If you are an animation or anime enthusiast, you may have watched or even heard of some of the works by the Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli. Founded in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, the studio is known for its rich, vibrant, hand-drawn animation that transports you into a world unlike the kind most animated films can offer. The withdrawals of watching any of its films include: a want to escape to the countryside, cook something on your stove that will make the same sizzling and crackling sounds in the frying pan as heard in the film, become friends with spirits, or clean your room. The films make mundane tasks, like the sweeping of floors and doing laundry, seem as exciting as going on adventures. Although the films of Ghibli have a unique ability in capturing the magic in everyday life and morphing them into a story to please all ages, it also stands as the first of its kind to introduce the unconventional heroine in animation and film.
I grew up, like many others, watching classic Disney films: there was a rack in our TV trolley lined with all the films on VHS tapes ready to become a source of entertainment for a fun family movie night. As the music would start playing, I’d be swept up in the world of magic, talking animals, and luxurious gowns, their fluid movements seeming to be only possible with the flick of a wand. The heroines, most of them being princesses, were kind and compassionate, had melodious voices that could fall to the tune of the songs effortlessly, and beautiful. They had perfectly aligned, heart-shaped faces; waists one could size with just their thumb and forefinger; rosy cheeks and red lips that made evil stepmothers in all the land green with envy. On top of that, they were cleaning aficionados. And yet, I couldn’t relate to them. Did I want Jasmine’s hair? Yes. Did I want to have the ability to sing underwater like Ariel? Of course. Did I want a magic carpet and talking animal friends? Who doesn’t! Did I want to find my one true love at the age of 16? No. And as I grew up, I realized that although the classic Disney films taught kindness and loving all creatures, nearly all of them centered on a girl who had the potential to accomplish anything she wanted, but instead, used her capabilities to win the love of a prince. In the end, they just had to get the man, and that is not something I’d want my future daughter to prioritize over everything else.
I remember watching Spirited Away at a young age, and was fascinated by the female protagonist Chihiro, who was not a princess and was not in the search for her one true love. She was a nine-year-old girl, like myself at the time, who just wanted to break the curse her parents were under. Despite her initial cowardice and reluctance to change, she gains loyal friends and unlocks the courage inside her to go to any lengths to achieve the task. She befriends a boy who helps her navigate her way through the maze of the plot, until midway when the tables turn and she helps him and that’s that. There is no budding romance, no damsel-in-distress, but only how a young girl overcomes great odds in saving her parents through determination, even when her knees tremble with fear at many times. What intrigued me was there was nothing extraordinary about this girl: she wasn’t beautiful, she was not a teenager with womanly features, she was not a princess nor did she have dreams about living in a castle with her prince. She was just a little girl like millions of little girls out there who’d watch the film and be inspired by her bravery. The film was relevant after all.
I then watched more films by Hayao Miyazaki, and was introduced to a multitude of strong, ambitious, intelligent, and kind-hearted heroines who did everything in their power to do what was right. And they did all of it without waiting for a boy to rescue them, and that makes them so different from the typical Disney archetype, and maybe it is for this very reason that Studio Ghibli films are sometimes casually referred to as the answer to classic Disney princess tales. Although the heroines are considered strong, they aren’t so in the usual sense of the word one would expect (yielding a sword, being a martial arts expert). They are strong because they have emotions and feelings; when they feel hopeless and want to give up, something strikes in their very core and they pick themselves up again; they have a sense of innocence and wonder in them; they are independent and unafraid in fighting for what they believe in. Their struggles also aren’t just coming from outside forces but internal struggles as well, as they try to pave their way through society: Kiki (Kiki’s Delivery Service) realising she’s different from girls her age, Sophie (Howl’s Moving Castle) having low self-esteem, and Anna (When Marnie Was There) feeling lonely and reclusive for most of her life. Many Ghibli films also end on a bittersweet note, highlighting how some stories don’t have the perfect ending but the characters are able to take the pain and let it inspire them to keep living and dreaming.
What’s more important than their relationship status by the end of the film is how much the heroines grow as people, what they’ve learned about themselves and the friendships they’ve formed along the way that inspired them to move forward with courage. Perhaps that’s what young girls should be taught. To be kind and courageous, to have faith in themselves and their capabilities, to be assured that it is okay if they fail or feel dejected at times so long as they didn’t let it consume them. After all they are only humans. That it’s more important for them to be their true selves than to have unrealistic expectations of beauty or want a boy’s attention.
“Many of my movies have strong female leads – brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe in with all their heart. They’ll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a savior.”