The Feminism of Hayao Miyazaki and Spirited Away

All the main female characters of Miyazaki's movies

I like anime. A lot. So do my friends. Some people would call the films of Japanese artist Hayao Miyazaki a guilty pleasure—they’re cute, they’re kid-friendly, and they’re heartwarming. 

But I’d argue that Miyazaki’s films—including my girlfriend’s favorite, Spirited Away—are not a guilty pleasure but some of the best feminist films ever made.

What makes Miyazaki’s 13 films special is what they say about life, its struggles, and its joys. Miyazaki’s many heroines have some exceptional potential as feminist figures in ways that Western leading ladies often don’t.

In many Hollywood films, narratives are built around the simplistic idea of good versus evil: “good guys” kill off “bad guys” who are devils through and through. In contrast, the flowing narrative structure of Miyazaki’s films allow for a lot of flexibility in the roles played by heroes and villains. Most of the time, the hero or heroine’s journey does not center on the need to violently defeat an ultimate villain. Take Spirited Away. In the film, a young girl named Chihiro slips into a magical alternate reality where her parents are turned into pigs. Chihiro does face some enemies on her quest to rescue her parents and escape back to the human world, including the ghost No-Face and a witch named Yubaba. But she surpasses them by using her cleverness and simple bravery, not physical force. Along the way, No-Face becomes her friend and Yubaba shows she’s not pure evil. 

Compared to Disney films, where the big-bad not only dies, but dies violently (sometimes at the hands of the protagonists), this offers a much more positive, nuanced message about what life is like. Violence as a means of problem-solving is a masculine value, so it’s not surprising that—like other masculine values—it is valorized in our media, including stories we tell our kids.

Of course, in the real world, violence is not a very functional way to solve problems. It’s worth recognizing when an alternative vision of story-telling and problem-solving achieves mainstream popularity, as Miyazaki movies have done both in the U.S. and in Japan (though they’re certainly not known or loved on the level of Disney cartoons).

Plus, there’s the fact that Miyazaki’s ladies in general demonstrate more strength and complex personalities than American heroines (especially princesses) tend to. Characters Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa both actively fight to defend their homes, using both weapons and kindness. Sophie of Howl’s Moving Castle is less physically active than those two warriors—particularly compared to her boyfriend Howl—but is stronger than him in many ways and at saves his life at one point in the film. I’ll add that their romance, as with all Miyazaki’s romances, doesn’t totally dominate the picture. That’s a refreshing change from the love-obsessed fare of America’s female-centric narratives.

Just the ratios of female characters in Miyazaki films are better than American film. Of Miyazaki’s 13 movies, nine feature a female central protagonist, often as the titular character. Compare this to numbers that show women have only 30 percent of speaking roles in blockbuster films. Miyazaki’s films feature gender-balanced casts where women exist both as heroes and villains, and characters in either role have nuances and depth. 

They’re not a guilty pleasure, they’re a film that should be on every feminist bookshelf. 

by Hanna White
View profile »

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

34 Comments Have Been Posted

Legit. I love his movies as

Legit. I love his movies as they are indeed steeped in Feminism and balance. Not to mention they are adorable.

Adorable they are, but balanced. ..?


I was surprised to not find anything about Miyazaki in our archives here at Bitch. Thanks for sharing this series!

Feminism/Contextual: Miyazaki's Heroines

<p>I'm a huge fan of most of Miyazaki's animated features: particularly Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service, Laputa Castle in the Sky. I'm a Japanese Canadian feminist queer author who's grown up in N. America. I had always considered Miyazaki's work as feminist and female-empowering. It was very interesting for me, consequently, to discover that young feminists in Japan (I had met at a Canadian Embassy function in Tokyo) did not consider his work to be feminist whatsoever. It's all a matter of the context of the audience and how we define feminism within our social culture. The young Japanese feminists I spoke with explained that Miyazaki's work was just an extension of the 'Mazakon" (mother complex) desire perceived in a Japanese male target audience. In their cultural context Mazakon males desire to have a female hero as a surrogate mother figure (someone who saves male characters/them) even as she fulfills a desire for a romantic figure. It was an eye-opening moment for me. I still view Miyazaki films from an N. American cultural standpoint so can *read Western Feminism* when I compare and contrast his work to animated films made by N. American production companies. However, it's important to note that there may have not been feminist intentions on the side of Ghibli Studios-- at least not in the way N. Americans may define feminism. Food for thought....</p>

