Friday 1 July 2011

Women and Power in the films of Hayao Miyazaki

Sally OutenPosted by Sally Outen

"Our princess is as strong as they come!"
"Indeed, she rescued me earlier!"
Nausicaa of the Valley of the

In a Disney film, dialogue like this might be written to be self-consciously subversive, a knowing attempt to play upon that whole "rescue-the-princess" cliché. It might come across as empowering, but it's just as likely to ring false, as though the writers aren't sure whether their main objective is to provide strong female role models, or just to show off how clever they are at messing around with fairy-tale tropes.

But these lines actually come from a film by Hayao Miyazaki, and it's difficult to find the same flavour of cynicism in them, within context. In Miyazaki's films, women are every bit as likely to be heroes as men, every bit as likely to be in positions of power – and the majority of Miyazaki's protagonists are well-characterised women. Miyazaki is often described as a feminist (most notably by Studio Ghibli president, Toshio Suzuki), and his films are frequently noted for their feminist themes, as well as for their elements of environmentalism, pacifism, socialism, and complex attitudes towards good and evil. For me, this was always going to be a winning formula, and in evaluating Miyazaki's output, I tend to find myself squeeing incoherently rather than taking an attentive critical viewpoint. So here's my attempt to offer a broad feminist analysis of Miyazaki's work, highlighting the aspects that I've found potentially problematic, alongside more squeeworthy elements.

OK - a couple of warnings. Firstly, this post turned out a bit longer than usual, proof that I should never start typing while watching anime. Secondly, it contains spoilers for Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and Ponyo. It can be inferred that these spoilers will extend to the novels and manga on which some of these titles are based. I haven't in
cluded Castle of Cagliostro (from the Lupin III canon) in this analysis because I'm not sure to what extent it is possible to detect Miyazaki's own directorial voice in this film from early in his directorial career.

So, the majority of Miyazaki's protagonists are female. Of course, as Disney has taught us, a female protagonist doesn't necessarily equate to a positive feminist role-model – especially where we're talking princesses. Of course, the title of princess is in itself a measure of a certain type of power - one that derives from a monarchical system. However, the nature of a traditional princess's power, bound up as it is with a patriarchal system that defines her in relation to her father or husband, is not especially satisfactory to me as a feminist.

In fact, at least two of Miyazaki's protagonists are labelled as princesses – Nausicaa and San (the eponymous Princess Mononoke). Actually, San is more of a non-royal-person-raised-by-a-wolf-god, so the label of princess is somewhat of a misnomer. Still, she inherits the strength of her wolf-god mother, and in her formidable defiance of the new order, she commands a level of respect appropriate to the old forest gods. Single-minded and relentless in her fight against the hated humans, San is neither mere love interest nor damsel in distress.

Nausicaa, the daughter of the king of a small nation from the Valley of the Wind, derives some (but certainly not all) of her power from her role as princess. She's courageous, tough, clever and compassionate, a skilled fighter and negotiator. Well-loved as a role-model within her community, she is not afraid to get her hands dirty, repairing windmills and studying practical botany in her spare time. While she works tirelessly to protect her people, she nonetheless maintains a sense of her own freedom, flying around the wilderness with the aid of a small glider. For those who fear Mary Sue-type characters, I might mention that Nausicaa is certainly not without her flaws – her passion turns to rage at times, most horrifically when she loses control and slaughters four soldiers upon discovering the murder of her father. Her understanding of her own capacity for violence informs her struggle to settle a complex conflict through non-violent means.

Unfortunately, the original western release of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which did not have the approval of Miyazaki o
r Studio Ghibli, was butchered by its editors and renamed Warriors of the Wind. It appears that a female lead was considered a problem from a marketing point of view – on the cover artwork, a number of male characters (notably absent from the film) manage to upstage Nausicaa herself.

<- Yay!

Um, what? ->

Sheeta, from Castle in the Sky, might also be considered to fit the label of 'princess', although there refreshingly appears to be a matrilineal monarchical system in operation in this instance. Having inherited a mysterious stone pendant and various powerful spells, Sheeta turns out to be heir to the throne of the flying island of Laputa (taken directly from Swift – Miyazaki was apparently unaware of the misogynistic meaning of the island's name at the time). A somewhat submissive character, Sheeta somehow lacks the appeal of Nausicaa as a feminist role model. She spends much of the film trying to avoid being kidnapped, eventually saving herself by inadvertently summoning a giant robot. Through her inherited status she possesses great power, but is unaware of how to channel it, displaying at last an ability to temper that power before it goes too far out of control (stopping the robot before it obliterates a neighbouring village).

