Hayao Miyazaki, Academy Award winning director of critically acclaimed animated films such as “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle,” excels in storytelling and crafting believable, compelling female characters.
Over the past few years, feminism has gained an increased role in the national consciousness, and with that, there has been more discussion of how women are portrayed in film and other media. Much of the discussion has involved highlighting the fact that women are often portrayed as objects of the male gaze and/or devoid of depth, often there simply to legitimize the sexuality of the male protagonist (think “Transformers”). An easily identifiable example of implicit sexism in movies is how protagonists are depicted to be deep in thought: men by exercising or running, women by taking all their clothes off and showering. On the other side of the coin, attempts to counter passive female roles with strong female protagonists -the truly awful “Colombiana” starring Zoe Saldana comes to mind- simply show the limits of American writers in depicting women in film as just “badass” and nothing more.
A filmmaker who has not struggled with depicting females in film is the lamentably retired Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I believe the main reason he has been so successful in depicting female characters is that he is telling great stories, and great stories do not depend on sex. “Kiki’s Delivery Service“ and the critically-acclaimed “Spirited Away” have young female protagonists who are used to tell stories about their experiences with the transition into adulthood. Kiki and Chihiro/Sen are not passive, doting, cloying characters waiting to be swept off their feet by a male hero, nor are they shallow, ass-kicking, gun-toting sociopaths. They are, at various times, in various situations: passive, aggressive, sensible, naïve, caring, careless, assertive, scared, heroic and ultimately human. And while most of Miyazaki’s stories contain a leading or supporting male character who may become an object of our female protagonists interest, Miyazaki’s heroes are not defined by their male co-stars. “Howl’s Moving Castle“ involves the powerful, mysterious, eponymous male who becomes the object of Sophie’s attraction, but at that point, the power does not cede to Howl. Sophie has her own agenda, accomplishes most things on her own and, in the end, saves Howl. Yet again, the movie benefits not because it sells some sort of perspective or agenda (I’m looking at you, “Wall-E”), but because it tells a good, universally-relatable story and relies on a strong premise and relatable, believable characters to tell it. I have to admit I am writing from a specific perspective of enjoying art most when there are themes of environmentalism, pacifism and feminism, but not when these become hammer-on-the-nose or very hyped messages. What Miyazaki succeeds in is telling a beautiful story with a protagonist who is relatable as a human, and that American concerns of sexual desirability and male legitimization do not come into play.
The topic of this editorial arose after I had been discussing Miyazaki’s films and proceeded to ask myself, “Is Miyazaki a feminist?” That the answer was not obviously “Yes!” to me is a symptom of the poor state of American cinema when it comes to portraying effective female characters, in the sense that it has, for the most part, seemed to be outside the wheelhouse of most American studios. What I am arguing is that we should not be going out of our way to write meaningful female characters because meaningful female characters should not be out of our way. Back-patting ourselves for writing a female character with a modicum of nuance is insulting to women, making it seem as though complex, relatable female characters are highly impossible to include when telling a compelling story.
Until recently, it was thought that males would never read or watch stories with female heroes;”The Hunger Games“ series undermined that assumption to a good extent. Miyazaki’s protagonists are humanly relatable, regardless of the viewer’s sex, as they struggle with feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty that come with being a young adult. Ideally, Miyazaki’s films are what the portrayal of women will look like in the future. Perhaps this is unfair to other writers and directors, like asking all artists to paint as beautifully as da Vinci. But as a member of the American audience, it certainly is not unjust and not too much to enjoy compelling female protagonists. I hope this can inspire others to re-examine how women are portrayed in most American movies and seek out stories by directors, such as the great Hayao Miyazaki, that tell amazing stories by humanizing their characters.