JP Films = Women’s cinema?

June 20, 2009

Some years ago there was talk about female action heroes making a breakthrough in movies. That was of course referring to Hollywood films. The dumbasses haven’t seen Asian cinema where women have been playing action heroes for decades, I thought. Recently I’ve come to realize that in Japanese cinema this is probably more true than anywhere else, and not just as far as action films go. I hear actresses complain that Japanese film industry is really harsh to women, but I’m hardly seeing any male leads in Japanese movies anymore. Or am I just imagining things?

Since I keep track of movies I watch, I decided to draw up a bit of statistics about the men-women situation in Japanese films. I have included the last 300 Japanese movies I’ve watched. Naturally these results do not present the definitive truth as it includes only movies that have found their way into my viewing list (and admittedly I’m not trying to avoid seeing films with cute female leads). However, my taste in films is quite diverse, ranging from 1960’s ninkyo yakuza films and 1970’s exploitation films to idol movies of the 1980’s and modern indie drama. Some of these films I’ve reviewed here, some I haven’t. Below are the results.

Movies total: 300
Movies with a male lead: 136
Movies with a female lead: 164

As I suspected, the majority of Japanese films I watch star women. However, you have to keep in mind I’m mostly watching movies from 1970’s to the 2000’s. I belive the results would be very different if I watched more films made prior to 1970’s. Below are results by decade.

1950s: 3
Movies with a male lead: 3
Movies with a female lead: 0

1960s: 18
Movies with a male lead: 13
Movies with a female lead: 5

1970s: 100
Movies with a male lead: 39
Movies with a female lead: 61

1980s: 58
Movies with a male lead: 21
Movies with a female lead: 37

1990s: 30
Movies with a male lead: 21
Movies with a female lead: 9

2000s: 91
Movies with a male lead: 39
Movies with a female lead: 52

There are too few results in my statistics for pre-1970’s to make conclusions, but it’s not hard to guess that men were in the majority in movies back then. Samurai films were popular and the genre didn’t have many strong female roles on offer. Some female superstars existed of course, such as Hibari Misora. However, I will abstain from making further arguments since I’m not very familiar with Japanese cinema from this era.

You can see women dominate the 1970’s in my statistics. I can think of a few explanations for this. 1970’s is when female action heroes made their big breakthrough. There had been a few tough ladies before, the most important of them being the yakuza film goddess Junko Fuji. She cleared path for actresses like Meiko Kaji (Stray Cat Rock), Reiko Oshida (Delinquent Girl Boss), and Etsuko Shihomi (Sister Street Fighter) who became iconic action film stars in the early 1970’s. Especially in case of Shihomi’s movies the gender issue was minimized; the characters she played hardly differed from the male action heroes in any way. She was also physically talented enough to put most male martial arts actors into shame. Her characters were very asexual; you’d never see Shihomi nude or in sexually suggesting situations. This was also partly true to Oshida who had a tough cute girl image.

Similar development took place in exploitation cinema. It was in the 1960’s when the genre started gaining large popularity – this was partly because television had become popular and film studios had to produce daring content that viewers could only see in movie theaters. The 1970’s marked the golden age of Japanese exploitation cinema, with especially erotic movies being highly popular. Since it was mainly male audiences sitting in these dark theaters showing questionable movies, it made sense to fill the screen with beautiful ladies. In some other country the the filmmakers might have opted for male lead and female supports in exploitation films, but since women were already going strong in action films in Japan, there was no obstacles for featuring women in lead roles in exploitation films. At the end of this post you can see genre statistics which reveal that women were leading this race 4 to 1 against men.

Furthermore, the thin red line between action and exploitation was indeed very thin in the 1970’s. While Nikkatsu was producing erotic films, and Etsuko Shihomi preserved her pure-star imago in her action movies, Toei’s pinky violence genre would combine these two. In Sex & Fury (1973) Reiko Ike is attached while taking a bath. She grabs her sword and, while not wearing anything, massacres a dozen male yakuzas in one of the most stylishly photographed action scenes of all time. This is a prime example of the genre. Most 1970’s pinky violence movies were well made action films (and I have labeled them as such in my statistics when appropriate) but they were heavily spiced with exploitation. Despite the generous service for lusty male viewers these movies always presented the male characters as crooks, perverts and idiots, ultimately getting crushed by the strong female characters. Sometimes it’s almost difficult to say if these films are primarily sexist or feministic!

