girlhood and girl power in studio ghibli films

How the Japanese animation studio’s self-sufficient female leads have inspired us.

by Zio Baritaux
27 February 2017, 5:20pm

In May of 1984, Hayao Miyazaki's hand-drawn adventure Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind hit theaters in Japan. It was the same year that the Ruby-Spears production Rose Petal Place debuted in the United States. But the two films couldn't be more different: Rose Petal Place features a pink-haired, pitch-perfect protagonist who tends to her garden with love and music. Nausicaä, on the other hand, stars a gas mask-wearing princess who communicates with gigantic mutant insects in an attempt to save a world on the edge of destruction. Whereas Rose Petal could be best described as pretty and polite, Nausicaä is compassionate and courageous, intelligent and empowered. She embodies all the traits typical of heroes, but rare for heroines.

Beyond her two-dimensional, toxic kingdom, Nausicaä also became a paragon in real-world Japan: She set the precedent for future characters from Studio Ghibli, the animation studio Miyazaki co-founded less than one year later. The studio would go on to create an array of imperfect female protagonists who would show us that girls could be heroes too. "Many of my movies have strong female leads," Miyazaki said in an interview with The Guardian in 2013, "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."

Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke (1997) emphasized its paradigm shift: There is no damsel in distress in the film, but rather, a warrior-princess who rides on the backs of wolf-gods and attacks the mining village that threatens the lush and magical forest she lives in. San is virtuous, but also independent and fierce. When she first meets Ashitaka, a young and honorable prince, she does not swoon or wish for a kiss. She just stares at him, her face covered in blood, and then tells him to "go away."

The prince and princess in Mononoke do not fall in love either, which is a total departure from the traditional love-story arc that drives other animated films (Snow White and Prince Ferdinand, Sleeping Beauty and Prince Charming, Ariel and Prince Eric, Belle and the Beast, Aladdin and Jasmine, and Pocahontas and John Smith all live happily ever after). When Ashitaka, in one scene, tells San she is beautiful, she gasps and recoils. "What is it, San?" asks one of the wolf-gods. "Want me to crunch his face off?" Later in the film, San and Ashitaka develop a close friendship, and work together to defeat the miners and replenish the forest, but in the end, they part ways. "Ashitaka, you mean so much to me," San tells him, "but I can't forgive the humans for what they've done." "I understand," Ashitaka replies. "You'll live in the forest and I'll go help them rebuild Irontown. I'll always be near."

"I've become skeptical of the unwritten rule that just because a boy and girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue," Miyazaki once explained. "Rather, I want to portray a slightly different relationship, one where the two mutually inspire each other to live—if I'm able to, then perhaps I'll be closer to portraying a true expression of love."

Romance, in Studio Ghibli films, is replaced by self-realization—and not only princesses or warriors achieve it. Most of its female leads are insecure adolescent girls, striving for independence, making their own paths in life and discovering their true selves. In Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), for example, a 13-year-old witch-in-training must leave home and live on her own for one year in order to become a real witch. The headstrong Kiki eagerly flies off on her broomstick, but soon loses her magic powers. "Without even thinking about it, I used to be able to fly," she muses in one scene. "Now I'm trying to look inside myself and find out how I did it." In Howl's Moving Castle (2004), when a witch transforms Sophie into a 90-year-old woman, the self-conscious character sets out on a quest to break the curse. She climbs on board a floating fortress, befriends a fire demon, impersonates a witch and stops a war, but it is when she starts to feel confident in herself, and help others, that her wrinkles begin to fade.

With the focus on finding themselves—and not a prince—characters like Kiki and Sophie also look like real girls. Disney, in comparison, often made its female leads attractive to the opposite sex in a traditional way: large almond-shaped eyes, long eyelashes, petite noses, full lips, and long hair. It also sexualized its teenage princesses—Jasmine, who is supposed to be 15 in Aladdin, wears an off-the-shoulder bustier and pants that dip down precariously close to her crotch, accentuating her flat stomach and "womanly" curves.

Studio Ghibli's characters are cute, but not impossibly perfect. The studio even describes some of its characters as purposefully "plain." In the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away (2001), for example, Chihiro has large eyes and a little nose, too, but she looks like a child. She has a round face with rosy cheeks, and her dark brown hair is pulled back into a ponytail, except for some choppy bangs. She also wears age-appropriate clothes: a green-and-white striped shirt, pink shorts and clumsy yellow sneakers. "When I watched Miyazaki, something changed," wrote journalist Gabrielle Bellot for The Atlantic. "For the first time, I saw representations of girls and women that seemed real and attainable, yet mythic all the same."

Bellot, who is a transgender woman, continued: "Rigid depictions of female beauty in Western animation and some Japanese anime can seem even more inaccessible to us than they already do for many cisgender girls. But Miyazaki's films reinforced for me what many women come to learn eventually: that being female is not about fitting one superficial ideal or another. It is ultimately not about how you look or how you act, but who you are."

And this is what makes Studio Ghibli so powerful: its characters are relatable. Weren't we all unsure of ourselves at these in-between ages? Aren't we somewhat still? That these characters can question who they are, look inside of themselves and realize their potential is inspiring. It sends the message that we, too, can become the people we want to be—or perhaps we already are.


Text Zio Baritaux
Still from Spirited Away via YouTube

Hayao Miyazaki
Spirited Away
Princess Mononoke
Studio Ghibli
Zio Baritaux