourhood, Hana must instruct the children to keep their identities secret. And when Ame finds a fairytale book that portrays a hostile relationship between humans and wolves, the ‘protective capsule’ starts to tear apart.

In this sense, Hana at first acts as a stand-in for the wolf-man and their wolf children—providing the capsule and in certain scenes allowing herself to be contaminated by their queerness—but later acts more clearly as an agent of normalisation as the children grow older, becoming a Freudian civilising force in all family relationships. In the beginning of the film, she displays the same attitude of normification and civilising in her relationship with the wolf-man, as she is the one who provides him with the values of a heteronormative human family. Saiga Keiko (2015, pp. 91-92) noted in her interpretation of the wolf children’s mother that the character of Hana is not designed as a human being with weaknesses and strengths, but rather as a super-mother to an almost grotesque degree. Hana seems ‘monstrous’ in her ability to endure hardship, to exercise constraint, and to stay gentle to the extreme when raising her children and coping with danger and catastrophe. One of the rare gender-sensitive treatments of the film, Saiga understands that the real ‘monster’ of this film is not the wolf-man nor the hybrid children. It is the kind of civilisational super-ego of self-sacrificing motherhood that Hana embodies.

The film engages a variety of natural metaphors to liken Hana’s behaviour to the instinctual and natural, such as in her encounter with a bear and her cubs in the forest, which is designed to mirror Hana’s own instinctual drive to search for and protect her children. It is precisely this narrative, however, that forms the major normative frame of the film, which neatly maps onto the concept of the ryōsai kenbo—the ‘good wife and wise mother’. A modern concept of normative female morality that emerged during the Meiji period, it has continued to be historically adapted and productively employed for regulating and shaping female sexuality and social behaviour in Japan.17 In this normative frame, a widow who is sacrificing her life and her labour to bring up children and educate them to become useful subjects of the nation-state is expected to forego any libidinal pleasures of her own. Such is the essence and aim of Hana’s being: Faithful to her deceased common-law husband, she will seek nothing but to protect and raise their offspring, choosing solitude, foregoing any other sexual relationship, and labouring to house and feed her children in the countryside. The work of farming and repairing the house, which she accomplishes only with the grumpy advice she receives from a senior male farmer, does not break the stereotype of the gendered division of labour; of men’s and women’s work. It is fully included in the social expectation toward a good wife, wise mother—whose domesticity has historically been called upon to contribute to the nation through raising children and providing productive labour—all without enjoying the status of a worker, and while being contained within the ideological frame of a housewife.

Furthermore, what makes Hana’s mothering in Wolf Children most questionable is the contrasting way in which the other mother figure in the film is designed. The mother of Sōhei, Yuki’s (rebellious) classmate, is drawn as a downright nasty woman. She is a career woman who is negligent in the upbringing of her son as she forgets to pick him up from school, and plans to remarry without regard for him—thereby putting her career and sex life before her mothering duties. On top of such ‘egoism’, she aggressively threatens Hana and her daughter and the (male) headmaster to sue the school, and is thus ready (unjustly) to employ the full force of the law. This divisive and oppositional framing of women into a good self-sacrificing mother on the one hand, and a bad careerist working mother on the other, outlines the reactionary frame of Hosoda’s normative gender order.

The theme of hybrid or biracial children and their mother in the anime Wolf Children is not a new trope, but has formed the key issue in a number of films in the history of Japanese cinema. Kō Mika (2016) analyses films of the 1930s wherein this trope plays a prominent role, and notes that in contemporary Japanese society, issues of so-called hāfu—their aesthetic idealisation on the one hand, and their invisible discrimination on the other—resonate with the ways that hybridity and motherhood were negotiated in these older films. In one film titled Karayukisan (1937),18 the problem of the bi-racial son becomes entangled with the outsider status of his mother who is a returning karayukisan, one of the women who worked in brothels in Asia.19 This film presents an interesting structural parallel to Wolf Children’s plot in that the bi-racial son gets bullied to the point that his mother decides to have him leave Japan. While he gets bullied because of his mother’s background, it is not the mother who leaves; nor do they leave together. The ‘unfitting’ element is not her sexually/morally questionable past, but his hybridity, his ‘racial’ in-between-ness. As Kō (2016, pp. 86-91) observes, the plot cannot be fully grasped by the themes of discrimination, ‘blood’ and ‘race’ alone, or as the sad story of a mother and a child who are separated from each other. It is through the separation that the mother reconfirms her own role as wise mother by sending off her son to where his life chances are better. Further questioning the role of the mother, we argue that the image of the ‘wise mother’ works to purify the woman from her tainted sexual history, and that by staying behind in her own ‘racial’ community that has been discriminating against her, she affirms her own ‘racial’ validity and belonging. Thus gender, race and sexuality combine to exclude otherness, hybridity, and in-between-ness, and thereby reconfirm and reinforce each other.

