Ms. Representation: The Miyazaki girl
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses the magical world of Hayao Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli franchise
What do our children watch? It’s something that has been running in my mind for quite some time. Mainstream cinema in our country rarely caters to children and young adults. Sometimes, even films or series about them cannot be watched by them: like the controversial French film, Migonnes (Cuties in English), or Sex Education which is set in high school but has an 18+ rating. What are we offering our young adults in the form of mainstream entertainment? The children are missing in it, and so are sensitive narratives around them. As director Megha Ramaswamy asked, “The new mainstream is brimming with dystopia and men writing about bodies of women, the same old heartland, etc... What are children watching?”
This lockdown, I was introduced to the magical world of Hayao Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli franchise (of which he was one of the founders). For the uninitiated, Miyazaki is an animation legend. Known for his exquisite hand-drawn animation, Miyazaki’s visuals are dreams in motion. But he is also a terrific storyteller, and it is his protagonists and his philosophy I want to discuss today. Most of his films have complex, yet relatable female protagonists—little girls who are trying to figure out life. They are brave. yet vulnerable, confused but intelligent enough to steer through the doubts. They aren’t damsels in distress. To quote his own words, “They will need a friend or a supporter, but never a savior. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.”
A Miyazaki film has plenty to unpack philosophically. The creator uses his young protagonists to address complicated themes, including recurring ones like environmental degradation, the question of identity, facing change, and finding hope and humanity in the unlikeliest corners. In My Neighbour Totoro, Mei and Satsuki shift homes to be closer to their ailing mother. The sisters confront the frightful possibility of their mother’s death, learn to take of themselves, and find the joys of sisterhood. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki takes on existential questions including ones on the spirit of life and creativity. She gets an Avengers moment when she comes crusading on her broomstick to save her friend.
Even the ‘romance’ in Miyazaki films are more about companionship. He creates a space where they push each other to be better, inspire each other to live with inclusivity. In a beautiful sequence in Princess Mononoke, San, the wolf-girl, bids adieu to Ashitaka after fighting together to save the forest spirit. “I love you, but I can never forgive the humans for what they did to the forest,” she says. Ashitaka doesn’t argue but accepts and agrees to be around. That is maturity and agency.
Miyazaki captures profound thoughts in simple moments. A new witch in a bustling town, Kiki feels embarrassed about her simple clothes. But as she longingly looks at the shop windows, she doesn’t notice a younger girl, who has chosen to dress like her, walk by. It is an important lesson in acceptance and learning our utility to the world. These are real situations that we need to be talking to our children about. Miyazaki does this without defiling their innocence and imagination.
The beauty of the Miyazaki universe is how no character is branded as evil. Witches and demons are not derogatory slurs; they are just descriptions. Nobody turns the tables as Miyazaki does.Take the No-Face from Spirited Away who causes ruckus inside the bathhouse and manipulates people with their greed and selfish nature. But in almost no time, he redeems himself in an organic way. Another example is Lady Eboshi, who wants to destroy the Forest for ‘development’, but she employs, no, rescues women from brothels. She teaches them to use ammunition and be independent, like herself. It is beautiful how he captures multi-faceted women in all their glory, even when they aren’t protagonists.
I love Pixar films because they tend to remind adults of the children in them, and children, of the adults in them. Miyazaki’s work seems to be at the foundation of this philosophy. In his world, thirteen-year-old witches take off to be independent and learn without fear. A ten-year-old questions the materialistic aspirations of older people. They can see this world ‘unclouded with hate’, their innocence not tampered with the ‘logic’ of the world. Miyazaki says he will not make films that make children despair, that he wants to make films that tell them ‘it is good to be alive.’ Exploring his universe reminded me of an important lesson: we aren’t all that different at 18 or 60. When can we see such lessons in our films?