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Watch: Studio Ghibli’s Heroines, and What They Have to Tell Us

Watch: Studio Ghibli's Heroines, and What They Have to Tell Us

As the parent of a five-year-old girl, the relentless barrage of ‘Disney princess’ stuff targeted at her, from the films themselves to cuddly toys to the highly prized costumes, can be overwhelming. Snow White, Cinderella, ‘The Little Mermaid’’s Ariel, all have their charms, but, as most people would now acknowledge, these damsels-in-distress are hardly the most inspiring role models. And yes, times have changed, so that the likes of ‘Beauty and the Beast’’s Belle, Merida in Pixar’s ‘Brave’ or ‘Frozen’’s princess sisters, are a big evolutionary step up—even if the frocks remain pretty much the same.

However, for genuinely aspirational princesses, I’d bypass Magic Kingdom output altogether and head East: to the company whose 1997 film ‘Princess Mononoke’ introduces its lead female character, San, sucking blood from giant wolf’s bullet wound before glaring down its male hero; or whose most recent release, ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,’ features a young woman who refuses to submit to imperial demands of subservient marriage, just because it’s expected.

Japan’s Studio Ghibli has been making hugely successful, highly acclaimed animation centred on smart, independent, complex female characters for over 30 years. From wide-eyed children (‘My Neighbour Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’) to battle-hardened warriors (‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, ‘Princess Mononoke’), rare are the Ghibli films that don’t foreground women. And this isn’t just a fixation of the company’s two main directors and figureheads, Hayao Miyazaki (‘Mononoke’) and Isao Takahata (‘Kaguya’): other directors—the late Yoshifumi Kondō (‘Whisper of the Heart’) or Hiromasa Yonebayashi (‘Arrietty’)—have helped make this trope practically the house style.

Entire theses can—and doubtless have—been written on the repercussions of switching heroines for heroes. Certainly Ghibli films are far less caught up in the machismo of most Hollywood tales of derring-do. In ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service,’ a trainee witch’s biggest battle is establishing her broomstick-led courier company. There are no overt villains in the bucolic, gentle ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ (my daughter’s all-time favourite movie), though several other films—’Spirited Away,’ ‘Mononoke,’ ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’—delight in their nuanced female antagonists. Ghibli is confident enough to move between rollicking adventure fantasies like ‘Castle in the Sky’ to more quotidian, intimate emotional stories like ‘Only Yesterday,’ varying narrative texture, tone and rhythm in ways practically unknown in mainstream Western animation.

Ghibli is also smart enough to realize that a “strong woman” isn’t limited to a kick-ass action heroine, the faddish template meant well but often haplessly shoehorned into revisionist versions of classic stories (see ‘The Lord of the Rings’’ Arwen or Tim Burton’s sword-wielding ‘Alice in Wonderland’). Ghibli female characters are brave and foolhardy, noble and spiteful, wise and naïve, hopelessly romantic and resolutely standoffish. In short, for all their 2D animation, they’re strong because they’re fully rounded and three-dimensional. They’re strong because they have agency. They’re strong because they truly matter in their stories.

As this video tribute seeks to show, there’s no better series of female characters to provide inspiration or aspiration for a young girl—or anyone, for that matter. Now if we could just start some San / Mononoke costumes trending—outfits absolutely not fit for a traditional princess – we’d really be ready to have a ball, and not just demurely go to one.

Leigh Singer is a freelance film journalist, programmer and filmmaker.  He has written or made video essays on film for The Guardian, The Independent, BBC online, Dazed & Confused, Total Film, RogerEbert.com and others. You can reach him on Twitter @Leigh_Singer or at www.leighsinger.com

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