Disney, Miyazaki, and Feminism:

Why Western girls need Japanese animation

Christine Hoff Kraemer


My childhood, like the childhoods of almost all children who grew up during the Information Age, was characterized by my insatiable urge to consume media. I watched hours upon hours of television, listened to countless records, begged impatiently to be taken to the movies, and devoured library books so quickly that I usually finished a stack of books on the same day I'd checked it out. Sadly missing in this joyful acquisition of new facts, ideas, and storylines, however, was one key requirement that no young girl should have to go without Ė good female role models. My early love of fantasy and science fiction left me watching television series with the recurring motif of the 'token female' Ė a supporting and often poorly-developed character that simply failed to appeal. In neighborhood games of pretend, when we had exhausted the afternoon cartoon shows' few possibilities for satisfying female characters (Wonder Woman and She-Ra being about all there was), the more daring girls among us would simply bite the bullet and play male roles instead. No one wants to be Teela to someone else's He-Man for weeks on end. Even if we were too young to know the word "degrading," we certainly understood the word "unfair" Ė and perhaps better yet, "boring." To my disappointment, however, fifteen years later the problem still hasn't been solved. While a few new female faces have appeared in the world of children's cartoons and storybooks, truly empowered female role models are still few and far between. One mother of four recently told me that she routinely changes the gender of the main character when reading to her children Ė otherwise, she says, there would be no more than a handful of stories that feature women and girls in leadership roles.

†††††††††††††† From the beginning of this century, America has had a reasonably well-honored tradition of feminism, beginning with the suffrage movement and coming to a climax in the radical Women's Lib movement of the 1970s. In the 1990s, Disney in particular has responded to parental demands for positive female role models with a chain of films featuring increasingly three-dimensional heroines, including environmentalist Indian princess Pocahantas and the cross-dressing soldier girl Mulan. Westerners may be surprised to learn that despite these efforts, perhaps the strongest female role models in animation today are not American, but Japanese.

To the great relief of fans, Japanese animation (or anime, as it is known to both Japanese and American fans) is finally beginning to cast off its undeserved reputation in the West for gratuitous sex and violence and exploitative portrayals of women. Americans at last have begun to tune in to the fact that anime is probably the single most important mode of artistic expression in Japan today Ė a medium rather than a genre. As such, anime is created and marketed for both children and adults, in every genre imaginable from history to romance to science fiction. Japan's foremost creator/director of animation today is Hayao Miyazaki, whose popularity and focus on family films have often invited comparisons to Disney. In the creation of believable, empowered female characters, however, Miyazaki's studio puts Disney to shame. Though Miyazaki comes out of a culture that may in fact be historically far more oppressive of women than America's, his females are allowed to assume and retain positions of power. In contrast, Disney's heroines, though they may stray from their prescribed feminine roles, never entirely free themselves from the comforting but constrictive sphere of male authority.

A full comparison of Miyazaki's films with Disney films from the same eras could easily take up a book, so for the purposes of this essay I'll choose just a few: Miyazaki's Nausicaš of the Valley of Wind (1984) and Princess Mononoke (1997), and Disney's Pocahantas (1995) and Mulan (1998). Aside from featuring female protagonists, these films have other parallels, allowing us to compare Japanese- and American-created characters in similar contexts. Nausicaš, Mononoke, and Pocahantas all have strong environmental themes; all four films feature an armed conflict between opposing groups, and place the heroine in a unique position to influence that conflict. All four also take place in fantasy worlds, though Disney's are more strongly historicized. In each film, however, magic and/or spirits play an important role in the plot.

