Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli Aesthetic: Unparalleled Female Protagonist & Man vs. Nature

By: Domonique Cox-Salberg

The work of Hayao Miyazaki is soulfully distinct and loved by many. Those who have seen all of his animated films can conclude a few things: he favors strong female-leads and the dichotomy between man vs. nature. There are many different storylines found in his film’s; yet, these two elements are what ties them together to make an undeniably recognizable Studio Ghibli aesthetic.

Miyazaki’s Rendition Of A Female Protagonist

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Princess Mononoke (1997)

A female protagonist leads Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, From Up on Poppy Hill, The Secret World of Arrietty, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and more of Miyazaki films. Nevertheless, how Miyazaki expresses strong female characters with subtlety is where appreciation of this aesthetic lies, letting the viewer experience the protagonist’s genuine journey detached from labels. Rather, these characters are established by how they respond to their esoteric adventures making the fact that they are female, not critical within the simply compelling story.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

However, this is not to say that having female leads is unimportant. Its to assert that part of Miyazaki’s success is his strong female protagonists’ being so in your face yet subtle, transcend into something more profound. Which is that girls do not have to have their strength, bravery, and self-sufficiency spoke for or declared, their capability is already implied. It is wonderful to be able to visit his works and witness his female portrayal in contrast to popular media’s representation. Miyazaki goes beyond meeting a comfortable quota of what a girl should be and instead creates nuanced characters with an agency that feels real. Each is strong-willed and critical thinkers that take charge of their destiny to break the mold of a similar classic Disney Princess audience.

Tension Between The Natural & Man-Made Worlds

Princess Mononoke - Joyless Creatures
Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke (1997)

Along with female bold and intelligent leads, the Japanese animator often sets his stories in fantasy worlds in which humanity and nature are at odds. Compelled by curiosity, empathy, and love, his protagonists use these feelings to fuel their fight for peace. The starkest example of these clashing worlds takes place in Princess Mononoke, where Ashitaka is forced to find a solution to the foreboding demon-like entity rising within the mythical forest and human-inhabited lands which are on a conquest for iron. He soon learns there is no black and white solution.

While also dealing with Mononoke’s bloodlust for characters like the gun-toting Lady Eboshi, who simultaneously exhausts the forest with her mines and tenderly welcomes lepers and former prostitutes into her ranks. So, in Mononoke’s quest for preventing further deforestation, as viewers, we can find moments of sacrifice made in the hope of forging peace between the forces of nature and man. In these moments, Miyazaki’s heroes and heroines display respect for the complexity and power of nature, and his antagonists begin to understand that it is not merely a threat to be diminished and subjugated.

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Castle in the Sky (1986)

Other films of his that tackle the man vs. nature theme are found in his Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind  and Castle in the Sky, where it addresses the environmental issue by praising a less wasteful existence, or Ponyo’s primary source of conflict, water pollution. In any of these works, no matter the story, Hayao Miyazaki never fails to make us think something deeper.

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