The reification of normativity in Wolf Children can be questioned even further. Judith Butler gives a clue to understanding the particular configuration of gender and other differences such as race and sexuality. She questions the privileging of sexual difference, which implies that ‘sexual difference should be understood as more fundamental than other forms of difference … [and] presumes that sexual difference constitutes an autonomous sphere of relations or disjunctions’ (Butler 1993, p. 167). As far as the normative framing of motherhood, heterosexuality and gender in Wolf Children is concerned, the film certainly displays an arena based on these presumptions wherein gender is the main, autonomous and fixed difference. But as Butler continues to probe that premise, she suggests ways to question it:

What would it mean, on the other hand, to consider… the disjunctive ordering of the human as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ as taking place not only through a heterosexualising symbolic with its taboo on homosexuality, but through a complex set of racial injunctions which operate in part through the taboo on miscegenation (Butler 1993, p. 167).

Butler suggests that sexual difference is articulated and constituted through other vectors of power, such as race, ethnicity, and sexuality. We can ‘translate’ and apply this insight to our text, and ask whether the disjunctive ordering and reification of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ takes place not only through the heterosexualising symbolic and the strategic placement of an overly ideological image of the ‘mother’ Hana, but also through a complex set of other and overlying disjunctions such as animal/human, city/rural, working woman/mother, or intellectual knowledge/practical knowledge.

Bourdieu (2001) suggests that it is a whole cosmology of dichotomous homologies shaped along sexual difference that naturalises and symbolically maintains the socially contingent gender order. Such a cosmology can be seen in the anime in the recurring image of Hana’s bookshelf, which features the deceased wolf-man’s driver’s license along with a flower of the season and a hasamiyaki20style cup for offerings (Fig. 4). This composition turns the bookshelf into a modern, casual altar within the Japanese-style house in the countryside. The bookshelf is filled with books about becoming, being, or learning to be a mother and a housekeeper, referencing the type of education that a good wife, wise mother should have. There are books about children’s medical health, children’s literature, as well as the standard Japanese language dictionary Kōjien, and books related to practical knowledge, home remedies and gardening (Fig. 5). The shelf and Hana’s books literally and ideologically support what is placed on top of it: her husband’s driver’s license. As noted before, the man continues to be the symbolic head of the family even after his death, and his license carries his photo (as every family altar displays a photo of the deceased). Importantly here, however, it also connects him to the state that issued the document.

Figure 4.

Germer, Figure 4

Figure 5.

Germer, Figure 5

As for the flower arrangement that decorates the altar, one emblematic example is a branch of withering cherry blossoms. The reference here is not only spring, or perhaps the fleeting quality of life—a literary trope since the Heian period (Fig. 4). Since the Asia Pacific War, the cherry blossom has also come to symbolise the young men who sacrifice their lives for the ‘family state’ (kazoku kokka). The gendered division and the societal and politico-religious state system that is thus reflected in the bookshelf as a structure—and in its symbolic content—suggest the film maker’s ideal society, along with the gendered cosmology that he reaffirms through the film.