The four heroines all fill leadership roles in their respective films, but with significant differences in the acquisition, the extent, and the duration of their authority. Nausicaš, Pocahantas and San (of Mononoke) are all royalty of one kind or another, and so enter the films with a certain amount of prestige. Of these, Nausicaš is both the youngest and the most powerful of the characters. We first encounter Nausicaš alone in the poisonous forest of her post-apocalyptic world, collecting much-needed materials for her village. Her competence with her gun and her tools is strangely belied by her delighted girlish laughter when she finds a particularly treasured item, the intact shell of a huge insect-like creature called an Ohmu. This strange tension between femininity and competence is reinforced by the film's first dramatic action scene, where Nausicaš skillfully speeds to her older mentor's rescue when he is attacked by an angered insect. In many ways, the image of Nausicaš flying alone on her glider epitomizes the freedom and independence she demands. The villagers' reaction to her upon her return reinforces this impression Ė they express both their concern for her safety during her jaunts to the forest (which they admit they cannot refuse her) and acknowledge her skill in returning with the valuable Ohmu shell. When her mentor, the swordmaster Yupa, reaches the village, he finds her on a roof, helping an older male worker fix one of the village's many windmills. For her people, Nausicaš is an icon of both beauty and strength, a jack-of-all-trades whose skill at flying and rapport with the natural world is second to none.

Our first glimpse of Pocahantas is similar in that, like Nausicaš, she leaves her village by herself to commune with the forest. When her sister comes to fetch her back to the village to welcome the returning warriors, Pocahantas executes a perfect dive off a high cliff into the water below, then overturns her sister's canoe in a girlish act of mischief. This sequence emphasizes both Pocahantas's appealing youth and her competence, as does a later scene where she joyfully braves rough river rapids, skillfully navigating the rocks with a single oar. Her role in her village, however, is much less central than Nausicaš's. She is not present for the victorious return of the warriors, an extremely important event in the life of the tribe, and her escapades into the forest alone are seen as a child's irresponsible dreaming. Further, though she is both adventurous and competent, she is not pictured as contributing to everyday village life, as Nausicaš does. Seen as too independent and a daydreamer, Pocahantas's father pressures her to marry sensibly and settle down Ė something Nausicaš's father, especially ailing as he is, would not ask her to do. Nausicaš is considered too valuable to her people to be put so early to the mundane task of bearing children, while Pocahantas is seen as needing the calming effect of a family in order to fully join the life of her tribe: "Even the wild mountain stream," advises her father, "must someday join the big river."

Our first glimpses of San and Mulan are considerably different than the above. San is not integrated into any human community; she is instead a child of the forest, the adopted daughter of the wolf goddess Moro. San's authority is second only to her mother, and she is the deadly cornerstone of the forest's war against the polluting industrial human town. We first see San riding on the back of a wolf, her face covered with a terrifying tribal mask and a knife in her hand. Almost more animal than human, she is a savage fighter, striking absolute terror into the hearts of the townsfolk. When Ashitaka, the male protagonist, stumbles across her in the forest, the audience is struck by her appearance of defiant strategy Ė her fur clothing and bone jewelry, her face smeared with blood where she has been trying to suck the poisoned bullet from her wolf mother's wound. Though hers is not Nausicaš's nurturing leadership or Pocahantas's independence on the periphery of her society, San's fierce devotion to the forest and power over the wolves makes her a formidable figure. Mulan is the only one of the four to begin with no authority at all. She is clumsy and a bit lazy, frustrating her parents and embarrassing her ancestors. She makes a fool of herself at the matchmaker's, leading the furious woman to scream at her, "You may look like a bride, but you will never bring your family honor!" In Mulan's world, a wife is all she is allowed to be, and it is a role she is terrible at playing. When Mulan protests her father's entering the army despite his poor health, she is rebuked sternly for not knowing her place. For Mulan, the only path to any kind of control over her own life is to go against both her family's and society's wishes by posing as a young man and becoming a soldier Ė and, to her credit, this is what she does.

Nausicaš, though she began her film in a strong position of leadership, also develops the farthest as a leader. Her transformation from a still-girlish adolescent to an introspective, charismatic, and compassionate young woman is triggered by the death of her father at the hands of an invading army. Arriving at the scene just moments too late, Nausicaš is filled with rage and seizes a weapon, viciously slaughtering five fully armed guards. Only the intervention of her mentor, the swordmaster Yupa, stays her hand. In the aftermath, she is silent and disturbed, but focused on what is best for her people Ė she prevents the villagers from attempting to rise up against the much-better-equipped army with the firm statement that she wants no more deaths. Only in private do we see her inner anguish Ė she buries her face in Yupa's chest, crying out, "I'm afraid of myself. I lost my temper and killed in spite. I don't know what I will do."

