Miyazaki and feminism: ANNCasting the First Stone?

Can’t understand how I could be distracted from Miyazaki by the beauty of kimono? Bet you can’t resist a cat in a kimono, though…

My interview on ANNCast this week focussed on Studio Ghibli and led, as talking to me occasionally does, to history, and to feminism. I suggested that anyone with a point to make or something to throw into the mix might like to post a comment on my blog. Then I got carried away with the beauty of kimono and neglected to provide a place to do that. Sorry, and thanks to Andrew for reminding me!

Hayao Miyazaki has long been known and loved for creating wonderful role models for girls: engaging, dynamic, delightful heroes able to carry the story and occupy the roles traditionally given to boys and young men. I don’t think that makes him a feminist, and, as I said in my lecture at the University of Maryland, I think he was actually doing this as part of a long-term plan to create the kind of male hero he wanted to see in anime, but couldn’t. That epic journey began with Nausicaa of the Valley of The Wind and ended with Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke. Along the way, he created a roster of unforgettable heroines, but like an anime Frankenstein he had a cunning plan – he was using them to create the conditions for his ideal hero.

So what do you think? Is Miyazaki senior a feminist? Does one have to be a feminist to create strong, dynamic female characters? And how does this place his later creations: Sen/Chihiro from Spirited Away, Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo?

11 thoughts on “Miyazaki and feminism: ANNCasting the First Stone?

  1. of course! kimonos and kitties are completely distracting!

    you have a point on the Miyazaki heroine thing, actually thanks for pointing it out. he does a great Dr, Frankenstein job, doesn’t he? convinced most of us that these are the girls we want to become. it’s an interesting way of looking at his heroines and yes, poor Kushana… and there seldom are *real* male villains either, right?

    • It’s what his girls become when they grow up that spooks me. There’s the devoted, contented wife and mother, adored by the husband and family she looks after (Sophie or Sheeta, Gina or Ponyo) or there’s the bitter, twisted woman with the epic talent warped by her misplaced ego or inability to let go past bitterness and fulfil her natural destiny (Kushana or the Witch of the Waste.) I think San is only allowed to escape by virtue of her half-animal half-god not-really-human heritage. Miyazaki heroines grow up to become good wives and loving mothers, just like Miyazaki’s hugely talented animator wife. Only in old age can they claim self-determination again like Ma Dola.

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  3. Back from Italy! Right then…
    Taking one of your last questions first, I think It’s quite possible to argue that Miyazaki’s films, or some of them, can be seen as ‘feminist’ _even if_ Miyazaki himself isn’t feminist. Even granting all your arguments, that doesn’t change the fact that, for example, Kiki’s Delivery Service is about a plucky 13 year-old girl going out into the world to build a life in a strange city without any male support. It’s also about an older girl, Ursula, who’s shown living very happily alone in the woods, pursuing a craft she sees passionately as her true self-expression; and again without any visible pining for male company. Now, perhaps Miyazaki personally assumes this is just a youthful phase, and both Kiki and Ursula will be mums and housewives in 15 years’ time, but it doesn’t much matter what _he_ thinks. His story is what matters, and plenty of girls and women will see his story as inspiring and feminist, opening the way to completely different lives. It boils down to DH Lawrence’s epigram; ‘Never trust the teller, trust the tale.’
    Re Kushana, and comparable characters such as Eboshi and Monsley (the character in Future Boy Conan), I find it hard to reduce them all to chauvinist cautionary tales: ‘This is what happens to women who don’t embrace their femininity and find a good man’! You could _maybe_ argue that with Monsley, and with the film version of Kushana, but by the time you get to the manga Kushana and Eboshi, they’re just too rich and complicated, with too many admirable qualities. Heck, I’d argue that Eboshi is a greater hero than Ashitaka, in terms of the good she’s done, the compassion she’s shown and the lives she’s saved. Given the harshness of her world, she’s a saint.
    Granted, these anti-heroines have dark backstories, and you _could_ argue that’s to portray them as (ugh) ‘damaged goods,’ but I don’t think the storytelling really suggests that. Rather, I think Miyazaki is contrasting innocent childhood/youth with the complexity of adults (especially shown up in the ways that Kushana _reacts_ to Nausicaa, and Eboshi to Ashitaka.)
    True, Miyazaki hasn’t portrayed – to take a clear counter-case – a strong, happy, single adult woman, perhaps in her 30s or 40s, with no deep dark ‘issues,’ and no need for either children or a male to rely on. (In US cartoon films, you could point to the 50-foot Susan in Monsters vs Aliens, or Tigressin Kung Fu Panda, voiced by Reese Witherspoon and Angelina Jolie respectively.)
    Maybe that reveals Miyazaki’s own attitudes. Or maybe he just doesn’t think he’s personally able to create a good character of that type, at least one who’d play to a broad audience. The Pixar studio was criticised for not creating female lead characters until this year’s film ‘Brave.’ I asked ‘Up’ director Pete Docter about it in a brief interview. He said, “We’ve (the Pixar creators) tried at times to write more female characters, but it’s very difficult. We’re not as familiar with them, and you feel as though they’re under intense scrutiny (from the audience). It’s very easy for us to make male characters have foibles, but with females, it’s sometimes more delicate.”
    Re the ‘anime Frankenstein’ argument – well, one obvious objection is that Miyazaki spent _twelve years_ writing Nausicaa’s story. If Ashitaka was his idea of an ultimate protagonist, why didn’t he ditch Nausicaa and write a thousand-page manga about Ashitaka instead? (There is, in fact, a male character in the later Nausicaa manga chapters, called Selm, who bears some comparison to Ashitaka; he’s an important ally of Nausicaa but never threatens to upstage her as the lead.) I still see Ashitaka as a rather wan echo of Nausicaa, and find him more androgynous than male – admittedly, that may be because he’s so much less aggressive than the female characters. Given Mononoke’s basic plot similiarities to Nausicaa, I thought Ashitaka’s gender was largely a ploy to make the two stories seems a little more different!

