When you’re a kid, watching Disney animated films with female leads is rad — especially when you’re a kid with a vagina. Throughout the 90s I couldn’t get enough of princesses like Belle, Ariel and Jasmine, whose hapless dads (rarely did they ever have good female role models) annoyed/abandoned them in some way and forced them to fight meekly to come out on top. Disney’s headstrong teen girls often come off as obnoxious, spoiled and only occasionally capable, and throughout the course of their respective films, importance was placed upon reeling them in, forcing them to settle down or restraining them. On the other end of the spectrum of animated female visibility (sure, let’s pretend that’s a thing!) is the approach of Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki’s way is to firstly make his heroines much younger, and secondly to make them much more brave and resilient. Before Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel (etc. and et al forever and ever amen) were old enough to be paired off with their respective dudes, they would have been wise to learn some lessons from their adolescent Eastern counterparts.
The heroines in three of the greatest masterpieces in the Miyazaki canon are Sen (or Chihiro, in Spirited Away), San (or Princess Mononoke, from the film of the same name) and Sophie (from Howl’s Moving Castle) — who not only cover a wide range of ages, personality profiles and locations, but whose names together ensure snappy alliteration for anyone writing about this trio (holla!).
Just as parents quickly learned that the yellow-skinned Simpsons of Springfield were not always kid-friendly, despite their unsophisticated 2D appearance, so too do we need to remind ourselves that Miyazaki’s young heroines in fantastical situations and dream worlds are more closely linked to David Lynch than Lewis Carroll. On the surface, Miyazaki’s girl-centric films resonate with audiences beyond the age of their heroines because they simply could not be classified as children’s films — unless of course parents are down with the idea of their kids watching a savage, feral girl, face smeared with blood, trying to bring down the industrial empire powered by lepers and former prostitutes.
Which is precisely what the animalistic San — a human girl raised by wolves and conditioned to fear and protect herself against anything that doesn’t growl — attempts to do. A fierce warrior intent on protecting her forest home, San represents the uncomfortable grey space that lingers over much of Miyazaki’s work, forcing us to understand that “right” and “wrong” are not always clear; that the person a film is titled after is not always the person whose mission we can entirely support.
While San wants us to prioritise environmental impact over social justice, her younger counterpart Sen has a mission that is far more clear-cut: to GTFO of a spirit world filled with grotesque stink monsters and giant babies. It’s through Sen (and also Sophie, who I’ll get to in a minute) that we get a clear visual indicator of why Miyazaki makes young girls his lead characters: they’re just more interesting to look at. Think about it: the bodies of the male characters in his films — from the hunky Howl to the infected Ashitaka and the slithery Haku — are largely interchangeable. After they are boys, they are men. Rarely is the in-between stage indicative of as much as it is for the fairer sex. Sen’s knobbly knees and too-big clothes lead us to assumptions that are confirmed by her petulance and self-conscious cautiousness, just as Sophie’s surprise transition into an old woman that dictate many of her physical capabilities in Howl’s Moving Castle.
While she is the only woman on this list old enough to have a lover in Howl and not creep everyone out, there is still something maternal about her relationship with him. Like Sen and San, her apparent romantic paramour reads more as a protective brotherly figure than a real quiver-inducing boy toy, which further emphasises Miyazaki’s lack of emphasis on romance; these bitches are tough, irrepressible warriors who need no-strings-attached back rubs more than anything.
San was literally raised by wolves and snacks on bloody flesh, while Sen and Sophie are prodded into discovering their inherent strength, like two juvenile, wide-eyed Dorothys skipping into the emerald city. The last thing they need is a sword-wielding so-called Prince Charming weighing them down.