“Many of my movies have strong female leads- brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe with all their heart. They’ll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a savior. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.”
- Hayao Miyazaki
“I do not make films primarily for children. I make them for the child in all of us, whether he be six or sixty. Call the child innocence.”
- Walt Disney
I have previously written a post on Studio Ghibli giving a brief overview on why I love their films so much (you can read that here) as well as a post on women’s voice in film and the importance of strong female characters and female filmmakers (which you can read here). Thinking about these two posts separately merged together in my mind because some of the strongest female protagonists in film can be found in the offerings from Studio Ghibli. The characters are mainly young girls who are thrown into situations that test their strength and maturity, each time providing us with realistic and organic character growth. In a climate where women behind and in front of the camera is being looked at under a microscopic lens with every line and gesture analysed by critics and audience alike, Studio Ghibli feels like a pioneer that has been pulling off the strong female character for decades. Admittedly, behind the camera, there are little to no women at the top of the board. No woman has ever directed or written a Ghibli film; however, their strong female characters have been gracing our screen ever since the release of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in 1984. As I previously mentioned, no woman has ever directed or written a Ghibli film so there is room for improvement and diversity at the top but what we have been presented with thus far seems to be a more diverse and varied on the female perspective in an environment where their strength doesn’t feel forced. Miyazaki’s statement above appears to read as a mantra or a basis for creating his female characters. In three sentences he has already captured an image of an individual who can fight but is also capable of sensitivity and equality among her peers. His definition of strength being “brave” and “self-sufficient” shows how a strong character doesn’t come from difficult physical activity necessarily but from following what you believe and fighting for that as well as pointing out the importance of female independence. It’s unrealistic to imagine a strong female character who in the end can’t even look after herself because she’s a woman.
You may be wondering why I have also included a Walt Disney quote above. Well aside from the fact that Disney distribute the Ghibli films in America, I think that Ghibli follow the same ethos as Disney in this respect by using young characters to make the films aspirational for children and inspirational for adults. Ghibli films are more dense than Disney films and are fearless in exploring darker issues such as war and death in a way that translates well to a global audience of all ages. The “child innocence” that Disney is talking about is a willingness to use film as a medium to discuss the bigger issues which I think Ghibli achieves effortlessly. My favourite film¸ Castle in the Sky (1986) veers on the more childish side of their films and yet it is one of the more mature topically, looking at the issues of man vs nature and corruption in authority as well as incorporating antiheroes and villains disguised as heroes. Ghibli never patronises the audience and yet is perfectly watchable for young children whilst never feeling like a lecture for its older audience. In regards to “child innocence”, Ghibli are showing young girls specifically that they are capable of being the hero without needing a man to save them. It may seem trivial to ingrain this belief into the mind of a four year old but the films we watch as young children tend to follow and influence our own morals as we grow up.
I think it’s also important to note the consistent high standard that the films themselves hold. Of course some have received mixed or negative reviews but the majority of offerings (particularly those from Miyazaki and Takahata) have been embraced as modern classics with Spirited Away (2002) winning the studio the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. I think they hold an important part of film, not only in the animation world, but in general because it is so rare that a non-English studio has such a huge global following in the West which is a huge achievement. Their stories translate well globally no matter how bizarre the stories and the creatures in them may seem and it is because of that relatibility that the female characters have specifically. Their bravery and independence are a welcoming break from the usual Hollywood heartbreak/makeup trope that the female audience is overly familiar with.
