Women's History Month Feature: Why Every Little Girl Should Watch Studio Ghibli Films
The first time I ever watched My Neighbor Totoro -- the 1988 film by renowned animation studio Studio Ghibli -- I was just a little girl of no older than seven. It was 1996, Lisa Frank was my aesthetic, and all I wanted to do was swim in the pool, push around my Radio Flyer wagon, and play make believe. In fact, the latter was my absolute favorite thing to do as a child: Pretend, create stories, and believe in the unknown.
At this time I was already an avid Disney fan — Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid were my jams — but I hadn’t really been exposed to other types of animation, like Japanese anime, before.
(Don’t get me wrong, I went through a huge Sailor Moon phase — I literally left my childhood best friend at the park faster than you could say “MOON PRISM POWER, MAKE UP” to literally run home so I wouldn’t miss a moment of my favorite magical girl series, but that obsession didn’t start until a couple of years later),
No, the work of Studio Ghibli would be my first REAL experience into the world of anime. And to be honest, I think every little girl should be exposed to the work of Hayao Miyazaki as early as possible.
Ghibli and its Female Protagonists
“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.”
Studio Ghibli has been around since the early eighties, creating a slew of films with mostly female protagonists, with the majority passing the Bechdel Test with flying colors. So often do children’s movies have a young, docile girl who needs saving as their female protagonist that it has become ingrained in our society that this is the role of women … and women in film.
While yes, some Disney princesses or female characters like Merida from Brave or Elsa from Frozen don’t need a prince or king to get them where they need to go, we more often than not see a romantic relationship on-screen, which may leave little girls wondering if that is their only fate.
You get saved and then marry your savior?
I would like to offer young women another option, one where they have the opportunity to view films with characters who look and act like them.
There of course is nothing wrong with a girl getting saved by a guy. Sometimes that’s just how the story goes, but when you see it all the time, it can start to get old. Hayao Miyazaki, the co-founder and genius behind all my favorite Ghibli films, chooses girls on purpose.
And while I know that is such a strange statement, it’s really not as common as you’d think. Some of his first films, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky, were both led with brave young ladies at the forefront — one of whom wears a gas mask to survive a post-apocalyptic world and tries to ensure peace between humans and a giant bug race. Not your conventional “main girl” movie. But it worked. It worked so well that Studio Ghibli continued making films which have gone on to inspire many Disney and Pixar movies.
As a thirty-one year-old woman, I can say with complete confidence that Studio Ghibli has helped shape my feminist views on a very essential level. And while I truly adore all their films, there have been a few that have not only influenced me, but have played pivotal roles in my life as a growing young woman.
It All Started with Totoro
I was immediately taken by My Neighbor Totoro. The story looks simple on the outside: Two little girls (who by the way, resembled my older sister and me) move to a scenic Japanese countryside home with their father to be closer to their mother in the hospital when a large, furry king of the forest appears to them, taking the two on incredible adventures.
Oh yeah, and they get to ride inside a catbus? It’s a perfect plot for children.
The movie, while seemingly simplistic, shares beautiful panoramic scenes of people farming under clear blue skies, green fields as far as the eyes can see, and canals flowing with the freshest looking water. The sounds of cicadas blast in the evenings and you can almost feel the breeze on your skin as you watch the leaves rustle. I sometimes wondered if the big gusts of winds that went through the trees outside my neighbor’s house were really Totoro passing through and I just couldn’t see it.
Mei and Satsuki, the two protagonists in Totoro, were more relatable than Ariel or Belle had ever been to me. They were normal and curious, feisty and genuine. They were vulnerable at times, made mistakes, and fought with each other — but they still loved each other. They even went to school and did chores.
My Neighbor Totoro may just be a weird kid cartoon to some, but it prepared me for some seriously mature situations, such as coming to grips with the potential of losing someone close in my life, and summoning the strength within to handle it.
Hope Lies Within You
2003: A year I would never forget. My father passed away when I was only thirteen. He died in a work related incident, surviving a fall from a two-story building, but not making it to the end of the week in the hospital. It was my parent’s wedding anniversary, so the blow was two-fold for my mother. And all that was left in the house was my mom, my older sister, and me.
