It’s kind of recognizably sad that one of the best creators of fully faceted, strong-willed female characters is a man. But, considering how dominated by male influence the film industry is, it’s not all that surprising. As cinematic admirers we should be excited that there’s an outlet such as Studio Ghibli, and as someone who’s constantly trying to find a female representation in film, it’s nice to have an influence such as Hayao Miyazaki.
I could have picked a number of Miyazaki films (and I’ve written about most of them at length here.) He’s one of my favorite directors with a unique eye and dreamlike vision, an exemplary name among film fans. From My Neighbor Totoro to Howl’s Moving Castle, he’s been offering viewers beautifully drawn female characters that neither fall to archetypes or to one-dimensionality. However, it’s Spirited Away that truly sticks out in my mind to fit this column.
During the process of her family moving to the suburbs, a 10-year-old girl, sullen and lonely, wanders into a world ruled by gods, witches and monsters. Her parents are turned into pigs and she winds up working for a bathhouse that caters to spirits. It’s a premise that only works on the animated level.
Chihiro is a marvelous character, neither defined primarily by her weaknesses or her strengths. She’s also given the rare chance that many female characters are denied where she’s allowed a full character’s journey, beginning to end.
At the start of the film Chihiro is contemptuous, lazy and overwhelmed by her situation. She reacts as a 10-year-old would, not as a hero in the making.
The great (or one of the great) aspects of her character, though, is how she transitions from this meek version of the character to the Chihiro who has full control over her own force of will, her own fate as well as her parents’, and who can successfully leave this magical world that she’s stumbled into. The growth is effortless, a natural change of character while never turning into someone entirely new. She sees things, creatures, that initially would have scared her, but she ends up reaching out in kindness and in curiosity, and that ends up being one of her greatest traits.
Like most Ghibli films (although Princess Mononoke is the best example of this), the villain isn’t simply evil and good and bad isn’t black and white, and, despite a rocky start, Chihiro gets the most help from another female worker.
In the end it’s Chihiro who truly saves the day by remembering her name as well as Haku’s, saving him by returning to him his identity.
Identity is the BIG theme in this film, and what could be a more fantastic message for any of the younger viewers? That your greatest asset, your greatest strength, is yourself? Your strength comes from you, no one else. Miyazaki layers these insightful points with the whimsical, creating dreamlike wonders with poignant messages.
I could go on and on about Spirited Away as well as Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s work as a whole. Miyazaki evokes such a sense of wonder, such a sense of cinema – purely immersive cinema – that’s unlike many of his contemporaries. However, Spirited Away holds a special place in my heart because it creates a female protagonist that young girls can relate to, and not just simply look up to.