Using specific examples, and focusing on a specific area of digital practice, consider how successful it has been as a means of representing and/or developing identities? Focus on one area, for example, gender, sexuality, race, nationality, class.
Written by Sacha Frampton
This essay will be exploring the means in which Studio Ghibli, and the films of Miyazaki, develops the identities of child audiences in society. This is possible as they use strong female children as the main protagonists and represent Japanese culture and upbringing in these films, outside Westernized upbringing. Due to the use of child and female character protagonists within the studio’s films, this discussion will use this ideal as its main conversation point. It is interesting to see the level of involvement of Eastern culture within the films compared to its more Western counterparts such as Disney and Dreamworks, whom take a more stereotypical narrative. A comparison between said studios would indicate the major differences between their themes and characters; however this essay will be giving a further analysis of just the studio’s films, with minor references to other studios.
There are many reasons as to why Miyazaki uses female role models in the studios work, but it is mainly rooted in the events of his childhood. Born in 1941, Miyazaki was raised during the end of World War II but never fully understood the seriousness or danger in the situation he was in. At the age of three his largest concern was the birth of his brother ‘a new baby, who immediately took his place, as the smallest and most loved and protected child of his adoring mother, and the families evacuation of the war ravaged Tokyo.’ (McCarthy, 2011, Web) At the age of six his mother became terribly ill and was hospitalised suffering with spinal trombiculiasis, and it wasn’t until he was fourteen that she was fully recovered. Her bravery and kind nature held a massive impact upon Miyazaki and his admiration for women, which is where his strong feminist roots began. Helen McCarthy, an established writer of Miyazaki’s work, stated that ‘His heroic ideal draws from his own life, and his observation of the society he lived in and the world that society functioned in.’ (McCarthy, 2011, Web)
As previously mentioned, a parent or guardian’s effect upon their children will always be a great force in the child’s upbringing and development of character. Miyazaki holds great importance to his mother as a role model, which has influenced his films and the way that his female characters are portrayed. This being said, parents today are having increasingly less time to spend with offspring, due to outside pressures of money and work. These factors are affecting the way children are being raised, as many are left to occupy themselves, often resulting in them watching excessive amounts of TV or films. Ghibli has noticed this and by creating films with strong protagonists, it begins to compensate for the heritage and moral values which Miyazaki feels children lack in today’s society. What is saddening is Miyazaki was not able to give his children the treatment which he feels every child deserves, and says in his autobiographical book Starting Point 1979~1996, 'I tried to be a good father, but in the end I wasn't a very good parent. I thought I hadn't demanded that they study or insisted on what path they should take, leaving it up to them. But from my children I hear, "Father didn't scold us with words, he scolded us by showing us his back."’ (Miyazaki, 2009, Page 204)
Role models in films and games are becoming increasingly significant, as these mediums are taking a stronger importance in the society we live in. Under the Oxford Dictionaries definition, a role model is ‘a person looked to by others as an example to be imitated’, (Oxford Dictionary, 2013, Web) showing the importance they have on society, as children will want to replicate their behavior.
Ghibli chose to rewrite what we expect role models to be in popular culture’s films, and ‘moved gradually, further away from a model of heroism that had worked in popular culture for decades, but that fundamentally dissatisfied him.’ (McCarthy, 2011, Web) In David Gauntlett’s book ‘Media, Gender and Identity’, the definition and categorisation of role models is explored. He has managed to split them into five categories, with Studio Ghibli’s women protagonists fitting under the category of ‘The ‘challenging stereotypes’ role model: These might be successful black, female, gay or disabled people in the public eye, who counter traditional or prejudiced ideas about the limitations of certain groups.’ (Gauntlett, 2008, Page 226)
The main difference between using a male or a female character in usual stereotypical Western animations, is that ‘If you’re a boy you are a dopey animal, and if you are a girl you should bring your warrior costume.’ (Stokes, 2013, Web) However Ghibli steers away from this, and allows the characters stories to evolve. Helen McCarthy reflected on this matter, and believes that she now fully understands the difference in female characters and states that ‘The story of a man gaining independence is always told through events, he defeats an opponent in a battle, or he fights his way through a difficult situation. But in the case of women, it’s to feel, to accept, or to cradle, something like that, not this.’ (McCarthy, 2011, Web)
Miyazaki wanted to start to create strong female protagonists before he created Studio Ghibli, and Panda Go Panda was his first attempt in doing so. He soon realised that he wasn’t able to give the characters enough depth in personality and strength, as ‘they’re constantly surrounded and protected by adults, and even by setting up an artificial situation… he couldn’t introduce the level of jeopardy that heroism requires in a show for small children.’ (McCarthy, 2011, Web) He later decided that he was unable to create a strong character in Panda Go Panda, as although in a situation where she is left alone, she was unable to ‘express their heroism most completely and thoroughly, through service to others.’ (McCarthy, 2011, Web)
Colin Stokes, during his TED Talks, discussed the importance of women role models, fundamentally comparing The Wizard of Oz, his daughter’s favourite film, to Star Wars, his son’s. He does however go on to discuss Studio Ghibli along with other studios, but the key themes and elements which make these female role models so significant is the same; ‘1939 with The Wizard of Oz, how’s Dorothy win her movie? By making friends with everybody and being a leader, that’s kind of the world I’d like to raise my kids in, Oz right, and not the world of dudes fighting which is kind of where we have to be.’ (Stokes, 2013, Web)