Nausicaš's struggle with the impending destruction of her people and the mystery of the forest leads her on a journey to discover both herself and the forest's secret. Nausicaš's experience of the violence in her own nature, however, seems only to make her more gentle and compassionate. At one point, she saves the life of the general who is seeking to conquer her village, and when the treacherous woman turns a gun on her, Nausicaš speaks to her gently, as if she were a frightened animal: "Don't be afraid. I just want you to go back to your own country." In the absence of her father, Nausicaš's words to the male pilots of her village become more and more authoritative, pushing them in the right direction with firm, direct orders when they are too frightened to act on their own, and risking her own life above their protests when she knows she alone can accomplish the task at hand. At the moment of her final act of self-sacrifice, standing vulnerable before a stampeding herd of Ohmu, she appears every inch a queen, staring unblinkingly at her own death for the sake of her people. When her death quiets the rage of the empathic Ohmu, they kindly restore her to life, thus fulfilling an ancient prophecy. In the closing scenes of the film, Nausicaš appears goddess-like on a glowing field as a selfless and yet fully self-actualized savior.

Pocahantas' potential as a leader is complicated by her position on the margins of tribal life. When she meets and falls in love with John Smith in the forest, she is forced to keep the encounter secret, giving her pleas that the white men can be reasoned with little weight. Her secrecy indirectly causes the death of Kocoum at the hands of one of Smith's friends, thus leading her tribe and the English to the brink of war. Her courageous act of shielding Smith from her father's club with her body, however, is an act of self-sacrifice, and she does it knowing she risks further alienation from her tribe. Unfortunately, the selflessness of this gesture is weakened by the fact that no sacrifice would have been necessary if she had been forthright from the start. Unlike Nausicaš, she saves her people only because she has put them in danger. Although her father's prase allows her to finally receive the recognition that she deserves from her tribe, it is John Smith who saves the day with finality by taking the bullet meant for the Indian chief. Thus, even at the last, Pocahantas's actions in the service of her people both require the approval of her father to be valid and the intervention of Smith, her lover, to be complete.

Though Mulan gets off on the wrong foot with her fellow soldiers due to her exaggerated ideas about male behavior, she struggles and then finally rises to become one of the most competent and well-liked soldiers in her group. At a key moment in the battle with the Huns, she disobeys a direct order from her captain and acts on her own initiative to cause a landslide that annihilates the attacking army. At this key moment, her female identity is discovered, and she is ejected from her company. Mulan shows the depth of her newfound independence, however, when despite her dishonor, she rides to warn her captain that the remaining Huns are approaching with designs on the Emperor's life. An epic battle ensues between Mulan, the captain, and the leader of the Huns across the rooftops of the city. Frustratingly, though, it seems that Mulan has shed most of her soldier's training with her masculine clothing Ė though the captain uses his sword as a weapon against Attila, when he has been temporarily incapacitated and the sword is in Mulan's hands, she reacts not by fighting but by running, using the sword as a distraction until her sidekick the dragon successfully kills Attila with a well-placed firework. After her months of training, the fact that Mulan uses her martial arts abilities only to dodge and once to trip the attacking villain seems forced and false. Mulan's failure to deal with the consequences of the violent way of life she has been trained in trivializes both her skill and the deaths she causes Ė much in contrast to Nausicaš, who takes life directly and is shown struggling with the aftermath. Though Mulan receives proper recognition from both the Emperor and her captain for her bravery and skill, the fact that her heroism is not acknowledged by her society at large without the Emperor's word is, once again, frustrating, even given the context of the misogynistic Chinese culture (heavily fictionalized though it is).

