Thoughts

Miyazaki and my gloriously human animated role models

I like this blog thing.

“Many of my movies have strong female leads—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.”
Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki, Goodreads

Hayao Miyazaki, in all his glorious wisdom, has been raising an elegantly poised middle finger at stereotypes of women in cinema since he first starting making movies. My favorite example of his feminist philosophies is his 1997 Princess Mononoke, set in the Japanese Muromachi Era (1336-1573), a time of great industrialization of wood, ore, swords, and trade with the Ming Dynasty.

In this masterpiece, the male hero Ashitaka is sent to a land where human innovation is grappling with an ancient and sacred forest with the mission to “see with eyes unclouded by hate.” The story unfolds in a swelling yet delicately orchestrated manner–captivating my young 12-year-old self in its beautiful visuals, music, and storytelling. Yet unlike every other movie or book I had ever read before, Princess Mononoke had no villain. No “bad guy” (or girl).

The leader of Iron Town, a successful, dynamic, industrializing town (consequently destroying the ancient forest), is the strikingly beautiful and driven Lady Eboshi. She is a dynamic, multifaceted character who sees the forest as a great opportunity for human expansion and industry. In Iron Town, she created a haven for lepers and prostitutes—outcasts of society—and even gave them opportunities to work and contribute to the town society.

Among the other contradictions Miyazaki creates within his hand-drawn frames, this example is one of my favorites for its simplicity and subtlety. The lepers live in a literal garden. Yet they make weapons to destroy the forest, and their iron bullets kill and enrage the ancient forest gods, transforming them into terrifying demons, terrorizing the formerly peaceful Japanese countryside. The eponym of the film itself, Princess Mononoke, was abandoned by her human parents and resents humans, yet we see her insecure about her status as a human living among the ancient spirits as one of the most prevalent themes within the film.

And don’t even get me started on the symbolism. (I’m going to start anyways.) Ashitaka stands in between the battling Lady Eboshi, representing human progress, and Princess Mononoke, representing nature, trying to settle the conflict without inducing violence. When I read articles in the news (we do this in World History class too, thanks Mrs. Pollin!), or listen to some of my classmates’ hyper-polarized political rhetoric, I am Ashitaka. Ashitaka personifies my struggle to maintain a pacifist ethic in a violent world. Every issue in our world doesn’t have a single villain, unlike most American cinema, with the Joker and Cruella de Vil and Darth Vader. The world is not black and white, good or bad, yin or yang. It never was. Yet why does Hollywood, time and time again, insist on portraying it so?

Ashitaka personifies my struggle to maintain a pacifist ethic in a violent world. Every issue in our world doesn’t have a single villain, unlike most American cinema, with the Joker and Cruella de Vil and Darth Vader. The world is not black and white, good or bad, yin or yang. It never was. Yet why does Hollywood, time and time again, insist on portraying it so?

Look up on Google to answer “is Princess Mononoke…” and one of the first autofill results is “Is Princess Mononoke a Disney princess?”

No.

She is not.

The Disney movies I watched when I was younger portrayed women as kind, soft-voiced creatures who are delicate enough to dance in glass slippers. (However—several of the “historical princess films”, Mulan especially, did break away to some extent from this trend I’m about to complain about. Disney, in recent years, has been doing a pretty darn good job on increasing the multi-dimensionality of their female heroines too. Thanks! Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.) Disney unnecessarily matured and sexualized their princesses, with tight waists and already-developed voices. In mainstream media, women are portrayed in one-dimension. I’m gonna say it again. In mainstream media, women are portrayed in one-dimension. They are stagnant, flat characters who smile serenely and are unnaturally aged by Hollywood all in the name of ~capitalism~. (Or sex appeal. Same-same.)

Miyazaki’s movies do not objectify or sexualize the heroines. They are complex and individualistic characters, human qualities that are too often lacking from Hollywood productions.

In mainstream media, women are portrayed in one-dimension.