Cultural views on feminism

I had originally taken the matriarchal aspect of the raccoon clan in Pom Poko as somewhat feminist- would that be the opposite of how it was viewed in Japan, then?

Feminism in Japan

<p>I can't really say how Japanese feminists would decode Pom Poko insomuch that I cannot say I can define Japanese feminism. The young Japanese feminists did not mention Pom Poko. I would also add that I'm not certain that the idea of Mazakon in Japan is not inscribed with a hetero/masculinist framework.... It's all very complex. I just wanted to point to how vantange point can affect how something is viewed. PS They are raccoon dogs, a different species from raccoon proper, although apparently imported and freed N. American raccoons are now a huge and invasive problem.</p>

Thank you Hiromo for your

Thank you Hiromo for your interesting view on the differences between the North American views of feminism, how Miyazaki's work can be interpreted from a feminist North American perspective, and the how the context changes when the audience is (male) Japanese. What a difference a little cultural education can make!

i'm surprised that you know

i'm surprised that you know "some people" who'd call these films guilty pleasure. i know "some people" who'd call them hipster badge.

"Violence as a means of problem-solving is a masculine value" This feels like falling into the dichotomy trap of brawn/brain = masculine/feminine and having to choose which is better.

I also agree with the commenter that spoke of the mother complex thing which can actually be seen in the portrayal of the main antagonist's twin/ the good witch. I am probably agreeing because I am from South East Asia and I know how the strong mother image can be twisted into something sexist i.e. that's the only strong role a woman should play.

Love this! Have you seen

Love this! Have you seen Only Yesterday? It's only been shown in the U.S. in film festivals and as part of a televised Ghibli marathon, but it's worth seeking out.

And yet you don't hear any

And yet you don't hear any stuff about ethnicity representation in this films. *cough Disney cough*

Ethnicity Representation

Japanese society is a lot more ethnically homogeneous than Western societies. They don't really have the same experiences, and thus we cannot apply the same standards to them in that regard.

Very good observations about some of my favorite movies.

Great article. I've shared the hell out of it through Facebook.

When I first watched Howl's Moving Castle, I wasn't sure exactly what I was expecting, but it was a genuinely surprising film. What first becomes noticeable are the anti-war themes - probably a meditation on the then recent Iraq invasion of 2003. The arc of Sophie's character from an introverted teenage hat-maker girl, to a much more confident person by the end is underlined by the changes in her animated appearance. This is partly to do with the fact that she comes to accept, and possibly even ignore the Witch's aging curse (intertwined with the common Ghibli theme of coming-of-age). I thought it was wonderfully sensitive and thoughtful for the film to explore these kinds of ideas in the midst of an exciting fantasy adventure plot.

Think what a Hollywood studio would likely do with a film like this - there would probably have to be a scene where Sophie has the curse lifted (which never actually happens - in fact, as perhaps Sophie does, the curse is forgotten about). The Witch of the Wastes becomes a sympathetic character by the end, where in a Hollywood feature, she would probably have to be burnt alive horribly or something!

Feminism is rarely the centric theme in these films - moreover, gender equality seems to be a norm woven into the fabric of the film's thesis. Another theme which I believe is also wonderfully moving in these films is the portrayal of unlikely heroes - awkward, shy, introverted teenagers who have to find their way (often alone) through a series of frightening challenges. I think that is much more what it is like to be a teenager than the predominant portrayal of them in American mainstream movies.

It all reminds me of something the comedian Stewart Lee said of TV shows made for children and teenagers - Something that great art can do is to make all the nerdy and socially awkward kids feel *less alone*. These films speak to those kids, in my honest opinion.

