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Portrayal Of Women In The Movies Of Hayao Miyazaki – A Legend In Japanese Animation

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Hayao Miyazaki is a Japanese animator, director, producer, manga artist, illustrator and screen writer. He was born in 1947 Japan, Tokyo. His father Katsuji was the owner of an airplane company called Miyazaki Airplane which manufactured tail fins for Japanese fighter planes during WWII. He used to spend a lot of time at his father’s warehouse and used to imagine flying, he was very fascinated of the idea of flying which can also be seen in many of his movies like Porco Rosso, Wind Rises etc. He used to often feel guilty about the fact that his family were very well off in a period where the Japanese were facing war. He used to read a lot of manga (Japanese comic book) by the author Osamu Tezuka(the father of Japanese manga) which sparked a light in him to become a manga artist, but seeing the situation around him while growing up lead him to graduate in Political Science and Economics. It made him understand the Japanese Economic distress. He was always good at sketching since a child, influenced by airplanes, warships and later on he also became good at perfecting human pictures. During his high school he went to see an animated movie called “The tale of the white serpent” which was the birth of an animator in him. It was released by Toei Animation in 1958 and was Japan’s first color anime. He was totally awe struck by the colored animation and the story, he went back to the cinemas several times to see it. The tale of the white serpent is based on a Chinese folktale which shows a young boy who falls in love with a snake goddess who takes on a human form.

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Work Life

Miyazaki was in a literature club back in college which was the closest thing at that time to group of fans for anime or manga which was getting recognition slowly. After graduating from political science and economics he started working at Toei Animation. He worked on several animated series like the Watchdog bow wow, Flying Phantom Ship, Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon, for which he suggested an alternative approach for the ending and his suggestion was recognised for the first time. He also met his future wife at Toei Animation who was an animator herself. He soon was promoted to key animation department and became involved with the writing department as well.

Miyazaki worked on an animation Hols: Prince of the Sun which was a directorial debut of Isao Takahata who was also one of the progressive animators at Toei Animation. Takahata and Miyazaki left Toei Animation in 1971, which became a start to a lifelong collaborative relationship. Miyazaki and Takahata worked together at various productions studios in the 1970’s for both film and television. While working at A Pro they co-directed many episodes of the animated series Lupin III, which is based on a famous manga by Kazuihiko Kato.

They even worked on short films like Panda! Go, Panda! which is story about a little girl and her adventures with a Panda while her home gets flooded. Later on Miyazaki started practicing his skill as a scenic design artist. He traveled all around Europe to get a better understanding about landscapes and backgrounds for a project which was based on western literature which was Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. It was his directorial debut.

The Beginning

In the early 80’s Miyazaki started writing a manga series about Nausicaä who is a fearless princess that defends her beautiful and peaceful valley from the toxic jungles and the inevitable war between them. It had a fusion of characters from the Japanese folklore and a character from the Odyssey in ancient Greece. Nausicaä finds it a challenge to defend her people’s way of life as well as treat the dangerous environment around her with respect. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was released in 1984 which was a feature film collaborated by Miyazaki and Takahata, with Takahata being the producer and Miyazaki writing, directing and storyboarding.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

The movie was the birth of the Miyazaki Style. The movie portrayed a strong female protagonist which was something very unique and different as usually seen in famous animated movies like Disney. It showed realistic and detailed depictions of nature and ecological centric themes. The film set a standard in the animation industry and also for him. His approach was very detail orientated like showing fungus covered forests which was something revolutionary in the animation industry. After 2 decades of working together, Miyazaki and Takahata formed their own production company under the parent company Tokuma Shoten. They named it Studio Ghibli which a certain kind of nickname for an Italian airplane. It was founded in 1985 which was completely inhouse animation studio till date, while other were outsourcing their animators Studio Ghibli made sure all their work was under one roof. As Melanie Goodfellow wrote in Variety, “Miyazaki is an old-fashioned craftsman who insists that all his characters and backgrounds are drawn by hand. ”

Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli’s first feature film was Castle in the Sky which is about a young boy who finds a destructive power active and fights it on a gorgeous floating ancient city. Miyazaki based this movie from what he observed during his trip to Wales, Great Britain where he noticed a miner’s strike. Miyazaki told Xan Brooks of the London Guardian, “I admired the way they battled to save their way of life, just as the coal miners in Japan did. Many people of my generation see the miners as a symbol, a dying breed of fighting men. ” Miyazaki showcased his love for aircrafts by creating detailed flying machine, in this case both the aircraft and the floating city. The film showed the aspects of nature in relation to technology, it showed a giant robot soldier who was a very gentle creature who looked after the gardens. The giant robot solider is placed at the Studio Ghibli museum rooftop which is gently caring for its garden. The museum is in Japan showcasing all Studio Ghibli works and merchandise.

The giant robot soldier

In 1988 Studio Ghibli released 2 different movies which went onto become a great hit eventually, My Neighbour Totoro and The Grave of the Fireflies. My Neighbour Totoro 1989This movie revolves around the relationship between two sisters, Satsuki a 9-year-old and Mei a 4-year-old. They move to the countryside as their mother was recovering from a long-term illness in the village. It involves a lot of Japanese culture like, the family bathing, the stone sculptures etc. It portrays a traditional Japanese village environment. The names Satsuki and Mei also represent Japanese culture as Satsuki means the 5th month and Mei translates to May the month in English. Both of them mean the month May. Originally the two girls were supposed to be one character in the movie but Miyazaki split them along their age showing Satsuki as the more responsible one. In Japanese culture when a child turns 7 they are taken to a local shrine to pray for their future and health.

The Catbus

The movie is a portrayal of Miyazaki’s life as his mother suffered from tuberculosis and spent two years in sanatorium. “What if something bad happens to mommy”? is what helped Miyazaki keep the balance between fantasy and evoking our deepest emotions. Totoro may look creepy and terrifying and his yawns look like he is about to gulp the children down, but Totoro and his friends never harmed anyone. Totoro even helps out Satsuki and Mei meet their mother as they miss their mother terribly. He calls for a Catbus for the children to travel to the hospital at night just to check on their mother which also shows the impulsive nature of children towards their mother and are so brave. The movie teaches children to be kind and always positive. It gives them hope. The logo of Studio Ghibli shows Totoro as the mascot which goes to show the success of the movie.

Princess Mononoke 1997

This movie was inspired by Muromachi period, which was the beginning of firearms in feudal Japan. The movie begins with a wild boar attacking a peaceful village who was driven mad by an iron bullet. The prince of the village Ashitaka fends of the boar but suffers a deadly curse by it which will slowly kill him, for which he needs to go on a journey and figure out the source of the bullet. He reaches a village run by women and understands that the iron bullet was being made there which was driving the boars insane. The village leader Lady Eboshi has rival in the mountain who is Princess Mononoke who goes by the name of San who was raised by the Wolf God Moro. San and Moro are filled with revenge and keep attacking Lady Eboshi so that she will stop harming the nature and animals around her. That’s when Ashitaka intervenes and tries to make peace between both of them and also tries to find a way to his curse. He tries to calm San down and asks her for help and follows her to the forest where the Guardian of the Forest is said to appear and would have the answer but there are people who wish to kill the Guardian of the forest which causes havoc all around. It is a movie which has a very strong female presence and are quite powerful. Princess Mononoke was the most successful film at the Japanese box office until Titanic, which was again overtaken by Spirited Away which is another Miyazaki film.

