There is no doubt Studio Ghibli gains popularity from the beautiful artwork which there is in every film they release. However, another asset Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki incorporate in their films is the feminine character. Often times the protagonist, and others the antagonist. But there is a clear creative decision for the lack of male protagonists, that is often seen with the likes of DreamWorks or Disney Pixar, or the majority of Hollywood films.
Sense of Cinema wrote regarding this issue, with which a particular paragraph stood to mind:
“Finally, it must be said that, although Miyazaki’s heroines can be crusaders, they are not feminists. They do not display solidarity with other women or appear to care about the rights of women. They are placed in opposition to adult women figures (power-hungry aggressors, frightening witches), reversing the gender but following the common trope of sci-fi anime, in which male youths (shonen) successfully battle against corrupt power-crazed adult males. The issue is not gender (female versus male) but generation (youth versus age), producing a fantasy of empowerment for impotent youth. In fact, it is the aggressive Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke who is the patron of oppressed women, employing former prostitutes as industrial labourers and earning their gratitude.”
Most times, but not always, when the Protagonist is a female, there will be a villain who is female also. In Spirited Away, there is Chihiro and the Witch, the same in Howls Moving Castle, Laputa and Nausicaa to name a few. Rather, he uses female protagonist to alter how view of contemporary Hollywood tropes. “The Good Guy” “The Bad Guy”. In fact, the man or boy often become the princess in distress, as is the case with Haku and Howl for example.
The Princess Stereotype
Miyazaki’s strong female characters don’t behave in the same manner as your fairy tale Disney Princess, who would fall in love with Prince Charming, go through trials to eventually receive their happily ever after. They are protagonists who are normal and relatable, or if set in a fantastical world, are independent and self-reliant.
Another blogger on Miyazaki shared her thoughts on the Princess stereotype:
“After her father is murdered by the Tolmekians, she is able to set aside her feelings of grief in order to make prudent decisions regarding the future of her people. And at the end of the film, Nausicaä places her own life at risk in order to secure a future for her people that won’t involve them being in a constant struggle with both the toxic jungle and the Tolmekians…
…she is still given the same amount of respect here that she is when giving orders to the valley’s soldiers. To the people of the valley, it doesn’t matter whether their princess is dodging bullets or holding babies. She is beloved by them for her skills and her personality, and as such she deserves their respect. “
Sans, from Princess Mononoke, although receiving help from the wolf gods, is capable of hand-to-hand combat, to the point of going head first to face Lady Eboshi. Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle demonstrates her determination and charisma, and lack of fear to help Howl overcome his issues. When he needs a strong influence in his life to save him, Sophie is the person to whom he turns to. Miyazaki’s characters are strong willed, often times kind and represent what any woman or girl of that represented age is capable of being, without the notion of Princess Charming’s and magical happily ever after’s.
Hayao Miyazaki is a sucker for having incredibly relatable characters. We spoke on my last blog post about the Childish Protagonist, and how Chihiro resembled 10-year old girls in Japan. But, in this relatable-ness there is another ingredient. And that is the lack of magic. At least in Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, Whisper of the Heart and others, they all had to depend on their own problem solving skills, their craft, their skills, knowledge, talents and wit to accomplish their goals and overcome their obstacles. Even those who had magic had to rely on them for support, for encouragement, even saving. It teaches that magic does not give power to a character. Attitude does. And so do ambitions, determination to succeed, to help, to give, to be kinder.
This isn’t just female protagonists. Sasuke, wanting to help Ponyo, Honjo from the Wind Rises, in his dream of building planes, as well as taking care of his sick wife.
To conclude this trilogy, Hayao Miyzaki is one of the greatest filmmakers I have ever come to study, and aspire to. His work teaches me of the value of putting your feeling, beliefs and going against the tropes that western narratives all too often provide. I hope if anything, I’ve encouraged you to look at his work, to watch it, with your families and to appreciate that no matter how confusing his stories may be based on Japanese cultures and customs, at least his protagonists are not.REFERENCES
Fig. 1 – Screenshot from Spirited Away
Fig. 2 – Screenshot from Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind
Fig. 3 – Screenshot from Whisper of the Heart