Sheeta and male co-protagonist Pazu later join a band of sky-pirates (led by Dola, mother to most of the crew), but while Pazu is given a role as an engineer's assistant, it is taken as read that Sheeta should take over the kitchen duties from Dola's sons. It seems odd that Dola, who seems to be trying to groom Sheeta as her potential successor, should make herself complicit in such a conservative gendered allocation of roles – in consideration of her own reaction to such roles (I'll talk about this later), perhaps she is trying to force Sheeta to rebel*. At the same time, Sheeta has to contend with the unwanted attentions of Dola's sons, whose interest seems to stem from their expectation that she will grow up to be a strong authority figure like their mother (Sheeta's solution is to play the sons off against one another, each doing a portion of her chores for her).Having established herself as a competent navigator and all-round puzzle-solver, Sheeta then spends much of the third act of the film being used by (and later away running from) the film's male antagonist. At last, cornered in the Laputian throne room, she defiantly reasserts her right to shape her own destiny: “I won't give you the stone. You'll die, trapped here with me.” But it is Pazu, her male co-protagonist, who eventually persuades her to initiate the destruction of Laputa itself. As before, the power belongs to her, but the decision to use it is not entirely hers.

Ponyo is another 'princess' of sorts – in fact, she can be considered in direct comparison to Disney's Ariel, as Ponyo is a loose adaptation of Andersen's Little Mermaid. Ponyo is a five-year-old goldfish-girl whose parents are the powerful Mother of the Sea (also identified with the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy) and a wizard who has forsaken humanity and now lives in a submarine. When Ponyo develops a friendship with a little boy, Sosuke, and determines to become human, her wizard father Fujimoto takes on the role of The Little Mermaid's sea-king in trying to prevent her from realising her ambition, imprisoning her in a large bubble. With the use of her own powers of transformation and with some help from her sisters, Ponyo defies Fujimoto's power, looses his magic upon the world and goes in search of Sosuke. Her father, in turn, pursues her, placing his assumptions about her safety over her own agency. Fujimoto holds the most immediate power over Ponyo, but (in contrast to the power structures demonstrated in The Little Mermaid) Fujimoto is himself forced to submit to Ponyo's mother, who determines the conditions under which she may remain human.

Sadly, this is the point at which the film fails to break away from the problems inherent in The Little Mermaid, and even manages to further problematise Andersen's story. When Sosuke is separated from his own mother by a flood (oops), he takes on the role of Ponyo's saviour as she reverts to her goldfish form. Meanwhile, Ponyo's mother proclaims that Ponyo will be allowed to remain human if Sosuke manages to pass a test. While Ponyo has, until now, emerged as a resourceful, independent character, her regression to the status of a mere pet and her promotion through the actions of her male co-protagonist is sorely disappointing. (To be fair, the test itself takes the form of a question whose implied message I heartily approve of – can Sosuke accept Ponyo whatever shape she is? – but it doesn't alter the fact that Ponyo's mother apparently believes a male gatekeeper to be the best custodian of her daughter's agency.)

To provide a contrast with Ponyo, who is forced to rely on a male character to affirm her identity, in Princess Mononoke San retains complete control over her sense of
herself as a wolf, a fact that male co-protagonist Ashitaka fails to respect until the end of the film. In spite of her growing affection for Ashitaka, and her emergent acknowledgement of the need to forge an alliance with the humans for the common good, she does not surrender to the pressure Ashitaka imposes on her to return to human civilisation with him, instead reaffirming her own sense of group identity and her need to remain with her people in the forest.

