I’m on a Miyazaki kick! I’m writing a paper on his films, so they’ve definitely been taking up residence in my mind lately. Every time I think about these films I’m always in awe of how considered, complex, and just plain dignified the female heroines and regular characters are. There’s no fan service exploitation, no pandering- these characters are like real people, even while doing extraordinary things.
There’s, of course, Nausicaa, the titular heroine from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (first a manga, then a movie, both by Miyazaki.) I was thumbing through my copy of Nausicaa: Watercolor Impressions and was struck by this image (which warrants re-posting!):
I just love how powerful she looks, just sitting there. And you really get a feel for the burdens that she’s carrying. In Miyazaki’s comments on it, he said “I never liked drawing standard heroine pictures of Nausicaa looking cheerful… When she’s alone, I always imagined her looking very unapproachable. Not because she was intimidating, but because of a quiet isolation, like she wasn’t a part of her surroundings at all.” I find it amazing how deeply he thinks of his characters, seeing them as human beings, rather than devices or objects. Do I think that the same amount of thought went into most of the Disney Princesses? I doubt it. I would love to see an image like this of a Disney princess in a non-fan art capacity, but they simply don’t exist.
And who could forget San from Princess Mononoke? The titular heroine is just an unabashed bad-ass:
She’s fierce, quick thinking, and a true warrior. We’re introduced to her in battle- she moves swiftly and almost catlike. But she doesn’t fight for the sake of fighting, she fights to protect her forest from destruction by other humans (mainly the also bad ass lady Eboshi)- so much so that she’s developed a hatred of humans, and even rejects her own humanity.
from Studio Ghibli gifs
What I love about San is that she has her own obvious motivations to pursue- she’s not just an accessory to the main male protagonist of the film. She has her own story arc that’s integral to the film. AND her warrior garb isn’t exploitatively sexified- it looks believably like something someone raised by mythical wolf-beasts would wear.
Then, we have Ursula from Kiki’s Delivery Service–
From Studio Ghibli Gifs
-not exactly a heroine, but a secondary character. She’s a painter who befriends Kiki on one of her delivery misadventures. Watching the movie when I was older, I was struck by just how amazing it is that we see a young woman who lives a very solitary life in the woods, and not once in the film is this ever treated as a Big Deal. We’re never told to pity her, she never shows indication of unhappiness/desperation- instead, she’s spunky, thoughtful, and full of life. She is shown to be perfectly well adjusted- and that’s pretty remarkable for a female character in any feature film, let alone one made primarily for young girls.
What’s great about these characters is that girls can relate to them incredibly easily, and/or look up to them just as easily, much more easily than with the more typical aspirational , shiny, idealized caricatures that dominated the Disney films and other anime of my childhood. There’s a place for those too (they can sometimes be a lot of fun) but I’m glad that I “met” these women in Miyazaki’s films when I was an impressionable young girl, and I’m glad to revisit them now, as a (hopefully wiser) adult.