Despite its worldwide popularity, anime is still considered a niche interest in the English-language press. But the wall is beginning to crumble, with the international success of Demon Slayer: Mugen Train—a movie sequel to the anime series that debuted at No. 1 at the U.S. box office in April—just the latest in a series of pop-cultural events demonstrating Japanese animation’s global reach. And with such a massive audience, it follows that a diverse cross-section of people would find something that resonates with them within anime’s stock themes, tropes, and storytelling styles.
Two such anime fans are Cressa Beer, a stop-motion animator whose Godzilla-themed short “Coming Out” went viral last year, and Willow Maclay, a film critic who’s written for Ebert Voices and The Village Voice, among others. Beer and Maclay are both transgender women, and they share the common experience of discovering anime as a lens through which they were able to better understand their genders. We’ve paired them up for a conversation about the topic, which you can read below.
Willow Maclay: For anyone under the age of 30, anime was a basic tenet of childhood as obvious as The Simpsons or Spongebob Squarepants. With the explosion of Pokémon, a bridge was built between Japanese culture and children in North America that allowed for the likes of Dragonball Z and Sailor Moon to gain a foothold with the millennial class. The popularity of those two shows created a domino effect that cemented the art form’s popularity as more imported shows, movies, and manga (Japanese comics) became dominant. Whenever an anime film is released into cinemas with box-office strength like that of Demon Slayer, there is usually a chorus of surprise. But the popularity of these movies is not a shock for those who grew up with the form.
Anime is here to stay as a broader part of the cultural diet of Americans. Anyone who grew up after the mid-’90s knows this to be true, as you and I do, Cressa. With this conversation, I want to get into the nuts and bolts of how the aspirations and aesthetics of certain anime influenced our adolescence, and the blossoming gender identity therein. In your stop-motion short film Coming Out, you feature Godzilla’s adolescent child rapturously watching the balletic transformations of Sailor Moon, and at the time I stated that I felt this was a genuinely strong image on the basis of trans femininity. I’d like to know more about how you came to this image while making your short film, and whether or not it was personal for you to include Sailor Moon.
Cressa Beer: It was actually your comment on the short, Willow, that clued me into how widely shared this experience was for other trans girls. So many of us as kids in the ’90s and 2000s saw a magical girl transformation sequence and went “wait… something’s clicking for me.” The image of Sailor Jupiter was indeed a specific choice, mostly stemming from the fact that as a kid I desperately wanted to watch Sailor Moon but was banished to the realms of ‘’boy cartoons’’ by my parents. So in some ways, I was reclaiming or revising that part of my childhood in the short. There’s also the fact that, as an adult watching Sailor Moon, Jupiter’s backstory feels trans feminine coded. But since I didn’t have Sailor Moon directly as a kid, the anime girl that made lightning strike for little Cressa was Revolutionary Girl Utena.
I have a memory of being in a bookstore with my parents while I was about 10 or so and seeing this magazine cover. A very femme girl, in a suit, with a sword, holding another girl in a romantic pose—things clicked in my prepubescent brain and, without knowing fully why, I pointed at the magazine and went “that.” I didn’t get to see many episodes —kids these days will never have to endure the meager anime VHS offerings at their local video store —but what I did see lodged itself in my brain, and only upon realizing I was trans in my thirties did it all start to make sense. Utena was super feminine and pretty, but she also dressed masculine sometimes and kicked lots of ass. Her male antagonists had grace and femininity to them—and OMG, so much ’90s bisexual panic—and none of their “girly” moments were seen as funny, or as a point of derision. Strength was always presented with flowers and tenderness, and lots of pink.
My little ever-forming brain saw something in this, something that was akin to a recognition. Revolutionary Girl Utena is iconic for how fluid the genders and sexualities of all the characters are, and it became an early entry point for me into understanding that life wasn’t just one little binary box. And that curiosity is so important for kids to have. Life was presented to me everywhere else as “boys = masculine = violence = power” and “girls = feminine = softness = weakness,” and that is so damaging for a child. Since I never related to, and therefore never quite fully grasped, masculinity and all the things meant for boys as a kid, anime became a way for me to experience gender presentations that were more diverse. It offered a world outside of that rigid view, and gave me some solace that I didn’t have the language for yet. I could go on forever about Utena and then all the subsequent obsessions I had once discovering what anime was, but I’m dying to know: Willow, what was your lightning-strike moment, or which anime you look back on now with the clarity of hindsight?
