The Unexpected Heroism of Home in Ghibli Movies
By Shanti Escalante De-Mattei
Representing women and girls in the domestic sphere can quickly become a slippery slope. Those who identify as women are placed with the burden of having most aspects of their lives politicized. One is constantly in the middle of two tides: do I reject expectations of femininity and then worry that I’ve let the patriarchy affect how I live my life by reacting to their stereotypes? Or do I say “fuck you” and take on those things coded as girly, dealing with the anxiety that I’m leaning into the ways of being I’ve been brainwashed to associate with being a woman? I see this most vividly in the site of the domestic, which is more often than not synonymous with the entrapment of fiscal dependence.
Growing up with Studio Ghibli movies directed by Hayao Miyazaki, like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, provided some of the few examples of truly joyful and empowering female engagement with the domestic in popular media. By domestic, I’m referring to cleaning, crafting, childrearing, and most importantly, cooking. Ghibli movies are famous for their rendering of foods and feasts, and though not everyone has seen a Ghibli movie, you’ve probably come across GIFs of Kiki baking a herring pie, Sophie and Howl making eggs and bacon, or Ponyo and Sosuke enjoying some ramen.
A lot of children’s media can be pretty unimaginative when it comes to formulating engaging stories, but this is a byproduct of consumer habits, as well. Children and adults alike tend to put a lot of value on things that are considered to be exciting, and writers and producers respond accordingly, imbuing movies and books with intrigue, danger, and action. I was, and am, no different. Growing up, I hated to read stories that took place in the same setting throughout, and I turned my nose up at stories that took on real-world, mundane topics, like navigating school, a divorce, or settling into a new town. What got me excited were quest stories and the people I looked up to were heroes. If someone was on a mission, using magic, and exploring new worlds, I was into it.
Unfortunately, most quest stories only feature boys.
The home, in a quest story, is a place to depart from, and maybe one day return to. One gets the feeling, when reading a quest story, that the author is doing everything in their power to get their characters out of the door before the reader gets bored of dull domesticity. Afterall, it is only outside the home where unusual, thrilling things happen, like fighting dragons, meeting vikings and doing diplomacy with trolls. There is the added benefit of independence that comes from traveling alone that the domestic rarely suggests. Sure, on a quest you may have an overarching responsibility to the folks back home, but that’s not the same as being embedded in a community or family where a lot of your daily tasks are devoted to cleaning, cooking, agriculture, and so on. This type of domestic interdependence is tiring, and not nearly as glamorous as the lifestyles that come from abandoning these mutually held and supported responsibilities.
Miyazaki movies constantly subvert the expectation that the domestic is boring by bringing that space into attention and wonder, all the while making one’s responsibilities to others beautiful and attractive. Now, at this point, I could dig into my laundry list complete with more GIFs, or we could all watch the movies together and I’ll provide a running commentary. To keep things concise and consist with the medium I’ve committed to, I’ll share my thoughts on what I believe is a good representation of this overall mindset I’ve been talking about.
Spirited Away is probably Miyazaki’s most famous movie. It follows a young girl named Chihiro as she works in a spa for spirits in order to save her parents, who have been turned into pigs for eating food meant for the spirits (without even paying…). Food is a central theme to this movie. It is the smell of a mouthwatering feast that lures her parents into the spirit world, and No-face, one of the main antagonists of the movie, embodies a never-ending gluttony. But even as food and the insatiability surrounding it represent the darker side of the movie, food — not feasts — represent acts of kindness and healing. Feeding others, when done on a personal level (as opposed to the large meals prepared by hired cooks in the spa), is a profound moment when bonds are made and altruism shines. A few characters take on these exchanges, but what always strikes me the most is one of the parting scenes.
At the end of the movie, Chihiro makes one final journey in order to rescue her new friend Haku. To save Haku, Chihiro must return an important piece of magic to the potentially dangerous but assuredly very powerful witch Zeniba, twin to the horrendously violent and greedy Yubaba. She takes this journey with No-face, a primary antagonist of the film who is notoriously disturbing.
When the characters arrive at Zeniba’s dwelling, we are surprised to find that it is a simple and homey cottage — hardly what we would expect from one witch so notorious. The cottage is a sanctuary: they eat cake, drink tea, knit, and spin yarn. These seemingly unimpressive tasks are given a lot of weight given that Zeniba and No-face participate in these activities with care and attention. This serves to once again upend our expectations that the domestic is meant for those who are powerless, and thus have nothing else to offer.