Bravery comes in many forms in the Ghibli universe. There are the female characters who act as traditional heroes such as Nausicaä in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and San in Princess Mononoke (1997) who protect their families and environment from the evil threat of mankind who aims to destroy nature. Nausicaä is a dystopian film based in a post-apocalyptic world where humans live in small villages and giant insects rule large vasts of land and jungles. Nausicaä is the princess of her village and has the ability to communicate with the insects and aims to make peace with them. Despite their supposed roles as enemies, Nausicaä understands the bigger picture and uses her influence and morals to fight against those who want to burn the jungle. Princess Mononoke is a Medieval film that follows a young prince called Ashitaka who is cursed by a Boar God after he kills it. He encounters wolf God Moro and his companion, the human San (also known as Princess Mononoke) and together they fight the industrial Irontown, a small village that is dangerously mining into the forest of the Gods, killing the nature as they go. Both films are set in opposite time spans and yet they tell almost the same story. Both women have an outsider male companion who acts as a sidekick and supporter without ever overshadowing the female. Although both films do hint at couplings, there is nothing inherently overtly sexual or forced, San is particularly uncomfortable with being physically close to Ashitaka at first. Both films delve into technology and war. Even Princess Mononoke, set in Medieval Japan, has weapons that feel oddly futuristic in the form of large iron harpoons made from the materials from the mine whereas Nausicaa allowed for more imagination due to its dystopic setting. It makes use of hovercrafts and spaceships with laser guns to boot but it doesn’t feel out of place. Both films have women working in the war itself and operating the machinery with no issue. Ashitaka even struggles to keep up with the women who run the iron mill. Lady Eboshi, leader of Irontown, is a brilliant villain as she is just as complex as the protagonists. She genuinely believes that what she is doing is for the good of the village and wants to provide a decent life, particularly for the women. Her greed for power is subsequently what thwarts this as she aims to dominate the forest and mine as much as possible. It is this character conflict that allows us to view Lady Eboshi as more than a simple evil figure like the Evil Stepmothers in Snow White or Cinderella. Her motive is to gain power for herself but she also has motives for her people as well. This is what makes Ghibli women much more complex but at the same time, realistic and gives the audience an extra layer into character growth.
There are also characters who approach bravery in a more peaceful manner such as Sheeta (Castle in the Sky) and Chihiro (Spirited Away), both films directed by Miyazaki. Both characters are young girls who are thrown into adult situations. Sheeta is on the run from government officials as they try to steal her precious necklace that is the key to finding legendary floating castle, Laputa whereas Chihiro finds herself working in a bathhouse for spirits when her parents are turned into pigs after feasting on the food for the spirits. Castle in the Sky looks at how government officials would use the castle for military purposes to rule the world. Similarly, No Face in Spirited Away manipulates through his riches and shows the corrupt nature of the structure in the bathhouse. Money is seen as an evil entity in bothas Pazu’s job working in the mine is under threat from no products found to sell, whereas the gold No Face throws around is seen as vulgar and pathetic as the adult characters scramble for nuggets. The gold pieces hold no significance to Chihiro and that means No Face has no power over her. She cannot be ruled by him because he cannot buy her. Sheeta was raised on a farm by her grandmother and Chihiro raised in modern day Japanese suburbs. Neither one has encountered a violent situation nor would know how to fight or defend themselves but their determination to do what is right and fight the powers that oppress them allow them the growth to use their wits. We see Sheeta, a princess, take on the chores on the pirate ship ran by Dola and her crew. She cooks and cleans and is unphased by the attention Dola’s sons are giving her (it’s a bit weird that adult men are fawning over a child but that’s for another time). She has a natural kinship with the robots that inhabit Laputa and with nature in general. Her ancestry gives her that connection and it gives her the strength to protect the castle without the use of violence. Chihiro, on the other hand, must travel across the spirit world to find a way to get home. The villains in Spirited Away aren’t violent themselves (with the exception of No Face) and so Chihiro isn’t under a physical threat. The beginning of the film shows Chihiro dissastified with her parents’ decision to move away. She finds the idea of change difficult and this is shown as she sulks in the back of the car shortly before her parents are turned into pigs. Spirited Away is a film that is all about change. It’s about Chihiro’s ability to live a different life and gain perspective. Her identity is literally taken from her as bathhouse boss, Yubaba, employs her and steals her name, renaming her Sen. It’s a horrifying moment as she is a child with no identity but the film shows her growth into a more mature person and how she is all the better for the experiences in the spirit world.
