Hayao Miyazaki and the Art of Being a Woman

The famed Japanese animator and director created heroines who defied feminine stereotypes and showed me how to be at home in my own skin.

Princess Nausicaä from Miyazaki's 1984 film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Studio Ghibli)

“I wanted to make a movie,” the Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki told Roger Ebert in 2002, “especially for the daughters of my friends.” The renowned filmmaker was referring to Spirited Away, his masterpiece about a young girl who finds herself working in a magical Japanese bathhouse run by a witch. But he could have been talking about almost any of his movies. Perhaps more than any other living maker of animated films, Miyazaki has created a grand library of work that, among other things, shows a keen understanding of the complexities of what it might mean to be a woman.

Miyazaki’s films are bewitching and bewildering, beautiful and challenging in the best of ways. They are beloved for their strong female protagonists, their gorgeous largely hand-drawn animation, and for the way they blur conventional boundaries: between good and evil, between life and death. From his earliest film, The Castle of Cagliostro, to his last before he retired from directing, The Wind Rises, Miyazaki has created movies that embrace nuance rather than simplistic binaries. For me, the most important binary he dissolved was that of gender.

In many Western cartoons and in anime, it’s common to have well-defined heroes and villains, as well as clear demarcations between what male and female characters can achieve and how they should look. But Miyazaki softens these distinctions. Many of his characters, including the Princess Nausicaä, the wolf-girl San, and the delivery girl Kiki, were role models who defied cultural stereotypes of femininity and showed me women who could be anything they wished to be. In a way, they actually saved me.

I remember watching 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind for the first time. A young woman flies in, early in the film, on her white glider, into a vast forest of beautiful yet toxic plants and takes a sample from one into a beaker. When I hear her voice, something makes me shiver. When she takes off her brown oxygen mask under the protective molted shell of a beetle’s eye, poisonous pollen falling around her like snow, it happens again. I know she’s the girl on the cover of the movie case, yet here she is: alone, exploring, unafraid, androgynous. I’m a tween, and I don’t process my thoughts clearly at the time. But I know, suddenly, that she is different from everything else I’ve watched up to this point. She seems to wear power like a coat. She lingers in my thoughts after the movie is over.

I’m transgender. I grew up in the Commonwealth of Dominica in the Caribbean, where the idea of being openly queer was almost unthinkable to me. Our laws from the days of British colonialism made buggery a crime, and there are still no governmental protections from anti-LGBT discrimination. Growing up, I felt lost. I saw myself as a woman due not to what I liked or disliked, but because that was how I felt in my mind—as if a switch in there had simply been turned to girl instead of boy. For many years I neither had the language to fully understand what this meant nor the courage to tell anyone this secret.

On bad days, I felt like I was wearing a mask I couldn’t remove, and on my worst days I considered drinking poison to stop hearing the calls of the girl who seemed to be imprisoned inside. The environment of me was falling apart, growing toxic like the one Nausicaä inhabited. In Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the protagonist Chihiro loses her name; I felt that in a sense I had never had a real name in the first place, having always been called by others a male name that did not accord with the person I wished to be.

When I watched Miyazaki, something changed. For the first time, I saw representations of girls and women that seemed real and attainable, yet mythic all the same. Here were female characters who were vulnerable and independent, who defied gender norms in the way they looked and behaved. Partly because our detractors often reduce trans women to caricatures of femininity, rigid depictions of female beauty in Western animation and some Japanese anime can seem even more inaccessible to us than they already do for many cisgender girls. But Miyazaki’s films reinforced for me what many women come to learn eventually: that being female is not about fitting one superficial ideal or another. It is ultimately not about how you look or how you act, but who you are.

Miyazaki’s characters seemed real, too, because they were shown even in their least triumphant, most ordinary moments. In all of his films, the director includes the quiet scenes and mundane daily acts that many other movies, animated ones in particular, eschew. Characters gaze at streams or brush their hair, not to advance the film’s plot, but to add a sense of realism—the kind that makes fictional people feel less like tropes and more like human beings. This sense of humanity is so often missing from other animated portrayals of characters, female characters in particular, which made Miyazaki’s films even more meaningful to me.

