“I create women characters by watching the female staff at my studio. Half the staff are women” – Hayao Miyazaki
Studio Ghibli has been a very recent but an important discovery for me. The pioneering Hayao Miyazaki is a man way, way ahead of his times. The novelty of his film-making lies in the simplistic representation of life through magic realism, mysticism, and native folklore. While Hayao Miyazaki’s films do have the charming animated aesthetics to lure the visual senses of the younger lot, it also very much appeals to the grown up spectrum of the audience with its rich storytelling and underlying themes waiting to be decoded.
Hayao Miyazaki, apart from being a brilliant filmmaker, is also a sensitive old man. He and his kin of Ghibli directors look out for feminine sensibilities, embody them in their women characters and impart them their own agencies to develop independently. They are not flamboyantly dressed and are inclusive of women from diverse spaces, ultimately becoming role models for the many young women watching those films. For starters, quantitatively speaking, women are in abundance in Studio Ghibli films. They claim the roles of protagonists and antagonists both and belong to all age groups.
Kiki is enterprising, Chihiro is brave hearted, Lady Eboshi is authoritative, Shizuku is ambitious, San is wild spirited, Satsuki is a responsible elder sister, and Setsuko is simply the cutest little thing ever.
In Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki is shown to be an energetic, young witch who leaves for a big city to learn the world’s ways. She is also resourceful and entrepreneurial as she channelises her magical powers to start a delivery service. Hayao Miyazaki shows Kiki as feeling burnt out on not finding a purpose as a result of which she starts losing her powers. On trying to wriggle her way out of this artistic block (though never explicitly said out loud), she finds her purpose in rescuing Tombo from a mishap. It’s a fresh change from the old Disney trope of the princesses being in perpetual need to be saved by men. Hayao Miyazaki ensures that this plot device does not make the only male figure in the film a crutch for Kiki to be emotionally dependent on. Instead, Kiki uses her compassion as a strength to get the better out of herself and the situation at hand.
This technique is once again employed in another Studio Ghibli film, Whisper of the Heart (directed by Yoshifumi Kondō) where Shizuku, a voracious reader, finds herself infatuated by Seiji, an ambitious young boy who wants to learn making violins in a quaint town in Italy. Shizuku’s infatuation never manifests into a weakness but instead it drives her into being more focused and dedicated into writing her own book.
The employing of the romantic element by the directors such as Hayao Miyazaki and Yoshifumi Kondō is put to use in a very nourishing and enriching way. It emphasises on the message that self-reliance need not take a backseat when in love and nobody should let the love consume their entire selves.
Hayao Miyazaki is eclectic and his elaborate best with the women representation in his film, Princess Mononoke. He takes care that the women aren’t made to be a foil around a man’s core character. Lady Eboshi, San, Toki are given their own voice and their own story. Lady Eboshi is a particularly striking figure, not just as a strong headed, militarist woman, but also as a very compassionate human. Apart from being a head to an entire community, she also shelters social outcasts (prostitutes) and physically challenged people (lepers), employing them and giving them a means of livelihood. She not only enables the women financially but also empowers them with guns. In her regime, war is not a testosterone-led space.
In one of the climactic scenes in the film, Hayao Miyazaki shows the young warrior Ashitaka embracing the wild spirited and fierce San, calming her down and asking her for help to fight and save the world, together. The scene beautifully drives home the point that romance and peace can thrive only when the people involved are not asked to conform to gender roles and are allowed to be themselves. This plot device employed by Hayao Miyazaki normalises men assuming more gentle, benign roles while letting the women be fierce and loud and win the battle.
In Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki deconstructs the very idea of a typical princess by not just subverting the usual characteristics of a princess but by also retaining some of them. While Nausicaa is extremely strong headed and is every bit of a leader, she retains her femininity and traits of kindness and generosity. She is living in a post-apocalyptic world seething with toxins but she finds her way to bring a little more of the peace and warmth wherever she goes. In the film, Hayao Miyazaki subtly asserts that women can still be powerful in their femininity and inherent kindness.
My Neighbor Totoro is immensely impactful despite all the simplicity in its plot devices. Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t rely on the usual crutches that most children’s movies use to appeal to its audience. It doesn’t have a concrete protagonist or an antagonist, it simply evokes our senses like a lullaby. We are introduced to an eleven-year-old Satsuki and her four-year-old sister Mei. The mother of the two girls is sick so Satsuki inadvertently becomes the primary caretaker of her little sister and together they make a world of their own. Totoro, the magical entity they come across also embodies itself like a maternal figure protecting the girls. So even in a film that has no outwardly feminist narrative to speak of, Hayao Miyazaki still makes it about women and induces a very feminine vibe to it.
In the Japanese anime culture (or even in the culturally accepted mainstream cinema) that often is infamous for heavily sexualizing its women characters who are exaggeratedly drawn to fit the slim tummy-wide waist-huge breasts body type, the films of Studio Ghibli is like a breath of fresh air. As a woman it can take you sometime to find films where you feel adequately represented and responsible filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki and Takahata make us feel right at home. Studio Ghibli allows women to claim spaces that are rightfully theirs and make it their own so that when half of the population sits to watch the films, they do not have to feel awry about being misrepresented or worse, of being not represented at all.
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