Everyone in the animation world knows of acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki. Known for such classic films as My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Castle in the Sky (1986) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). The director gained major western popularity after his 2002 film Spirited Away received an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. It had grabbed the attention of folks around the world, including major U.S. animation studios.
Beyond Miyazaki’s incredible storytelling and phenomenal craftsmanship he has managed to create some of the strongest female protagonists known in film, but more particularly, young girls.
Miyazaki’s girls manage to lead charming and detailed stories, embrace their strengths, express intricate emotions and avoid stereotyping. What you may not realize is that most animated films that star a female protagonist center on a teen to adult age range. Seeing young girls, 4-12 as strong leads in feature films is relatively uncommon, played down or babied.
Often times the Ghibli will even incorporate a complete gender-role reversal (in regards to western cinema) when it comes to its male and female characters.
In Kiki’s Delivery Service we follow Kiki, a witch who has come of age and must travel out into the world and carve her own way. She happens upon a small town where she befriends a kind baker woman and an artist in the country. From this point she sprouts her own business, which, along with her magic powers, gets the attention of a young boy in town. Where you might think this would lead to romance, it instead becomes a strong friendship. Later she even saves him from nearly falling to his death, which puts her in the position of a brave hero and the boy as what might be called a damsel in distress. Beyond that, the boy is never critiqued or teased for being saved by a girl, her heroism is never treated as less-than if she were male.
In Castle in the Sky we start with a young girl named Sheeta that meets a boy named Pazu, after she spontaneously comes falling from the sky. It turns out Sheeta is being chased by pirates and the army and is revealed to be a princess with an amazing gift. Through the length of the film a romance is never forced on the children and much like in Kiki’s Delivery Service they simply form a strong friendship that U.S. audiences might view as a relationship. The two children work together to defeat the bad guys, one never appearing stronger than the other, they work as a team.
Instead of focusing on a romantic relationship between his male and female characters Miyazaki chooses to guide them in the direction of a friendship. This is uncommon in Western cinema. Children are taught from an early age that friendship without romance between boys and girls is nearly impossible. If a boy and girl go on a grand adventure together, they are sure to fall in love is the message given to young audiences.
We see this in many films, even great one with amazing female characters. Such as Harry Potter where nearly every kid pairs with another of the opposite gender by the end of the 8-film series, which seriously bothered me when I was a kid. Or how about Princess Leia ending up with Han Solo in the original Star Wars films. The romance was not necessary in the plot, they could have just been buddies fighting for justice, but nope. And lets not forget 90% of the Disney Princess franchise. It seems the message is that boys and girls simply can not exist as “just friends,” which is a shame because many of these films create incredibly well-done characters, and feature strong females, but still they push the idea that boys and girls can never just be friends.
“I’ve become skeptical of the unwritten rule that just because a boy and girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue. 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.”- Hayao Miyazaki
What is just as uncommon is seeing a young girl as the lead protagonist. When girls exist in animated films for children they tend to be near adult women as mentioned prior. The age tends to be sixteen to twenty-one, which makes the obstacles they face not exactly relate-able to their intended young audience. The few times we’ve seen younger girls in such films as Alice in Wonderland (1951) or Coraline (2009), we could say Peter Pan (1953), but Wendy was treated like garbage, Tiger Lily was objectified, and Tinker Bell was obsessed with Peter Pan.
In Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, our story is told through the eyes of Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl who loses her way in a land of spirits. The story is all hers and all about her learning and growth. She earns her happy ending through hardwork, perseverance and finds that trust is not given, its earned.
At first glance one might believe her and Haku (the young male character), might end up in a romance but it never comes to fruition. Instead the two learn from one another, guiding eachother along their journey and say goodbye at the end as very good friends (not a romance as much as many U.S. fans try to push onto the characters). So strange, a BOY and GIRL existing as independent human beings? Never!
Additionally Miyazaki’s films manage to portray a different kind of villain (or sometimes not at all!) that these young girls must face. Rather than to injure or even kill the given opponent the character must simply outsmart them, sometimes even befriending them in the process (Yubaba in Spirited Away, or Captain Dola in Castle in the Sky). The two realize that their issues are simply misunderstandings. Often times films primarily aimed at children lead to the villains death, where Miyazki chooses to portray a level-headed and more realistic way of overcoming an enemy.
In My Neighbor Totoro we manage to avoid the idea of a villain completely. In fact we avoid most traditional storytelling techniques completely. Rather than follow an ordinary structured plotline we are given a day-in-the life of two young girls with a hint of magic tossed in. Satsuki and Mei are sisters who have just moved to the countryside with their father, soon after they meet a strange creature in the woods that calls itself “Totoro.” It takes them on several small adventures that involve flying through the air and planting a tree. While it avoids all common ideals in movies it manages to be one of the most critically acclaimed animated films of all time.
Even beyond Miyazaki’s films, his animation house Studio Ghibli portrays fully dimensional characters in every one of their films, regardless of the director assigned to the film. The latest and possibly last of Ghibli When Marnie Was There portrays a friendship developed between two young girls, one of which suffers from depression and a feeling of being unwanted. It features no villain and instead goes about a simple story of one characters personal wellbeing.
Time and time again Miyazaki and the films of Studio Ghibli have portrayed girls in such a way that they feel so real. The characters they produce are incredibly interesting and positive for both young girls and boys.
Overall Studio Ghibli films are a great alternative for young girls and boys alike.