Monday, February 25, 2008

Miyazaki's Heroines

This weekend I watched Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), an animated film by acclaimed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, and found myself succumbing once again to the charm and enchantment of one of Miyazaki's quintessential heroine-driven films. Like Chihiro in Spirited Away and Sophie in Howl's Moving Castle (based on the Diana Wynne Jones book of the same name), Kiki is an independent young woman, struggling to discover inner strength as she meets the challenges that arise, slipping at times, but ultimately emerging victorious. Kiki may be a witch in training, but she is first and foremost, an average thirteen year-old girl.

Considered by some to be the "Disney of Japan" due to the critical acclaim and mass appeal of his animated feature films for young people, Miyazaki was one of the founders of Studio Ghibli, the studio behind the production of his films for the last twenty three years. However, unlike the typical Disney fare which tend to be plot-driven with a cast of older characters, and rarely with a single heroine in the lead (princesses aside), Miyazaki's films are character and theme-driven with one or two protagonists, often adolescent or teenage girls. (In most American films and television targeting children of both genders, the story rarely centers around a female character, rather it is usually the male character who take the lead with the female acting as his sidekick, in the assumption that boys are unable or unwilling to identify with female characters.)

While Disney films tend to jump into the action, spending little time establishing the worlds and the characters (so as to not to turn off children with short-attention spans), Miyazaki films are all about the establishment. Minutes are spent focusing on the beauty of the animated worlds - the breezes rustling in the treetops and the panoramic views of cityscapes and unusual, futuristic vistas. A similar amount of attention is spent on the main characters, settling them in their world, giving them time to interact with other characters and with their environments even when nothing much is happening, allowing them moments of gazing out at the sea or lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling. The films are very cinematic with a careful and elaborate focus on details to fully integrate the animated characters and their backgrounds (as is the case with most Japanese anime).

What is most exciting - and accessible - about Miyazaki films are his wonderful, well-rounded and identifiable heroines. These protagonists are not princesses in the Disney-sense of the word, the focus of their stories are not all about defeating the evil queen or winning the prince's heart. Rather, Miyazaki's heroines are real young women, the same age or only a few years older than the films' target audience. They may be enchanted like Sophie or a witch like Kiki, and they may even work in a bathhouse frequented by spirit gods (Chihiro), but ultimately, they are ordinary girls made extraordinary by the choices they make and the challenges they face.

These heroines are well-envisioned; their skirts billow in the breeze, their cheeks flush when they are angry or embarrassed, they run trippingly with flailing limbs, uninhibited and full of life. They are courageous, generous, and kind, beautiful on the inside, but often "ordinary" on the outside. They may be insecure and lonely at times and they may cry with frustration over losing a special skill or failing in a task set before them, but ultimately they swallow their fears and rejoice in their accomplishments, earning the affection and assistance of the characters they meet, and succeeding through their own determination and willpower. These young women don't just marry the prince in the end, they save their friends, themselves, and occasionally, even the world.

If only there were more of these heroines modeled in film and television for girls around the world to aspire to be.

Films by Hayao Miyazaki (English titles):

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
Spirited Away (2001, won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003)
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Castle in the Sky (1986)
Nausicca of the Valley of the Winds (1984)

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