| Mathilde Charras | Juillet 2021|
The coming of age of humanity by women
The wind is lightly blowing, giving way to a stunning watercolour landscape. Characters emerge, either accompanied by their faithful companions, unknown animals, or in men’s creations such as planes, cars or intriguingly moving castles. The scenery is set up and the plot unveils, only to reveal the fate of a young woman whose bravery and ambition are unrivalled in our Western animation. With Nausicaä, Sheeta, Mononoke and Chihiro, let us wander in the lands of Miyazaki’s restless imagination and discover more about his heroines’ fate and dreams.
Community and true partnership – rethinking the individual
As touched upon, Miyazaki’s characters never appear on their own. They are always part of a group, in the midst of their kind or their animal companions. An individual, even the eponymous character, is not understood as a solitary figure shining through its personal deeds and merits over the rest of society. This perception questions both our modern cult of individuality and the relationships our society could, or should, be built on. The Wolf Goddess Moro, in Princess Mononoke, explains to the human hero, Ashitaka, how restricted his understanding of life is. She underlines that life is no gift if not devoted to one’s tribe, to one’s community. The heroines of Miyazaki share this devotion to their kind and this acute sense of responsibility not only towards their group but also towards the “cosmos”. They all consider sacrifice – not as Belle’s self-forgetfulness in The Beauty and the Beast, in line with the traditional pattern defining women’s value, worthless wouldn’t it be for their family and their men – but as a conscious choice of compassion, bridging hostilities and thereby escaping the traditional victim-victor cycle.
These heroines bring partners, proponents and opponents along. Relationships evolve throughout the movie: they portray men as chosen partners in action and women as opponents from which the heroine can actually learn. Often, young male protagonists are the key that enables the heroine to understand the world she discovers or invades. Ashitaka, in Princess Mononoke, represents human nature, against which Mononoke has chosen to fight. Yet, through him and his wish to “see with eyes unclouded by hate”, she realises that it is not humanity she is at war with, but uncontrolled progress and industrial exploitation. In Spirited Away, Haku supports Chihiro in her quest and introduces her to the cruel and disorienting rules of the spirit world. They help the young woman along her way as partners, facilitating her coming of age. The resolution comes from their shared efforts and her ability to subvert the myth of the conquering hero, aiming at completeness rather than at victory.
Women protagonists are colourful, showing various aspects of femininity other than being young, pretty and over-sexualised. This multitude enables the viewers to escape from the traditional Madonna-whore spectrum and dilemma. In Castle in the Sky, the young girl Sheeta encounters Dola: over 50-year-old pirate, mother, pilot, outlaw, captain and explorer. Their relationship starts off with conflict and fear, only to evolve into a positive, almost maternal bond. The mature woman does not feel sorry for her ambition to “find treasures”, nor does she hides her deep understanding of people. She teaches Pazu – the young friend of Sheeta – a lesson, showing him what women are capable of, also to save their friends. To her sons, amazed by her clear-sightedness, she replies: “You can’t be a sensitive woman like me without learning a few things”. Aging and mature women are not vilified nor naturally giving in to female competitiveness. Dola even declares: “Sheeta and I are exactly alike, all warm and mushy and sensitive. Now, so when you boys get married, you go find a girl like her!”. Will and interests might differ, but the resolution of the plot does not revolve around the destruction of the evil old lady – as in Snow White, The Little Mermaid and Tangled. The dialogue between women and generations is not broken and the heroine’s coming of age often implies her care for older and often more powerful women.
Miyazaki heroines’ fate is not an individualistic journey. Their coming of age often corresponds to the restoration of balance and humanity’s new beginning. Yet, excess and violence pervade their quest and question our relationship to nature and civilisation.
Nature and civilisation – going beyond violence
While Miyazaki’s films span a wide range of times and places, they do have one unifying feature: the collapse of civilisation. Whether brought to an end on purpose or as a result of bloodshed, these disappearing societies challenge our understanding of progress and our relationship with traditions. Miyazaki refers to Japan’s history: both to the traumatising experience of nuclear bombing during the Second World War and to a modern society forgetful of its spiritual roots.
Both Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky tell the story of an entire civilisation’s downfall. Kingdoms, which were at the forefront of technology and progress, used their knowledge to create robotic monsters, subjecting other people and nature to their power. In the dystopian Nausicaä, nature reacted to this destruction by creating the Toxic Jungle, progressively wiping men off the face of the earth. Two types of behaviours emerge: armed factions who want to burn the Toxic Jungle by recreating one of the dead monsters, and peaceful citizen who try to survive by developing an environmental haven of peace. The monopole of violence is not solely held by the army: Nausicaä also gives in to the immediate solution it provides. But she learns not to indulge in her quest for revenge and to eventually forgive, reconnecting with timeless traditions.
Heroines are the keepers of forgotten worlds. Whether they are fulfilling a prophecy or bridging two estranged dimensions of reality, they embody a renewal in connection with the past. Chihiro, in Spirited Away, is propelled into a universe in which spirits can move freely without fearing to be destroyed by humans. Miyazaki breaks with the Western anthropocentric order and promotes a universe transcended by Shinto principles, according to which entities inhabit all things. Chihiro eventually reintegrates the human and post-industrial world, embodying an entire culture’s reconciliation with itself.
The reconnection to a lost spirituality tallies with the reconnection to nature. Heroines are aware of the role that all life forms play in the shared universe. It also puts into perspective our negation of death in Western modern societies. Nausicaä for instance embraces the desperation the Toxic Jungle has brought to the Earth by recreating life from it. She understands that this cycle of life and death is still ordering her world, the toxic forest being a filter that purifies the atmosphere from its toxins. Humanity cannot redeem itself without debunking the myth according to which we are masters and possessors of the world. One could argue that the very breath-taking craft with which nature is depicted in Miyazaki’s movies – the sun’s beams waking up a village in the morning, the backwash of a lake at the feet of an old woman, the mountains caught in the fog – entices us to embrace a life closer to nature.
While Miyazaki’s heroines use communal solutions to conflicts and seek a restoration of balance, the viewer needs to keep the bigger picture in mind: women supporting roles shatter this perhaps stereotypical image of the woman looking for reconciliation and completeness. From Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke to Yubaba in Spirited Away, women have never been so attractive and powerful villains, from whom the heroine herself can learn.