These scenes, Miyazaki explained in his interview with Roger Ebert, are moments of ma, or emptiness. The filmmaker illustrated the concept to Ebert by clapping. “The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension.” He told Ebert that American movies with frantic paces are often afraid of that silence, that ma, causing boredom. Yet life is filled with those empty spaces—and this technique, however subtle, helped bring Miyazaki’s female characters to life for me in a way that few other movies could.

But Miyazaki’s movies, while often rooted in Japanese history and iconography, still managed to be utterly universal in the stories they told. His films offered non-exaggerated representations of womanhood I could imagine myself embodying if I were to ever tell people the truth about myself. As I watched, I found deeper meanings in the films that helped guide me until I came out at 27.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which came out in 1984, was my first film of Miyazaki’s, and its heroine was the film character I admired most growing up. Princess Nausicaä lives in a world in which the human population has been greatly reduced by global warfare. In the aftermath of this conflict, a giant, toxic forest, filled with equally enormous insects, has taken root, forcing humans to set up communities in small areas far from the dangerous spores of the plants—one of these being Princess Nausicaä’s seaside town, the Valley of the Wind, and another being the distant city of Tolmekia.

Princess Nausicaä. Studio Ghibli

From the start of the film, Nausicaä doesn’t abide by gendered expectations. An independent spirit, she works as a scientist in a secret underground laboratory and singlehandedly learns how to remove the toxins from the plants she has cultivated. She also defeats four Tolmekian soldiers in a moment of fury after they kill her father (though she saves their queen’s life later on). She even fulfills a prophecy that the wise woman of the village claims will be carried out by a man in a blue robe; Nausicaä does so at the end of the film, but wearing a blue dress. Her appearance itself calls to mind early panels of the artist Moebius’s famous 1975 Arzach comics, which feature a masked male protagonist riding a white creature that resembles Nausicaä’s glider.

And the Tolmekian queen Kushana, too, is complex: She is the closest to a villain in the film, yet is not entirely villainous. Despite her takeover of the Valley of the Wind and her desires to burn down the great forest and eradicate the giant insects, Kushana has an understandable grievance: she, like Melville's Captain Ahab, has lost a limb to one of the giant creatures, and, she implies, possibly more. As much as I want to dislike her, Miyazaki imbues her with a kind of stoic sadness that renders her a little more empathetic.

Nausicaä may have seemed a bit too radical for some audiences at the time, if Roger Corman’s 1985 English dub of the film, titled Warriors of the Wind, is any indication. The film was heavily edited to suggest a simple good-versus-evil narrative, and its American VHS cover bizarrely placed gun-toting male soldiers, rather than Nausicaä (renamed Zandra), at its center. (After this revealing incident, Studio Ghibli, the animation film studio cofounded by Miyazaki, instituted a no-edits policy.) If princesses are meant to represent ideals for young girls, Nausicaä outshines every Disney heroine. With her appearance and actions, she showed me a womanhood that was complex and liberating.

Kiki’s Delivery Service, which features another indelible heroine, was the next Miyazaki film I saw. A lovely coming-of-age tale of girlhood adapted from a novel by the same name, it follows a young, initially inept witch who flies on her broom away from her home to try to find herself in a completely unfamiliar city for a year—as all witches must at the age of 13. The 1989’s film’s simple-but-powerful message of believing in oneself resonated with me in particular. “I’ve decided not to leave this town,” Kiki says on her first night in the new land she has flown to, where she has found a kind baker, Osono, willing to take her in. “Maybe I can stay and find some other nice people like Osono, who will accept me for who I am.” Kiki’s Delivery Service is a tale of trying to fit into a new world as an outsider, as well as a story of self-acceptance rather than a search for inauthentic popularity. It’s about learning what it means to find yourself when a part of you—in this case, Kiki’s magic—has disappeared.