Willow Maclay: I don’t think that there was a single example I could point to that acted as the definitive moment where I recognized my own transness, or even my own girlhood. It was a lot of little things accumulating into the greater whole of my taste beginning to form. Sailor Moon, with its great fashion, bright pastels and girl-gang trappings, was obviously a big one, but there was also Cardcaptor Sakura and Kiki’s Delivery Service. In the case of Kiki’s Delivery Service, it cleaved me open in a way where I felt entirely recognized, because it’s this movie about a young little witch who isn’t like everyone else, and she’s trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be. I was going through the exact same thing at the time with a budding puberty that I didn’t know how to avoid. In that movie, Kiki traces the patterns of an idealized girlhood that doesn’t feel at all realistic to me, but rather, one of fantasy. That, I think, speaks to trans feminine people in particular, because we can become very sincere in what we wanted our adolescence to have looked like.
I like your phrase “revised childhood”, because I think we do that to protect ourselves—or, in some cases, make a bigger deal out of things that only caused a small ripple at the time but feel more important now. The fact that I was only relating to characters who were girls wasn’t lost on me, but because it was the ’90s, and everyone perceived me as a boy, I thought something was wrong with me. Additionally, you had mainstream American culture engaging directly with transness in negative ways, like The Jerry Springer Show coming into prominence, and Jim Carrey puking his guts out at the sight of a trans character in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. As a result, I internalized every single bit of that transmisogyny that was in the air. But anime never hurt me, and sometimes it even seemed to endorse how I was feeling. Shows like Ranma 1/2 actually engaged with deep-seated desires of mine, like suddenly being transformed into a girl through magical means. Anime was a safe space during what was otherwise a not-so-great time to be growing up trans.
My relationship with anime, and art in general, began to shift shortly thereafter. I no longer related to the cheery mall-girl science-fiction of Sailor Moon and other shows aimed at prepubescent girls. I started looking for characters who were damaged or suffering in some way. It was around then that I funneled my frustrations and self-hatred through anime like Perfect Blue and Neon Genesis Evangelion. But before I get into that, I wanted to ask if you had a similar experience, or if your tastes or interests in anime shifted as you began to understand your own gender identity more clearly.
Cressa Beer: My tastes in anime—my tastes in art of any kind—absolutely shifted as I got older and understood myself more, but mostly due to what was available and allowed. I too was a product of ’90s transmisogynistic conditioning in all the ways you discussed. On top of that, while my parents considered themselves very liberal and open-minded, the possibility that I was a girl was actively discouraged, including what they would let me watch or read. Things like Kiki’s Delivery Service and Cardcaptor Sakura, now some of my all-time favorites, stayed out of my grasp until I was an adult. Anything that was regarded as “soft” or “feminine” got the axe, with the sole reason being that all too familiar (and problematic) “we don’t want the other kids to think you’re weird” fear some parents have. So I got to see all the big classics of the time—Vampire Hunter D, Akira, Ninja Scroll —which I also regarded as favorites, but nowadays I just have stacks of slice-of-life yuri like Flying Witch and Liz And The Blue Bird. I can’t handle violence.
What I spend a lot of time thinking about, though, is that a lot of the anime I did get to watch ended up being a trojan horse. Two of my all time favorites were marketed as boy action epics: the movie X/1999 and the series Escaflowne. Both, however, deviate greatly from how they were initially presented. Both also, to my curiosity at the time and to my amusement now, feature trans characters (however implicitly, and somewhat problematically in hindsight). In a lot of ways, this was how I navigated my media consumption during puberty: My parents would thumbs up something deemed “boy enough,” and it would end up being my secret tunnel to queerness and gender fluidity.
X/1999 [the 1998 movie by Rintaro] was dark, sumptuously aesthetic, apocalyptically exciting, and surprisingly queer as hell. Every other character is androgynous, bi, or both, and there’s an extremely powerful, melancholic character named Nataku, who is canonically agender. Though zero time in the movie is devoted to this, there was an odd draw to them for me, and it didn’t take long for me to obsessively find out their full story from the manga thanks to early anime fan sites. (Those were the days.)
