Before Disney decided to empower little girls with Moana, before DC finally brought Wonder Woman to the big screen, Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have been supplying us with a steady stream of iconic female characters. These leading girls (most of them have yet to hit puberty) capture both our hearts and imaginations while leading us on their fantastic journeys. But what is it about them that makes for such a compelling movie watching experience?
In most of the female-led Studio Ghibli features, the protagonist’s gender rarely has any bearing on her journey or the story. She is not faced with obstacles because she is female, and obstacles are handled the same way as if a male character encountered them. Satsuki and Mei from My Neighbor Totoro could be supplanted by boys and the story would essentially follow the same trajectory. This allows for universal appeal: not just for young boys and men (who, let’s face it, should be able to empathize with female characters regardless), but also for young girls and women who do not relate to a traditionally ‘girly’ character.
Who wants to watch a perfect person go about their perfect lives for upward of 90 minutes? That’s just boring. But often movies and TV shows portray female characters as somehow flawless. They put them on an impossible pedestal and give them a harmless quirk, like being clumsy. Not Studio Ghibli heroines. They are allowed to make mistakes, even fail multiple times before they learn a lesson or succeed. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, we watch as the young witch completely bungles her first delivery, succumbs to illness, and falls into a depression. The viewer feels every monumental setback Kikiendures. That only serves to heighten (SPOILER ALERT) the joy when she finally saves the day.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind—released in 1984 before the official creation of Studio Ghibli, but considered part of the company’s catalog—is a stellar work of feminist and ecologist cinema. The titular princess subverts expectations by completely avoiding a romantic subplot (which female protagonists are saddled with ad nauseam, I’m looking at you Hunger Games) and solely focuses on her one true love: the environment.
Through a blend of compassion, determination, and passion, Nausicaä stops a war and saves multiple post-apocalyptic nations. The freedom this heroine is afforded to pursue her fascination with science and living things is seldom matched in other movies, and our world is poorer for it.
Anime movies and shows often have the shot. You know the one: the camera slowly and pointlessly scans a female character’s body parts. You will not find that shot in Hayao Miyazaki’s work. Instead, you will find female characters in all shapes and sizes (although the majority of adult female protagonists are on the skinny side).
Even though appearance is one of the overarching themes of Howl’s Moving Castle and is often discussed by the characters, none of them is ever seen through the lens of sexuality. Sophie bemoans her ‘plain’ status, but ultimately embraces and transcends this label. As a viewer, we are exposed to females whose sexual identity neither defines nor confines them.
Any wise woman worth her salt will say that bravery is not the absence of fear, but the ability to overcome it. Laughing in the face of danger is meaningless if the danger is not felt. There is no better example than Chihiro, the star of Spirited Away—the movie that brought Studio Ghibli to the world stage. Facing spirits, witches, terrible creatures and situations have her in a constant state of pee-your-pants terror. With her parents, ahem, unavailable and having the disadvantage of being human, she might not have lasted a day. But Chihiro finds support in others and within herself to push forward despite the fear.
What does being a hero irrespective of gender, being able to make mistakes, pursuing your passions, being free of objectification, and overcoming fear all add up to? It leads to a truly well-rounded, realistic, three-dimensional character who just so happens to be female. No biggie. It also leads us to the conclusion that Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are feminist AF! Other storytellers take note; Miyazaki’s retirement has left a void. Don’t leave it empty too long.