Ghibli’s exploration into identity and independence is achieved best from the perspective of the teenage girl trying to discover herself in a society that has certain expectations for her. One of the most iconic Ghibli characters, Kiki (Kiki’s Delivery Service 1988) is a clumsy witch who struggles to fit into mainstream society. She finds her place when she uses her magic for a delivery service, delivering goods from the local bakery to the townspeople in order to save the business from closure. Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of Ghibli’s lighter offerings, much like My Neighbor Totoro and doesn’t have the dark complex issues that other films have. However, it is all about the teenage girl experience and how she has to find her identity in a society that has certain expectations for women. The village itself leads a more traditional lifestyle with men as active and the women take passive roles; however, Kiki becomes self-sufficient when she fights this hierarchy. Her male friend, Tombo, admires Kiki for her magic and at no point is threatened by her independence. Kiki’s Delivery Service features a flipped relationship in which the female is active and the male passive, again, without it feeling forced or a major talking point. When Kiki becomes depressed after feeling intimidated by Tombo’s friends, she becomes depressed and is unable to use her powers or understand Jiji, her cat. It is only when she sees Tombo in danger as he hangs from an aircraft that she finds her purpose and can fly again to save him. Some people may argue that it’s following the old stereotype that a woman only has love as a motivation but the significance of this scene comes from the fact that she rescues him. This never happens in regular Hollywood offerings never mind a family animation. Kiki becomes the hero of her own story and reward and validation that is more significant doesn’t come from Tombo, the male protagonist, but from Kiki herself as she finds her own identity. This is also the case in Yoshifumi Kondō’s only directorial effort, Whisper of the Heart (1995) before his untimely death in 1998. Following high-achieving, 14 year-old Shizuku, an avid writer who loves to translate Western songs into Japanese and her encounter with Seiji, an aspiring luthier (someone who makes and repairs stringed instruments). They work together to create a story about a mysterious cat statue called The Baron that Shizuku found in Seiji’s grandfather’s antique shop. Like Kiki’s Delivery Service, Whisper of the Heart is a film about identity and independence. As Shizuku delves deeper into her creative world when writing the story on The Baron, her grades drop and she becomes lazy and sluggish. Her need for independence arrives at this low point as she realises what she wants to do with her life and knows that she must work hard at school to achieve it. She doesn’t allow her life to continuously slump to appease Seiji but rather than threaten Seiji, he in fact expresses his admiration for Shizuku for taking control of her own life and declares his love for her. The self-sufficient female isn’t punished for her strength but rewarded. Like Kiki’s Delivery Service, Shizuku’s independence comes from herself. She does receive validation from the male protagonist but this feels secondary and insignificant compared to the love that she has for herself at the end of the film.
Just as there are films that show the success of female independence, Ghibli have also given us films that show the true battle for female self-sufficiency. Isao Takahata’s beautiful swansong, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, is a retelling of the Japanese folklore about a young girl found in a bamboo stalk and her ascension to royalty and the struggle she has with this lifestyle. The aesthetic of the film is traditional Japanese ink and is visually a stunning film to watch with beautiful bright colours from the cherry blossoms and kimonos combined with the natural materials used to create this film. This is combined with darker undertones such as depression and the loss of identity as Princess Kaguya is forced to pick a husband despite not even wanting to marry. At first she is lured in by the clothes and the materialistic lifestyle with the giant palace but the palace soon grows into a prison and she struggles to adjust to this new life under the watchful eye of her governess who rebuts her desire for fun and laughter. The most poignant scene in this film comes near the end of the party where Kaguya is forced to sit behind a curtain and is forbidden to socialise with anyone, except for the potential suitors who talk from the other side of the curtain. Layered with multiple kimonos, she runs through the palace to get away and sheds each kimono off layer by layer, throwing them on the road as she runs in the full light of the moon. She is literally rejecting her role in society by casting the clothing away. The materials do not hold the same magic as they once did and much like Kiki and Shizuki, she realises that wants to be free. The end of the film sees Kaguya returning to her original home, the Moon, in a scene that is painful to watch as the memories of her life on Earth are forgotten and her parents look on heartbroken as they watch their daughter whisked away. Kaguya was unable to find her solace on Earth but her struggle is important to take away. The film exploits the impossible expectations thrusted onto women and how they aren’t treated as humans most of the time. Kaguya’s discomfort mainly came from the daily practice of makeup and being physically restricted when in the presence of a man. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is one of the darkest films that Ghibli have released and I think it was also a real brave offering because it openly looked at depression in a realistic way. Kaguya wasn’t able to gain her independence on Earth but it is a brilliantly inspirational film for the young girls watching who wish to be self-sufficient.
