Japanese popular media is more than often marred by a hyper-sexualisation of the female. Through not only feudal representations in cinema, but primarily animated film and anime series. The female remains powerless, comically helpless and sexually vulnerable. There is an element of this that seems to tie with some aspects of Japanese culture, wherein women are often defined in relation to a man, be it their husband as a wife, or their father as a daughter. Within these roles they are limited in a way not too dissimilar to the way women still often are in Western culture. However, media representation especially within anime and fashion, remains potently toxic in its presentation of the feminine as heavily affiliated with childlike behaviour. And it is this, almost ‘hentai’-esque feel that often leads me to almost intuitively avoid most anime series, as, although I’m sure many have amazing story lines, the perverse undertones in female presentation often make me feel too uncomfortable to continue watching.
This is where Studio Ghibli sets itself aside. With a focus on the natural world and the bonds that tie us, regardless of gender. There is less opportunity for the hyper-sexualisation trope that anime so often falls into. Studio Ghibli is an animation studio that started in the 1980’s. From their beginning with films like Tales of EarthSea, and Nausicaa Valley of the Wind, there has been an emphasis on the liberated female heroine.
The art style isn’t quite as exaggerated as some other anime, with less of the caricature like body type and demeanour, with instead, more complex and realistic characters, both aesthetically and mentally. Spirited Away for example, might be a recognisable title for most, with its thrilling presentation of the Spirit World and brave female child protagonist, Chihiro trying to find her way back home. The film is vibrant, exciting and excellently made, and yet the setting; the bath house, has raised some speculation as to being a metaphorical inference to prostitution. Moving away from Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro is wonderfully whimsical and a classic. It seems simple at first watch, yet upon close analysis and a little context, the film is again, subject to metaphor, depicting through fantasy, a presentation of the real life abduction, murder and suicide of two sisters. Even whilst recently re-watching a personal favourite Nausicaa, her attire seems a little confusing; the character is meant to be a child, yet she doesn’t appear to be wearing trousers for the first 15 minutes of the film, until you get to a scene where she’s actually in the wind and the fabric finally becomes evident as simply flesh coloured.
All of this points to a subliminal leaning towards the sensationalisation of the vulnerable female, even when she is being liberated and shown to be powerful. Studio Ghibli is fantastic; and certainly presents a more palatable female heroine than most Western cinema. However, I do believe we all have quite a way to go before cinema finds it unnecessary to weave in, no matter how subtly, elements of the exposed female to entertain.