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Women in Japanese Cinema: Ghibli

Throw away your Disney! Buy Ghibli instead! You can see this repeated more than a few times on Amazon and elsewhere by impassioned devotees of the Ghibli ouvre. There are many reasons for this, the least of which is the generally more complex storytelling and challenging plots. For me, a big sell has always been Ghibli's stance toward women and girls. While its track record isn't perfect, and it sometimes falls into fairly common Japanese traps regarding women (why is it usually a nurturing mother and bumbling or non-existent father? Hi Japan!), Ghibli also has an incredible share of strong, no-nonsense female characters who will appeal to everyone.

Note: if you have not seen some of these films, some of my discussion may include spoilers. I suggest watching these films first regardless, as they are all quite good movies on their own merits.


Let's start with San (Mononoke) from Princess Mononoke:

San is goddamned warrior. She is clearly derived from the women warriors of Japanese lore (fun fact, the male lead Ashitaka is also a member of a Japanese minority wiped out/assimilated by the Japanese ethnic group today! This movie is full of layers) She isn't particularly interested in romance (it passes the Bechdel Test, also!), and she basically still leaves the "eligible bachelor" at the end of the movie to go back to protecting her interests. But she's not some baby-eating murderlady. She's just a woman who has a goal and works toward it.

Did I mention that her goal is to wipe out a factory town that is destroying her forest for ore and wood? And that that same factory town is led by a woman and almost entirely populated with women?


But Ari, you say, Mononoke is too violent for a younger child.

OK, then let's talk about My Neighbor Totoro. My Neighbor Totoro is basically the story of two sisters exploring the Japanese countryside and becoming acquainted with forest spirits. And when a challenge befalls the older sister, does she run to her father? Hell no. She takes matters into her own hands and works with the same spirits to get things done.


So not only does the father let two young girls explore a forest alone (stranger danger!), the little girls explore and grow on their own, growing closer through shared experiences.

Oh, and Totoro is so loved in the field of animation that it even made a cameo in Toy Story 3.


Fun fact: I cried like a baby at the end of Totoro.

Finally for this round, Spirited Away.


Where does one even begin with a movie of such beauty? In shore, I adore this movie. While many other Ghibli movies have fantastic female characters or even leads, this is (in my opinion) the one.

Starting with a plot overview: Chihiro, a young girl, becomes stuck in the spirit world, her parents transformed into pigs. Now under the employ of a witch by the name of Yubaba, Chihiro has to find a way to free herself and her parents from their situation. Along the way, she makes friends, and is forced to grow up and rescue her parents.


Early on, she is largely dependent upon others. But over time, through personal growth and determination, she grows able to lead herself and others, even freeing the River God Haku (who forgot himself when the river was dredged) from his amnesia.


This scene kills me. I blubber and cry even just thinking about it. It is one of the most touching scenes in any film I've ever seen, period. Add in the subtext of our increasing numbness to the natural world and you have one of the best written scenes in a "children's movie" ever written.

Keep in mind that Spirited Away made many great film lists on its own merits just as a movie. Very few animated movies have been lauded as much as this one. If you haven't seen it (why are you reading! Spoilers!), or you haven't seen it in a while, go watch it again. This is a great flick.


Let me make one quick point before wrapping this up: these three movies are just a tiny sample of the many wonderful films in the Ghibli library. However, they represent three of the best examples of how Ghibli writes relatable and interesting female characters. But the list is long: Kiki's Delivery Service, Nausicaa, Laputa, Arrietty, Howl's Moving Castle... basically all of them? If you like movies, and you get frustrated with Disney like I do, then give Ghibli some love.

Next Article

Next time, I want to address representations of women in classic Japanese film, focusing on the masters Kurosawa and Ozawa. There's where things get way more complicated!

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