BySunny Bay, writer at Creators.co

Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away is a story with a 10 years old girl solving difficulties with courage and wisdom to rescue her family and friend. Unlike characters in other fantasy movies, Chihiro, who is the main character in the film, is an ordinary school girl with neither magical powers, nor superhuman ability. It has been discussed for a long time that Hayao Miyazaki, the head director of Studio Ghibli, takes a stand for feminism by making the lead roles in his films female.

For instance, characters such as Nausicaa from Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, San from Princess Mononoke, and Satsuki and Mei from My Neighbor Totoro are all lead characters in each of their films and are all female. In each of their respective films these female characters undergo various difficult journeys. Sometimes they find themselves in predicaments which force them have to fight in order to survive or progress towards their goal. Indeed, the type of women illustrated by studio Ghibli could be characterized as brave and independent.

Nausicaa/ San/ Satsuki and Mei
Nausicaa/ San/ Satsuki and Mei

This feministic attitude can also be seen in Spirited Away and is widely considered to be a film which promotes the ideas of feminism. However, this characterization of the film is slightly misleading. While it does portray Chihiro as the center of the story, as the plot unfolds and Chihiro runs into trouble, a male figure named Haku, the embodiment of a river god, assists Chihiro by counseling her and explains how she can escape from her challenging predicament in the film.

In other words, a man helps a woman, which could picture a stereotypical structure implying women need men’s help. This relationship between Haku and Chihiro raises questions about whether the movie is actually feminist or not. After briefly summarizing the plot of the film, this article will explore the movie from a feminist perspective and will be followed by a discussion of feminism and the feminist film theory. Based on insights from theories provided by various viewers, it will also that compare feminist themes across several Ghibli titles. It will further discuss other elements which appeal to feminism.

In the movie Spirited Away, Chihiro and her parents wander into another world where gods and spirits come and take a bath at night. Her parents become pigs in consequence for eating the food which had been prepared for the gods and other such guests. In order to live in the unknown world, Chihiro starts working at the bathhouse owned by a malicious witch named Yubaba. She, having absolute power over the bathhouse, steals Chihiro’s name and renames her Sen. Haku, who also serves directly under the witch Yubaba, surveys the employees at the bathhouse and helps Chihiro get a job.

While working under Yubaba, the newly renamed Sen is put to work at once serving the stink spirit. While initially this spirit’s identity is vaguely referred to as a stink god, it is later revealed that they are a god of a river which had been polluted. After successfully bathing and helping the river god Yubaba admires Sen for her hard work. After which, an enigmatic character named No-Face, intrudes the bathhouse, and flaunts his gold-nuggets before the bathhouse staff. Although No-Face approaches to Chihiro offering her a large sum of gold, Chihiro refuses to receive it. At that moment, Haku had been put in great danger by a spell placed upon him by Yubaba’s twin sister Zeniiba. Sen had endeavored to rescue him and ignored No-Face. Chihiro goes on a journey to ask Zeniiba to undo the spell, while No-Face follows after her. Despite being in the extraordinary world, Chihiro overcomes various adversities that she faces through the story.

Feminism is the main point of this discussion, yet the word carries multiple ideas and meanings depending on the time and the community. According to Offen, in general, feminism is an ideology and a movement that critically responds to the sociopolitical gap between men and women. The idea opposes the social structure that women play a subordinate role in contrast to men who tend to have a privilege, authority, and higher status. Besides the unfairness in political, social, and economic power, feminism also challenges conventional views of women’s role in family relationships. Although feminism is not necessarily anti-masculine, the idea claims the equal right and freedom for women in a relation to men.

Men's masculinity and women's femininity
Men's masculinity and women's femininity

Additionally, feminism has been discussed in the field of cinema, which is called feminist film theory. Smelik claims that films and movies have contributed to build up restrictive stereotypes, binary gender conventions and are solidify the image of femininity in women and masculinity in men. Smelik also describes how mainstream classic films have developed gender in the way they portray “male characters as active and powerful: he is the agent around whom the dramatic action unfolds and the look gets organized[, and the] female character is passive and powerless." Smelik continues to explain how females are often portrayed as the object of desire for the male character(s) and how, in this respect, the world of film has perfected a visual image of women that is suited for male desire that structured and canonized in the tradition of western art and aesthetics.

