Leaning into the sweeter side of things, a look at how Ghibli’s depictions of young women have been a source of joy and strength, and a way to slow down and find contentment in everyday life.
Studio Ghibli films are immortalised in our consciousness as whimsical, sweet, and magical tales. The Japanese animation studio, established in 1985, has cemented a place internationally for having a variety of critically acclaimed titles such as My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), The Wind Rises (2013), the latter four all having been nominated or won Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards. The films, often receiving praise for their gorgeous art, music, and stories, have touched the hearts of people all over the world. One of the most unique and appealing aspects of Studio Ghibli films is that the storylines often centre on young girls undergoing a type of growth or change, and finding their own place in the world. It is through these characters and the animation studio’s depictions of girlhood that audiences can find inspiration and beauty, a unique type of comfort and reassurance, and liberation to walk about the world more confidently.
There is a certain type of grounded, practical resilience that is characteristic of the heroines of Ghibli. They navigate the world with confidence and self assurance, yet maintain a youthful and relatable innocence that never crosses the threshold into naivety, in spite of the fact that they are often very young. In Kiki (of Kiki’s Delivery Service), and Sophie (of Howl’s Moving Castle), there is a practicality and independent responsibility that allows the characters to seem more relatable. Kiki becomes a delivery girl for a bakery after leaving home at the age of thirteen, as is tradition for a young witch. Sophie works initially as a milliner before becoming a housekeeper to the eccentric Howl in an attempt to break a curse put on her. The protagonists, though both working, are not driven by greed or materialism. Rather, they are self-motivated and responsible, taking charge of their own fates.
Ghibli films handle traditionally feminine skills and traits with care and nuance. Their protagonists are never faulted for being kind, empathetic, loving, and compassionate; rather, the narrative often rewards them for this. Their strength comes from the fact they are able to put others above themselves, which Ghibli co-founder and director Hayao Miyazaki has described as being the truest form of devotion. It is through this selflessness that we as an audience are able to see the protagonists' deep sense of morality and self, their motivation to do things because they are the right thing to do. Chihiro (of Spirited Away) and Sophie both attempt to undo powerful magic in spite of it being foreign to them, out of love for the ones inflicted with it. Ponyo's love for Sosuke is what conquers all in Ponyo, and Sosuke's affection for Ponyo, as a human and as a magical being, is what leads to her being able to stay with him. Though San is unable to overcome her hatred for humans, it is the relationship that she shares with Ashitaka that gives Princess Mononoke a more optimistic ending.
Often, a Ghibli heroine finds a type of liberation and comfort in domestic labour. Ghibli films have an emphasis and value placed on domestic labour. Simple activities such as cooking and cleaning - things that are often devalued in a very busy, capital-centric world - are frequently shown in a positive light. While many depictions of characters doing chores are associated with gender-related oppression, in Ghibli, it’s more akin to a sign of maturity and independence. In Howl's Moving Castle, Sophie finds comfort in housework and is able to forge a place for herself in the household. The other characters - Howl, Calcifer, and Markl - value her for this, and later on, assist her. Her impact vastly improves the conditions of the household and it is in becoming Howl's housekeeper that Sophie is able to ultimately lift the curse that is left on her. In Spirited Away, Chihiro works in a bathhouse for spirits to pay off a debt caused by her parents. She is granted a kind of currency as well as respect for her achievements and gains the confidence to further herself once she becomes domestically productive. An initial scene establishes the more modern Chihiro in contrast with the other workers as struggling with domestic labour. Later, she and Lin, one of her few friends in the bathhouse, clean one of the larger baths single handedly, where Chihiro briefly experiences a quiet moment of pride. This builds to Chihiro helping a spirit in need of a deep clean, taking initiative and being rewarded with a gift that helps her later on. Chihiro gains confidence in herself and is ultimately able to break free from the bathhouse in her domestic productivity. 1991’s Only Yesterday has Taeko leaving the bustle of Tokyo to stay with her sister’s in-laws in the countryside and help with farm work, reminiscing on her childhood and ultimately deciding to be true to her younger self. Sophie, Chihiro, and Taeko all go from a place of oppression to gaining their own agency, independence, and experiencing growth as people, a transformation that occurs through their participation in domestic labour.
One of the aspects that makes Ghibli films unique are the frequent mundane scenes. Ghibli films allow a type of power to exist in the normal every day when the most ordinary of girls can find themselves in a fantastical adventure surrounded by magic and things they hadn’t previously imagined possible. Characters are regularly depicted doing chores, cleaning, brushing their hair, and finding a type of idyllic contentment in it. These scenes are key in humanising their female protagonists, depicting them as more than just 2D caricatures, but as regular people. There is a beauty that is found in the silence; it allows the audience to take a breath and simply enjoy the moment. The scenes do not feel voyeuristic or perverse, atypical to many depictions of female characters in animation. We do not feel like we as an audience are seeing something we shouldn't, rather, it is simply a soft moment of beauty, a vulnerable scene where we can view our protagonist through a more human lens. In a 2002 interview with film critic Roger Ebert, Miyazaki said, “We have a word for that in Japanese. It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally… if you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busy-ness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension.” Oftentimes, female characters, especially young girls, are not allowed to be their own people in stories. Instead, they take on a mythical, symbolic type of presence, or are relegated to a supporting character in another person’s narrative. In showcasing their protagonists as fully realised people, in portraying their female characters at times so inconsequentially, Ghibli presents an aspect of girlhood that goes unexplored in film, one that simply allows girls to exist as they are, as their own people.
There is a specific type of nostalgic affection associated with a Ghibli film, a fondness akin to finding an old family photograph and being reminded of a different happier time. Like many of my peers, I grew up watching Ghibli films. I have a vivid memory of being about six years old and having a high fever, watching Spirited Away over and over again, finding a small joy each time, watching Chihiro’s adventures and growth in the spirit world. As I’ve gotten older, Ghibli films have been a place I return to every now and again, providing me with a type of sweetness and comfort that doesn’t always seem readily available in the world. I think there is a kind of freedom that you have access to in girlhood, a freedom that comes with innocence. There is a genuine belief that every day could be something magical, for reality at that age is what you make it. Ghibli films take me back to that time, when I believed the world was kind and anything and everything was possible. Yet, those films want me to make that kinder world a reality. Whenever I watch them, I find myself encouraged to grow into a kinder and stronger version of myself, and encouraged to find contentment in the mundane every day. In Ghibli, there is a constant reminder that life is worth living, that in spite of all adversity, we can go on.
aarani is a twenty year old writer and poet from petaling jaya, malaysia. writing has been her passion for as long as she can remember and she someday hopes to go into journalism. she is an op-ed writer for love letters magazine.