San, Ponyo, Nausicaa, and Sheeta each derive a certain am
ount of their power from their place in a social hierarchy – from the gods, or from an existing hierarchy, or from the residues of an ancient hierarchy. Furthermore, the powers of Sheeta and Ponyo each have a significant magical component. Now – magic, especially magic that is strongly identified with women, has the potential to be rather treacherous in its symbolic significance. It may be considered an attempt to redress the gendered balance of power in society at large – allowing women mysterious magical powers, powers that may even be denied to men altogether, is a quick and easy way to facilitate the creation of convincingly powerful female characters (how sad that it is sometimes simpler to conceive of whole systems of magical lore than to envisage a world free from patriarchy!). However, such power is often illusory. Disney's Sleeping Beauty presents a world in which men's power is physical and held by kings, but women's power is magical. Maleficent and the three good fairies appear to be the most powerful characters in the film, until it becomes apparent that the fairies' power is only of use in freeing the prince whose tangible physical power is able to defeat Maleficent's magic. Similarly, in Miyazaki's films, Sheeta's and Ponyo's magical powers are untempered and unreliable – and both characters rely upon the agency of male co-protagonists to reify their power.

Kiki (Kiki's Delivery Service) is a witch, again living in a world in which magic is significantly the preserve of women. She has just turned 13, the age at which it is traditional for witches to leave home and find work for themselves. The film, like the Eiko Kadono novel it is based on, is a sort of coming-of-age tale, considering the emergence of independence, self-confidence, and creativity in its teenage protagonist. Because magic is coded here as symbolic of real-life power, Kiki's Delivery Service largely avoids the problems displayed by Castle in the Sky and Ponyo; and a number of non-magical female characters are introduced, their skills and independence shown in comparison with Kiki's magic. Furthermore, there is nothing especially mystical about the pragmatic magic used by Kiki and other witches; it is earthy and almost scientific, to be used professionally and in the community in parallel with other skills.

Kiki puts her own skill – that of riding a broomstick – to use in the establishment of a delivery service
. When she apparently loses the ability to call upon her magic (a significant departure from the source text), the incident is clearly linked to a temporary loss of self-confidence and does not undermine her underlying power as an individual. Indeed, through her friendship and creative partnership with another professional woman, an artist named Ursula, she regains control of her magic in time to rescue a male character from a rapidly deflating dirigible.Kiki's power, although it is presumably inherited from her mother, is not the product of any established social hierarchy. The same can be said of the power wielded by Miyazaki's later female protagonists, Chihiro and Sophie. And, significantly, although each of those characters develop in worlds where magic is used, they themselves are not magic-users.

In fact, in Diana Wynne Jones's novel Howl's Moving Castle, Sophie is provided with magical powers, although this is not at first apparent. In Miyazaki's loose adaptation of the novel, no component of Sophie's abilities is ever explicitly stated as being magical. Some feminist commentators have expressed disappointment that Sophie's power should have been taken away from her in this way; however, I find it somewhat satisfying that her achievements are allowed to come about through non-mystical means – to me, it makes them feel more grounded and meaningful.At the beginning of the film, Sophie identifies herself as not being conventionally attractive. She is aware of the romance surrounding magician Howl, but notes that “Howl only eats the hearts of pretty girls” (nonetheless, Howl's womanising behaviour, such a prominent feature of the novel, is all but absent from the film). Sophie lacks drive and self-confidence.

However, an encounter with the Witch of the Waste transforms Sophie into an elderly woman, and from now on, feeling some freedom from a variety of societal pressures she had been subjected to as a younger woman, Sophie begins to find herself. Rather than giving in to despair, she travels into the wastes in order to confront the witch. However, coming across Howl's moving castle, she voluntarily (coercively, in fact) takes on the
role of a cleaner. While Sheeta's re-delegation of domestic duties to men helps to erode the fallacy of conceptionalising such tasks as 'women's work', Sophie provides another term in the equation by joyfully embracing domestic duties as valuable and often unappreciated work, while reaffirming its gender-nonspecific coding by enlisting two available male characters as assistants. She herself sets about the castle like a ninja, working on both the state of Howl's retreat and on her own assertiveness.
However, it is somewhat problematic for the film to suggest that it specifically takes a woman's input, however much in control of a male workforce, to facilitate the domestic stability that is achieved here, and later to cast Sophie primarily as a Belle-style character whose power is to be focussed romantically on helping her male partner to escape his animalistic nature. Nonetheless, the film does successfully replicate the book's merits in casting an apparently older woman as hero, and in allowing her to come to recognise her own brilliance free from considerations relating to her surface attractiveness.

