Japan’s anime is famed worldwide not just because of the animation style but also for the storytelling techniques. Perhaps the most well known Japanese animation is by the Studio Ghibli. Having produced twenty-two world-class, top-notch animation films they have an impeccable record when it comes to anime. At the centre of it all is Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata- The two co-founders of the studio who established Studio Ghibli in 1985 along with Toshio Suzuki and Yasuyoshi Tokuma.
This article is not about the founders of Studio Ghibli though, it is about the female characters they have written over the years. Most of the Ghibli films have a strong female character in them who drive the story. Whether it is the tragic Grave of the fireflies in which a teenage boy’s only motivation is his little sister, or the epic Princess Mononoke in which a warrior’s only motivation is a wolf girl. The utterly cute Ponyo or the superbly naive Arietty. All these female characters are not central to the film, they are the centre of the film.
Let’s talk about some of them but a word of warning before proceeding- possible spoilers ahead. Watch the films, most are available on Netflix.
Japan’s culture is considered to be over-sexualised and the age of consent is thirteen (this is not 100% true though, it depends on some local laws as well) Teenage girls are often sexualised beyond imagination. Amidst all this Ghibli has been producing movies constantly that have taken these female characters and brought out their humanity in innovative ways. Take Ponyo for instance. Ponyo is the daughter of the queen of the seas but she has feelings that correspond with human beings. She has that kiddish want for Sosuke and she wants to stay with him because he treats her with care and kindness. It’s a perfect friendship between two kids.
The tale of princess Kaguya revolves around an alien who descends to Earth from the Moon and in the process forgets who she is. In the entire film human beings try to do what they think is right for her, without knowing what she wants. Towards the end, everyone including her are void of what they were pursuing. I found it a perfect metaphor for modern society. We treat certain people with so much love that it becomes a burden and we not only hurt them in the process but also destroy the relationship. The story is told from Princess’s Kaguya’s perspective and sort of educates what a girl might want in her life. It is a stark contrast, especially when compared with Hollywood or Hindi film industry in which we generally see things from a male or an overly feminist point of view. Humanity in an alien is more than humans themselves in Princess Kaguya’s case.
Arietty the borrower is a story of a fourteen-year-old girl who lives in a tiny world with her family and survives by borrowing(stealing) things from human beings of normal size. They only borrow(steal) things that go unnoticed by human beings of normal size, however. Things like sugar cubes or tissue paper. Arietty, her family and her kind live in a constant fear that normal size human beings might find them and kill them so they live a life of hiding and extreme caution. In the house she lives, a young boy moves in and he quickly finds out about Arietty. The boy has heart problems and was never able to make a friend because of that. It becomes Arietty’s decision whether she wants to show herself to the boy or not. In the end, she chooses to talk to the boy, essentially saving him by becoming his friend. They share a great moment in the end which inspires the boy to have hope and live his life.
Kiki’s delivery service is a coming of age story of a young witch who leaves her family to live in a different city. The term ‘witch’ has caught on with the meaning of an old, long nose woman with a pointy hat, whose only job is to make lives of people difficult by the use of black magic. There was real witch-hunting in Europe as well. Studio Ghibli takes this concept, turns it on its head and makes it a story of a young girl whose job is to make the lives of the people around her easier. Kiki is a strong independent thirteen-year-old girl with big ambitions. Her character is only made strong by her humble beginnings in the village. She gives hope to all kids and adults that a new life alone in an unknown city is possible.
Coming outside of the fantasy world, Ocean waves is the simplest love story ever, only made better by the ordinary-ness of it’s characters. These people are me and you. Middle class, struggling with feelings, job, money etc. not understanding what things mean. The story is of two close friends one of which- Yutaka is crazy over a new girl in school. He often talks to Taku about her. The circumstances unfold in such a way that the girl- Rikako and Taku always end up together. If I’d watched this movie a few years ago(I would have been bored shitless), I would have blamed Rikako for the feud that occurs between Yutaka and Taku but now I understand that it’s not the girl’s fault. It’s naivety and being out of touch with one’s own feelings that do that. It’s being human and a person of the opposite gender can help us get a bit closer to ourselves. Which, in this case, is a girl named Rikako.
These are just a few examples that I have tried to understand in the Studio Ghibli filmography. The female characters are not only strong but also fierce and cute at the same time. They have feelings so pure that they are comparable to only purity of the Sun or the Moon. In a society obsessed with the sexualisation of girls, Studio Ghibli gives us cute, pure, strong and fierce female characters who are easy to relate with, regardless of the gender we belong to.
Before going I would suggest some Studio Ghibli films- All of them. Just watch all of them, each is as good as the previous one including their Dutch collaboration The Red Turtle, which by the way also has a great female character. One tip- watch all the films in Japanese with subtitles.