Female action heroes, as well as Japanese action cinema in general came to a decline in late 1970’s. In the 1980’s the big thing was idol entertainment (which, of course, had existed before too, with stars like Momoe Yamaguchi). The word idol, nicely defined by Japan Times’ Mark Schilling as ’manufactured entertainer’, is usually used to refer to pop stars. However, in Japan idols were also active in movies and television, and that could be their prime playground. Hiroko Yakushimaru, Yoko Minamino and many others were either singers with a highly successful acting career, or actors with a highly successful singing career. Innocence, cuteness and fanaticm were the key words, and fans would love to see their idols perform in imaginable media. If you wanted to be a super idol, you would act, sing, model, advertise, and do whatever activities your producers could think of. If you wanted to be former idol, you’d take your clothes off.

Ironically, as far as women go, it was the idols that were the biggest action stars of the 1980’s. Toei and other studios were producing high school action television shows, such as Sukeban Deka, that were packed with idols. Rebellion League of Girls in Sailor Uniform even went as far to have Sonny Chiba’s Japan Action Club design the action scenes. Naturally these girls were no match for real action stars like Etsuko Shihomi when it came to shooting action. However, the concept was so good that it often compensated the lack of real martial arts skill. Can you even think of anything cooler than a super cute 17 year old girl in school uniform beating the shit out of grown up male villains?

1990’s again I have to skip because I’m not overly familiar with the films of this decade. 2000’s however is interesting. Women are in the clear lead again in my statistics, and that is even without the support of exploitation genre as I don’t watch many new exploitation films. Yet the result is hardly a surprise to anyone following modern Japanese cinema. It has been said that nowadays in Japan it’s women who decide which film couples go to see. What does this tell about the change in gender roles in Japan, on both sides of the screen?

Also, I would like point out another interesting difference, although I don’t think it necessarily affects on the statistics (or rather, affects both parties evenly). In the 1960’s there were legendary, charismatic stars like Ken Takakura and Junko Fuji. Are there similar stars today? In my opinion, no. This may be partly because genre cinema is dying out. It’s a global phenomena. 30 years ago an actor would be happy to make a career in a certain genre. But today actors want to try different genres. They don’t create an image associated with a specific genre. As a result, in my opinion, star actors often lack identity and have less strong image nowadays. Especially action heroes are almost extinct. Today, if you make an action movie, you can pick almost anyone for the lead role. There are no obvious choices… no Sonny Chiba, Etsuko Shihomi or Masashi Ishibashi… only Tak Sakaguchi, and he isn’t that great. You might just as well pick a pop star…

… which leads us to the real stars of the 2000’s; idols again. As far as fan’s opinion goes, the Japanese idol industry is way past its golden age. However, from a financial point of view idols are still a good way to go. Recent hit films like Death Note and Nana are packed with pretty boys and girls. But do these stars have a future? In the 1980’s idols either retired after a few years, or moved to television. It’s the same today. It’s ironic that while age and experience is appreciated in Japanese society, at least traditionally, the movie industry shows no compassion for stars past their expiration date…. which I’d say is around 24 years of age. Especially for women it becomes difficult to get good roles when they age.

Japan has probably the youngest star actors globally. The actors are so young that they sometimes play characters older than them. In Hollywood you have a 30 year old actor playing high school student, in Japan you have a 16 year old actor playing an 18 year old (Saki Kagami, Platonic Sex, 2001). A lot of my favorite Japanese actresses today and before made their best films when they were 14-21 years old. And Momoe Yamaguchi retired at the age of 20! She had already gained phenomenal success in film and music. Still, not all hope is lost when you are officially declared as adult. The housewives are strong consumer group and demanding entertainment… but this usually means television or smaller profile cinema releases. The careers of older actresses tend to be tied to the drama genre.

Results by genre

Action/Thriller: 113
Movies with a male lead: 61
Movies with a female lead: 52

Drama/Comedy: 105
Movies with a male lead: 49
Movies with a female lead: 56

Crime: 16
Movies with a male lead: 13
Movies with a female lead: 3

Horror: 15
Movies with amale lead: 4
Movies with a female lead: 11

Exploitation: 51
Movies with a male lead: 9
Movies with a female lead: 42

If someone is crazy enough to finish reading all I’ve written above, ask yourself a guestion: who are the Japanese actresses that first come to your mind. How old are they (now, or back when they were in their prime)? Let’s see; Yoko Minamino (18), Yui Asaka (16), Aya Ueto (17), Aoi Miyazaki (20), Mitsuki Tanimura (17), Riko Narumi (14), Etsuko Shihomi (18), Junko Fuji (23), Aki Maida (15)… oh yeah, Shinobu Terajima (33). Terajima is one of the few Japanese actresses I can think of that made their breakthrough at older age. But now, enough about girls. Next I’ll be taking a quick look at slacker-man specialist Nobuhiro Yamashita’s career (no, I won’t include Linda Linda Linda). And then I’ll be back with mini reviews of idol films and TV shows starring Hiroko Yakushimaru (17), Tomoyo Harada (17) and Miho Nakayma (16). Don’t get old!



