Studio Ghibli and the Female Protagonist

A scene from Studio Ghibli's The Tale of Princess Kaguya.
A scene from Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya.

In lieu of ongoing Internet debate about the “female problem” in the Gone Girl film adaptation, a re-read of an article debating the “horror of femininity” in Black Swan, and the recent release of an English-language trailer for the Japanese Studio Ghibli’s beautiful retelling of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, I can’t help but to muse briefly on the idea of an ideal female role and what that means for critical audiences like us.

Princess Kaguya strikes me as an especially interesting pawn on the board of feminism vs. film for several reasons. First, I find its appearance among all this debate interesting considering that Japan has one of the highest rates of gender inequality in the industrialized world. Even so, the country’s highest-grossing domestic films (including the highest-grossing film in Japan, Spirited Away) largely come from Studio Ghibli and and director Hayao Miyazaki, whose entire body of work—with a couple of exceptions—feature female protagonists. Even his antagonists are, for the most part, female.

Chihiro stands lost in the ghost town in Spirited Away, the highest-grossing film in Japan.
Chihiro, perhaps the most famous Miyazaki protagonist, stands lost in the ghost town in Spirited Away, the highest-grossing film in Japan.

Pixar, the leading animation company in the United States, currently features only one film, Brave, led by a female protagonist. I can hardly say that Pixar conforms to sexist ideologies, though. Ratatouille talks about art and inspiration in much the same spirit as Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, and neither has much to do with their protagonists being male or female. (Still, Ratatouille drops some hints about female chef Colette’s difficult rise in the restaurant industry, and where are all the male sorcerers in Kiki’s Delivery Service? The critical circle can rotate forever).

Regardless, I still can’t help but think that, in the present day of criticism, Miyazaki’s female characters do for Studio Ghibli and his audiences what Pixar hasn’t yet been able to do for its American counterparts so concerned with female representation in film.

One reason why Studio Ghibli’s characterizations of women—and men and non-humans—are so successful amounts to Miyazaki’s general refusal of archetypes. His “good guys,” like the wizard Howl of Howl’s Moving Castle, often perform ambiguous acts and struggle with characterizing themselves within moral constructs. His “bad guys,” like Princess Mononoke’s Lady Eboshi, usually reveal themselves to not be such “bad” guys after all, but dicey reflections of the power granted by authority, pride, and ambition.

Princess Mononoke's Lady Eboshi totes a gun as she prepares to fight.
Princess Mononoke’s Lady Eboshi totes a gun as she prepares to fight.

Miyazaki also proves that a female hand does not a feminist movie make, although I have no doubts that Hollywood would benefit from a balancing influx of female directors. More and more women will enter the film industry as directors. There is no right or wrong film for a woman to direct. Just because Kathryn Bigelow won her Academy Award for a war film with a male-majority cast doesn’t say anything about her or the state of women in the industry. It’s just the story she chose to take on. A woman can understand male comradeship of war; a man can understand the emotional quandaries of a ten-year-old girl.

In that train of thought, Miyazaki doesn’t craft believable female characters because he is a woman or a sister or has daughters. He has only one son, who also directs animated films for Studio Ghibli. His profession is—as previously stated—famously unbalanced in terms of the sexes, with females making up only about 22 percent of a typical Hollywood film crew. But Miyazaki’s particular focus on the feminine and his studio’s deep respect for traditional animation still manages to create something authentic, and something that audiences all over his country—and beyond—devote their praises to.

Some might bring up the fact that Disney actually produces many films starring female protagonists, although anyone familiar with that line of criticism has certainly encountered problems with Disney’s princess formula before (despite my objections to the contrary).

The thing is, Ghibli does their princesses, too, but in a different style to Disney’s famous heroines. The first time the audience meets Princess Mononoke, for example, she wipes her grimy chin after sucking the bullet-wound of her wolf-mother and spitting the blood back into a river. Not exactly painting with the colors of the wind.

The titular character in Princess Mononoke.
The titular character in Princess Mononoke.

To Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, heroism is complicated. Sometimes a person with good intentions ends up doing harmful things. Sometimes a harmful person resolves to goodness in the end.

In Spirited Away, for example, the hero Chihiro reverses the damsel-in-distress stereotype passed down to female characters, this time risking her life to save her friend Haku, because she loves him. But because her journey up to that point—and including that point—has been so complicated, and so full of conflicts and symbols and personal trials, risking everything for a member of the opposite sex does not, anymore, seem like a sexist cop-out so often berated in male-led films with similar themes. In fact, the act of salvation regains its meaning as a selfless realization of the bond between two people, not a bitter rebuttal about a girl only being present to help the boy achieve his goals and his heroism (or vice versa, a-la Indiana Jones or Star Wars, both of which I still adore).

Chihiro struggles to revive Haku in Spirited Away.
Chihiro struggles to revive an injured Haku in Spirited Away.

For some reason, when Miyazaki creates and casts a female lead, what would have otherwise become a mirrored trope of male heroism conquering his demons and saving the girl suddenly becomes separated from those gender politics. By specifically—and noticeably—breaking the tradition of the male hero, critics no longer feel the need to stress that the female, for example, is too powerful against her male counterparts. The characters suddenly become more complicated, able to explore their sphere of personality without constructs. Chihiro saves Haku, but not because she’s expressing her dominance, or because Haku is weak (he frequently takes on the form of a large, wolf-fanged dragon, after all). The male Ashitaka saves the female Princess Mononoke, but not because he wants to change her or because she is weak (they reconcile just moments after Mononoke stabs Ashitaka in the gut with her dagger—now that is a complicated relationship).

Miyazaki and Ghibli’s preference for young protagonists—often just children or new teenagers—also showcase the potential depth of character where Western cinema rarely finds it, at least in animation. For Studio Ghibli, a child is a miniature adult, a person who feels and exhibits every emotion as their older versions, but learns during her story to organize and express those emotions properly. The result: some of the most convincing and realistic coming-of-age stories in film, and in fantasy worlds of Miyazaki’s creation, to boot.

The titular character laments her position in Kiki's Delivery Service.
Kiki, a young witch in training, laments trying to fit in with a new town in Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Basically, what I find most interesting about Ghibli’s continued success with pieces like the upcoming Princess Kaguya is the ease with which it destroys the fierceness of feminist debate in the film industry, if only for the short runtime of one of Miyazaki’s films (by which I mean to say that the films tend to erase all controversy regarding gender representations). The grace with which Studio Ghibli portrays the most common of human experiences with extraordinary storytelling continues to impress even the angriest critic, I think. Personally, I could write about Miyazaki and his films for pages more.

Until that vigor reintroduces itself to my tired hands, I will wait. But I think, if the skills Studio Ghibli brings to the development of female characters continues to grab the attention of the American audience, then we won’t have to wait much longer until some of that Ghibli magic starts to defeat the gender wars of Hollywood. And we can all, for once, sit back and enjoy the show.

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