Thank you for very thought-provoking writing on these favorite films of mine!


Howl's Moving Castle, A love

Howl's Moving Castle, A love story between an 18-year-old girl named Sofî, cursed by a witch into an old woman's body, and a magician named Hauru. Under the curse, Sofî sets out to seek her fortune, which takes her to Hauru's strange moving castle. In the castle, Sophie meets Hauru's fire demon, named Karishifâ. Seeing that she is under a curse, the demon makes a deal with Sophie--if she breaks the contract he is under with Hauru, then Karushifâ will lift the curse that Sophie is under, and she will return to her 18-year-old shape

The Miyazaki movies are

The Miyazaki movies are incredible and I can't believe some people see them as guilty pleasures. I saw Kiki Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke when I was a young kid and they blew me away. Many of the themes I didn't catch until I got older but, the feminism themes can be seen when you watch the movies with older eyes.

I grew up on My Neighbor

I grew up on My Neighbor Totoro and my daughter is now a young fan. I know it shouldn't be unusual to see a film about two young girls that's full of magic and mystery with a great relationship between them. It shouldn't be unusual to see a husband and wife having intelligent and important conversations together in a children's film. It shouldn't be unusual to see an adult male take proper care of his children without bumbling around and acting as thought it's the first time he's ever met them. But it is unusual and I do appreciate someone taking the time to make lovely films like this (and for just creating Totoro)

Next, Takahata.

Thanks for applying the feminist 'label' to a great artist. It was much overdue.

I've always loved Studio

I've always loved Studio Ghibli films, but watching them with my 6-year-old brother has given me a new appreciation for them. Miyazaki's movies show him that girls can also be brave and dynamic and carry their own stories, and that even if the main character is a girl he can still identify with them. I'm so glad these films exist, as much for him as for me.

I love Miyazaki movies and I

I love Miyazaki movies and I have watched a great number of them. That said, I noticed a slight difference in Howl's Moving Castle. I read both the book and watched the movie and the narratives are different enough for them to be two completely separate stories. On that note, I felt that Sophie in the book was stronger and more independent than in the movie. Whereas in the book Sophie has her own magical powers-- she talks life into things-- in the movie she doesn't. Yes, she saved Howl's life in the movie too and she made great sacrifices for him but it doesn't seem as it couldn't happen in any other common Western movie (for some reason, I think of the Little Mermaid). In the book, Sophie also has a slightly stronger personality, although she is very much fatalistic. I still love Howl's Moving Castle-- the images are great, the narrative is great. But Sophie is very different from Chihiro in that sense.

PS. I loved the Makon (I probably butchered that) comment.

Book vs. movie

This is really interesting. I while ago I found this PDF ( that analyses the differences between the book „The Clever Princess“ by Diana Coles, the Japanese translation and the anime adaption by Studio 4°C. If you haven't seen it and like Miyazaki's movies I highly reccommend „Arete Hime“.

I was coming here to comment

I was coming here to comment about this.

I will be honest, I am a huge fan of Diana Wynne Jones' works... and I really, really dislike the HMC movie. I might like it if I could see it as its own, independent work, but I just can't and as a result it feels to me like Miyazaki took some of the best things about the book and just threw them out in favour of the story he wanted to write. One of my favourite things about the book was Sophie and Howl's relationship, which I found very refreshing and different and noncliched, especially Sophie's amazing strength of character and the way she refused to take any shit from Howl at all. It just got. Replaced. In the film. By what is honestly far more of a damsel in distress/heroic saviour cookie-cutter romance plot. Sophie seems to be running after Howl far more, whereas in the book she has much more of her own agenda. I see the film as far more sexist than the book in many ways, tbh.

Studio Ghibli is staffed

Studio Ghibli is staffed predominately by women. I asked the studio guide how this gender dynamic applied to the field of hours-intensive animation and he replied [Paraphrasing from memory] "Men tend to burn out in this business. Women go the distance. We have so little downtime and so many projects either starting or stopping that being able to consistently deliver the type of film people want to see is very rewarding."


