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Hayao Miyazaki: the great feminist filmmaker of his time

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As the Studio Ghibli chief retires, we look the philosophy and feminism that has flowed through his work

Studio Ghibli’s latest film, The Wind Rises, was released in the UK earlier this month to broad critical acclaim. Despite being the highest grossing film in 2013 in Japan after its release there last summer, The Wind Rises received a chilly reception from Japanese authorities due to its pacifistic themes, that focused on the designer of a WW2 fighter plane. However, the most notable thing about the film was that it marked the end of the head of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki’s career, with his retirement two months after its release.

Now that Miyazaki’s remarkable career has come to a timely end it seems fitting to take a look back at his legacy as one of the greatest feminist film makers of our time who provided an alternative to action-packed and often misogynistic Western entertainment across the world; setting an example for human-kind everywhere with regards to their attitudes towards each other and the environment.

Ghibli films provide a perfect alternative to Disney’s arguably sexist and racist portrayals

During his lengthy and prosperous career, Miyazaki won the hearts and imaginations of many. Often dubbed as a ‘Japanese Disney’, Studio Ghibli films provide a perfect alternative for those who had trouble swallowing Disney’s arguably sexist and racist portrayals. Just take a look at Disney’s portrayal of Native American historical figure Pocohontas. You could argue that the appearance of the cartoon version of Pocohontas was appropriated for a white male audience as her character was based predominantly on white supermodel Christie Turlington. The real Pocohontas was in fact a political pioneer as she helped agree negotiations between her father and the colonists. The girl was just 12 years old when she met Captain Smith and their relationship was certainly not a romantic one. The real Pocohontas was said to have been a wild and fearsome full-bodied woman armed with spears and arrows – much like Miyazake’s Princess Mononoke.  Disney chose to eradicate Pocohontas’s political achievements from their animation and instead to portray a domesticated and sexualised caricature of her legacy.

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Though The Wind Rises features an adult male as the main character, the majority of Miyazaki’s animations have featured a female infant or young woman in the lead role. In contrast to popular culture’s traditionally accepted idea which denotes the value of a female character on good looks and sex appeal – all viewed through the binoculars of the male gaze – Miyazaki’s choice of strong female characters throughout his work provides an alternative portrayal of women. The ‘weaker’ sex are herein judged on strength of character, integrity and skill alone – something which Disney could never have claim to. Films such as Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds are focused on saving the dying planet from humanity with a female lead character who does not compromise her femininity in the process – and nobody is left wondering when her Prince Charming is going to turn up.

Not everyone liked Miyazaki’s final film: The Wind Rises finds Studio Ghibli at its most politically misguided

Feminist critics such as Betty Friedan have long had beef with popular culture, exemplified by Disney, for presenting women as having no, or very little voice of their own. Friedan explains that she feels the real reason stories of romantic interest are so prevelent across the globe is because they are showing a simplified route to happiness. This can be comforting yet damaging as it often doesn’t face up to the truth – a kind of escapism from reality. “It is easier to live through someone else than to complete yourself. The freedom to lead and plan your own life is frightening if you have never faced it before. It is frightening when a woman finally realizes that there is no answer to the question ‘who am I’ except the voice inside herself.” After all, how many Disney princesses may have eventually realised that happily ever after was a farce and they’d married an alcoholic?

Porco Rosso’s Fio is determined to become a mechanic, succeeds on her own despite adversity and is well-respected for her talents, unrelated to her looks

Walt is pretty unfair on his male Disney characters as well as they are commonly prized for shallow values. Prince Charming is not praised for his extensive knowledge of any specialist subject or for his charitable deeds, but for his wealth, masculinity and smouldering good looks. Miyazaki gains the moral high ground here again as he portrays Prince Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke  as a gentle soul: “You would do that? Kill the very heart of the forest?”

If the Prince Charmings of the Disney-sphere were not quite the idealised gentlemen we previously thought, Sleeping Beauty probably wishes she’d set an alarm. Unfortunately, there are doubts as to whether Cinderella would have been so successful with the Prince if she had been a larger woman with an acne problem. This contrasts to Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso, as Fio is determined to become a mechanic and succeeds on her own despite adversity. She is then well respected for her talents, unrelated to her looks. These characters develop alternative and wholesome strong female archetypes.

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Both Miyazaki and his producer Takahata were involved members of the worker’s union at Toei Studios which was committed to ensure social justice. This passion reflects prominently in Miyazaki’s characters with instances such as the working women’s collective in Princess Mononoke. The women were rescued from the brothels and given jobs which show Miyazaki possesses respect for women in all social situations whilst honouring their rights and dignity.

Studio Ghibli’s integral way of thinking runs in line with the Shinto philosophy. Shinto sees gods and spirits in everything which results in a deep respect for human harmony with one another and the environment. It does not place people in hierarchy determined by their physical looks or monetary wealth. This is something that is reflected in Miyazaki’s attitude towards gender as he does not stereotype and instead sees everybody as equal.

“If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness.” Hayao Miyazaki

When asked why his films differ from Western ones, Hayao Miyazaki gives another reason aside from the feminist aspect using an analogy of clapping. In interview with Roger Ebert in 2002 Miyazaki explained: “The time in between clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness, but if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.”

The Japanese word ma is an omnipresent concept throughout Studio Ghibli’s films. The term loosely translates to the idea of negative space or a pause for thought. There are so many instances throughout the animations of Studio Ghibli where seemingly nothing happens: a character will sit and look at a river for a few seconds, we see a landscape or a slow moving scene. It is very unlike the constant action without space to breathe in the films of Hollywood.

The underlying moments of emptiness combined with a constant pursuit of strong feminine characteristics create something monumentally special throughout Miyazaki’s animation collection. Not only does the Japanese film studio manage to steer clear of common themes of sexism, racial stereotyping and environmental disregard they in fact create stronger alternatives. Animations such as Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds, Porco Rosso and Princess Mononoke give examples of how women can make a difference in their worlds either morally, politically or environmentally. This proves that there are callings which are in fact of far greater worth for women rather than their looks and Disney’s ludicrous attainment of ‘happily ever after’, or monogamous heterosexual marriage. Miyazaki humbly shows the world that women can hold their own perfectly well and they don’t even need the gimmick of constant  testosterone-fuelled ‘action’ to achieve their dreams.

Studio Ghibli regularly provides the viewer with the alternative idea that success and fun is not necessarily achieved by constant action, war and disrespect for nature. The Japanese animation studio’s films show that by disregarding the over-powerful male stereotype there is no need for males to prove their masculinity through mediums of war and destruction. Simultaneously they show that a world without oppressed over-sexualized domesticated females may mean a world with more female leaders who could possibly have a gentler take on humanity and nature. It would not be unrealistic to say that Hayao Miyazaki is a true genius of his time and his theories paramount to humanity’s prosperity. The inherent message throughout his works, it could be said, encourages human beings to regard one another and the earth as fellow spirits with whom to be united as equals.

Read next: More than Kurosawa: A guide to Japan’s forgotten “golden age”

Images: Studio Ghibli

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