Miyazaki March – The Importance of a Female Lead

Today’s entry in Miyazaki March (all posts HERE) is not a review of one of the animation features directed by Hayao Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli, but rather a discussion of all of them. Yep, all of them, you read that right. Ambitious much, Alex, you asking? Well, let’s restrain ourselves a little and limit it to one topic. Feminism! Because: Hooray, feminism! And also because Miyazaki features lend themselves to be discussed like that. Another awesome discussion can be found on Gagging on Sexism (LINK, and HERE for another one), you should definitely check it out. Here we go!

via gaggingonsexism.wordpress.com

My scientifically very sound quantitative analysis of the Miyazaki directed Ghibli features reveals that out of a total of 10 movies (counting Arietty in) seven of them have a female lead. That is 70 per cent and that is major. This means that 30 percent a.k.a. three movies have a male lead, which is rather interesting since two of them have titles that imply otherwise: Princess Mononoke’s lead character is Ashitaka, though you would never guess from title or film poster, and Ponyo’s lead character is Sosuke, although arguably in this case we could speak of a double-lead (Ponyo and Sosuke). In Porco Rosso we have Porco, so phew, no mind-boggling confusion there (and yes, that is supposed to be a cynical joke, mind you). So seven movies with female lead characters might lead you to either conclude that there is a gender bias, or that Miyazaki just does not care about the men. In both cases you are wrong of course, and here is why:

via scpr.org

At least two of the movies are rather double-lead-movies, namely Castle in the Sky (Sheeta and Pazu), The Secret World of Arietty (Arietty and Sho) and I guess the argument could be made for Howl’s Moving Castle (Sophie and Howl) which represents an interesting reversal to the other trend in that the main male character is featured prominently in title and ads, but it is actually a female lead (another case being Totoro, by the way, assuming we identify Totoro as a male creature). Two of them follow traditional routes: The two opposite gender characters fall in love and get together in the end. At least for Howl’s Moving Castle this statement holds true, it is very much a love story – if an unconventional one – from the very beginning. Concerning the other castle movie, Laputa, I accept the argument that we never really explicitly learn about Sheeta and Pazu being totally smitten with each other (though it is heavily implied) and end up a couple. But yeah, I guess they do. Looking at the other double-led movies we get another one for that category: Ponyo and Sosuke end up together for like ever (and they are like … five. WTF?), so check.

via lashingsofgb.blogspot.com

But with Princess Mononoke we encounter a pattern that is repeated in Arietty. It is implied that the two main characters are at least attracted to each other (mainly because of their differences?) but end up going separate ways. We encounter the same outcome in Spirited Away and at this point you’re probably wondering: why is he blabbering about the relationship-BS so much? Well, lemme tell y’all: cause it’s so damn fine to have family friendly movies with a female lead where she does not have to wed somebody at the end. Remember how strange that seemed back in the day when they did that with Pocahontas? Ain’t no biggie here. Nausicaä is friends with Asbel, Sheeta is friends with Pazu, Chihiro and Haku part as friends and even Kiki and Tombo are nothing more than platonic friends at the end of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Which is to say: Fuck yes, you can have friends of (one of) the other gender(s) and the interaction you can have is not limited to romantic love and/or sex. And I like that, because that is not something we encounter much when it comes to other movies (in general. Yeah, I just claimed that).
Interestingly, even the major love themed features make that point, Ponyo least of all (though we see Sosuke being friends with the girls at kindergarten and old ladies from the nursery home), Howl’s Moving Castle to a limited extent (with Sophie befriending Markl and the scarecrow) and in the probably most “chauvinistic” movie of the Miyazaki oevrue, Porco Rosso, explicitly with presenting a determined love interest, but also a pretty and headstrong mechanic friend.

via animediet.net

And the mechanic friend brings us to another issue that is so nice about Miyazaki features: There is a woman who is a mechanic and as such she rocks. Miyazaki features don’t come completely without princesses though, but it’s really just the first two, Nausicaä and Laputa, that need to have their female leads be princesses, but even in Nausicaä being a princess does not hinder you from being an awesome biologist, a good pilot, or an effin’ cold-blooded general. If you happen to be a witch, you still gotta make it on your own and you better do so with the help of a female entrepreneur. Arietty is just a general survivor of sorts, which holds true for another “princess”, San, who is more like a soldier for the cause against humans. While Chihiro, Satsuki and Mei are all kids and do not yet have occupations, Ponyo is a fish, so no job in sight (yet), but Sophie is a hatter, which for us Alice in Wonderland infested minds is probably an occupation associated with mad men (heehee, lame pun, there it was!). Admittedly, we do not get to encounter every other job out there with the female characters in Miyazaki movies, but what we get is diversity and the sense that women come from all sorts of backgrounds, they don’t just have to be either princesses or poor/bullied beauties waiting for the prince to pick their asses up.

via papaveri.tumblr.com

This diversity extends to the women themselves, with them coming in all shapes and ages. We encounter our youngest lead in Mei in Totoro, and even though she is supposed to be three or four years old, she is already a pretty complex character with plausible motivation and a healthy curiosity. We have her joyful sister and we encounter Chihiro of roughly the same age who is much less joyful, much less curious but turns out to be awesome nonetheless. There is a very angry San raised by wolves, and a very young Ponyo who decides that being a fish is just not enough for her. Okay, Nausicaä, Sheeta, Arietty, Fio and even Sophie are all roughly the same age and are pretty girls, so you might be asking: stretch much? Well, at least with Sophie we travel through the narrative with a woman much older and a woman actually coming to terms with it. Not to forget other mentionable female characters in not only Howl (the awesome Witch of the Waste, Madam Suliman, or even Sophie’s sister and mum), but also in other features. Who could forget Yubaba and her twin sister of Spirited Away? Or the she-wolf/godess who raised San? Arietty’s quirky mum and the no less quirky housekeeper Haru? The older women in Porco who are keen to help build his plane? I could go on and on. We encounter slim and fat women, young and old, pretty and non-pretty, sweet and sour and what they all have in common is that they are treated as human beings and not as objects for either the plot or even worse, the male gaze.