A turning point in my childhood was when my mother curled up on the couch with me to watch Miyazaki’s 1989 movie Kiki’s Delivery Service. Miyazaki masterfully captures the essence of what it is to be a young girl. In my preteen years when I had a moppy side-bangs haircut and too-small glasses framing my eyes, I was insecure and unsure of who I was. Cinderella and Princess Aurora’s ultra-femininity posed unrealistic expectations for any young girl, myself included. I was enraptured by Kiki. I could see myself reflected in her, in the ways that she wasn’t like the other girls with colorful dresses and bouncy curled hair. As a 13-year-old witch, she instead wore a plain black dress and had short cropped hair. (Just like me! And no, I’m not sharing photos of those side-bangs. What a dark time.) With her bravery and unquenchable spirit, she leaves home to search for a new town to serve and gain mastery of her witch powers. Flying on a broomstick, accompanied by a black cat, she embodied the independently adventurous path that I followed when I first traveled alone to China at the age of twelve.

After Kiki, I spent my following weekends watching the remaining Studio Ghibli movies. Each movie featured another young girl, multi-dimensional and instantly relatable to me. I wanted to embody Nausicaä’s empathy, Princess Mononoke’s fearlessness, Chihiro’s lovingness, and Kiki’s dedication and drive.

Yet these buzzword adjectives don’t fully capture the girls that Miyazaki has portrayed. He sketched Nausicaä flying into a rage, stabbing 4 soldiers who killed her father, Princess Mononoke jumping back, scared and vulnerable like a startled cat when Ashitaka calls her beautiful, Chihiro stumbling and crying when the familiar daylight world turns to a shadowy spirit world, and Kiki losing her flying ability and being forced to suspend her delivery service.

It’s their self-sufficiency, and their “willingness to fight for what they believe in with all their heart,” despite their own drawbacks and human fragility, that has left me in breathless motivation and surging confidence in who I am after each movie. When I am dealing with a difficult situation or subconscious insecurity, these characters who fully embrace their dynamic personalities and identities, changing and growing with the plot, perfectly imperfect in their own insecurities and limitations, are my role models.

Women, including young girls, are simply just as capable of being a hero as any man.

princess mononoke. isn’t she cool?

Comments

  1. Nice writeup Mei – keep it up!

    One thing about Disney – as they are profit-driven they work hard (very hard) to reduce their plotlines and entertainment to a formula. And as you can imagine that is why their branding with their customers sets a certain expectation, a certain plotline, a certain type of character in their heroes (and heroines).

    The one thing that comes across in the Miyazaki heroines is their human-ness, and that is what resonates with you. Being human, all too human (see Nietzsche) will keep your feet firmly on the ground as well as inspire you to do better, to go higher. It’s altogether too easy to oversimplify, to reduce the complexities of human-ness to something mechanical, shallow, fake and tawdry.

    Okay, it’s back to work now…

  2. Wow, I have two blogger under my roof nowadays, I must be either very interesting person or just opposite of that. Alright, I hear you from the other room, it is not always about me, I will face the reality, I love you and am proud of you!

  3. *Enter the Yuzuki fan a year later*

    As I sit cocooned (oh dear this word has another side to it) in my room, thinking about the fabulous experience of being introduced to the world of Miyazaki, I found parts of both your writing and Dale’s response resonant.

    As you last night and Dale in his comment, Miyazaki characters are HUMAN – all too too human 😉 I remember pausing the movie last night and telling you how much I appreciated the old girl’s response, “no tea, but I’d love milk,” or the iconic scene of Kiki’s first run, fraught with fragility, to the outhouse during her first day in Okono’s house. Watching this movie during quarantine times reoriented my attention to appreciating my own and my family’s pet peeves  – the burning food on the stove as we nerd out about Persian poetry this morning, the dark circles around my own eyes from lack of sleep and etc, the mess on my desk and the many many sticky notes. Once again, I’m starting to value these small bits.

    To echo your perceptive note about Ashitaka, I appreciate how these female characters inform your view of values. I’m starting to further understand reasons underlying your inclination to inform happiness with peace.

    Dear wounded world, I hope you learn from Mei and Miyazaki
    -Kimia

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