During this talk the Bechel list was mentioned, which is a simple list of assessed movies, created by the famous feminist comic book artist Alison Bechel. She measures films and it’s content by three simple questions, ‘Is there more than one character in the movie that is female who has lines? So try to meet that bar. And do these women talk to each other at any point in the movie? And is their conversation about anything other than the guy that they both like? Two women that exist, and talk to each other about stuff, it does happen, I’ve seen it, and yet I’ve very rarely seen it in the movies that we know and love.’ (Stokes, 2013, Web) If all of these are met the female protagonists may still lack in depth, not particularly giving them the chance to develop as a character. The difference with Ghibli’s work is that they allow females to ‘be more than a sidekick or a love interest. Who can in fact make her own journey, from primal innocence to mature self-determination, without requiring the assistance of a man.’ (McCarthy, 2011, Web) Which makes a startling contrast to statistics shown from 2011, where only eleven of the hundred most popular films of that year had female protagonists. Some argue that ‘We're supposed to have just lived through a new golden age of animation, but clearly it has been one where boys are better than girls,’ (Rose, 2011, Web) which is due to large companies such as Pixar only using female characters to be ‘token love-interests, stay-at-home mums and other stereotypes bent on spoiling the boys' party.’ (Rose, 2011, Web) It has been mentioned that every Pixar film is about ‘the journey of a boy, or a man, or two men who are friends, or a man and his son or two men who are raising a little girl. Until, as many of you are thinking, this year when they finally came out with Brave.’ (Stokes, 2013, Web) As strong and visually enriching that Brave is, like Diney’s latest princess film Tangled, it tells the story of a female who’s fate is to be ladylike and marry, even if the story allows them to have a wider freedom to earlier princess animations. Unfairly, Studio Ghibli is ‘often lazily dubbed Japan's answer to Disney, but the comparison only holds true in terms of box-office sales... In terms of content, Studio Ghibli is a world apart,’ (Rose, 2011, Web) as they value their female roles and completely let them have a free reign on their own stories.
When talking about his own children, Colin Stokes during his TED talks stated that male children need to be taught ‘how a real man is someone who trusts his sisters, and respects them, and who wants to be on their team, and stands up against the real bad guys, who are the men who want to abuse the women,’ (Stokes, 2013, Web) and uses Ghibli’s Spirited Away as one of his main examples of films which do this.
This being said, ‘Miyazaki does princesses, too, but the first time we see his eponymous Princess Mononoke, she's sucking the gunshot wound of a giant wolf and spitting blood into a river,’ (Rose, 2011, Web) a very different kind of princess that we are used to in American popular culture. Ghibli’s films, although primarily aimed at children, are not afraid to break the stereotypes previously discussed, with Princess Mononoke being one of the most domineering of his female protagonists. In this film in particular
Parents often believe that the difference in language will be a barrier for their children when watching foreign films, in this case Ghibli’s Japanese spoken films. The studio however has opened up their audience, by producing subtitled and now dubbed over versions of each film. What is most interesting, is that some parents are choosing to show their children the Japanese version without either subbing or dubbing as ‘the narrative drive of Totoro is so powerful, and the imagery is so eclectic that it is possible to follow it without any understanding of language,’ (McCarthy, 2011, Web) which could also be argued the case for any of the other films produced by the studio. Proving once again that the studio is outstanding in the animations they produce.
They have opened their arms and embraced the Western culture, especially in their most recent films, as they have recognised the massive growth of their fan base outside of Japan. The most prominent example of this is Arrietty, Ghibli’s take on the English story of the borrowers.
The Japanese culture and upbringing of children is much different to Western cultures. They are very family driven, count themselves at one with nature, respect their surroundings, and are hard workers; where as Western countries as a ‘generalisation’ are often seen to be almost at the apposing end of these ideals. These cultural ideals that Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli portray in their films, and can be seen to aid children’s personal development in these areas. These films are driven by family, and have became well respected and enjoyed by all ages, due to the deeper themes in narrative and astonishing skill that goes into creating the animation itself.
The making of the animations themselves are also very different to the way that Western companies produce their work. Miyazaki’s films are not just a shallow view of women, which doesn’t reflect his real life values, and actually are his fundamental and deepest of his own beliefs. These are reflected further in the running of the studio itself as women are given a completely different experience to the male workers, for instance are given certain perks. Unlike many studios and workspaces in general in Japan, Miyazaki allows the women to have a long paid pregnancy leave, allowing them more time to bring their children up. The architecture of the studio’s building is designed with women workers in mind, allowing more space and designated areas for women only, and he purposely hires women to work in the studio. A quote by Colin Stokes during his TED talk sums up his own personal opinions on women in the work place, as well as in the animation industry; ‘I want fewer quests where my son is told ‘go out and fight it alone’ and more quests where he sees that it’s his job to join a team. Maybe a team led by women. To help other people, become better, and be better people, like The Wizard of Oz.’ (Stokes, 2013, Web) Much like The Wizard of Oz, Studio Ghibli have created characters which everybody can relate to and would want on their team. Regardless of the said characters age, gender, or nationality, they have the ability to be leaders but are open-minded and show great friendship with other characters.
