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Portrayals of Gender in Studio Ghibli Films

Many movies under Studio Ghibli have been lauded for their strong, complex female protagonists. Chihiro from Spirited Away, San from Princess Mononoke, and several others come to mind immediately. Hayao Miyazaki writes “brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe with all their heart. They’ll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a savior. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man”.

However progressive Studio Ghibli may seem, the representation is nowhere near perfect. Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura has gone on record to say that women are too realistic to direct these fantasy films, and “men on the other hand tend to be more idealistic—and fantasy films need that idealistic approach. I don’t think it’s a coincidence men are picked”. But many Studio Ghibli films are movie adaptations of stories originally written by women. Diana Wynne Jones wrote the original novel “Howl’s Moving Castle”, Ursula K. Le Guin was the original novelist of the “Tales from Earthsea” books, and Eiko Kadono wrote not just “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, but also five sequels to it.

It might also be worth looking at some character portrayals from a folkloric perspective. It is certainly true that many young female protagonists are brave, independent, and heroic. But many Studio Ghibli villains such as Yubaba and Suleiman are magical women and fall into the “old hag” archetype of Western folklore, which Miyazaki has taken inspiration from countless times. These women are characteristically old and thus “ugly”, or not conventionally attractive, and they serve as antagonists to more conventionally attractive, younger women. Meanwhile, magical men such as Haku and Howl are often portrayed as heroic and noble—not without their own character flaws, of course, but there is still a distinct contrast. As progressive as Miyazaki is with his portrayal of women, he still relies on archetypes such as these, whether intentionally or not.

This topic is open to any discussion regarding portrayals of gender in any Studio Ghibli film, whether positive or negative.

  • Interesting!! I think that part of it may stem from the fact that Japan seems to have a lot of myths about 'old hags' or women/female-appearing demons who are evil. However, as I am not Japanese nor know Japanese myths well, I cannot say for sure. Regardless, this is an interesting problem, though perhaps a bit West-aligned. – FinallyHome 3 years ago
  • Beautifully written. To me the sharp contrast between the delicate yet fierce heroines and the exaggerated features of elderly women who challenge them highlight the focus that neither age, size nor magical prowess can defeat pure intentions, determinations and pragmatism. Thank you – amyg1 6 months ago

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Latest Comments

Great article! I didn’t enjoy Frozen II that much, but Kristoff’s characterization was a definite highlight for me. Great to see a male character not bound by toxic masculinity and in a support role while the women can have the spotlight. (I still didn’t like the romance subplot though, hah.)

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