Warning: this contains spoilers and plot references.
I have watched Studio Ghibli for as long as I can remember. My Taiwanese-Japanese parents invested in an ever-growing collection of Ghibli DVDs – with Chinese subtitles to help me practice my Mandarin. As a child, I fell in love with the touching soundtracks, beautiful illustrations, and epic storylines typical of the Ghibli film suite. Yet recently, when I began watching them again in an act of Netflix binging, I realised that Ghibli films have never lost their appeal because at their core are strong, highly relatable female leads. How does Studio Ghibli create larger-than-life, yet believable heroines? This article dissects Ghibli’s character designs and plot developments and explains why Studio Ghibli films should be a staple of the feminist watch-list.
Multidimensional Character Designs – Ghibli creates Realistic Women
What is interesting is that most of Ghibli’s protagonists are female. This is made even more interesting by the fact that these characters embody everyday women. When we think of animated female characters, Disney princesses are often depicted as positive role models for modern girls. Disney advocates argue that despite gender stereotypes, characters like Cinderella and Belle demonstrate values such as determination, courage, and honesty. However, these arguments fail to address how the princesses are primarily created to look attractive.
For example, although Elsa from Frozen (2013) and Moana from Moana (2016) represent a transition from the classic damsel-in-distress, they nonetheless reflect beauty norms. This is not to say that female heroines cannot have beauty and brains. Rather, it introduces the problem that women must be concerned with their appearance, even when they are saving the world or are embarking on a journey of introspection. Compared to their Disney counterparts, there is less detail in the appearance of Ghibli heroines. There is no superfluous make-up or intricate hair, no shiny dresses with decorative features, and most protagonists are in practical outfits that suit their active roles.
For instance, Princess Nausicaa from Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind (1984) is dressed in durable clothing and protection gear so she can ride her glider in a heavily polluted, post-apocalyptic world. Further to being practical, the Ghibli characters’ costumes are comparatively gender-neutral. Nausicaa, Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and San from Princess Mononoke (1997) are clad in muted blues, blacks, and greys. When the protagonists wear conventionally ‘girly’ colours, like Chihiro’s pink uniform in Spirited Away (2001), or Sheeta’s pastel yellow and salmon combination in Castle in the Sky (1986), the clothing is practical. Moreover, the lack of gendered colours is emphasised in the clothing design of male characters. This is most evident in the air pirates of Castle in the Sky – their female captain, Dola, wears navy blue, while her sons sport pink tights.
Most importantly, Ghibli’s female leads do not have, or need, ‘grand physical transformations’. A classic Disney princess trope is the moment when the character ‘transforms’ and becomes beautiful. While outfit transformations may at times signal emotional growth or freedom – like Elsa’s scene during Let it Go – one should wonder what values these transformation scenes purport. Visual gratification should not come at the cost of reinforcing the harmful idea that a woman’s value rests in her physical appearance. It is against this backdrop that renders Ghibli films refreshing in comparison. The lack of grand transformations presents a unique perspective where girls and women look believable when they are brave, adventurous, caring, and determined. The absence of beautiful outfits or detailed appearances makes the audience focus on the character for the raw female tenacity she possesses. It heightens her acts of self-sacrifice and strength by removing unnecessary visual distractions.
Similarly, Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli’s co-founder and key animator, discusses how Chihiro’s realism is prioritised over her appearance in Spirited Away. Miyazaki points out that the film’s fundamental goal was to produce a heroine to whom young girls can relate to. He explains that he decided to make Spirited Away after realising how ten-year-old girls had no imaginary characters they could identify with. Miyazaki states:
“[I]t was necessary to have a heroine who was an ordinary girl, not someone who could fly or do something impossible. Just a girl you can encounter anywhere… Every time I wrote or drew something concerning the character of Chihiro and her actions, I asked myself the question whether my friend’s daughter or her friends would be capable of doing it. That was my criteria for every scene in which I gave Chihiro another task or challenge.”
This extract captures the essence that underlies the character designs of all of Ghibli’s female leads. For example, this can be seen in the heated argument in The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) between Kaguya and Lady Sagami, Kaguya’s coach in court etiquette. Kaguya’s angry exchange over Sagami’s attempt to make her princess-like is summarised in the following transcript:
Sagami: “You’ll never be a fine princess looking like that”
Kaguya: “That’s stupid! Even a princess must sweat and laugh out loud sometimes! Or want to cry. Or get angry and shout!”
