Studio Ghibli is renowned for its female protagonists. They’re strong, smart, independent young girls, who hardly wait for a prince to save them and would rather instead chase after the huge but cuddly creature in the forest. They are everything young girls should grow up seeing on-screen. And although Ghibli are stellar at representing these strong-willed girls – there’s a huge problem going on behind the scenes. Known as a studio for taking risks in animation style or subject matter, the one ‘risk’ that has passed them by, however, is the act of hiring a female director. Western cinema, like Ghibli, has been dominated by male directors. Yet it has taken them many more years to reach the same positive representation of young women that the Japanese studio has. So how has Ghibli done it?
Although The Tale of Princess Kaguya was released in 2013, the animation style is nowhere near that of the colourful and bright Ponyo, released in 2008. After the magical forest graces them with riches, Kaguya unwillingly leaves to learn the princess trade. But continually, she longs to be home with her friends – who are all male. This suggestion that she fits into the male-dominated world better than her own inherently female one is intriguing, given the lack of female direction on the film. Out of all the top roles, (director, screenplay, story, producers), only one woman is included in the crew. Riko Sakaguchi, who wrote the screenplay with director Isao Takahata. In The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Ghibli evidently acknowledges that women can fit in anywhere – regardless of gender. Yet the studio’s on-screen acknowledgement of this fact clashes with their off-screen crew.
Whilst many regard Kaguya as the titular role in the story, it’s also accurate to see Okina (the old bamboo cutter) as another protagonist. This is just as much the story of a father, struggling in his valiant attempts to make his daughter happy. Whilst this does include somewhat less feminist attempts by him to marry her off, Okina is simply following what he believes the fates have planned for him. And since feminism is about equality, then both these stories need to be told; Ghibli recognises the flaws of both sexes to make mistakes. One cannot be held to a different standard than the other. Whether this is a self-referential plot point to Ghibli’s own struggle to hire a female director is subjective. But I would like to think so.
One of the few Ghibli films with its feet (almost) planted in reality is 1995’s Whisper of the Heart. Yoshifumi Kondō’s film explored the expectations of young women to succeed in education, whilst dealing with teenage hormones that often invite love interests and drama. Although many refer to protagonists as ‘girls’, from my own feminist lens, the word isn’t quite accurate enough. The experiences they go through such as the illness of a mother in My Neighbour Totoro or leaving home at thirteen in Kiki’s Delivery Service instil in them the characteristics of more mature, young women. ‘Girls’, seems belittling. Indeed, although Whisper of the Heart has its moments of fantasy, it is, in its essence, a romantic story. Importantly, however, it is not a romantic story that seeks to take over its female protagonist’s personality. Shizuki Tsukishima isn’t controlled by her affection for Seiji Amasawa; whilst Bella in Twilight spent a year on an office chair waiting for Edward, Shizuki carves out her own path waiting for his return.
But just as Kaguya has multiple protagonists – there are others deserving of attention. Shizuki’s sister, Shiho, just wants the best for her sister (just as Okina did for Kaguya). Shiho has had to work almost twice as hard to be able to leave the family home and forge out more independence for herself. It’s a complicated female dynamic compared to many portrayed in modern cinema – but one that needs to be shown more often: sisters fighting for each other, rather than against. And let’s not forget that Shizuku’s mother is still in education (working on her master’s thesis), a representation that seems to be one of the struggles of some modern cinema, but Whisper of the Heart hardly makes a fuss about it. It might be a romance about the power of love – but despite only one female member of the main staff working on the Japanese version (Aoi Hiiragi worked on the comic), it’s more feminist than many films advertise themselves to be.
The context of conservative Japan that these films are being made in, however, means we don’t know when Ghibli might take the plunge to hire a female director at last. But back in 2016, in an interview with The Guardian, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi was asked if Ghibli would ever do it. In response, Yonebayashi said; “Women tend to be more realistic and manage day-to-day lives very well. Men, on the other hand, tend to be more idealistic – and fantasy films need that idealistic approach. I don’t think it’s a coincidence men are picked”. But throughout history, how many times have women been told that feminism is just an ideal? Just a fantasy? It’s not for a lack of female Japanese directors. Whilst there are certainly less than in many Western countries, Naomi Kawase’s 2014 film Still the Water gives off strong Ponyo vibes from stills alone, and Miwa Nishikawa’s 2003 film Wild Berries, on the disintegration of a family, could be a new brand for Ghibli – the successful fantasy of a family on the edge who make it through? I would love to watch that!
Yet, what Yonebayashi failed to mention is that fantasy doesn’t always have to involve images of talking cats. Fantasy can be as much as the random act of kindness from a stranger, or a person’s dream. I would love Studio Ghibli to hire a female director. And funnily enough, I don’t think it’s an outlandish fantasy. Because, as they proved so many times over; if you believe in something enough, it can come true.
Words by Harriet Metcalfe