“The child in all of us”
Ghibli films are often marketed as children films due to the animation style and constant comparisons with Disney; however, Studio Ghibli has a large adult following and its understandable to see why. Every film has underlying mature contexts that children won’t understand. Issues such as illness and death are prevalent in many of their films and even though they are suitable for children to watch, they are oftentimes heartbreaking for adults to view as well. The prime example for this would be young sisters Satsuki and May in Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. Following the girls and their father as they move to be closer to their ill mother, My Neighbor Totoro is often viewed as the most iconic Ghibli film (Totoro’s profile is the Studio’s logo). The girls encounter the spirits by live in the surrounding forest including the soot spirits that initially live in the house and eventually the giant Totoro, a lovable spirit who lives in a tree near the house. He reveals himself to Mei first then Satsuki, the latter being an iconic scene in which Satsuki lends him an umbrella in the torrential rain before he boards another iconic character in the form of the Catbus. This film is a favourite among children and adults alike because it displays the creative talent and imagination the Studio have. On the surface it is a lovable and cute film that is brings a smile to your face but there is an undercurrent through the film which is the the plot regarding the mother. She’s rarely onscreen but the adult audience is aware that she exists and she is severely ill in hospital. It seems that she may even die at some point but because the film is told through the perspective of the two girls, we don’t encounter mother unless they visit her at hospital. As the girls, particularly Mei, are very young, they don’t fully understand the situation and so they act as if everything is normal and enjoy their adventures with Totoro and company. It’s this child innocence that gives the film its light and allows it to avoid being full of darkness and sadness. Their innocence prevents the reality from creeping in and allows their imagination to soar.
Ghibli’s most adult film to date is one that sees child innocence stripped away during the course of World War II. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is Isao Takahata’s war tale about siblings, Seita and his younger sister, Setsuko and is the Studio’s most heartbreaking film to date and probably one of the hardest films to watch overall due to its explicit portrayal of Japan during wartime. The film opens with Seita’s death as he meets the spirit of his sister in the afterlife before proceeding into a flashback which shows the story of their demise. When their home is bombed, Seita must take his sister to their aunt’s house in the countryside for shelter. Eventually they have to leave to the abuse they are subjected to and are by themselves. Seita himself is only a teenager and both siblings are forced to adapt to the environment around them. Setsuko takes solace in the fireflies that flutter around only to find them dead the next day. The scene when she buries it is when she questions and begins to understand the concept of life and death, asking Seita why their mother had to die. It’s this moment when Setsuko is stripped of her child innocence and is forced to adapt to a very adult situation. The film does not treat her kindly because she is a child. Setsuko is subjected to starvation which eventually leads to her graphic and heartbreaking death which sees Seita cremating her ashes with her favourite straw doll. The size of the wicker basket holding her is tiny and showcases the cruelty of war. Takahata has denied claims that the film acts as an anti-war piece but it is difficult to view it as anything else as it is the loss of that child innocence and the loss of life at such a young age which shows the true cost of war. It’s a profound film that is extremely difficult to watch but it is important and shows how fearless the studio was even in its early days.
Studio Ghibli is a company that refuses to conform to the expectations held by mainstream releases. Instead, it remains a pioneer for film in general and continues to release films that explore complex female characters who are brave and self-sufficient. The hearts of their films come from the girls and women who choose to fight for what they believe in and the journey they have to discover what they are capable of. The characters don’t always achieve their end goals but the growth that they go through shows their resilience and strength. One word that cannot be used to describe the female characters in Ghibli is weak because each character has their complexities and flaws but they also have their morals and heart. Without the female characters, the standard of Studio Ghibli films would not be what they are today and in fact, Ghibli probably wouldn’t even exist. The first major character to be introduced (although not under the Ghibli name technically) was Nausicaä, suggesting that having “brave” and “self-sufficient” female heroes has always been at the heart of the Studio Ghibli ethos. After all, “any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man”.