via comicsbeat.com

Because gurls in Miyazaki features know what they want. They are subjects, agents of their own fate. Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke is determined to kill a god, after all, and she actually succeeds. She also integrates lepers and believes in equality when it comes to work. Yubaba doesn’t kill gods, but she makes good money off of them. The interference with her plans is the determination of another female character, Chihiro herself. And in Porco Rosso we not only have Fio who builds Porco’s aircraft anew, we also have Gina who is intent on getting it on with Porco and eventually succeeds. Just like Sophie gets it on with Howl in the end, because she is dragging his ass out of his misery. And the “plot” that is happening in Totoro does so, because Mei wants to go somewhere and her sister takes it upon herself to find her and get her back.

via dvdizzy.net

Totoro, together with Kiki’s Delivery Service, is somewhat of an exception IMHO, since both present storylines that rely on their female characters for the majority of time. Of course Totoro is cool and the Catbus is fantastic, but the whole movie revolves around Mei and Satsuki, their bond as sisters and as daughters to their mother and their exploration of the world around them.
In Kiki’s Delivery Service this is taken even further with a lot more of the agency made explicit. There is Kiki herself who tries to make it on her own, but there is also Osono, pregnant yet working and totally supportive of Kiki’s aspirations. There is Ursula, living all by herself and devoting herself to her art. And there are the elderly women who hire Kiki and root for her and her endeavours. Kiki seems to be a film made on the premise to present female solidarity and strength and boy, does it work in that respect, because the relationships feel real and heartfelt and the message is super-positive and uplifting. And for a movie to just go there and do it, tell the story that way with these characters, that’s fucking rare. Sad, but true. How often do you come across a movie that throws us into a situation of female networking and tells us how awesome it is?

via theentertainmentnut.wordpress.com

Phew, all Miyazaki movies pass the Bechdel Test (ok, Porco…) and thus qualify for promoting female visibility. That’s what is so great about those movies: they are not based on the Smurfette principle with one female character and an all male cast for the rest. In these movies there are women and the interact and they talk about stuff other than just men.

Though they do that, too. What I like is that we see men lusting after women (Porco Rosso and Castle in the Sky most noticeably) and granted, taken for themselves, these two are very cliché in that way (we could argue that we encounter a critique of that in Howl’s Moving Castle), presenting it as “that’s just how boys are, you know?”, but women in Miyazaki movies are also luckily and redeemingly lusting after men. In Princess Mononoke it’s Ashitaka that all the female workers swoon over, and mind you, they do more than just swoon, you can tell they are thinking about IT. It’s kinda sad and shocking how refreshing that still feels, presented in this non-fussy way. We get a little of that in Howl’s Moving Castle, where we are to understand that Howl is sort of a womanizer, but damn, those ladies want a piece of him and they is persistent, honey.

via wired.com

Sure there are a few missteps here an there. Maybe we can attribute it to the debut, or to the 80s or WTF ever, but what is up with Nausicaä’s skirt in Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind? There are these three or four scenes were the wind hits it just right so us fine audience can see some crack. Verrrrrry reminiscent of some anime series out there.
Another personal pet peeve (here cometh the pun:) the female cat in Kiki. Graw, why? Gender-stereotyping for cats, seriously now? I could gladly do without that.

via dvdizzy.com

Now, here in my final paragraph I wonder if I’ve been a bit incoherent. What I was trying to say is: in Miyazaki movies we get a refreshing plethora of female characters in charge of their own fate and as such, these movies stand out from the majority of movies we usually get to see. That is what makes them so special to me. Sure there are a very few minor quibbles, and sure, not all the movies are of the same stellar quality, but even if the plot moves a little too slow, or the villain is too cookie-cutter, I never ever once have an issue with how women are portrayed in these movies and go thinking: “that some sexist bullshit”. There are so many other movies that are great for a variety of reasons, but where this is exactly what puts me off a little – they don’t get that right.
So Halle-lou! for Miyazaki movies and his brand of feminism and flaunting it.


6 thoughts on “Miyazaki March – The Importance of a Female Lead

    1. Wow, thank you so much for that compliment!
      I’m glad my passion for Ghibli films comes across. During the re-watch marathon these last few weeks I have re-discovered how utterly amazing they are.
      Do you happen to have a favorite one?

      And I’ve just been to your blog – well, thanks. Now I will have to spend even more time in front of my computer to catch up on all your reviews! Dammit!

      1. hehe, my next post is going to be about Kiki, so: perfect timing!

        My personal fav would have to be Spirited Away, which is for me all the best of Miyazaki features combined into one. Although, I am thoroughly in love with Howl’s Moving Castle and I feel that if the ending wouldn’t suck so terribly hard, I would probably list this one as my fav.

  1. Great post! I just have to say, though, Nausicaa is wearing pants, not a skirt. Her ‘skirt’ is just the bottom half of her jacket. The colour palette doesn’t do a good job of making this obvious, which is a shame because it seems to have led to this misconception that just won’t die. It would be great if you could clarify this point, because it seems like a lot of people fail to realize that she’s wearing pants.

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