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.