My Favourite Feminist Icons from Studio Ghibli

The new statesman recently published an article entitled ‘The Top Ten Feminists on Film’. It’s a good article, featuring some of my favourite leading ladies and it got me thinking about who else I would consider to be a fictional female badass.

When I started making a list of my favourite heroines I noticed that I kept coming back over and over again to the women in Studio Ghibli films, especially the works of Hayao Miyazaki.

From Princesses fighting for the rights of giant insects, to a young girl trying to save a couple of pigs, Miyazaki just does strong leading ladies so damn well.

And I’m not talking about the stereotypical ‘strong’ woman character Hollywood likes to churn out, and who gets featured in Hark! A Vagrant; I’m talking about women who resemble REAL women, who have REAL emotions and who become REAL role models.

For those of you who aren’t clued up on your major Japanese studios, here’s a brief summary of Studio Ghibli. Studio Ghibli was set up in 1985 after the success of Miyazaki’s film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (more on that in a minute). The studio is famed for producing high quality animations filled with mind blowing visuals and complex/heart breaking narratives. They don’t like using computer animation and often make entire films by hand.

John Lasseter is a huge fan of the studio and even paid tribute in Toy Story 3.

The studio has produced some of the top grossing films in Japan, even trumping Western classics like Titanic at the Box Office. The film Spirited Away was the first Japanese feature to ever get nominated for an Academy award in Best Animated Film and the first to win.

Basically, if you’ve never seen a Studio Ghibli film you’re missing out on something pretty special as there are so many reasons to rave about Ghibli’s amazing creations.

To get back onto topic, today I want to have a feminist rave by celebrating my favourite Ghibli women.

Some of these women are leading ladies, some are support roles, but all of these succeed in portraying a three dimensional and inspirational heroine that would make Laura Mulvey weep with joy.

Nausicaa from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

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When you think Princess you think long flowing hair, pretty dresses, and a happy ending that involves getting married to a handsome prince. Nausicaa is none of those things, but she’s a Princess none the less.

She’s caring and compassionate, with a love of science and research. She wears practical clothes for flying her compact jet-powered glider – also known as a health and safety nightmare.

In this apocalyptic world, the rest of village lives in fear of the ever growing toxic forest but Nausicaa tries to understand it by conducting tests and LEARNING! She carries none of the prejudices that the rest of her village cower behind and eventually discovers that the forest is actually healing the earth and solving pollution.

Throughout the film it’s clearly established that her entire village loves and respects Nausicaa on the basis of her actions and not her pretty face. She’s a skilled fighter, brave and not afraid to face death head on.

At one point she ends up saving one of her enemies and it’s pretty clear he falls madly in love with her – but guess what, there’s not a single kiss or romantic climax! Why? Because Nausicaa has better shit to do, like saving the Earth.

If you can’t already tell, I have a massive lady boner over this character.

San from Princess Mononoke

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We’re told that when San was a baby her parents threw her at the feet of a giant wolf and fled for their lives. Luckily for San that wolf/God decided to take her in as her own and raise her.

When we first see San she’s attacking a mining village, trying to kill the woman who’s responsible for destroying her forest. She rides on the back of a wolf, wears a mask, wields a knife and is deadly as fuck.

As the movie progresses we see her softer side as she falls in love with Ashitaka, a boy who’s cursed and trying to save both the forest and the village. However, her love doesn’t make her soft and side line her; she still fights with the warring pig tribe and when it comes to possibly dying in order to restore balance in the world, she does so with her boyfriend as an equal.

While many women in films would give up their beliefs for a boy, San sticks true to herself and even at the end of the film, the lovers preserve their relationship on her terms – she goes on to live in the forest and Ashitaka will visit her from the village.

Did I mention she rides around on a giant wolf?

Lady Eboshi from Princess Mononoke

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Studio Ghibli is a clever one when it comes to villains, in that it’s always hard to pin point who exactly the villain is. If San is technically the heroine, then you might assume that Lady Eboshi is her she-villain counterpart. However, if you’ve ever watched Princess Mononoke, you’ll know that things aren’t so black and white.

