by Raizel Liebler
I love Hayao Miyazaki movies – the animation, the beauty, and the characters. But one of the elements I most appreciate is the focus on girls in that frequently awkward age between eight and twelve – too old to be little and cute, but too young to be a teen – with the freedoms and heartbreak of teenagehood.
Yes, there are the Disney and Nickelodeon especially annoying tween shows and precocious stars before they crash, and the unending team teen anime shows, but Miyazaki movies stand alone. Most of his movies are based around tween girls facing difficult challenges ranging from saving entire societies (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Laputa: Castle in the Sky; Princess Mononoke); to saving selfish parents and others (Spirited Away); to finding their place in the world (Kiki’s Delivery Service; Ponyo) to getting through a summer without one parent (My Neighbor Totoro).
Some of the movies do have a shadow of boy-girl romance, but even when these pre-romances exist, they are based around the idea that the two characters are friends first. (Miyazaki’s exceptions to this rule, such as in Howl’s Moving Castle, involve adults or late teens). And one of the most touching demonstrations of love in a Miyazaki movie is when Ponyo is accepted as a sibling by the boy she loves and his family, a very different interpretation of The Little Mermaid story from the original (where the mermaid basically commits suicide so that the prince can live) or from the Disney version where romance reigns. And My Neighbor Totoro includes a touching portrayal of the loving, but annoyed, but protecting relationship between siblings.
Many of the relationships portrayed are deeply complex – often with the antagonist being changed through the process as much as the hero(es). This is especially true in Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke where an antagonist is literally changed by the experience.
Additionally, many of the movies have middle-aged or old women as important characters who move the story along. In only Ponyo is one of the women a mother who driven to action by her child(ren), and even in that case, the mother focuses her efforts on her work. It is important for children to see women as having an identity outside of “mom” and the characters of Kushana (Nausicaa), Captain Dola (Castle in the Sky), Osono (Kiki’s Delivery Service), Lady Eboshi (Princess Mononoke), Yubaba & Zeniba (Spirited Away); Witch of the Waste (and Sophie during her transformation) (Howl’s Moving Castle); Haru (The Secret World of Arrietty) all have an important non-parental roles in the story. And My Neighbor Totoro and The Secret World of Arrietty have non-parents (a grandmother and a great-aunt) acting as parents. And Ponyo has a whole cadre of elderly women who serve as a Greek chorus for the story – as much as Ponyo’s fish sisters.
While I started watching Miyazaki movies past the age of most of the main characters (with the possible exception of Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle), I have observed the value they have for kids in the ages frequently portrayed. Considering the mainstream kid-directed stuff for girls is super-princessy, it’s nice to see movies with strong interesting characters who happen to be girls. But what is also interesting is their difference in tone also allows for viewers to be brought along based on whether they are looking for something action-oriented, like Princess Mononoke – or calming. Both Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro are both interesting enough for the adults involved – and soothing for sick kids.
The transition to adulthood through teenagehood is a difficult one for many girls and Miyazaki movies allow for the possibility that there is more on the other side than just finding the right guy – being a fierce warrior, being a princess and giving it up, saving one’s selfish family, finding one’s calling, and being a good sister.