Chihiro, of Spirited Away, also discovers new elements of her own potential by taking on an unfamiliar working role, but this is just one of a number of spurs to her character development. Chihiro begins her journey as a sulky, unadventurous little girl, but, suddenly trapped in the spirit world and finding that she must struggle to sustain herself, she begins to discover her own strength and resourcefulness. She secures work in a bizarre bathhouse owned by the witch Yubaba, who tries to take away her identity – Chihiro must struggle to remember who she is while learning the rules of her new world and discovering novel ways to solve the puzzles it presents. At first, she leans on other characters, notably the boy Haku, but she progressively moves through independence to dependability, saving Haku's life and finding her way home.

The dynamics of interdependence are also strongly evident in My Neighbour Totoro, whose protagonists, sisters Satsuki and Mei, explore the countryside around their new home while awaiting their mother's return from hospital. These children are characterised as sharing either a healthy imagination or a strong connection with the spirits of the woods and fields – depending upon your interpretation of the film. While this power appears to be linked to their childhood, Satsuki in particular also begins to develop another type of power, identified with maturity (just like Chihiro's emergent power), and manifested as the responsibility she shows in caring for her little sister. It might be assumed that she is forced to take on this role through the lack of a maternal figure, and the family certainly does suffer certain stresses during this period in their lives, but Setsuki's and Mei's mother is depicted neither as failing her family through her prescribed absence, nor as irrelevant.

Comparisons may be drawn here with Lisa, Sosuke's mother in Ponyo. Lisa is juggling a full-time job at a nursing home with the care of her son in the absence of her husband, who is away at sea. While the device of Lisa's separation from Sosuke is questionable, we do gain a glimpse of the complexity of motivations of a character who is not merely a generic mother-figure. And she does get to race a tsunami in the film's most dramatic scene, an action sequence I certainly wouldn't trust Hollywood to allocate to a woman.

Porco Rosso is the only film on our list to feature a single, male protagonist. Porco is a seaplane pilot, a bounty hunter, and quite literally a male chauvinist pig. As the film progresses, we see his misogyny challenged by competent women. When Porco takes the remains of his plane to an old friend, Piccolo, for repairs, the mechanic allocates the job of redesigning the aircraft to his daughter, Fio: “She's young, but she's got something my sons don't have.” In fact, Piccolo's workforce is entirely made up of women, who work busily on the construction of the new plane while Porco, otherwise redundant, is charged with the supervision of an infant. He sits sullenly in a corner, his sexist assumptions crumbling around him.

It is somewhat of a pity that Fio, after persuading Porco to let her travel with him as a mechanic and then saving his bacon in a confrontation with some air-pirates, finally places herself as forfeit in a duel between Porco and his rival, the slimy Curtis. While the two pilots battle for their honour, Fio is reduced to taking a passive role, reliant on Porco to save her from becoming Curtis's prize.

Porco Rosso is also, I believe, the only film listed here to fail the Bechdel Test.

The feature of an all-female workforce is not exclusive to
Porco Rosso. Princess Mononoke also presents us with a factory staffed entirely by women, recruited from brothels by the leader of Iron Town, Lady Eboshi. In fact, women also frequently hold the main power within institutions in Miyazaki's worlds. In Spirited Away, Yubaba rules the bathhouse with unquestionable authority. In Kiki's Delivery Service, Osono makes the important decisions in the running of the bakery, while her husband takes a more passive role. In Castle in the Sky, Dola is the literal matriarch of the sky-pirates, her sons serving as her foot-soldiers while her husband is charged with maintaining the ship. It is also implied that the Laputian civilisation may have been, at the very least, matrilineal – only the female heir is able to unlock the power of the pendant, which is passed from mother to daughter. Of course, our excitement at this hint of a potentially non-patriarchal ancient society may be tempered somewhat when we juxtapose this with the apparent ethical questionability of that society, but the latter consideration seems to be a product of Miyazaki's attitude towards power and its potential to corrupt – indeed, I cannot think of any instance in which Miyazaki paints a patriarchal institution in a favourable light.