In all of the studio’s films you can see the growth and development in the child characters. Miyazaki allows them to retain their child-like characteristics, letting them be messy, get hurt and preserve their wild imaginations, yet they still deal with adult situations such as war, death and dangerous beast-like creatures. This shows the companies understanding of the capability that children have to comprehend deeper themes and never belittles their knowledge or power.
Which leads onto how children, in particular boys, learn outside of the classroom. In the TED talks by Ali Carr-Cellman, she discusses how boys learn and develop best when playing on video games, although this is often condemned by society due to many being believed to be overly violent. For the first time ever, in 2013 Studio Ghibli released their first joint game, Ni No Kuni. Unlike many of the Studio’s films, the main protagonist of the game is a male character, but still only a child. Carr-Cellman in her talk implied that ‘Most of the educational games that are out there today are really flash cards, the glorified drill and practise, they don’t have the depth, the rich narrative that really engaging video games have, that boys are really interested in.’ (Ali Carr-Chellman, 2011, Web) Ni No Kuni, differs from more common games, as much like the films, Ghibli has ensured that the narrative, characters and environments are well developed and that children are allowed to be children. By choosing a male protagonist, it allows boys to have their own role model, yet still follows exactly the same path, as the usual Ghibli women protagonists would take. It is so important that boys have strong male role models too, especially in education, as ‘93% of the teachers that our young men get in elementary class are women…. They need male role models for boys, which say it’s alright to be smart.’ (Ali Carr-Chellman, 2011, Web)
Noticeably, the major difference between Ghibli’s work and other companies is his ability to deal with the most difficult theme of all, especially for child audiences, death. In My Neighbour Totoro in particular, this has the strongest and most prominent effect on the viewer as ‘he puts death front and centre, without ever personifying him.’ (McCarthy, 2011, Web) Miyazaki never doubts the capability that children have to cope with such massive forces of nature, and purposefully chooses to evoke these ‘adult like’ emotions and thoughts. Due to male protagonists stereotypical need to be masculine, it would be difficult for Miyazaki to allow the same depth of emotion that he experienced himself, and has been described to make ‘Bambi's mother dying look like a walk in the park.’ (Rose, 2011, Web)
‘A film as profoundly and life-affirming as Totoro, says the villain is death, and although he never actually makes an appearance, the whole story, like the whole of Miyazaki’s childhood, is enacting in his shadow.’ (McCarthy, 2011, Web)
This appearance of the theme of death comes in the form of the two main protagonist children’s mother who is seriously ill and hospitalised. This is Miyazaki’s ‘conventionally flattering reference’ (McCarthy, 2011, Web) to his mother. He even references real life places and memories from his childhood, from the layout of the ward, to the actual naming of the hospital, which gives this film a greater and personal meaning.
By understanding these deep feelings of anxiety and hope, through all stages of childhood, due to Miyazaki’s mother’s long illness during his childhood, he is able to capture both Mei and Satsuki’s different responses. ‘Mei can do nothing but rage and weep because four and five year olds lack the experience to express terror in any other way, but Satsuki’s response is achingly beautifully written, revealing astonishing depths of artistry from the whole movie team, as she realises she faces both the loss of her beloved mother and the loss of her own childhood.’ (McCarthy, 2011, Web)
What is most surprising, is that My Neighbour Totoro almost didn’t make it into production, and only got funding if the Studio created another film (Grave of the Fireflies), as they found the slow narrative too risky, but ‘My Neighbour Totoro didn’t sink into bargain-bin oblivion but grew, like Mei and Satsuki’s seeds, and Ghibli blossomed into a healthy, sustainable studio as the tale became ingrained in the national consciousness.’ (Odell, 2009, Page 76-77)
Through the research undertaken for this essay, an argument has been developed, questioning Studio Ghibli and their use of role models. Within this essay, it has been shown that Studio Ghibli has grown worldwide into a studio loved and trusted by many, and it can now be said that the Studio has been very successful in developing the identities of both the characters in their films and the children who watch these films.
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Brave (2012) Directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell, USA.
Cinderella (1950) Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, USA.
My Neighbour Totoro (1988) Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Japan.
Princess Mononoke (1997) Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Japan.
Panda Go Panda (1972) Directed by Isao Takahata, Japan.
Star Wars (1977) Directed by George Lucas, USA.
Sleeping Beauty (1959) Directed by Clyde Geronimi, USA.
Snow White (1937) Directed by William Cottrell, David Hand, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Peasrce, USA.
Sprited Away (2001) Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Japan.
Tangled (2010) Directed by Nathan Greno, Bryon Howard, USA.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) Directed by Victor Fleming, USA.
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