Sagami: “No. A noble princess…”
Kaguya: “Then a noble princess isn’t human!”
Through Kaguya’s observation, Ghibli brings to light the expectations that constrain princesses, and women more generally. That is, to be a ‘perfect princess’ entails giving up what makes us human. This simple exchange provides space for serious reflection for women and girls alike – is it even possible, or indeed worthwhile, to become the ‘perfect female’ who society has made us desire to be?
This seemingly ordinary scene highlights the studio’s conviction in portraying physically and emotionally realistic heroines. Through character designs with minimal emphasis on their appearance, Studio Ghibli creates female leads who are not defined by their physical appearance, but by their courage, independence and strong sense-of-self. When Studio Ghibli turns their focus away from the visual character design, and towards the depiction of emotional complexity and resilience, they create characters that girls and women can relate to.
Plot Development – Men Aid but Never Save
The most distinct characteristic of Ghibli plots is the absence of ‘forced’ romance. ‘Forced’ romance is the exhausting narrative whereby the female and male protagonists ‘somehow’ fall in love. An example would be Frozen, where the central focus on sisterly love also includes Anna and Kristoff simultaneously developing romantic feelings for each other. Disney princesses might inspire courage, ambition and fearlessness. But the need to include romance suggests that women are unable to be courageous, for instance, without a love interest. In that sense, the absence of a male figure tends to negate female courage. Moreover, this traditional narrative of ‘forced’ romance is limiting because it suggests to the audience – who are mostly young girls – that a ‘happy ending’ must involve (a predominantly heterosexual and monogamous) romance. Although one can argue that Ghibli films like Howl’s Moving Castle feature romantic love, it is nevertheless clear that the film centres around Sophie’s journey to save herself and Howl.
The plot development of Ghibli films is thus highly engaging because they offer an alternative to the conventional narrative. Miyazaki has expressly rejected “the unwritten rule that just because a boy and a girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue”. Instead, he aims to present a “true expression of love” where the characters “mutually inspire each other to live”.
In many Ghibli films, the male protagonist supports the female lead rather than becoming a romantic interest. He contributes to the plot by help instilling courage and grit in, as well as providing comfort to, the heroine in her story. Ghibli demonstrates how opposite sexes can become friends who inspire each other to grow. Although the male protagonist is a key source of emotional support to the heroine, he never seeks to ‘save’ her. In Castle in the Sky, Pazu asks Sheeta to teach him the incantation that would destroy Laputa and in turn protect it from Muska’s exploitation. Rather than descend into an expression of romantic love, Ghibli depicts friendship in Pazu’s solidarity with Sheeta that gives her the extraordinary courage to save the castle, even if it costs their lives.
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
Finally, unlike Disney, Ghibli does not rely on ‘unappealing’ suitors as the condition for platonic relationships. Pixar’s Brave (2012) is a recent Disney film that has been praised for its lack of romantic interests. Indeed, the movie focuses on mother-and-daughter relationships through Merida’s journey to save her mother. Like Ghibli heroines, Merida is courageous and independent. Yet it is interesting that her suitors are purposefully unattractive. The ‘princes’ Merida could choose from were either self-obsessed, lacking personality, or dull-witted. In contrast, Merida appeared momentarily in awe when a well-built warrior appeared to be a suitor. This plot makes one question why a princess is uninterested in romance only when she lacks suitable male characters, rather than because romance is simply not a priority. Furthermore, the fact that she was interested in the muscle-man reinforces problematic masculine ideals.
Ghibli’s female leads have more important matters to attend to than romance. Nausicaä and San are committed to protecting the environment and their people, Haru and Chihiro are set on finding a way home, Arriety fights to survive, and Kiki and Sheeta strive to discover themselves. This notion that females can prioritise other non-romantic goals is a stark contrast to the early Disney princesses. As Shagun Gupta states, Disney princesses’ stories reinforce gender roles because its female characters are rarely concerned with “external affairs”, such as earning a living or making plans for the future. Instead, the princesses are often constrained to the house in the depictions of them singing, dancing, and doing household chores.
Ghibli’s limited focus on appearance draws out the realism of its heroines. This, together with a rejection of ‘forced’ romance and portrayal of female strength and agency, is what makes the Ghibli suite a staple in every feminist watch-list. Whilst Western animation has progressed, there remains much to do in terms of portraying female leads who are at once larger-than-life and believable. I suggest taking a look at the world of Studio Ghibli.