The heroine of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Studio Ghibli

Sometimes, being trans can feel like coming of age a second time, flying off to find yourself in an unfamiliar place, like Kiki, and hoping you will land without crashing. You learn the contours of the new world you’ve landed in—the catcalls, the fear of walking in certain places when you are alone, the people who will talk down to you out of the old assumption that prettiness and intelligence do not coexist, and the other subtle things that come to casually define your life. Sometimes, I do crash. Sometimes, I cry when I think about the child I can never give birth to, an element of motherhood I wish so much I could share. Yet, as Kiki’s Delivery Service reminds viewers, if we can conquer the things that make us cry, we can find other ways to smile.

The final film of Miyazaki’s that stood out to me in terms of gender and identity was Princess Mononoke, which is set in an alternative version of Muromachi-era Japan. Mononoke, whose actual name is San, is a liminal figure who came to represent for me the conflict between selfhood and expression even more than Nausicaä. San is human who was raised by wolves. She knows she is not a wolf in the same sense that her adoptive siblings are, yet they accept her as one of their own. Like them, she lives in hatred of humankind, albeit with greater irony. She is mockingly called Mononoke-hime, or “princess of the spirits,” by her human enemies in the gun-producing town on the edge of the forest. Though she has no kingdom to rule over, she moves with a kind of wild regality through the film’s scenes.

Princess Mononoke’s San. Studio Ghibli

Like Miyazaki’s other films, Princess Mononoke refuses to fit its characters into neat categories. Lady Eboshi, San’s enemy and ruler of the nearby town, wants to clear the forest, but she is also kind. She takes in lepers whom others have rejected and invites women from brothels to do work around the factory—a job the women jokingly say is too tough for their male neighbors. In Mononoke’s world, women can achieve anything men can, if not more. Eboshi resists the stereotype of the heartless technology-obsessed human out to destroy the natural world and earns the viewer’s empathy—even more so than Nausicaä’s Kushana.

These contraries that Miyazaki’s characters embody—good and bad, ruthless and caring, male and female—remind me a bit of something the Japanese writer Junichirō Tanizaki once described. In his well-known 1933 essay In Praise of Shadows, Tanizaki defined what he believed to be a particularly Japanese quality: finding beauty in things that contained both light and darkness. For Tanizaki, the West continuously, obsessively strove toward all things being bright, sterile, loud, and new. On the other hand, Japan saw the value in imperfections, taking a pleasure in the loveliness of aged things, of things partially lit, of understatement. While this idea, of course, is a huge essentialist generalization, it intriguingly mirrors the sense of nuance in Miyazaki’s work. His films appreciate flaws, find wonder in unusual places, and understand the importance of balancing contrasts.

While Nausicaä, Kiki, and San meant the most to me, Miyazaki’s other works also offered moving portrayals of female characters: Chihiro in Spirited Away, Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, Naoko in The Wind Rises, Sheeta in Laputa. Japanese literature owes much to women who depicted multidimensional female figures, like Murasaki Shikibu, Sei Shōnagon, and the early feminist Akiko Yosano; in his own way, Miyazaki has contributed to this history. His work enriches and unsettles. This is what great art does: It blows out the candles in our room until all is dark, then relights a few. Yet, somehow, we can see ourselves, the nakedness of the self, more clearly by these new lights.

In the way we turn to our favorite songs and art when the blue moods descend, I turned to these wonderful women. More than any other characters I’d seen, they gave me a sense of hope through their extraordinary, yet ordinary, power. They were symbols to remember, lighthouses of the soul on a night filled with shipwrecks. When I finally came out, I thought of them again. That is the beauty of Miyazaki’s films: how even someone like me, who does not explicitly exist in them, can find herself in, and through, his characters. How his fantasy princesses and metropolitan witches and wolf girls can be as human as anyone else.