Spirited Away 2001

Spirited Away is a story about ghosts, gods, monsters and a person’s identity. Ten-year-old Chihiro is travelling with her parents to their new place, they make a stop in between and unknowingly enter a magical world. Tempted by all the food kept there without any watch, the parents decide to fill their stomach, but the food was the food of the Gods which turn them into pigs. In order to save her parents Chihiro comes across a boy who helps her enter the bathhouse as humans aren’t allowed there. She is determined to save her parents and starts working at the bathhouse under Yubaba who is a witch. Yubaba steals Chihiro’s identity and cruelly renames her as Sen and hands her the contract to work at the bathhouse. Chihiro means “a thousand” and “seeking or searching” and Sen just means “a thousand”. She’s strips of her meaning, she is herself but there is something missing in her. She faces a lot of obstacles and overcomes them all with her kindness and caring nature. She is shown as a very brave girl who finds her own way and works towards it.

The movie shows that everyone has a good side or the potential of being good. Even Yubaba who is shown as a mean person has a twin sister who is really caring. Yubaba seems really mean and evil but even Yubaba is shown in a good light towards the end. She tests Chihiro in the end to save her parents and Chihiro passes the test.

The movie was made without any script by Miyazaki, he says that “he doesn’t have the finished story when they start working on a film”, it’s a process and the whole team builds on it. This movie was inspired by his friend’s daughter who would come during the summer to stay at Miyazaki’s place, hence he made the movie for all the ten-year-old’s. After Spirited Away’s release, Miyazaki’s name was known worldwide and won many awards including the Academy Award for the Best Animated Feature Film in 2003, but Miyazaki didn’t attend the award ceremony as opposing America’s invasion in Iraq at the time.

Disney and Pixar

John Lasseter the chief creative of Pixar was inspired by Hayao Miyazaki and a friendship was formed. John being a former Disney employee convinced Disney to buy the distribution rights only on the condition that Disney would not make any cuts or changes in the movie. Harvey Weinstein who headed the Disney subsidiary Miramax films had a notorious reputation in the industry, he would re-edit movies s per he saw fit. Studio Ghibli was getting very angry with it but when Princess Mononoke was about to release in the US, Miyazaki’s producer sent a samurai sword to Harvey with “No cuts” written on the blade. And Weinstein had no option but to give in.


The female characterJapan comes from a strong feudal ideology in which women are given less importance than men and are considered to be inferior to men, this traditional ideology still exists. Women are not allowed to work and expected to only look after the house. Although it is slowly changing now but it still exists. In Miyazaki’s films women are no longer portrayed as vulnerable or dependable as compared to other animated movies like Disney. The female characters abide by their goals and ideals, they are their own person, someone who can take their own decisions and absolutely independent. In many instances the female is shown to have remarkable flying abilities and judgements. Miyazaki feels that flying is a form of liberation. Movies such as Nausicaa, Kiki’s delivery service show how the female have unique leadership and are much more than they thought of themselves initially. In the movie Princess Mononoke, the iron village is run by women mostly, the women wield the guns and protect their village, these women are also the one who work while looking after their children and joke about men which is something impossible to see in real life.

The female character is shown in all her sights, from being scared to being brave and tackling all kinds of hardships and coming out of it a changed person. These characters actually relate to all young girls and makes their personalities so alive. For example: Chihiro from Spirited Away is shown as a spoilt brat and lose her parents on the way, she is determined to find a way to turn her parents back to normal from pigs. She searches for a job even though she’s told she won’t get one, she tries to prove herself in every step eventually leading to a job at the bathhouse. All the lead female characters are unique in Miyazaki’s movie, it’s not the usual stereotypical movies which one sees. Princess Mononoke is a daughter of a Wolf, her parents had abandoned her, and Wolf God adopted her, she is a fearless character in the movie who does what she thinks is right for all. She is the “princess of the spirits” and very protective about the forest which she lives in. In the west a female character who shows masculine traits are called as unrealistic, but Mononoke’s aggressiveness and her ability to protect ever since she was a child abandoned makes her characters for believable. Miyazaki’s portrayal of women in all his work is very refreshing and commendable. He takes us on a journey of self-growth and empowerment. Being simply kind and brave can transform you, it shows us that girls can be either vulnerable or afraid but that’s not the end of it, it’s taking a step after being afraid, overcoming your fears and doubts to be something unique and embrace it. It shows even fantasy characters can be human.

18 May 2020

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