As I mentioned earlier, Miyazaki's antagonists tend to be complex and nuanced rather than one-dimensional embodiments of evil. A large proportion of them are women, in line with Miyazaki's character balances as a whole. In the interests of brevity, I'll abbreviate my discussion of Nausicaa's Lady Kushana, the hardy commander of the Tolmekian forces, and Howl's Moving Castle's Madame Suliman, a powerful magician and Machiavellian politician (whose character marks another departure from the novel). Instead, I intend to concentrate on the four antagonists who I have found to provoke the most interesting questions about Miyazaki's feminism.

Two of these characters are magic-users, and my earlier caveats apply here – certainly, the Witch of the Waste (Howl's Moving Castle again), suffers from the effects of the fickle nature of her constructed power. Coolly formidable when we first encounter her, the witch suddenly loses her edge when her magic is taken away from her by Madame Suliman – yet another change from the book. Her glamour also leaves her, and her appearance switches to that of a plainly dressed elderly woman. While I do not approve of those elements of culture that pressure women to pursue unattainable beauty standards, this forcible 'exposure' of the Witch of the Waste sits somewhat uncomfortably with me – rather than shaming women who are coerced into following such standards, I'd like to see some criticism of the institutions that maintain them.

Following the removal of her powers, the Witch is treated as a harmless, almost humorous character who joins the family-construct that is beginning to form around Sophie and Howl. Apparently a great deal more passive, she nonetheless retains her cunning and eventually emerges once more as a potent threat. However, the Witch's primary motivations, like Sophie's, stem from her love for Howl; defined by the man she desires, the Witch of the Waste retains only limited control over her own power.

Yubaba, the owner of the bathhouse in Spirited Away, is as formidable a businesswoman as she is a witch – like Madame Suliman, much of her power is linked to her competency in a non-magical field. She also exhibits a number of prominent vices, including excessive greed and bitter rivalry with her twin sister, but I believe that her relationship with her child, Boh, merits the most comment here. Boh resembles a baby, but an enormous, strong and fully articulate one – we are invited to infer that his apparent arrested development is the result of over-pampering by his mother. Indeed, it is only when he escapes her influence to pay a visit to Zeniba, his aunt, that Boh begins to grow as a character. This seems to be one of Miyazaki's more problematic depictions of motherhood, but there is a complicating factor here: I confess that I am not entirely sure how best to interpret the link between Yubaba and Zeniba. Almost identical in appearance but with polarised personalities, it is not unlikely that the two witches represent complementary aspects of a divided whole. At the end of the film, Boh returns to Yubaba without question, and it may be suggested that the development he has undergone derives from holistic exposure to divergent aspects of a single maternal influence, rather than from a severance of the maternal bond.
Castle in the Sky, meanwhile, introduces us to Dola, perhaps the most enigmatic of Miyazaki's matriarchs. A pirate captain, rough and aggressive, she is given to bullying her sons somewhat – nonetheless, her charges look upon her with affection, and the viewer is left with the impression that Miyazaki's own attitude towards her is similarly affectionate.

With broad shoulders and huge breasts, square jaw and pink pigtails,
Dola is swaggeringly confident in the power of her physicality. She deliberately adopts and discards traditional gendered trappings according to expediency – playing the part of a harmless old woman and hiding a rather phallic cannon in her frillies to avoid its confiscation, but happily discarding an overly restrictive skirt when clambering along a moving train. Choosing deep blue colours for her own costumes, she outfits her sons in matching pink and purple suits. She understands people's assumptions about gendered roles, and is adept at manipulating them for her own ends.

So, one more antagonist (or sort-of-antagonist) and then I'll wrap this post up, as promised. Lady Eboshi, the leader of Iron Town in Princess Mononoke, is heavily implicated in the devastation of the ancient woodlands that support the forest gods and San's wolf-tribe. However, the chief motivation for her actions here seems to be concern for her own people, just as her power derives in no small amount from their unwavering respect for her. Indeed, she appears to be trying to build a society better able to support its less privileged citizens; and as such, she provides welfare for those afflicted with leprosy, and choices for women previously forced into sex work. Eboshi's philosophy has both humanist and feminist overtones, and she invites comparison with many of Miyazaki's female protagonists. However, through the complexity of a situation that does not at first provide a clear solution from both a socialist and an environmentalist viewpoint, she finds herself in a bitter feud with San. The valid and complex struggle between these two powerful women forms the backbone of the film.