We were a band of what felt like broken women, without our leading man, trying to figure out if we could survive while also dealing with the grief of the situation. It was the most devastating time of my life. When you watch girls on screen who always have a male counterpart to take care of everything, it really skews your thinking — especially when your male counterpart is currently living in the spirit world.
I remember sitting on the ground watching Spirited Away on a DVD we had rented from Blockbuster. It had just won the Oscar for the Best Animated Feature Film at the 75th Academy Awards and because Totoro was such a hit in my family, my mother and I decided to watch it. It awakened my mind, to say the least.
Chihiro, a 10-year-old and the leading lady of this film, was not at all the ideal hero I usually saw. One minute she’s with her parents, the next they’ve been turned into pigs by a witch and she’s stuck in a bathhouse for spirits working her way to save her family.
She is relentlessly scared over and over again, but she can’t just sit there and wait for everything to get fixed. She has to do something about it. A boy named Haku makes an appearance, but he is not a love interest, nor is he there to save Chihiro. In fact, he ultimately needs saving before the movie’s end.
The elaborately detailed themes of traditional Japanese culture intertwined with the eccentric plot and heartfelt screenplay bring to life a visceral story of a girl who must find the power within to fight against all odds even though she is deeply afraid. I may have gone into Spirited Away with a bit of despair hanging over me, but Chihiro’s journey gave me that glimpse of hope I was needing.
Accepting Yourself Is Real Love
It was 2010. I was home from college, sick with the flu. At school I worked two jobs, took double the amount of class credits, was Education Director of my sorority, and had night practices every evening for my university’s musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." I was used to always being on the move.
Winter break then hit and with it, an illness that knocked me off my feet and had me resting in bed for a week. I was forced to be still, which has always been hard for me.
In the background of my daze, Howl’s Moving Castle blared on the TV sitting on the dresser, catty-corner from where I lay. It may be because I was bundled in blankets and feeling like the coziest marshmallow, but watching Howl’s Moving Castle almost healed me. No joke. I was sitting up by the end of the film, emotionally entangled in these multidimensional characters, and engrossed in the plot.
Sophie Hatter, an introvert (like me!) is turned into an old woman and embarks on a journey to turn back into her true form. Along the way she meets Howl, a narcissistic wizard who prizes beauty above everything.
Yes this is one Studio Ghibli movie that turns romantic, and yes Sophie may be a bit of a damsel in distress, but she is anything but a weak character. She is strong-willed and stands up for what she believes in, and also never lets her old-aged form deter her from her goals.
Themes like inner beauty and acceptance both play a large part in Howl’s and I’ve always felt that when Sophie overcame her struggles with self-esteem and eventually finds herself to be beautiful, it is the most feminist love letter of all. And sitting in that bed, surrounded by soiled tissues, I would have normally felt like a pile of garbage but Ghibli movies always have a way of changing my perspective.
P.S. Sophie saves Howl in the end.
Not All Princesses Need Saving
In 1997, we finally got a princess movie from Studio Ghibli, but not exactly the kind you would think. The very first time we see our wolf-girl, she is sucking the blood out of a wound on one of her wolf kin and spitting out the crimson liquid like the beast that she is. While the lead of this movie is NOT San -- A.K.A. Princess Mononoke -- she is obviously a fantastic addition to the tradition of strong and independent women that Studio Ghibli upholds. Although Princess Mononoke is more about respecting the environment and keeping the balance between humans and nature, I find San’s complete badassery to be a highlight of this film, as I’m sure the rest of the Ghibli fandom does too.
San puts 110% into fighting for what she believes in, all while riding giant wolves. She doesn’t need humans, let alone a dude, to save her.
Bechdel for Boys
While I fiercely believe that every little girl should someday watch these films, I find it more crucial than ever that young boys should also. We need girls to have strong role models and to see themselves represented, just as much as we need boys to also see that happening.
And, as for Hayao Miyazaki, he continues to come out of retirement every couple of years to write main characters with girls in mind. REAL girls who are constantly fighting a battle. REAL girls who are vulnerable, yet brave. Real girls who are intelligent and use their minds.
Real girls like me, and maybe even you, too.
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