As Bourdieu argued in his analysis of gendered cosmology, sexual difference does not have a prediscursive fixed meaning—but is symbolically produced through the repetitive ‘labour of eternalisation performed by interconnected institutions such as the family, the church, the state, the educational system, and also, in another order of things, sport and journalism’ (Bourdieu 2002, p.viii). As we can see in Wolf Children, film and animation are necessary additions to this list, where such eternalisation of binary gender and its formative role in the making of ethno-national identity are produced through film and performed within the film, reifying and reinforcing normativity that has been challenged in the plot.

Conclusions: A ‘Japanese’ cinema of reassurance

Wolf Children is considered the first original film directed by Hosoda, and it is part of his authorial oeuvre that features certain recurrent gendered representations. The queering and passing dynamics, for example, can also be tracked in his film Summer Wars,21 where one of the protagonists, Kazuma, is ‘queer’ in the sense of being an otaku within the Jinnouchi family, always playing videogames while remaining isolated from his very traditional and collective family. By the end of the film, as his abilities are fundamental for saving the day, he becomes integrated and his queerness is erased. In The Boy and the Beast, a film that has been seen as the gendered complementary to Wolf Children with its central theme of fatherhood, the protagonist Ren initially queers as a human in the beasts’ world. As he gains a new name (Kyūta) and grows in acceptance with the beasts, however, he ends up experiencing queering again when he returns to the human world. On the other hand, his antagonist—the human boy Ichirōhiko—is raised as a beast, fooled by his adoptive father. In this sense, he can be likened to having a transgendered existence whereby the social identity given in his early life doesn’t match his inner feelings, and although he passes as a beast, his questions about his own identity grow as ‘darkness in his heart’.

Similarly to Kazuma in Summer Wars and Ame in the beginning of Wolf Children, Ichirōhiko’s gender expression is at odds with the binary gender order.22 Here as well, however, the figure of the mother as a regulatory agent plays an important role in Hosoda’s three latest films. Ren’s mother in The Boy and the Beast, for example, appears as a guiding spirit in moments when he is confused and solitary. Sakae, the great-grandmother in Summer Wars, is like Hana: a super-mother who, despite her advanced age, takes care of the whole family and continues to be the symbol of their bonds and strength even after her death. Just like Hana, she lived as a chaste widow—even taking care of an illegitimate son of her husband.

Furthermore, the heteronormative frame is usually connected to the resolution of the plots’ conflicts. In The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the heroine Makoto is saved by Chiaki’s act of love when he sacrifices his last time travel to protect her from a fatal accident. In Summer Wars, the final victory is achieved by the union of the whole family—as well as by the teamwork of Kenji and Natsuki, who start as a fake couple and end with airs of a real romance. In The Boy and the Beast, the heroine Kaede (along with the spirit of Ren’s mother) is the force that conceals the darkness in Ren’s heart, and by the end of the film, Kaede and Ren have entered into a romantic relationship.

The great popularity achieved by Hosoda’s works has led a number of reviewers to ask whether Hosoda might be ‘The Next Miyazaki’ (e.g. Browne 2016; Schilling 2015). Miyazaki’s craftsmanship, the centrality of family in his animation, and the masterful creation of other worlds certainly echo in Hosoda’s oevre. Miyazaki himself recognised Hosoda’s aesthetic talent as an animator, even when he rejected his first application to Studio Ghibli (Hikawa 2015, p. 14). During a lengthy interview wherein Miyazaki repeatedly had to defend that his own films’ main characters are mostly girls, however, he gives an indirect hint as to why he rejected Hosoda yet again when he himself finished the work on Howl’s Moving Castle instead of Hosoda. Denying that he interfered with Hosoda’s work, Miyazaki nevertheless notes that such a delicate love story between a seemingly old woman and a young man (as in Howl) needed to be very carefully scripted so as not to make it seem odd, and he suggests that perhaps a young director (like Hosoda) could not accomplish such a task (cited in Shibuya 2010, p. 14). Napier (2001, p. 471) notes that Miyazaki has an agenda that is not only aesthetic but moral, or we may call it critically political. His films’ strong female characters are far from stereotyping gender norms, and their play with gender boundaries is a major element in destabilising fixed narrative conventions.

