Women’s History Month: Naoko Yamada a standout in anime industry

In celebration of Women’s History Month, the all-female team of film critics at FF2 Media were assigned to write about their favorite female artists – and where to watch their work.

To conclude SWAN day and women’s history month, I wanted to talk about a medium that unfortunately still doesn’t have many women in its field: animation. I’m a huge fan of Japanese animation (aka anime) specifically, and though it’s slowly started making some steps, the industry is heavily dominated by men. Most anime blockbusters famous out of Japan are man-made, thus I wanted to bring a female director to light: Naoko Yamada.

Naoko Yamada is an animator and director from the studio Kyoto Animation, better known as KyoAni. KyoAni stands out in the anime industry as it pays most workers with a salary instead of by contract, provides in-house training, and even employs a significant number of women. Unfortunately, these factors aren’t common: Japan’s animation industry is notoriously grueling, often underpaying and overworking its animators. Yamada has worked on many different shows as a director, storyboard artist and animator, including KyoAni’s big hits like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Free!, K-On! and Tamako Market.

Here are three specific films Yamada has directed that you can watch on demand.

K-On! The Movie – Netflix

K-On! The Movie is a sequel to the popular series of the same name, so if you want to watch it, you may want to check out the TV show first (also on Netflix!). K-On! The Movie is a feel-good, slice of life series about a Light Music Club (like pop music in Japan) consisting of a comedic quintuple of girls named Mio, Yui, Ritsu, Tsumugi, and Azusa. However, everyone but Azusa’s going to graduate soon, so in the movie they decide to plan a trip abroad to London. You’ll probably have to watch the original series to appreciate it, but we all have a lot of spare time during this uncertain period, so why not try it? K-On! The Movie‘s a classic, and all about a cast of girls having fun. The concept seems boring, but the genre’s surprisingly uplifting with cute female friendships and is sprinkled with wacky hijinks. 

A Silent Voice – Netflix

Full disclosure: this movie’s a tearjerker. It also has a manga/graphic novel series, and is written by a woman, so if you enjoy it you may also want to check it out! The screenplay is by screenwriter Reiko Yoshida, who worked on other big shows like Dragon Ball Z and more recently the film Ride Your Wave (which FF2 Media also reviewed).  

During elementary school, Shouya and his friends used to bully a deaf girl, Shouko, who transferred into their class. However, when Shouko’s mother reports the incidents to the school, only Shouya is singled out. Shouko leaves the school, while Shouya is ostracized though his classmates had also partaken in the bullying. Now, in high school, Shouya seeks to right his wrongs and redeem himself, learning sign language to apologize to Shouko for when he meets her again. A heart-wrenching tale about friendship and forgiveness, A Silent Voice was really popular when it came out, and KyoAni’s consistently beautiful animation along with its time-appropriate music made for a wonderful adaptation.

Liz and the Blue Bird – Hoopla

Liz and the Blue Bird’s screenplay is also written by Reiko Yoshida. It’s a spin-off based on the episodic series Sound! Euphonium, which can be found on the site Crunchy Roll. 

The film stars two friends who are both in their high school’s concert band. Mizore is the quieter, more-introverted of the two while her best friend Liz is popular and exuberant. They are tasked to play the lead instruments of a piece called “Liz and the Blue Bird,” inspired by a German fairytale (one about a woman and a blue-bird-turned-human who become best friends until they are forced to part ways). Liz’s part is represented by the oboe, which Mizore plays, while the blue bird is played through the flute, Nozomi’s instrument. Mizore is perturbed, as the piece seemingly mimics their relationship, and she is afraid of losing her only friend. Feelings further stir, and rehearsals become awkward as distance between the two friends starts to grow, bringing uncertainty about the future as well. Will the two be able to patch their relationship up by viewing the piece in a different perspective? A beautiful and thoughtful film.

KyoAni’s known for consistently high quality animation, and many of its TV shows and films feel “magical”, having a certain sense of whimsy. If you want to watch fantastic films with beautiful visuals while social distancing, be uplifted by girls taking the journey you never got to take in high school, or even want to cry — try watching a film by Naoko Yamada and the wonderful studio with her, Kyoto Animation. 

© Beatrice Viri (3/31/2020) FF2 Media

Photo Credits: Kyoto Animation

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Beatrice Viri
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Beatrice Viri pursued a degree in Media Studies at Hunter College, specializing in Emerging Media (digital media production). She has experience in graphic design, web development, motion graphics and film, as well as media analysis. For FF2 Media, Bea created original content for blog publication, writing out prompted ideas that engages audience. 
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