Women rule the screen in masterpieces by Hayao Miyazaki
Some of the hidden gems scattered across the landscape of Netflix are films by Studio Ghibli, written and directed by Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki. Award-winning works that the genre ‘anime’ cannot encapsulate, these movies are special because their protagonists are believable, inspiring women.
- Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind: Set in a post-apocalyptic world where the environment has exacted revenge on mankind, this movie unfolds as the Princess of one of the few remaining communities defies expectations and everything the future has in store for her. From the start of the film, Nausicaä doesn’t conform to stereotypes associated with ‘little princess.’ A true leader, she works covertly in an underground laboratory and singlehandedly teaches herself to remove the toxins from plants in order to learn how to coexist with the toxic forest that grows exponentially before teaching her people to do the same.While her vulnerabilities show an impulsiveness typical of any true character, (SPOILER ALERT: she kills four Tolmekian soldiers when her father is slaughtered) her evolution into a role model for her people makes the entire movie worth the watch. My personal favourite is when Nausicaä fulfils a prophecy stating that her people will be saved by a Messiah in blue robes in a field of gold- one everyone thought would be a man.
- Princess Mononoke: In a completely different world (an alternative version of Muromachi Japan,) the protagonist, San, is the ‘Princess of the Wolves” (Mononoke-hime) despite not being a wolf herself. In this compelling revision of The Jungle Book and the Beauty and the Beast, San embodies a leader who fights a personal identity crisis while her entire world is being ravaged like a battleground. What’s key about this film that the villain, Lady Eboshi, is as remarkable a woman as the heroine. Though aiming to capture the Forest Spirit and establish autonomy, she takes in lepers and invites prostitutes to work in her factory while others left them to starve. In this world, women can achieve anything men can- San and Eboshi are just as strong as Ashitaka and the Boar Gods.
- My Neighbour Totoro: In complete contrast to the examples above, this film is about Satsuki and Mei, two innocent daughters living in an idyllic, lush forest neighbourhood. Satsuki is mature beyond her years, caring for Mei and her father in the absence of her mother who is hospitalised because of her tuberculosis. By carrying the weight of her family on her shoulders with strength and grace, by forbidding her practicality and wisdom from denying her kindness and faith in the spirits of the forest, Satsuki is just as much a leader as Nausicaa or San- as well as my personal favourite because she is an empowered version of the typical ‘dutiful’ Indian daughter. She is empowered because society does not expect responsibility from her, but she accepts it nonetheless.
- Spirited Away: Formerly an insecure and selfish brat, Oscar-winning movie Spirited Away‘s Chihiro is the most realistic of all characters written by Miyazaki. She refuses to choose an easy way out, and labours hard in Yubaba’s enchanted, haunted amusement park in order to save her gluttonous parents from being killed. By learning to trust and form bonds in a new world, Chihiro’s kindness and dedication gild the cinematic marvel that is Miyazaki’s magnum opus. A personal inspiration to me, her development and struggles showcase a side to young girls that is often overlooked- that ‘poor little rich girls’ and princesses are more than viable ‘better halves’ for handsome princes.
- Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea: Almost two hours of a stubborn little fish princess set on getting her way, Ponyo is probably the most adorable and yet didactic movie I’ve ever seen. Unlike Totoro, where maturity and responsibility are the key attributes that define the heroines as female leaders, Ponyo, the fish princess, is magical and happy in her own way. As her personality is aimed at influencing younger viewers, she upstages the Little Mermaid by rescuing a seaside town, finding happiness through a species conversion and finding true love.
Had I watched Miyazaki’s films when I was younger, I wouldn’t have wasted time adoring and idolising passive, inert Disney princesses who had unusually early marriages. While Miyazaki draws inspiration from well-established fairytales, the originality of his narrative lies in his characterisation of young women for young women- creating acclaimed filmmaking masterpieces.