As we analyse Hosoda’s work through the lens of gender and critical queer theory, we argue that in his presentation of the world, gender norms and normativity play a very different role when compared to Miyazaki’s humanistic approach wherein ‘uncertainty and transformation are the rule rather than the exception’ (Denison 2007, p. 312). Whereas Miyazaki ‘uses the fantastic and the feminine to defamiliarise and even subvert conventional notions of history, progress, and gender coding in Japanese culture’ (Napier 2001, p. 478), and thus presents us with what Napier (2001, p. 477) termed a ‘cinema of de-assurance’, Hosoda ultimately assigns a reassuring role to gender that works to maintain the hegemonic gender order and to contain queerness/difference on various levels.23

Hosoda’s work can therefore be better classified in line with that of a number of new directors, including Shinkai Makoto, who have been termed simply ‘post-Miyazaki’ (Fukushima 2015, p. 52).24 Importantly, Hosoda’s films bear closer resemblance with the cinematic trajectory of Disney films that, according to Napier, ‘function as a cinema of reassurance… which promotes a vision of a world in which all problems are solved and harmony is restored under the aegis of U.S. ideology and values’ (Napier 2001, p. 469). Miyazaki has often been referred to as ‘The Disney of Japan’ for his ‘wholesome family entertainment’ (Yamanaka 2008, p. 239), such as Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro, 1988) and Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away, 2001). This label has just as often been refuted, however—both by critics and film scholars, as well as by Miyazaki himself (Kraemer 2000; Satin 2014; Napier 2001).

Our analysis of Wolf Children in fact suggests that structural similarities to Disney exist with Hosoda’s films rather than Miyazaki’s, as the former are associated with a strong aspect of ‘family entertainment’ and appeal to a general audience,25 and ideologically aim at a similar but ‘Japanese’ kind of gendered and national ‘reassurance’ that Napier attested to Disney films. Moreover, similarities in film frames such as to Lion King (1994), or to particular storylines are obvious: The relationship between Hana and the wolf-man in the beginning of the film seems like a modern re-working of The Beauty and the Beast (1991)—the love story of a young human woman and a ‘beast’ (outcast) man—with similarities also pertaining to personal details, such as Hana’s connection with books (like Belle’s).

It is perhaps this kind of ‘reassurance’ that film scholars in Japan are praising, such as Hioki (2014, p. 231), who admires Hana ‘as a woman of sincerity, as a single flower, never trying to escape from her role as mother’, or Yanagisawa (2015, pp. 202-203), who notices Hosoda’s ultra-conservative images of motherhood, family, and blood lineage, but chooses to interpret them as philosophical expressions of ‘our ever changing and finite natural lives’, or Hikawa (2015, p. 200), who affirms that starting with Summer Wars, Hosoda’s works all convey a strong sense of ‘succession’ (keishō):

The succession that means that normal people can live their normal lives. The succession that means the endless repetition and continuity of life. That is what the maintenance of everyday-ness through its social infrastructure and the continuity of society are ultimately about. Obviously the surface of culture and lifestyles change with time, but the essence of the essences that form this world is ‘succession’ (Hikawa 2015, p. 200).

The concept of ‘succession’, a highly formal term that Hikawa uses and affirms in an essentialising fashion, bears associations with nationalistic ideas surrounding imperial succession (kōi keishō) and cultural essence in Japan. On the other hand, this corresponds with the concept that Bourdieu (2001) had critically identified as the eternalisation of an arbitrary gender system that naturalises socially-contingent and unequal gender relations. In the anime, Ame’s and Yuki’s lives are a ‘succession’ of their parents’ hybrid lives, but at the same time, the choices they are forced to make represent the maintenance of the normative gender, racial and social order.

Queer theory scholar Patricia MacCormack (2009, p. 136) notes that hybrids ‘can challenge the belief in unity, phyla and absolute differentiation of elements, species, things, and subjects’, and the hybridity in Wolf Children can be read in part as accomplishing just that. MacCormack also reminds us, however, that there are different kinds of hybrids—some of which ‘reproduce binary machines’ (MacCormack 2009, p. 141). The bittersweet but re-assuring ending of Yuki’s successful passing in the human world, and Ame’s complete retreat to the animal world—as well as the heteronormative, gendered binary that pervades the film—work to reproduce the ‘binary machine’ perhaps more effectively than another, more straightforward type of plot.

