Hiroko Utsumi and the Female Gaze in SK8 the Infinity and Beyond

SK8 the Infinity JOE

As we inch further into the 2020s and I into my, well…not twenties, I’ve thought a lot about the types of anime I watch now as a seasoned female otaku vs. what I watched as a teen.

Content availability aside, I’ve embraced my not-so-guilty pleasures and am basking in the glut of joseimuke content. But if 2005 me was obsessed with all things Fullmetal Alchemist, and 2021 me is screaming at the TV over skater boys, the common denominator for my favorite series is they’ve all been created, at some level, by women.

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It’s not hard to pinpoint when my otaku switch got flipped from shounen manga written by women to joseimuke content made by women for women. Who knew 30 seconds of pool boys could change your life?

Whether it’s boys splashing free, first love with a classmate, an ice-skating pair that sets my heart on fire, good times but bad endings in New York, or soft romances with boys in the band, all of the titles I’ve come to love are characteristic of the 2010s shift in anime content for women by women.

A paradigm shift

Directors like Hiroko Utsumi, Akemi Hayashi, Sayo Yamamoto and Hikaru Yamaguchi have transformed anime by proving that this content is powerful, popular and profitable. Don’t believe me? Just check the Japanese sales numbers for Yuri!!! on ICE.

Women are major creative forces in the anime industry, and if my figure collection doesn’t point out the obvious, we have huge buying power as consumers.

So while it doesn’t seem like that long ago that Hiroko Utsumi’s commercial—which eventually went on to become the TV anime Free!—broke the internet, it’s important to remember just how controversial and innovative that series was.

Free! fundamentally shook up the moe trend of “cute girls doing cute things” and captured the growing audience of women who watch sports anime all into one perfect, bishounen package. Some may consider Free! to be “fanservice,” and while that’s true, it belies the true power of Utsumi’s cinematography and artistic signature.

To me, Free! is the total, unabashed embodiment of the female gaze:

In Free!, the female gaze is omnipresent, starting with the woman behind the camera, Utsumi herself. Through her anime lens, it almost seems like she guides the viewer up and down these six-pack abs, across the traps, over all these glistening muscles just as Gou does when she’s gushing over the boys.

We’re watching the boys, but we’re also living vicariously through Gou.

The women characters aren’t romantic interests, but instead give us tacit permission to stare. In interviews about the show, Utsumi has admitted her affection for drawing beautiful bodies and expressed that she took a lot of care in the depiction of muscles, but wondered if other women would as well.

So there may be a reason we, as viewers, feel like we’re in on a secret when we watch the boys get in the pool. In Free!, the amount of skin on display is central to the plot—they’re swimmers—so it feels innocent and lighthearted even as we eye the goods.

Free! evened the playing field for fanservice and empowered fangirls by turning the tables on what sports anime, or even just anime for women, could be. So we can laugh along with Gou and indulge a little as we sample the buffet. But what happens when this gaze isn’t happening within a cute after-school special?

Getting serious

Enter BANANA FISH. It didn’t feel wrong for me to stare at Makoto’s back muscles because there was this implicit understanding that they would be on display (or were you watching Free! for the plot?), but it definitely felt wrong for me to stare at Ash Lynx because of the plot.

There’s no delicate way of putting it: Ash Lynx was a childhood sexual assault survivor who experienced continued abuse in ways that made viewers like me feel like Dino Golzine himself.

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You may have questioned the woman behind the camera and asked yourself, “Was that full body pan up his body after that assault really necessary?” While Utsumi didn’t change canon scenes from the manga, she did enhance them with her own artistic vision.

Within the show, you see a heavier focus on some fan-favorite scenes as well as a shot of Shorter’s abs right before…well, you know.

BANANA FISH got a lot of flack online for this kind of voyeuristic cinematography, but thematically, this discomfort we feel watching an objectified Ash Lynx is central to our understanding of his life and the message of the series itself.

You could read BANANA FISH as a commentary on the male gaze just as it’s perhaps the worst-case scenario of the female gaze played out on-screen. If Free! allowed me to feel “moe” for the first time, BANANA FISH allowed me to question my own role as a viewer in the bishounen industrial complex.

A return to form

BANANA FISH felt like a departure from Utsumi’s usual lighthearted fare, but SK8 the Infinity is, in many ways, a return to that form. We’re not totally free from a voyeuristic gaze thanks to ADAM, but Utsumi mixes in purer moments with other duos to cut the tension.

These dichotomies further highlight the contrast between ADAM’s unique views of skating and his quest for Langa as EVE, versus Reki’s drive to simply have fun and skate together forever. And lest we forget, SK8 the Infinity is still serving up a meal.

Like Free!, each character in this series represents a different type of bishounen and appeals to different fangirls, but unlike Free!, there’s no logical reason to display the goods (skateboarding with an open shirt doesn’t seem particularly safe).

To a viewer, it almost seems like the series includes these shots simply because it can. This cinematography is one of the reasons why SK8 the Infinity stands out so obviously as an Utsumi piece. Whether it’s manipulating the frame rate on those muscle shots or subtle characterizations in blink-and-you-miss-it frames, Utsumi’s artistic vision is unparalleled for both its boldness and certainty.

I’ve always felt like her work is the definition of a “power move,” and to me, it feels like the director is enjoying the anime as much as I am as a viewer. That in itself is refreshing.

It’s not exactly easy to be a female otaku. Despite my fangirl credentials, I’ve had my fair share of mansplaining incidents, and I’m constantly justifying the validity of content like Free!

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That’s why I have the utmost respect for women visionaries like Hiroko Utsumi who fearlessly make content for women. Her work was the first time I felt like an anime was made purely for me, and her presence in the industry gives me hope that anime will continue to be a diverse artistic playground.

2021 isn’t turning out how any of us planned, but SK8 the Infinity is the comfort food I need to get through the year.