In line with the celebration of the International Womens Month, Presentation Animation has decided to feature one of the most influential woman animator, Reiko Okuyama. She is contributor of famous films like Little Prince & the 8-Headed Dragon in 1963. She designed the female characters of the Horus, Prince of the Sun (1965-68), the suitor and house scenes for Puss and Boots (1969) and she became the head animator for the last Puss 'n Boots (1976). But, more than her success in the animation field, she was also an instrument for change against sexual discrimination in the man-dominated industry of film.
Before Okuyama started and even while she was booming as a great animator, sexist treatment against women was prevailing. Women were asked to resign when they become mothers or forced to delay marriage because their employers believed that such would hinder productivity in the workplace. Seeing this, Okuyama vowed to change the bias by planning to raise a family while continuing her job in Toei Doga.
Okuyama was recognized as a formal animator in the second Toei Doga feature, 'Magic Boy", in 1959. That was after she served as in betweener for the famous animal brawls of films like Legend of the White Snake Enchantress, in 1958. She furiously proved her worth in the company after she worked on the throwaway short entitled 'Mr. Tanuki Strikes it Rich' which was under Masao Kumagawa. Although, she was initially looked at a troublemaker in the company, the piece, which served as a way to isolate her, worked to her advantage.
When Toei Doga refined its animation department to Nichido, the Toei Animation, Okuyama became the most versatile animator in the company. She was forced to work with Mori and Daikubara, two new animators with opposite drawing styles, for the company’s first full feature film. Okuyama was valued for her acceptance to the unique styles and for her magnificent drafting skills. In 1960, the third film 'Alakazam the Great', was produced where Okuyama second Daikubara and Mori's scenes. But it was in Sinbad's Adventures, in 1962, where she rose into position as key animator.
However, around this time, Okuyama's marriage with Kotabe, also an animator from Toei Doga, and motherhood sparked problems as the company asked her to switch to contractual work after returning from maternity leave. Under the radar efforts to improve the workers was also starting to flourish, during that time, as a union was founded headed by Otsuka and Takahata. So, Okuyama decided to refuse the contractual offers and stayed despite the struggles.
In response, Toei Doga held her bonuses and threatened to fire her husband due to absenteeism. This was after documents showed that Kotabe had been late for work a couple of times for driving their child to day care. Thankfully he was only demoted after, Takahata, with the support of the union, came to the rescue. Okuyama and Kotabe were the first few families, during that time, who dared to work while raising their child.
In 1969, Okuyama became the first woman animation director as she handled ‘30,000 Leagues under the Sea.’ She also co-directed other stories using a pen name, Reiko Kitagawa. In 1975, due to troubles between the union and the company, especially the resignation of head animators Miyazaki,Takahata and Katobe, Okuyama remained in Toei Doga and was forced to become the animation director for The Little Mermaid. Without staff and good working conditions, she managed to deliver and even continued heading other projects like the third Puss ‘n Boots in 1976. Before leaving, she helped her husband in Toei last great film, Taro the Dragon Boy, in 1979.
Freed from the constraints of commercial animation, she finally pursued her dream to become a children’s book animator and taught animation in Tokyo Designer Academy, in 1985. Her designs were then centered on artistic animation. She died in May 2007 leaving her fans hopeful for a last short film in that vein.
Reiko Okuyama is a woman, an animator, a mother and an inspiration.