In Miyazaki's films, we are presented with a sizeable number of women in possession of power, which is derived from a diversity of sources and takes on a diversity of aspects. In some cases, this power may be rather illusory, or prone to appropriation by male characters. If this post places the greatest emphasis on the failings I perceive in some of Miyazaki's portrayals of powerful women, this is because I'm a fan of his films and hold them to higher standards than I might hold the films of Disney, for example. And while I find it useful to add a few caveats to the idea that Miyazaki's work is totally made of win, there are, I think, moments in every one of the films I've discussed here that have – at one time or another – made me want to punch the air with feminist joy.

* Tellingly, Dola later tries to persuade Sheeta to stay out of a dangerous situation, “because you're a girl!”. When Sheeta refuses, pointing out the hypocrisy of Dola's position, Dola laughs, apparently satisfied; she doesn't bring the matter up again.


  1. "Meanwhile, Ponyo's mother proclaims that Ponyo will be allowed to remain human if Sosuke manages to pass a test. While Ponyo has, until now, emerged as a resourceful, independent character, her regression to the status of a mere pet and her promotion through the actions of her male co-protagonist is sorely disappointing. (To be fair, the test itself takes the form of a question whose implied message I heartily approve of – can Sosuke accept Ponyo whatever shape she is? – but it doesn't alter the fact that Ponyo's mother apparently believes a male gatekeeper to be the best custodian of her daughter's agency.)"

    I think what Ponyo's mother did is rather sensible though. Her daughter is leaving the ocean for a different world and her mother wants to make sure she has at least one good friend to look after Ponyo. I imagine if a girl had found Ponyo she too would have been asked to pass the same test.

  2. Agree with rirakuma, but I also like the idea that the struggle for identity and humanity is not something one can achieve entirely by oneself, but requires the acceptance and involvement of others, even though that is something one is never entitled to.

    "Porco Rosso is also, I believe, the only film listed here to fail the Bechdel Test."

    Heh, most of the others fail the reverse Bechdel Test. Arrietty too, I think.

  3. @ rirakuma

    *nodnod*, I must admit, the ending of Ponyo is one of the things I'm still very much in two minds over, and I agree with your point – one of Ponyo's mother's big concerns is clearly to ensure that Ponyo will be looked after on land. But I think there are two related issues Ponyo's mother is dealing with, here:

    Firstly, Ponyo is too young to take responsibility for her own care – she has taken on the form of a five-year-old girl. But Sosuke is no older than Ponyo, and certainly can't take responsibility for her either. The important decision here, I guess, lies with Lisa and Koichi – whether they are prepared to take over as Ponyo's guardians. I assume that this is what Lisa and Ponyo's mother are discussing when Ponyo and Sosuke are reunited with them. While it's great that Sosuke is prepared to be a friend to Ponyo, the two children's mutual care for one another would not have been sufficient to safeguard Ponyo's welfare on land, and must surely be treated as a secondary consideration to her acquiring foster parents.

    Secondly, there's the issue of how Ponyo is actually to become human, permanently. To achieve this, Ponyo's parents resort to the 'old magic', which is lifted straight out of Andersen - if Sosuke can accept Ponyo, she will be able to remain human; if not, she will turn into sea foam (although it is implied that this just means 'return to her previous state of existence'). So I guess that the main issue I have here is with how the magic works - how Ponyo's fate depends on Sosuke's strength of mind. And, while I like to believe that the situation might have been the same regardless of Sosuke's gender, I'm not sure that the film makes this clear within context, especially given its roots in Andersen's "Little Mermaid".

    @ sagredo - yes, I think that's a good reading, and the film comes across as less problematic if you take it to be *purely* about identity and acceptance. For me, it has a lot of significance from a trans perspective – as a trans woman, I know that, while I can be clear about my gender identity within my own mind, I still depend upon the acceptance of others to allow me to affirm my identity in my life as a whole.