Far from opposing or queering heteronormativity, Hosoda’s Wolf Children fits well into the current neo-liberal political mainstream of Japan, wherein we can observe a heightened recognition of sexual and other diversity, along with simultaneous increased efforts to foster national pride and strengthen the family unit against individual freedoms and notions of gender equality. The LDP aim to change Article 24 of the Japanese Constitution in order to stress families as the ‘natural and basic unit of society’ while legally requiring family members to help each other (Jones 2013), as well as the 2016 Supreme Court rejection of the right to different surnames by spouses, are indicators of this trend (Japan Times 2015).

Hosoda’s family stories, while enacting tropes of transgressing, queering and overcoming boundaries that can metaphorically be read as questioning or eroding socio-cultural boundaries between minorities and majority, between ‘races’, or even between different sexualities, do so at the expense of a reification of the heteronormative (gender) order. His work thus presents a ‘Japanese’ version of a Disney-like cinema of reassurance that contains diversity and difference by incorporating it in a reification of the national heteronormative imaginary.


This article grew out of a Seminar on Hosoda Mamoru within the 2016 Gender and Cultural History Course taught by Andrea Germer at the Graduate School of Integrated Sciences, Kyushu University. It benefitted from students’ discussions and we would like to thank all course participants as well as the anonymous reviewers of this article for their insightful comments. We also thank Kimberly Hughes for her perceptive and stylistic suggestions for improving this article.


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[1] The film became the fifth most profitable film of 2012 in Japan, while also achieving great box office success abroad—particularly in South Korea. In Japan, it earned 4.2 billion yen; overseas it reached 2.4 billion dollars, with almost 1.8 billion in South Korea alone (Eiren 2013).

[2] See MyAnimeList (n.d.). In October 2016, the film was rated with 93% approval by critics on Rotten Tomatoes (n.d.), and scored 8.2 in the movie community IMDB (n.d.) and 8.84 in the anime fan community My Anime List (n.d.).

[3] ‘Invisible minorities’ are those people who cannot be readily identified by their outer appearances as members of minority groups in Japan. The problems they face in everyday life are different from those of so-called ‘visible minorities’ as described by Debito Arudou (2015) in his book on what he terms ‘embedded racism’ in Japan.

[4] For details, see the festival programmes from the Hawaii International Film Festival (2012), Japan Film Society (2012) and Animefest (2013).

[5] The film received the Main Prize and the Audience Award at the Oslo Films from the South Festival; Audience Award at the New York International Children's Film Festival; Animation of the Year at the 67th Mainichi Film Awards, the 36th Japan Academy Prize and the 12th Tokyo International Anime Fair. See details of each award on its respective website: Oslo Films from the South Festival (2012), Mainichi Newspapers (2013), Japan Academy Prize (2013), Tokyo Anime (2013).

[6] See Condry 2013, p.37; for the complete cast and staff team, see Ookamikodomo (2012).

[7] See Condry 2013, p.13. Hosoda is credited as director and as original creator in Wolf Children and The Boy and the Beast. In previous works, such as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, he was credited only as director.

[8] For an overview of the adaptation, diversification of genres and merchandising, see Ookamikodomo (2012).

[9] See Hikawa 2015, pp.13-14; Hosoda was involved in the television animation Jūni senshi bakuretsu Eto renjā (Twelve Warrior Explosive Eto Rangers,1995), Rurōni Kenshin (Samurai X, 1996), Shōjo kakumei Utena (Revolutionary Girl Utena, 1997) and Dejimon adobenchā (Digimon Adventure, 1999).

[10] This included the short film SUPERFLAT MONOGRAM (2003) and opening/ending sequences for anime TV series like Spiral (2002), Ashita no Nadja (2003) and Samurai Champloo (2004) (Iida 2015a, pp. 213-216)

[11] Such fantastic spaces are the digital world in Digimon Adventure: Our War Game!, Summer Wars and SUPERFLAT MONOGRAM , as well as other abstract representations of space, including the opening of the TV animation Spiral and the time travel scenes in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Iida 2015a, pp.212-218). In The Boy and the Beast, however, Hosoda reverts this aesthetic and uses the same bright white aspect to represent the real world when the main character first returns from the realm of the beasts.

