Kiki doing a delivery service in Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989).

“When I grew up, the most popular movies among us kids were not only those about Disney princesses, but Studio Ghibli’s movies!” 

I say this proudly whenever the discussion topic lands on the best childhood movies to revisit. Well, sometimes I heard people compare Studio Ghibli to “the Disney in the East”. Probably it’s because they both have achieved an international reputation and popularity for making movies for children. However, the styles and characterizations of their girl protagonists are so distinctively different. The first generation of Disney princesses such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella are notoriously characterized as naive and obedient. But Studio Ghibli’s girl protagonists are something else. From Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service to Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, each girl has a different personality and life trajectory. One of my greatest joys when watching these movies has been to see how they find their passion, achieve self-efficacy, and bravely hold on to their belief in life no matter what happens.

In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki is a 13-year-old witch-in-training who leaves home and plans to live on her own for one year in order to become a real witch. While flying on her broomstick, Kiki sees a beautiful city, Koriko, and decides to settle down there. In Koriko, Kiki puts her expertise in flying into use and starts a business of delivery service. But soon she loses her magic powers. “Without even thinking about it, I used to be able to fly,” she reflects on herself in one scene, “Now I’m trying to look inside myself and find out how I did it.” With the help of her new friend Ursula, Kiki tries to fight against the obstacles that stop her from flying. She eventually regains the ability to fly at a critical moment of a spacecraft accident and successfully saves her friend Tombo from falling off.

In other Ghibli movies such as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, we can also find similar girl protagonists: a naive, headstrong little girl gradually transforms into a compassionate, courageous young woman through a self-discovery journey. In Spirited Away, Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs by a witch named Yubaba. Chihiro has to take a job working in Yubaba’s bathhouse while trying to find a way to free herself and her parents to return to the human world. In the case of Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie embarks on her journey of searching for her true self when a witch turns her into a 90-year-old woman. Sophie finally breaks her curse after she learns to be mature and responsible from the whole experience of taking charge of a moving castle, buddying up with a fire demon, and stopping a cruel war.

It is easy to see that most of Studio Ghibli’s female leads, like Kiki and Sophie, are average adolescent girls. These characters look adorable, but they are by no means the type with perfect figures or stunning beauty. In Ghibli’s worldview, their lives and professions – even Kiki the witch in Kiki’s Delivery Service – are often nothing but ordinary. Ghibli girls strive for independence, discover true selves, then forge their own paths in life. That’s what makes these characters so relatable: Weren’t we all somewhat insecure, or at least unsure of ourselves as a teenager? Weren’t we all trying to figure out who we are and what we want as young girls? This is why I believe Studio Ghibli’s movies have portrayed some of the most empowering and inspiring female characters: they show us we can question ourselves, look inside ourselves, and realize our potential.

What’s also impressive for me is that Studio Ghibli’s movies tell more than a plain story about growing up – Ghibli always has a way to make their stories mysterious and bewitching. The movies present an uncanny combination: girls in the movies seem so real and relatable, yet they are mythic all the same. On one hand, we can see how the girlhood presented in Ghibli movies resembles our real life. On the other hand, many Ghibli heroines are born messengers with another unknown world, such as Chihiro’s mysterious connection with Haru, a dragon who works for Yubaba. The girlhood of Ghibli heroines is full of imagination, magic, and something more ethereal than our daily lives. When they travel freely between the real world and the world of magic, we will never find the story inconsistent. On the contrary, the movies and the girls just seem more intriguing and engaging.

Go and watch Studio Ghibli’s movies! In addition to the ones mentioned above, there are so many different kinds of girls and girlhoods in Ghibli stories: Mei and Satsuki in My Neighbor Totoro, San in Princess Mononoke, Arrietty in The Secret World of Arrietty, to name a few. Maybe you would be as surprised as sometimes I am: Is this really a movie from almost twenty years ago?

-Yuwen Zhang
Education Assistant
Girl Museum Inc.

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