Escaflowne began as a steampunk version of Gundam, or any other mecha show for that matter. But it very quickly became a love triangle (or a love tetrahedron) soap opera. One of the main villains—spoiler alert—is revealed to actually be a girl forced by their rulers to be a boy, and this oppression of who she is, including some really hard to stomach electroshock “conversion” treatments, is what ends up making her a rage-induced, chaotic “bad guy.” That plot line really affected me at the time—again, not in a way I had language for as a kid, but now I can look back on it and go “ahhhhh, yes of course.” I was beginning a puberty I didn’t want and changes that made me fall into the worst places of my life. I felt just like her, being forced to be a boy, and having to play this role I’d never asked for, wanted, or understood.
And then, of course, (drum roll) there’s Neon Genesis Evangelion. I connected hard with Evangelion. And because she was my age, also German, and also had issues with anger and self-worth masked by an ambitious “I have to win at all costs” attitude, I saw myself in Asuka. I feel like any discussion of anime in our generation, especially involving being trans, eventually comes around to Evangelion, and I’m excited to dive into that with you, Willow. But I wanted to just point out that my favorite connection to that series is that it’s truly the first time my brain registered what “queer” was. This is another spoiler, but the scene with Kaworu in the bath house made my middle school self, who up to that point only knew the word “gay” as derogatory, take a step back and think, “oh… gender doesn’t matter, it’s just about who makes you feel safe and loved.”
With that: Get in the robot, Willow.
Willow Maclay: Neon Genesis Evangelion is a favorite among certain sects of the trans community, to the point where it’s an inside joke among us that Shinji Ikari is an egg [a closeted trans person]. His closed-off-ness, his discomfort in his own body, and his frustration at being excluded from the love of his own father in favor of teenage girl Rei—they all give this reading ammunition. I’m hesitant to say that Evangelion is a text about transness, because there’s nothing to suggest as much in the actuality of the show. But it is a series about mental illness, and by and large, a huge portion of the trans community deal with those problems in one way or another.
I think it was that aspect of the series that I was drawn to as a teenager, and like you, Cressa, I loved Asuka with all my heart. She’s volatile, makes incredibly bad decisions, and desperately wants to be taken seriously. She also has a cocktail of family trauma that is elaborated upon beautifully near the end of the series and then comes back in the film End Of Evangelion. As someone whose mental health problems are rooted in the way my family treated me, she became an endearing character for myself. I plastered a huge poster of her above my bed when I was 15, and in hindsight I felt like my choice of decoration had little to do with me wanting to be her. Rather, I felt like her already.
My teenage years were desolate. I think when we’re talking about the ways that trans people relate to images, stories, or specific characters, it’s rooted in the fracturing that comes with adolescence. Puberty sucks for everyone, but for trans people it can genuinely feel like a violation. For many of us, that central disconnect, which becomes more pronounced in adolescence acts, as a huge instigating factor for why we might gravitate to films or television about characters experiencing something akin to a personal apocalypse—like those teenagers in Evangelion. The inverse of this idea is that there are also trans people who coat themselves in the armor of adolescence as a type of fantasy, in order to correct what went amiss in reality.
Both of these options are fine, and a healthy relationship with art would assume a need to include both sides of this spectrum. This is how I’ve felt lately when watching anime. Recently I have come to love the teenage hangout series K-On!, where a group of slacker teen girls form a rock band, and almost never practice. It’s pleasant, and I watch it for those reasons, but in the craft of Kyoto Animation and director Naoko Yamada, there’s a subconscious feeling of time lost. Yamada holds the frame on her characters in scenarios like summer camp and school field trips just long enough to cut through the humble peace of moments that these characters will remember forever. It relays a feeling of time slipping through their fingers. It’s something they can’t get back, just like I can’t redo my adolescence, and it’s sad in a way that all art about girlhood is for me. With anime, I have found the space to see myself, craft fantasies for what my gender identity could be, and mourn the aspects that I’ll never have access to. I’m curious if you feel the same way, Cressa.