[12] See Takezawa (2011, p.7). The term ‘invisible race’ was coined by De Vos and Wagatsuma (1966) in an essay collection that provides an analysis of outcasts in Japan.

[13] Published in 1906, the novel is acknowledged as the starting point for the naturalist literature movement in Japan (Okuno 2009, p.52).

[14] For documentaries, see Futsū no ie (2000) by Uekawa Tami and Aru seinikuten no hanashi (2013) by Hanabusa Aya (Saitō 2016, pp.63-65); for books see Hisabetsu buraku no seishun (1999) by Kadooka Nobuhiko or INTERVIEW (2003) by Kaihō Shuppansha (Kurokawa 2011, p.50).

[15] Hashi no nai kawa (The river with no bridge) is a long novel of seven volumes written by Sumii Sue (1902-1997) and published between 1961 and 1992. Its central theme focuses upon the discrimination of buraku communities within the emperor-centred Japanese socio-political system.

[16] Rather, Yuki’s ears in particular look like what Azuma Hiroki (2009, pp.42-47) calls moe elements, or visual characteristics that make the character more attractive for otaku audiences.

[17] The authoritative historical study on the concept of ryōsai kenbo is Koyama (2012); see also Nolte and Hastings (1996) and Koyama (2014) for specific discussions of how ‘productivity’ was also expected of the ideal ‘good wife, wise mother’ and played an important role in relating women to the nation-state and the public sphere. 

[18] Kō discusses one film titled Minato no Nihon musume (1933) in which biracial characters are idealized and the tension that their presence creates is largely kept invisible, and another film titled Karayukisan (1937) featuring famous actress Irie Takako.

[19] The term karayuki originally referred to people who sought work overseas, but later mainly addressed impoverished women and girls who were lured or sold into prostitution after seeking work in China, Southeast Asia or Siberia until the 1920s. The "first generation" of so-called karayuki-san mainly came from northwestern Kyushu (Colligan-Taylor 2015, p.xiv).

[20] Used to be one of the most common Japanese pottery styles found in any shop and restaurant it has become rare these days. The cup combines the 'casual' as much as the nostalgically ‘Japanese’ and the function of Buddhist altar offerings.

[21] Though he is not credited as original creator for both, these two are the only pre-Studio Chizu Hodosa’s works listed on the Studio Chizu website (Chizu ca, 2016).

[22] Not only is his appearance androgynous, but his voice is that of a voice actor whose roles include queer characters such as Berg Katze in the anime series Gatchaman Crowds (2013-2015), as well as characters in Bishōnen animations (stories with several good-looking male characters that are shown in homoerotic suggestive scenes) such as Matsuoka Rin in Free (2013-2015) and Suou Tamaki in Ouran High School Host Club (2006).

[23] This can also be said of the latest international success of Japanese animation, the film Kimi no na wa (Your Name; Dir. Shinkai Makoto), in which the repeated gender crossing of a boy and a girl switching bodies ultimately reifies the gendered and ethno-national order in which it is staged.

[24] This term is a media buzz word that refers to the generation of anime film directors who produce mainstream animation after Miyazaki’s announced retirement.

[25] Iida (2015b, pp.93-111) and similarly by Hikawa (2015, pp.89-95) note that Hosoda’s works aim at a general audience, in contrast to films that target members of otaku subcultures.

About the Authors

The three authors are or were affiliated with Kyushu University: Prof. Dr. Andrea Germer (now Duesseldorf University, Germany), and graduate students Rafael Vinícius Martins and Tianqi Zhang (MA). Andrea has been publishing in the field of gender and (visual) history, and Rafael is working on popular culture and light novels, while Tianqi is researching queer clubs at Japanese universities.

Email the authors: Andrea Germer, Rafael Martins, Tianqi Zhang

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