  4. I read this from a post over that the ghibli group on LJ.

    I tend to think another good example of Miyazaki's loose gender stereotypes is Satsuki's and Mei's father in Totoro. He's playful, doting, and down right maternal. He believes his daughters tales of magical creatures that he himself cannot see. He's functionally a single parent and is doing a marvelous job at it, and I think that should certainly be noted as an encouraging stereotype barrier breakdown.

  5. I watched Nausicaa last night. What struck me is that, as well as being all the things you describe - tough, courageous etc. - she is also, when it's safe to be so, giggly and playful, and, well, girly. (By safe, I mean not in the middle of some massive battle where giggling would be kind of inappropriate and unhelpful.) And she doesn't lose any respect for it, because everyone knows she can be serious when the situation demands it. I found that really striking.

  6. @ animelily - absolutely, yes! Satsuki's and Mei's father is a wonderful character, and convincingly breaks away from the sorts of father stereotypes we're used to seeing on screen. Yay, I love how "My Neighbour Totoro" just manages to be effortlessly joyous in all sorts of ways!

    @ Annalytica - I'm really glad you mentioned that - yes, I find it so refreshing to see it taken as read that Nausicaa's girliness, as well as her womanhood, are absolutely compatible with the heroic role she fills. There's some discussion of that point here, in an interesting essay considering the roles of Nausicaa, San, and Disney's Mulan and Pocahontas:

  7. "Secondly, there's the issue of how Ponyo is actually to become human, permanently. To achieve this, Ponyo's parents resort to the 'old magic', which is lifted straight out of Andersen - if Sosuke can accept Ponyo, she will be able to remain human; if not, she will turn into sea foam (although it is implied that this just means 'return to her previous state of existence'). So I guess that the main issue I have here is with how the magic works - how Ponyo's fate depends on Sosuke's strength of mind. And, while I like to believe that the situation might have been the same regardless of Sosuke's gender, I'm not sure that the film makes this clear within context, especially given its roots in Andersen's "Little Mermaid"."

    Although Ponyo's fate can be seen to rest on Sousuke, it essentially rests on the way she interacts with him throughout the film. If she'd been whiny/bratty etc Sousuke wouldn't have accepted her. My view is that Sousuke acts as a judge, not because he is male but because he is a human child and Ponyo's equal. He knows how a human child should be.

    I see the magic as being based upon acceptance. In The Little Mermaid, the magic is a contract made before she becomes human. She must fulfil the condition of winning the Prince's heart in order for the magic to work. Ponyo wants to be human to stay with Sousuke and as long as he accepts her for what she is the magic will work. For me this means that a girl could also fulfil this role because essentially Ponyo is winning someone's friendship as opposed to their heart and, unlike in The Little Mermaid, it was not prearranged whose friendship she had to win.

    Well that's my thoughts on it anyway :)

  8. @rirakuma - yes, I do see where you're coming from, I think. On the one hand, I'm not sure that Ponyo's non-bratty behaviour is highlighted as an especially crucial factor in her gaining Sosuke's acceptance - and while we see her becoming less selfish (notably in the scene with the mother and baby), I didn't observe a huge change in her relationship with Sosuke at that point. But my main reservations are still with the idea of Sosuke as arbitrator of "how a human child should be" - the concept of a gatekeeper, whether male or female, and however benevolent, still sits awkwardly with me.

    But, yes, I really like your point about the difference between the way the magical conditions work in "The Little Mermaid" and "Ponyo". For those conditions to have been pre-determined in The Little Mermaid (and set out specifically to lead to the mermaid's downfall), but carefully and painstakingly tailored to Ponyo's needs in Miyazaki's film - yes, that does make a difference, I agree. In that respect, I can see that the film manages to avoid some of the problematic elements of Andersen.

  9. "Boh resembles a baby, but an enormous, strong and fully articulate one – we are invited to infer that his apparent arrested development is the result of over-pampering by his mother. Indeed, it is only when he escapes her influence to pay a visit to Zeniba, his aunt, that Boh begins to grow as a character. This seems to be one of Miyazaki's more problematic depictions of motherhood..."

    I don't really see her portrayal as a blanket statement about motherhood but more about her character's relationship with motherhood and reflecting on the type of person (not just woman) she is. In the real world there are all kinds of mothers, some being overbearing & overly doting/protective, which have all kinds of influences on the child being raised.