The ideas arising from feminism have influenced films and the way people interpret what the characters in a movie represent as a male or female figure. As it is known by the fans, in most Ghibli films, a female is depicted as the main character. Spirited Away is no exception to this point. Because of that fact, Ghibli movies are considered to address gender issues by the way they make the main role a female. White explains how these characters “…have some exceptional potential as feminist figures in ways that Western leading ladies often don't.” The way those female characters handle their challenges shows their courage and hospitality. Even though a male character appears in a movie along with the heroin, a romantic relationship is unlikely to be centered of the story in contrast to American films.

Ghibli heroines are often compared to Disney princesses in terms of appearance and act. Wecks claims the difference between those two works can be seen in the characters’ physical attraction and relationship. According to him, Disney princesses demonstrate a conventional image of how girls should behave. For example, they wear elegant dresses, establishing a stereotype of what clothes women ought to wear, appear alongside a physically attractive man, and likely engage in a romantic relationship with the hero or prince in a story.

"Snow White" - Disney
"Snow White" - Disney

While the over-arching struggle of these films is the coming together of two individuals in pursuit of love, Weck states that on the other hand, female characters in Ghibli movies do not devote themselves to a romantic relationship all the while recognizing the fact that romance can be used as a device to develop a story. In other words, Chihiro from Spirited Away features three characteristics that support the ideals feminism movement. She is unconcerned with sexual or romantic pursuits and faces her problems with courage and a tender heart. In addition to those elements, there are two more factors which help give this film a feministic characteristic. One of these factors is the aesthetics which are used to portray Haku.

The aesthetics and appearance used to depict Haku go against many of the conventions used to portray characters in, for example Disney films. Rather than being illustrated as a muscular idol, Haku is portrayed in the tradition of feminist film theory. Male characters in action and romantic movies, and Disney prices, are often depicted nice-looking and sturdy. Muscularity emphasizes a manly features of a character whom a woman is prone to depend on. Unlike them, Haku seems slightly if built at all. Height wise, he is not at all taller than Chihiro. In fact, it could even be said that their appearances resemble one another. This fact implies that Haku and Chihiro equally influence each other in their relationship.

As stated earlier in this essay, Haku helps Chihiro live in the world at the beginning. However, this act is reciprocated when Chihiro saves Haku’s life when she ventures to the house of Yubaba’s twin sister. In other words, they are portrayed to be engaged in a relationship of equal responsibility, strength and value. In this respect, their powers are equal and balanced in their relationship. The physical appearance of the two characters proves that muscularity is not the the one which determine who should hold power or authority. This fact may also suggest that physical differences don’t render an individual incapable of helping others, which is so often a critical, if not the most important characteristic in the traditional image of gender role.

They are about the same height
They are about the same height

Additionally, unlike Disney princess movies which often conclude with a so-called happy ending as the princess stays with the prince for the rest of their life, Spirited Away contains another element that evokes a sense of feminism. While not all Ghibli movies end this way, at the end of Spirited Away, Chihiro and Haku decide to separate after their journey. Chihiro returns to the world where she came from while Haku stays in the world of the gods. Even though they have fostered a strong relationship through the story and even though this might be interpreted as a romantic object, the story doesn’t provide particular focus on the potential between these two for a romantic relationship.

The end of "Spirited Away"
The end of "Spirited Away"

The same goes for Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, another feminist film which has a similar ending. San, also referred to Princess Mononoke and the heroine of the film along with the main character Ashitaka, decide not to stay together since each of them wants to protect their community. San returns to the mountains and Ashitaka goes to the village. The ending of both movies challenges the stereotypical image of women who tend to rely on men while portraying independent women who make their own decision being uninfluenced by men.

The end of "Princess Mononoke"
The end of "Princess Mononoke"

In conclusion, by using these feminist elements in his films, Miyazaki seems to be reinforcing the notion that women’s roles in society are versatile, unique to the individual and independent of traditional views of women’s roles. In the way that Chihiro is portrayed as an independent entity, free to make her own choices but also an equal participant in her relationship with men, the film Spirited Away indicates how men are not the ones with all the power. Although the film supports the feministic position, it doesn’t necessarily dismiss the men’s rights. Rather, everyone equally has rights and freedom to make choices in any relationships regardless of gender. Each individual ought to decide for themselves as well as helping one another in their lives. Spirited Away demonstrates the equality of the right among gender while taking a role of feminism.