For instance, how many villains do you know that have a side project in rescuing prostitutes and caring for those with leprosy?

In interviews Miyazaki revealed that Eboshi had a traumatic past that goes unrevealed in the film. Looking at Eboshi, that’s not too hard to imagine – she’s pretty complex.

In the film she functions as the female leader of Irontown, the village responsible for all the deforestation. However, Irontown is a village that is run by ex-prostitutes, all of whom Eboshi has rescued from various brothels. It is the women that pump the bellowing and make all the iron that helps fund the village’s survival.

Alongside this, Eboshi has a small settlement where she takes care of a bunch of lepers. In return, these lepers help construct and design new weaponry for Eboshi and the other women. In the words of Minnie Driver, Eboshi’s English voice actor, she’s “a warrior, an innovator and a protector”.

Now Eboshi isn’t perfect, she’s still greedy and is determined to kill the forest and its inhabitants all in the name of money. She tries to kill San and her wolf friends on numerous occasions and even plays a role in trying to end the world, but we won’t hold that against her.

Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle

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Sophie starts out like any other girl. She’s stuck in a boring job, running her family hat shop, her sister gets all the attention because she’s blonde and works in a delicious bakery and basically, Sophie just doesn’t think very much of herself. She wears boring clothes, has boring brown hair, and she doesn’t have a boyfriend.

All that changes when Howl enters.

Howl’s a handsome wizard who’s got a reputation for being a ladies’ man. After Howl saves her from some creepy guys, the Witch of the Wastes decides to use Sophie to get back at the wizard who broke her heart in the past. The witch uses a spell and transforms her into an old woman.

And this is why I love this film. Because for most of the film Sophie proves there’s more to a leading lady than just her looks. As an old woman Sophie proves herself to be smart, assertive, brave, and even as a wrinkled mess, she steals Howl’s heart away. She inspires a cowardly, selfish, shallow wizard to become a better man and in turn, by the end of the film, Sophie becomes the woman she’s always wanted to be and always was – she just needed turn 80 to figure that out.

We all know that the old saying ‘it’s what’s on the inside that counts’ has been over done in film, but in my mind, it’s Sophie’s story that really brings the message to life.

Chihiro from Spirited Away

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If anyone’s going to fight Sophie for the title of most character development in a film then it’s going to be Chihiro.

Like Sophie, Chihiro starts off in a bit of a rut. She’s a 10-year old who’s on her way to her new home, having left her friends and school far behind. Chihiro, at this point, is just like any other nearly-teenager; she’s whiney, dependent on her parents, and basically useless.

Then her and her folks end up stumbling onto a doorway into the spirit world. In this world her parents end up getting turned into pigs. Her parents are then captured by a witch called Yubaba who runs the local spirit-targetted bath house. In order to get her parents back, Chihiro has to get a job in the bath house and prove herself.

Along the way she gets some help from a young boy who acts as Yubaba’s magical apprentice. This boy – Haku – is enslaved to Yubaba because he’s unable to remember his name; so on top of rescuing her folk, Chihiro is also tasked with setting her young love free.

The Chihiro who appears at the start of the movie, and the young woman who the camera ends on, are as different as night and day. From her adventures, Chihiro proves herself to be resilient, brave, smart, and willing to do anything for the ones she loves.

Miyazaki, in his creation of Chihiro, has written a character that any young girl could look up – including 21 year old bloggers.

2 thoughts on “My Favourite Feminist Icons from Studio Ghibli

  1. Love your post. One of the trademarks of Ghibli films is the inclusion of strong female protagonists, in all different forms. I don’t know if you’ve seen Only Yesterday, but that’s another Ghibli (but non Miyazaki) film with a well-rounded and complex female lead. I wrote about the movie on my blog if you are interested in checking it out:

    http://ekostories.com/2013/02/15/takahata-only-yesterday/

    I also have written about Eboshi and San :)

    • I haven’t seen Only Yesterday but I have heard of it. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to come by as the other Studio Ghibli stock, but from reading your blog on it, I really want to hunt it down.

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