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Complex heroines in animation: Japanese heroines and how they refute gender stereotypes

By: Emily Chu

The history of heroines in animation is long, but the authenticity of such characters remains in question. Compared to many of American heroines, however, many Japanese female protagonists are often more complex and real. They have their own thoughts, ideas, strengths, and weaknesses, and are “everyday, real [people]”, said by Hayao Miyazaki, a Japanese animator and filmmaker.

Miyazaki’s heroines are sharply different from the usual heroes who save the world using physical strength, and even less like American female heroines in animation who are sensitive and depend on princes to achieve what they want.

Many of Miyazaki’s films include strong female protagonists, such as Chihiro from the award-winning movie Spirited Away. At first glance, she is a typical ten-year-old girl, stubborn and childish. In the beginning, she is mad at her parents because they are moving to a new place and she doesn’t want to go.

But beneath her stubborn behavior, she is very mature and has respect for rules. When Chihiro and her family explore an abandoned theme park (which is actually a bathhouse for the spirits), her parents find a food stall and starts eating the food, even though there was no one present at the restaurant to give them permission.

Chihiro’s father reassures Chihiro by saying, “Don’t worry, you’ve got Daddy here. He’s got credit cards and cash.” Chihiro doesn’t eat anything, knowing they’ll get in trouble. This saves her from being turned into a pig, like her parents. To return her parents to the human world, Chihiro must work in the bathhouse. She is not like Disney princesses who go on a quest to save the entire world, but instead acts out of love for her parents.

This stands in contrast with previous gender stereotypes that became popular in Disney films with female leads. “When you think of animation and female leads, you always go to the fairy tale tropes,” Mamoru Hosoda, another Japanese film director says.

Through the experience of working in the bathhouse, Chihiro is forced to develop of courage and perseverance. She learns about true friendship, and the importance of preserving her identity, which she must do to return to the human world. As she walks out of the spirit world, Chihiro is a more responsible, independent, and self-reflective person with great care for others.

Similarly, Miyazaki’s other films such as Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind all have female protagonists who are complex and layered.

In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki is a witch who grew up in a magical family. Despite her natural talent, she still has lots to learn. She is just an average 13-year-old girl in many ways: inexperienced, immature in some cases, and very stubborn. She has a great desire to prove herself, but her pride sometimes puts her at a disadvantage.

"Instead of making other people happy, Kiki is the kind of person who ends up relying on others without realizing it. What concerns her the most are her feelings and her happiness,” Miyazaki says.

As the world of animation continues to evolve, the heroines of Studio Ghibli and other Japanese filmmakers represent a model that the world—regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, and nationalism—should follow.

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