Shout out

Let us not forget the author of Howl's moving Castle by none only Diana Wynne Jones!

Id card passbook photos

Japan's very interesting. Some people think it copies things. I don't think that anymore. I think what they do is reinvent things. They will get something that's already been invented and study it until they thoroughly understand it. In some cases, they understand it better than the original inventor.<a href="">Id card passbook photos</a>

I feel saddened and offended

I feel saddened and offended when you say "Violence as a means of problem-solving is a masculine value".

The truth hurts.

The truth hurts.


There are female leaders in history that have shown this is wrong. Humans, whether masculine or feminine are this way. I know this comment I'm replaying to is about a year old, but thought I'd offer my thoughts.

Would be amazing if he did a

Would be amazing if he did a movie adaptation of Clan of the Cave Bear, a book that has a strong young female protagonist. I think it would work really well in his style. Will keep dreaming about that!

Make it 14

You forgot Arrietty! This was one of my favs growing up (the book and BBC version), so I was thrilled when Miyazaki contributed to the new version. She sticks behind what she believes in, and is not afraid to be the first to move ahead when modernity and progress are essential to the change that lies ahead!

Well said - I think. I came

Well said - I think. I came here with short googling on the subject and I have to say that in the movies Ghibli makes I have found the only good example of "feminism" or such equality I support. The characters are generally capable of co-operating with their male friends, and unprovoked bitching shines with it's absence. Most importantly their gender never seems to be "a thing" that contributes to anything unrelated. As persons they all seem to be quite likeable, and I'd be gland to "know" any of them - in any kind of relationship.

From a guy's point of view it's rare to see feminism take other forms (at least in western media) but serving as an excuse for horrendously bad manners and manic narcissism.. to underline my point. I'd appreciate a response.

Miyazaki is sexist

Strong female characters? You mean the ones whose sole ambitions are domestic? And count the number of panty-shots in your so-called "kid friendly" movies like Kiki's Delivery Service. Finally, read Miyazaki's own comments on how the advent of women in animation means the industry is doomed.
Sorry, but Disney produces better feminism these days than anything coming out of Japan.

Sorry but...

Panty shot? What about Ariel seashells and Jasmine slave costume? Ambitions are domestic? LOL!! Have you ever watched any anime? Sorry but Disney produces feminism badly. Even the newest movie from Disney - Frozen has bad-written lead female characters. Elsa ran away from her responsibility, Anna left the Kingdom to a man she have just known for ONE DAY. (Also, she fell in love with him at first sight *sigh*) And people are still saying it's a girl power movie. WHAT!?. I know that Elsa has super power but giving a character super power doesn't automatically make them strong. I don't want having-super-power female character, I want well-written female character.
And I can name you tons of well-written female character from nowadays anime:
- Misaka Mikoto: She's one of the strongest espers in the world, she can play violin (I haven't seen any Disney princess who can play instrument), she won't run away from her problem, she won't scream for help unless when she can't solve the problem herself.
- Akemi Homura: She overcome her weakness in order to save her best friend life, have seen her friends died countless time. She hides her sadness and keeps on fighting.
- Mikasa Ackerman: Cool, bad-ass and she's not the acting-like-a-boy-to-be-called-strong annoying cliche type of feminist character. (I'm looking at you Merida)
- Saber (from Fate/Zero): She's a king, she's calm, smart, brave. Plus, she always hides her emotion and gives priority to the kingdom/people first.. (I'm looking at you Elsa)

So... in conclusion about one

So... in conclusion about one of the comments stated here: women must to hide their emotions. What kind of feminism is that? Hiding our emotions like society impose to men? This also is a kind of machism, it's Marianism and I find it something similar to the "mazakon" japanese term commented above here. People aren't superheros, we have our limits as human. Clearly, I'm not talking about social dawinism nor evolutionist psychology nor arcaic and nowadays discarded anthropology terms.

Add new comment