When Chihiro is about to leave Zeniba’s cottage, she is given a parting gift: a hair tie. Seemingly innocuous, Zeniba tells her, “It will protect you — it’s made from the threads your friends wove together.”
Herein lies, I believe, one of the main lessons from not only Spirited Away, but most if not all Miyazaki movies: our strength lies in the care we give others, and vice versa. The power of caring doesn’t always lie in blatant, impulsive, heroic events (which are also great!). It shows up in the sustained, dedicated work you put in for those you love. The magic of Miyazaki is that he makes these acts shows of ultimate strength, while never simply representing a character solely tied to one kind of act of kindness. Those who fight battles, fly, traverse unseen worlds are the same people who cook, clean, knit, and do the grocery shopping. In this way, the domestic is seen for what it really is — another important part of life in which everyone participates.
But does everyone participate? Men and boys in Ghibli films are often featured in the main supporting cast, but are rarely protagonists, except when they share the spotlight with their co-stars, such as in Ponyo, Princess Mononoke, and Castle in the Sky. When considering the Ghibli canon, it’s difficult to know what to judge as “enough” male domestic participation. For example, Haku from Spirited Away and Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle are both powerful, enigmatic supporting characters to non-magical female protagonists. They both participate, briefly, in giving and sharing food with their counterparts, and yet they and the work they do remains removed in a classic re-creation of the mystery of the man’s world. The man is outside of the house, attending to hidden structures, while the woman is embroiled in domestic tasks.
Of course, Miyazaki flips the script. Instead of following the man when he steps foot out the door, the focus remains at “home,” paying rapt attention to missions and mishaps as valuable as whatever high powered wizard activity is going on somewhere else. It is also significant that in both these movies, the female characters end up uncovering the evil structures their male counterparts are embedded in and free them.
In the case of Spirited Away, Haku had been slave to Yubaba for many years, trapped because she had stolen his true name and implanted a seal of control within him. Chihiro breaks the seal with her love, and she discovers Haku’s true name and tells him what it is.
In Howl’s Moving Castle, Howl had spent most of his adult life using multiple noms de guerre to avoid transcription into the army of Madame Suliman, choosing to constantly run from her rather than break those bonds. In the end, Sophie confronts Madame Suliman directly, and her courage inspires Howl to fight for himself and for the new family he and Sophie now have together.
It is made clear that these non-magical girls are the catalysts that end years of torment, thus showing us where the true power lies. The respect the male characters show for their counterparts, and the fact that the lens of the story chooses to focus on Chihiro and Sophie instead of the men, reaffirms the capability of the domestic, while also affiliating the domestic function with women.
Miyazaki movies are built in such a way that if you identify as a girl, the domestic is replete with its own kind of heroic potential.Unfortunately, I’m not sure if there is as much room for boys to identify with these lessons. However, many Miyazaki movies show incredibly admirable male characters, many of whom share the temperament, character, and values of the female characters — characteristics some might call “effeminate.” And as I mentioned before, the Ghibli canon is quite diverse. Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle are perhaps Miyazaki’s most famous movies, but that doesn’t mean that they represent all the work he has done. Princess Mononoke makes its female character the mysterious, almost-magical character, whereas Prince Ashitaka is the new comer to a strange and different land. Ponyo is perhaps the most egalitarian movie, as the movie is mainly composed of Ponyo and Sosuke taking care of each other in the ways that they can — Ponyo with her grand magic and big heart, and Sosuke with his sense of caring responsibility and resourcefulness.
Despite these different gender associations, Ghibli movies are radical in the way that they shift assumptions of power. The goal is never to have more. Usually the plot revolves around creating or restoring stability, and this can only be done by breaking the bonds that tie you to those who would want to use your labor against your will. This is quite literally what happened in both Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke. Other Miyazaki movies, such as Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro do have a quest aspect to them, but ultimately, these movies are about fostering the courage needed to make yourself at home in a new place. In general, Ghibli movies have their characters concentrate on their internal lives, thus finding within themselves the motivations and resources needed to deal with external problems. If the fear is that girls identify themselves with the domestic, shouldn’t we instead be asking why it is that the domestic is represented as such a degrading space? For now, at least, Ghibli movies let us imagine what it might look like if it were possible to find strength in the things done at home.
 This is why “The Hunger Games” was so incredibly important to me — this was one of the only quest stories I read that featured a girl.
 Men take the lead in Porco Rosso and The Wind Rises.