    • Hope Italy was fun! (Well, how could it not be?) Really interesting stuff, more article than comment, needs a wider publishing platform! Couple of quick points:

      Eboshi’s “heroism” depends how you define “hero”: is heroism a matter of outcome or intent? I think her innate pragmatism lets her see that, as a woman, her only chance of carving a niche in a patriarchal world is offering the downtrodden something they’ll fight for. She’s happy to help others as long as her vision is served. (Almost Blairist, in some ways.)

      I don’t think Ashitaka’s heroism is androgynous, unless one also reads San’s focus and determination to survive at all costs as masculine. Does masculinity reside in an absolute will to win, and femininity in an absolute will to nurture? Or are these biological leftovers from evolution, capable of being modified as new ways of identifying oneself develop? I find Ashitaka’s adherence to his own principles and his willingness to help ,others regardless of the cost to himself, inspiringly masculine, exactly what one would expect of the finest sort of romantic hero in the tradition of Jane Austen, Rosemary Sutcliff or Georgette Heyer.

  4. Very many thanks for your comments! Yes, Italy was very pleasant – friends took me to the mountain town of San Marino, and the views were terrific. 
    Re Eboshi; well, it depends on how you judge Eboshi’s ‘vision.’ I don’t see much sign she’s on a power-kick, even though we _do_ find out that she’s driven by a compulsion to slay the gods. (She explicitly chooses to hunt the Shishigami rather than help defend Iron-town, saying the townsfolk must protect themselves.) There’s no sign she wants the gods’ powers, or even to live on afterwards; she seems almost glad when Moro snaps off her arm. Her attitude is rather ‘Damn the gods and damn myself!’
    It’s nihilist, though still ‘heroic’ in some peoples’ books. I think it’s fair to speculate that Eboshi _wants_ to topple the gods because she hates their regime, the ‘state of nature’ that Jiko-Bou describes to Ashitaka: a world of disease, disasters, starvation and war. Many people today – Philip Pullman for one! – would say that’s an admirable ambition, though I don’t know how Miyazaki would rate it.
    In any case, I don’t think this nihilism is all that defines Eboshi; still less that it’s the ulterior reason for everything she does. Her character has too much humour and irony for that, too much unconventional thinking. What ‘sane’ person in the middle ages would conceive of building a town with lepers – whose flesh she cleans and binds herself – and ex-prostitutes? When Eboshi meets Ashitaka, the ‘pragmatic’ thing would be to treat him with suspicion, and as a possible threat to her position (he’s popular with the villagers). Indeed, that’s exactly how Eboshi’s burly henchman _does_ react to him. Instead, Eboshi is so amused and provoked by the boy’s guilelessness that she shows him all her secrets, not blinking even when he threatens her life. Later, seeing Ashitaka trying to help San, she casually tells her aides he can do as he likes.
    So in terms of intention, I don’t see her as driven by anything as straightforward as ‘innate pragmatism,’ but rather by passionate, contradictory impulses, that could be fairly called heroic.
    I’m still mulling over your second point! Of course, ‘adherence to one’s principles and a willingness to help others regardless of the cost’ is equally a description of Nausicaa. I’m not sure Miyazaki regards it as either masculine or feminine. On a more pedantic point, I don’t think San is determined to _survive_ at all costs, but rather to fight to the last breath. She turns down Moro’s suggestion that she could just leave the battle and live with Ashitaka.

    • But she loves her mother and brothers, and will not abandon them. She has a devoted and honest heart: like all Miyazaki’s heroines, she doesn’t love lightly or abandon her loves once chosen.

      • Good point, I stand corrected! Though Ashitaka’s lonelier course in Mononoke closely matches Nausicaa’s in the manga (not in the film). Like Ashitaka, Nausicaa leaves her home and people early on, and spends the whole story travelling further and further away – she’s not even present when her father dies. [SPOILER WARNING] The strip also leaves it unclear if she _ever_ comes home again.

      • This is such an interesting topic, and so many people – you in included – have made observations about it; I’m sure that Dani Cavallero’s book about it cannot be far away. Maybe you should write it first?

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