Everyone knows that complex and empowering female characters are difficult to find in mainstream films. But there are some who have stood out and become the changing faces of feminism in cinema. In this monthly column, Jade Bate looks at her favourite film heroines who are strong, empowering and kick ass.
Last month I learned the heartbreaking news that my beloved Studio Ghibli was shutting down indefinitely. The legendary Japanese animation studio founded by the incredible Hayao Miyazaki has produced some of the greatest films of all time. Their movies enable audiences both young and old to be transported to fantasylands that fuel the imagination with wild dreams and extraordinary adventures.
Another factor that makes Studio Ghibli’s films so cherished are their narratives that reinforce the use of strong, realistic heroines. Ghibli films like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Kiki’s Delivery Service all feature a main female protagonist. In comparison to Western animation houses like Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks, the way Ghibli choose to focus on female characters is truly revolutionary. It’s only recently that Disney and Pixar have chosen to present us with strong female protagonists at the helm of their storylines, but even innovative films like Brave or Frozen still have a primary focus on finding true love. Ghibli’s heroines are more concerned about saving the world than singing about their woes.
In 2001’s Academy Award winning Spirited Away, a young girl named Chihiro is transported to a mysterious world where spirits and demons live together. Chiriro is supposed to be about 10-years-old which makes her the perfect role model for very young girls to look up to; she’s brave, resilient, caring and proves herself to be just as powerful as the spirits and demons she encounters.
In my favourite Ghibli film, 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle, the heroine, Sophie, is cursed by a witch to age drastically into the form of an old woman. She seeks a cure and meets a young, mysterious wizard named Howl. The film opens up a whole discussion on what constitutes as physical and internal “beauty”. Sophie ends up feeling somewhat liberated by her aging form and Howl falls for her because of her kind heart and strength and not for her appearance.
Kiki’s Delivery Service was one of Ghibli’s first films and featured a heroine in the form of a teenage witch. It’s an unlikely coming of age film filled with girl power and adventure. The challenges that Kiki faces aren’t just revolved around growing up, but also on the struggle to discover her destiny and find her place in the world.
Spirited Away, Howl’s and Kiki are all incredible Studio Ghibli films with extraordinary female leads, but it’s Miyazaki’s 1997 film Princess Mononoke which is perhaps the most female empowering piece of cinema in the studio’s repertoire. Set in an alternative version of imperial Japan, where demons, forest gods and humans all live in constant battle with one another, the film begins its focus on Ashitaka, a brave, young prince who is cursed by a demon whilst trying to save his village.
Ashitaka is told that this curse will eventually kill him unless he leaves the village, travels West and finds peace within himself. On his journey he runs into adversities in the form of gods, demons and selfish humans. But it’s his encounter with San, a fearless girl who was raised by a pack of wolves, that is the most important and intriguing. San is known by the humans in the land as the Wolf Princess (or Princess Mononoke) and her wolf mother, Moro, is one of the gods of the forest trying to save the environment from the humans that so desperately want to destroy it.
The film has a very strong pro-environmental message that is relevant throughout the world; it greatly focuses on the selfishness of humans who don’t respect the beauty and importance of nature. But Princess Mononoke also has a very strong underlying feminist message within its fabrication like many Studio Ghibli films do. The females aren’t just mere plot points in Ashitaka’s story, but well-rounded, complex and incredibly powerful characters.
San is without a doubt the most interesting and complex of all the characters in the film. Although she’s a human she honestly and full-heartedly believes that she is a wolf and a part of the forest itself. She cannot stand Ashitaka’s insistence that she is in fact a human being and she begins their encounter by hating him for it. She could be seen as stubborn and austere, but it’s her courage and determination to save the forest from the humans that is truly admirable and inspirational.
Like many Miyazaki characters, San is not a stereotypical hero and she has both “good” and “bad” sides, which allow her to become more complex and realistic. For instance, she is often very violent and has a very short temper, but these attributes can be explained for. Her violence of course stems from her upbringing and her temper comes from her frustration of constantly trying to protect the forest from humans.
But San then counter-acts these notions of hostility by showing that she also has a compassionate side, in which we see her taking care of both her mother and Ashitaka. In fact, the gender roles are often reversed between Ashitaka and San where she is seen tending to him against her common belief that all humans are bad and his so-called dominant male strength. Because of his illness and her inexperience with caring for humans, these scenes are often poignant and in vast contrast to the way San acts in the rest of the film.
Besides from San, the film is filled with incredibly complex female characters that play a far more important role in the narrative than any of the males.
San’s wolf mother, Moro, is one of the most powerful gods in the forest and she has raised San and her cubs to defend for themselves and the things they love. She is feared not only by the humans but also by the other gods. Regardless, she is still seen as a caring mother to San and even when she is dying, she uses up all her strength to save her beloved daughter.
Lady Eboshi is one of the complex characters in any of Studio Ghibli’s films. As the owner of the town’s ironworks, she is one of the selfish humans trying to destroy the forest for her own financial gain. Throughout the movie, however, we are unsure where to place her within the good guy/bad guy spectrum. Although she is trying to kill San and the forest gods, it’s clear that she cares for the wellbeing of others. By employing women from brothels and lepers to work in her iron town, she gives them a steady job and shows that she is willing to give anyone a new second chance in life, except for the forest of course.
The women of the ironworks themselves are also incredibly interesting characters. Led by the fearless Toki, they protect the town when Lady Eboshi is away and are portrayed as more courageous and strong than their dim-witted husbands, who are often used as the film’s comical relief.
Regardless of Princess Mononoke’s focus on the mythical world and princes/princesses, the film is less than a fairytale and more of a nightmare. Twisted imagery turns the typical Disney traits of love and happily ever afters on its head as the forest and those who inhabit it become crazed by the power it holds. Sure the story does end with the forest being saved, but in a very defiant un-Disney notion, San and Ashitaka do not “end up together”; this is regardless of their supposed chemistry and filmic conventions that determine that they should fall in love. After Ashitaka’s curse is healed and San is free from protecting the forest, they end the film owning themselves and not each other.
Like so many of Studio Ghibli’s films, Princess Mononoke allows audience to see a complex and diverse range of female characters lead the story instead of blending into the background. Unlike Disney and other Western animation houses, Studio Ghibli shows realistically flawed but ultimately empowering female characters as both heroes and villains. It’s clear that all young girls should be watching Ghibli over Disney.
This piece was written for and published on Lip Mag