Cressa Beer: Oh my goodness, I just finished K-On too! It’s the ultimate comfort show. I adore Naoko Yamada and fell down a hole with her work—like the aforementioned Liz And The Blue Bird. (Also worth pointing out: Her equally adorable and comfy show Tamako Market features probably the most casual trans representation I’ve ever seen.)
I started seeking out anime and manga like K-On—Sweet Blue Flowers, Non Non Biyori, Yuzu Camp, basically anything low-stakes and centered on female friendships—shortly before I understood myself as trans. And it’s one of those interests I just look back on with a smirking, “How did I not see this coming sooner.” I relate to the spectrum you speak of; I think I’m treating myself to a nostalgic adolescent fantasy, much in the way millennials love anything ’80s or ’90s-related. I’m not so much mourning what could have been, or trying to recreate something I can’t have, but letting my inner child play a little in a sunnier version of what actually happened. I find it healing, and in some aspects I try to actively bring that into my present, whether it’s inviting some of my girlfriends over for a movie night with “’90s slumber party vibes” or having a “mall goth day” with my BFF.
I don’t believe there’s such a thing as clean-cut versions of ourselves limited to periods of memory, i.e., your high school self being separated fully from your adult self never to meet. I think all of these points of time exist parallel to each other, and it’s possible to form relationships with them. You’re you now, but you’re also still you back then and you’re you in the future. I know “inner child work” is sort of buzzy in self-help circles, but it’s a real and important thing to have connection like that, and to understand it less as “okay sometimes I let myself play with dinosaur toys” and more as “my teenage self is still alive and with me, and while she didn’t have the capabilities to comfort herself and heal and get the support she needed back then, she certainly does now with my help.”
You touched on how puberty is sucky for everyone, but for trans people it feels like a violation. I love that description, and it’s something I wish cis people took more time to think about. I feel so lucky to be trans, but without receiving medical care, your teen years can be daily agony. You’re watching your body do things you not only can’t understand but deep down know are painfully incorrect, and having literally no one to talk to about it because it either gets dismissed or becomes fodder for more bullying and violence. If a cis boy started growing breasts in high school, you can bet his parents would rush him to the hospital and they would take care of it immediately without question.
We grew up in a time where there wasn’t as much information, there weren’t as many resources, and any sort of expression of how we felt placed targets on our backs. So I just kept my head down and tried to survive. For me, anime was one of those things that helped, because the ones that I found offered options outside of the extremely overbearing cisgendered heteronormativity surrounding me—even if I couldn’t describe it in that language back then. In adolescence, I saw myself in anime in ways both fantastic (gender bending magical girls with swords) and grounded (rage-fueled trauma survivors), flourishing in worlds that made reality feel a little less impossible to handle.
As a final point, Willow, I’d love to hear which anime you would pass along to your childhood self now? I’d ensure little Cressa would get Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Willow Maclay: There’s so much anime I watched when I was a child that was significant in opening the door for my own self-expression. There was Sailor Moon, Ranma 1/2, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and then later Evangelion, Ghost In The Shell, and Perfect Blue. But one that I didn’t have was Naoko Yamada’s Liz And The Blue Bird. That film is a lovely expression of teenage anxieties blossoming into personhood, but it’s also knotted up in feelings of being closeted for its lead character, who doesn’t know how to express herself. Whenever I watch something now that I know would have mattered for me as an adolescent, it feels like an echo of the distant past. It’s melancholic to some degree, because I can’t turn back time. But it’s also fulfilling to know who I am, and what art would have mattered, because it still matters.
When engaging with art as a minority person, we’re not given the benefit of the doubt with an ambivalent representation. Because of this, we have to map our own path, and rummage through art for little things to keep. With enough of those little things we can craft a quilt of representation, and build a monument to ourselves. For gender identity, this is specific from one person to the next. And for trans people, whatever we may recognize as trans in art is a deeply personal experience, because we’ve been forced to find representation in the shadows of art that wasn’t necessarily meant for us. Different people will find different things, but the question we always end up asking ourselves is, “Where do you find yourself in art when the mirror reflects nothing back?” That’s the challenge for trans people engaging with art. But it’s also that same problem that allows for us to see the world the way that we do, and find ourselves in things like anime.