Ghibli & Feminine Malleability in Animation

When a girl plays with action figures, it’s fine. When a boy plays with dolls, it’s unacceptable. The concept of masculine expectation has proven to be challenging when it comes to creating diverse male characters to be portrayed with animation technology. Feminine identity appears to be more malleable, and thus female characters have more variability in animation compared to masculine characters. It is successfully utilized in Japanese animation for extensive reflection on society.

Feminine malleability is particularly prominent in Studio Ghibli's animated films. Despite the male characters like Pazu (Castle in the Sky) and Ashitaka (Princess Mononoke) act as a lens into their respective worlds, they don’t allow for variance in animation the way that the female characters do. Due to the common standards of portraying masculinity, they must remain heavy and consistent, obligated to act as protectors to their more malleable, female counterparts, whether they need it or not.

Conversely, feminine characters are allowed to transform. We see this most blatantly in Howl’s Moving Castle when Sophie is transformed into an elderly woman after being cursed by a witch. She moves slowly and stiffly in her suddenly decrepit body. In comparison to other characters, her body hobbles across the screen sluggishly, body stiff, hair no longer flowing in the wind, and expressions suddenly broad and unsightly. The animation of Sophie’s character is entirely different. The audience only knows the old woman is the same Sophie because they watched her story unfold. Women in animation are remarkably transformable.


A less blatant example of this can be found in Princess Mononoke, where our main heroine, San, has two major sides that are distinguished by her movement and the style in which her scenes are presented. One identity of hers is a wild wolf-girl, living and fighting for nature. When she is in this state, the animation takes on cinematic movement, following and even taking the ballistic perspective of the wolf whom she rides3. The movements and cuts are quick, as if in a live action film. The other identity is soft and human. Her movements become slower, gentler. The scenes in which she brings Ashitaka to be healed by the forest are distinctly different in form from the San presented earlier in the film.

One can also observe the malleability of the female form between two characters in the same medium by comparing Lady Eboshi to San. Lady Eboshi is graceful, dark, and brutal. This is vastly different from San who is “boyish” and beastly. They are complementary to one another. Both are powerful female warriors and yet they are completely different in their animation. The characters’ difference in speed is especially notable when they face off in a battle shortly before Ashitaka, the hero, disrupts them. Studio Ghibli clearly shows us that females can be portrayed in a variety that seems to be taboo for portrayal of males.


Indeed, it seems that men are almost exclusively restricted to animetic movement serving only the purpose of being a vehicle for the viewer, rather than fully differentiable characters. With the exception of interacting with other beings (Ashitaka riding Yaku, an Elk) fluid movement appears to be strictly off limits, as males are expected to only move with intent, rather than letting emotions flow. Studio Ghibli men, especially the heroes, appear to be almost exclusively equipped with the desire and obligation to protect others from harm. They must be stable, and because of this their character diversity and, by extension, choices about their movement are extremely limited. The only prominent and malleable male presented by Ghibli is Howl, who is regarded as a feminine figure.


Perhaps that limitation is why Studio Ghibli consistently seems to make an active choice to offer more female-centric storylines. Susan J. Napier postulates in her analysis of Princess Mononoke that Studio Ghibli movies strive to reflect the ever-changing culture of Japan, and in doing so must have characters that differ from cultural norms and are actively transforming and adapting to their own situations. This makes female-centric stories more compatible with the vision that Studio Ghibli wishes to portray.

Giving female roles different power structures through their ability to transform adequately detaches the average viewer from the story in a way that allows them to critically note the differences between the world of a specific Studio Ghibli film from his or her own. Observing Lady Eboshi’s prominence as a leader of her own refuge is easy to interpret as a powerful feminist statement from Studio Ghibli, however it is important to recognize how the story may be interpreted if Lady Eboshi were to be male. Consider the overwhelming sensitivity that is shown by Lady Eboshi when she tends to the ill and inspires the outcasted women. This sort of sensitivity shown from a man would most definitely be interpreted in ways other than the film intended. In a way, Studio Ghibli had no choice but to make Lady Eboshi female, for it is an expectation of males to stand on one side of a battle, with no motive for their actions necessary. Ashitaka exemplifies the single side of “goodness” with his main explanation for his deciding actions being either “for goodness’ sake” or directions from an oracle who is (you guessed it) female.  An important factor of Studio Ghibli’s films is the ambiguity that comes with each side of an issue. This ambiguity creates a necessity for flexible, female characters as opposed to male characters who, at best, serve little more than a narrative purpose.

Overall, Studio Ghibli’s works exemplify the employment of a variety of techniques when it comes to female characters. This is due to the necessity of malleable female characters for effective storytelling in animations that wish to drive home a critical evaluation of our world based on characteristics of another. The diversity of female personality and portrayal that is witnessed in Japanese animated films is a direct response to societal norms and expectations of men in both today’s and yesterday’s world. Feminine malleability is a key component that allows for the breaking of reality’s restrictions and clear understanding of how to potentially improve or change today’s norms.