  1. Naruse and Mizoguchi films often featured female leads, even as far back as the 30s. At the very least they were equal to their male counterparts, and not merely decoration or something.

    I can’t think of a jidaigeki or chambara that’s pre-1970 that features a female lead though. I guess it can be argued that the rise in popularity of pinku and exploitation films in the 70s contributed to women eventually becoming legitimate lead characters in all kinds of films.

  2. Thanks for your reply. My knowledge of pre-60’s JP cinema is as good as nothing. I haven’t seen Naruse’s movies, and I’m only familiar with one or two Mizoguchi films.

    Some day when I have time (and money… damn you Toei) I will introduce myself to Hibari Misora’s films.

    • Ah! How could I forget Misora. A woman as the lead in jidaigeki pre-70s. But in some of them she plays a dude (which totally weirds me out) so I’m not sure if those count.:D

  3. […] • JP Films = Women’s cinema? […]

  4. at simple glance, the films I’ve seen seem to be female-centric too, but as a broader look, have you check the top10 most (critically acclaimed or commercial) successful JFilms from last year?

    The 3 that come to my mind are Tokyo Sonata, Still Walking and Departures, which have male protagonists. I don’t know about others… xD

    On a similar topic, I remember reading an article about how Jodie Foster’s The Brave One was considered an action film box office failure, and that some executive said that female action flicks were done for – of course, with the exception of Lara Croft, right?

    Perhaps JFilms are not Women’s cinema, but Girl Power Cinema? Since after turning 30, many seem to be reduced to the role of wife or lover.

    Guys with their obsession of uniform-clad teen girls, and girls with their obsession of the girl getting the boy (and grown women too)- which is fine sometimes, but should not really be predominant with so many stories to tell… right?

  5. […] was reading this post on Japanese Films and Women in Cinema- now, female in cinema is a big BIG subject. I’m not in the position to point out feminists […]

  6. At Nippon Connection Film Festival in Frankfurt this year, guest Yukie Kito (producer on Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata) said that women currently make up over 70% of Japanese cinema audiences. That might account for the high number of movies with females in the lead role.

  7. Girl power cinema would probably be a good description, too. I wasn’t sure what topic to give this post, so I intentionally chose something a bit provicative, even if it was slightly incorrect.

    JP Films = Female Centric Cinema. That might be most accurate.

    It’s also true that without sailor suit fetish (ehm…) you might find yourself watching more male centric films. But compared to other countries I think JP films really are exceptionally “female centric”.

    I’m surprised to hear women make up 70% of cinema audiences. Why is this? Salarymen too busy to go to cinema, and student boys only sitting home watching idol gravure dvds, haha?

  8. the first Japanese actresses that come to my mind are either dead or in their 70s 😉

    great post, thanks for sharing your thoughts (and statistics!) on this. I had a quick look at my collection of mostly pre 1970s films and I came to think that it is not so much the time period that matters but the genre. Japanese cinema has been very genre-oriented and some genres are clearly dominated by male or female leads. You already mentioned exploitation films, but think also of the modern-girl films or the shomingeki which often revolve around mothers and wives.

    And even in jidaigeki there were some noticable exceptions, especially by Mizoguchi: Sansho the Bailiff, The Life of Oharu, The Empress Yang Kwei-fei for example. But of coursein the classical swordplay-film there was no room for female leads.

  9. and concerning the age-thing: Your comments about the idol-system which demands ever younger stars really make some sense. When I think about actresses in the 50s and 60s for example, the typical career pattern was to start making movies around 17-20, peaking maybe in the mid-twenties and ending the career after getting married and starting a family (maybe in the early 30s). Some of the big names however would have a comeback later on (after the kids were old enough), mostly in TV roles.

  10. […] geht der erstaunlichen Rolle von Frauen im japanischen Kino nach, und stellt erstaunt fest, dass Frauen öfter als Männer die Hauptcharaktere stellen, […]

  11. This is awesome! Thanks for the breakdown. What a great idea. I must look into Japanese women in cinema more. Beautiful. Just Beautiful.

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