The set-ups of certain of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films make you feel as though you’ve returned to Disney’s fairytales. In Howl’s Moving Castle, downtrodden hat maker Sophie has her Cinderella moment when she’s waltzed across the sky by Howl. And the enduring curse catalyst is flipped onto the male protagonist Ashitaka, who goes on his quest for a cure and meets the daughter of the wolf god, Princess Mononoke. But, as Sabrina Pyun’s recent piece for ComicsVerse reasserts, Miyazaki proves himself more than the Japanese answer to Mr. Walt Disney with his empowering tales for girls. His heroines are never left floating along with the love story, nor are they forced to sacrifice their freedom as soon as a young man arrives on the scene.
Mononoke is a cipher for nature; she cannot be held or controlled. And while she embodies nature as the nurturer, she’s also allowed to channel its violence. There is nothing in Miyazaki’s movies that says beautiful women can only be compliant and agreeable. And in Spirited Away, his wrinkled, hook-nosed witches aren’t only hateful of Chihiro, the girl beloved (eventually, anyway) by all she meets. In fact, the covetous Yubaba’s twin sister Zeniba encourages Chihiro to free herself and her parents from the spirit realm. There is no vengeance by one against the other. The enemy to be defeated is more often social or spiritual, a weakness or wrongdoing in society or the self to be recognised and put right. Often these films provide proof, or teach by the example of their heroines, that self-confidence and self-love are the ultimate aspirations.
When a female villain hasn’t learned the error of her ways – like Howl’s Witch of the Wastes who stops taking potions to appear beautiful, letting go of her envy towards Sophie – it can be interpreted that adversaries are different aspects of the heroine that she must reconcile, accepting both sides but choosing the best course, learning to make a judgement. Chihiro learns to see the people who pose dangers to her from a sensitive point of view, observing and providing their needs left unfulfilled. Mononoke’s adversary, Lady Eboshi, mirrors the wolf-girl’s reluctance to co-operate and accept her connection to the humans on the other side of the conflict.
Miyazaki’s heroic women – rather than the ‘heroine’ that has come to mean the leading female character in any context, empowering or not – are defined by their strength of spirit rather than the extreme feats they accomplish or how likeable they are, as eponymous witch in Kiki’s Delivery Service lends a local helping hand, or Sophie guides a man beset by his own dark curse with a wisdom beyond her years. Sophie does fall in love with Howl, but it doesn’t define or undermine her story, or her strength. If anything, Howl is more dependent on her as he gives in to depression over the self-inflicted spells which have left him less than human.
Miyazaki has said he wants 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.” In Spirited Away, Haku rescues Chihiro from a river. This could represent her will to survive, the great dragon of courage coiled inside her. While Haku supports her in the spirit realm at first, she soon learns to make her own way in this strange world. In discovering her courage, she rediscovers her forgotten link to Haku. And before Sophie saves Howl from an emptiness that consumes him, he spends ages in the bathroom making himself beautiful.
Howl’s apprentice Michael says that the day he doesn’t obsess over his appearance, will be the day he believes his mentor has truly fallen in love. It’s only recently that news headlines have begun acknowledging appearance anxiety and body dysmorphia in men and boys. In striving for a more real feeling of love, Miyazaki broke through generations of layers of restrictive gender expectations, to sensitively represent a man’s experience of what is often still presented as a ‘feminine’ issue. Before Howl declares his love for Sophie, he too learns to love himself.
Yes, there are princesses in Miyazaki’s worlds, but also warriors and leaders, weapons makers, mechanics and, unlike a lot of fairytales, fully present, loving mothers or mother figures. These characters present inspiring and affectionate messages to female viewers, who otherwise might only have seen heroines swooning into the arms of a male protagonist. Women and girls can see that they have the potential to achieve in any career or life path they aspire to. And that’s because Miyazaki believes this too, knowing it’s essential for commercial progress as much as social progress. Studio Ghibli’s president Toshio Suzuki has said himself, “[Miyazaki] has this conviction that to be successful, companies have to make it possible for their female employees to succeed too. You can see this attitude in Princess Mononoke. All characters working the bellows in the iron works are women. Then there’s Porco Rosso. Porco’s plane is rebuilt entirely by women.” Women deserve to be influential too, and when they’re free to feel gallant and act on it, everyone is rewarded.