Hayao Miyazaki—of the profoundly successful Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli—nestled his way deep in our hearts in the ‘80s with his altruistic outlook and clever portrayals of female tenacity.
Miyazaki purposefully defines the women in his films as unconventional, especially given the historical tendency for gender oppression in Japan. The women of Studio Ghibli, however, possess a gender-neutral, or at least deeply ambiguous characterization, unlike the traditional shojo (feminine, innocent, and quintessentially cute) stereotyping common in Japanese media.
Ghibli’s heroines demand our attention through an implicit desire for independence and a hell of a lot of girl power. They’re driven by a fantastical degree of femininity, yet give off the conventionality of “masculine” attributes through acts of courageousness.
In an exploration of Princess Mononoke (1984) and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), we’re hoping to peel back the complex layers of these badass, women-centered masterpieces to reveal their most venerable role models.
Political undertones play a key role in the identities of both Nausicaä and San, who are crusading heroes fighting against the effects of environmental destruction, capitalism, and militarism. They function as activists in battle against issues not given the importance they deserve while caring more for their cause rather than a blossoming sexuality.
Furthermore, Nausicaä confronts a post-nuclear wasteland as a heroine fighting for the preservation of a natural world, emboldened by Miyazaki’s own pacifism. As someone who’s open about their abhorrence for destruction as the inevitable outcome of the war, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is clearly a symbolic rendering of a time when Japan’s identity was wavering.
Freedom from Sexualization
Though a prevalent theme in our culture, Miyazaki’s heroines are freed from the shackles of sexualization, the “damsel in distress” trope, and from general inferiority to their male counterparts. Hell, damoiseau in distress seems more fitting for these films.
In Princess Mononoke for instance, Lady Eboshi challenges male dominance directly. Rather than rebelling against expectations and norms, she takes on the male power structure head-on. Although she is seen as the antagonist throughout most of the film, her complexity and desire to fight for the justice of her people is a true act of fearless heroism.
Ghibli’s Subtle Feminism
Ghibli’s heroines—albeit driven by their own will—do not function as direct feminist figures. They seldom display unity with other women but instead appear to focus on the aspect of personal growth.
Even Lady Eboshi (Princess Mononoke), who provides work to prostitutes and lepers, does not have a loving bond with these women. She is a leader comfortable in her solidarity, yet understands the importance of allowing them to work and live in her village.
Although feminist attributes are inherent to Miyazaki’s female characters, these underlying themes are given an air of ambiguity as to not take away from the complex characterization of the women themselves. In Miyazaki’s fantastical worlds feminism does not have to exist because each of his characters live in a socially utopian state where individuals are already considered equal.
Femininity for a New Generation
In Princess Mononoke, San, the young princess of the forest, is determined, wild, and fearsome. Although she is human, she alters her femininity and identifies with her “wolf siblings”, despising any human destruction of the forest. She denotes a type of animalistic protagonist not typically seen in film, yet comes to represent a hero worth fighting for.
Not only does San heroically stand up for what she believes in, she will stop at nothing to protect her forest family, to the point of valuing their lives over her own.