Studio Ghibli's Female Characters Hold Their Own

Founded in 1985 under the helm of directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, Studio Ghibli has become Japan’s pre-eminent animation film studio. Beloved by many, films produced by the studio continue to be enjoyed by audiences - My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and Spirited Away (2001) have achieved cult status internationally. Spirited Away was recently announced to be adapted into a stage play in 2022! Getting tickets for the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo is as competitive as purchasing concert tickets. Queues of Ghibli fans decorate the exterior of the museum, all waiting with excitement to get a glimpse of the art and technique of their favourite films. 

The success of Ghibli films, apart from their colourful scenes and fantastic storylines,  lie in their characters; they are easy to relate to with body types similar to real-life people, relatable personalities, and raw emotions. Most Ghibli films are also centred around their relatable heroines. Take Chihiro from Spirited Away, whose clumsiness, facial expressions, and character growth allow viewers to identify with her, despite the film being set in a fantasy world. The women of Studio Ghibli, with their wit, charm, and intelligence continue to inspire ladies worldwide, no matter their age. Here is a list of the women of Studio Ghibli, defining what it means to be a kick-ass woman of their time. 

(Note that all movie titles are written as they appear in Japan)

As much as we love our Ghibli heroines, this list pays homage to the side characters who are equally as important.

  1. 1. Kushana - Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

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    Appearing as an antagonist at the beginning of the film, Kushana displays her authority and ferocity with fervour. The daughter of an emperor and born into a man’s world, Kushana is cautious of her surroundings and hardens herself — consequently, she cannot appear weak in front of them. 

    Despite her cold and brutal exterior, she cares deeply for the men under her command. Her selflessness and integrity ultimately earns the respect of Nausicaa, the heroine. 

    Her clashes with Nausicaa portrays her as a villain to some. However, despite their differing ideology, Kushana appears to respect Nausicaa’s views. Reason and honour dictate her actions throughout the film, making her an admirable character to echo.

  2. 2. Captain Dola - Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

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    The fiery captain of a gang of air pirates, her quest for the treasures of Laputa initially puts her in conflict with the film’s protagonists. Throughout the film, she slowly sheds her greedy pirate exterior and reveals a softer side to her personality. She grows fond of the film’s protagonists, Sheena and Pazu, the former reminiscent of herself when she was younger. 

    Her quick-wit coupled with years of experience makes her one of the most successful and respected air pirates in the pirate world.

    Captain Dola is a perfect illustration of strength and independence — women too can be brave leaders. She is proof that women need not fear growing old, that one can possess the same determination and qualities as in their youth,  ageing like fine wine.

  3. 3. Lady Eboshi - Princess Mononoke (1997)

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    Ghibli’s very own female samurai, Lady Eboshi, is first seen with her army transporting rice to Iron Town; a town where people freed from their oppressive environments call it home. Lady Eboshi is thus a very grey character — ruthless but empathetic at the same time. Neither wholly bad nor good, she shares similarities with Kushana. Both of them are leaders of armies, a role widely associated with men. 

    She understands the injustice of the female position in society and appears to care deeply for the people of Iron Town. She is also well-loved and respected by them in return, holding the highest authority as their leader. 

    Lady Eboshi brings to viewers her benevolence and confidence, setting herself as a fitting role model and memorable character of Princess Mononoke.

  4. 4. Lisa - Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008)

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    Lisa is the mother of Sosuke. She is devoted to ensuring Sosuke’s welfare, with insane driving skills to boot. Upon meeting Ponyo for the first time, she immediately takes the girl under her wing. 

    Her strong-willed nature is admirable and her empathy is reflected in Sosuke, where they care deeply for the elderly residing at the nursing home she works at.   

    Without much dependence on her husband (who is always at sea), Lisa revamps the female representation in Japanese animation, where women need not rely on their husbands. Without a constant fatherly figure at home, she takes on the role of both father and mother to Sosuke, opposing the typical family structure. 

  5. 5. Ryoko Matsuzaki - From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

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    Better known as the mother of Umi Matsuzaki, Ryoko is a professor in America. Widowed as her husband met his fate when his vessel was hit by a bomb in the Korean War, she single-handedly raises her three children. 

    Although far away in America, she ensures that her children are raised in a comfortable environment; a boarding house with wonderful housemates and quality education; both her daughters go to school, while her son, being too young, is cared for by those in the boarding house. 

    Ryoko’s position as a professor in her time comes with multiple challenges — women are the minority at institutions, where being a man comes with privileges in education. She shatters gender stereotypes, reminding viewers that they too, can pursue their passions, becoming the best version of themselves. 

Studio Ghibli offers diversity through their female characters, portraying them as independent, self-made women of their time. They defeat the stereotype of a damsel in distress, making them wonderful characters for young girls to look up to. Women are able to connect with these characters as they convey real emotions and storylines despite coming from fantasy worlds. Studio Ghibli girls hold gender-neutral personalities unlike the quintessential scatterbrained females of shoujo mangas and stand up for what they believe in, creating a generation of strong, independent women in animation.