San's struggle is less to become a leader of her people (in this case, the sentient animals of the forest) than to choose which type of leader she must be. Her devotion to the forest is so all-consuming that she even initially denies her own humanity. In many ways it is unfair to speak of her as the movie's only female protagonist; equally important is Lady Eboshi, the pragmatic, humanist ruler of Irontown. The two are locked into an antagonistic relationship, each feeling she must destroy the other in order to save her people. Only the gentle intervention of the messianic Ashitaka, who acts as a bridge between their worlds, and the near-destruction of both the forest and the town allow both women to come to realize that the two sides might potentially live in harmony. Miyazaki, however, is careful to portray both women's fierce loyalty and hostility as justifiable Ė Ashitaka's message of compromise is not didactic or obvious. San, after once again leading the wolf clan in battle and nearly being killed through her efforts to prevent the death of yet another of the ancient forest gods, at last acknowledges her humanity and joins Ashitaka in quieting the anger of the beheaded and rampaging forest spirit. San's struggle is to realize that true leadership as one who also exists between the worlds means protecting both the forest and the race of her birth, humanity. Though both she and Eboshi require Ashitaka's help in ending the war between the town and the forest, Ashitaka's messianic qualities and their positions of almost unquestioned power in each of their spheres keep this change in attitudes from being disempowering.

Clearly, all of the characters grow in leadership qualities in the course of their films. The endings of the films, however, are important in either solidifying this power or depriving them of it. Nausicaš's overwhelming authority is tempered slightly by the ending Ė her people surround her lovingly, and Asbel, a male ally, picks her up and swings her around. This image both emphasizes Nausicaš's youth and femininity, and recalls the image of her independent, skillful flight. This playful touch helps to rehumanize Nausicaš after the messianic sequence that came just before it. Pocahantas, in contrast, takes a stronger position than before by firmly sending Smith back to his own land. She is not yet ready to settle down and have a family, even with the man of her choice; by aggressively maintaining her freedom, she gives some credibility to her statement that her people still need her. The audience is led to suspect that her stand against Smith's execution and her father's acknowledgement of her wisdom have given her new authority in her tribe that she can then use to the good of all. San and Eboshi return to their own worlds, though San's romantic feelings for Ashitaka are strong. Like Pocahantas, however, even love will not tear her from the place where her leadership is needed; Ashitaka will go to visit her in the forest, but she will not come with him to the world of humans. Mulan's ending is perhaps the most disappointing. She refuses the place on the Emperor's counsel that he offers her, and instead returns home, where she presents her father with the symbols of her success in war. Her father, however, tosses them aside, saying, "The greatest honor is having you for a daughter." This sequence is ambiguous as best. While her father's assertion that he values her whatever her accomplishments is touching, it rings a little false when the audience considers how disappointed Mulan's family was when it was certain she would make a poor wife. Mulan's failures as a bride were used to judge her in a negative light; but now that she has returned home in victory, why are her accomplishments not acknowledged and praised? Worst of all, he movie ends with the captain coming to Mulan's house, evidently to seek her hand in marriage. The idea that Mulan will settle down and marry, thus embracing the very lifestyle she fled from at the beginning of the movie, is appalling. Though she has no talent at being a housewife, she chooses that path rather than continuing her life as a soldier, which is apparently the first thing that she has ever been truly good at. A more disempowering conclusion than Mulan's resumption of a traditional, submissive feminine role can hardly be imagined.

All four of these protagonists are crusaders of various types, fighting for their people, their families, and often for themselves. In this role, Nausicaš, San, and Mulan are most aggressive, even using violence when necessary to accomplish their aims. Mulan, however, is robbed of her ability to use force at the end of her film, and returns instead to the submissive role of daughter, with an option of being a wife. Though she has earned her family's respect, it is difficult to understand how she will retain it when she must once again try to become the good wife she was never meant to be. Pocahantas, while entirely non-violent, ends the film with considerably more authority than she had at the beginning or the middle of the film. In fact, in many ways, the middle of the film may be the low point in her power. Her secrecy robs her of the ability to effectively advise her tribe because she must hide her relationship with Smith. She is also undergoing a more subtle source of disempowerment, however Ė the physical nature of her budding relationship. It is fascinating to watch the politics of physicality between the two characters as their relationship progresses. Smith, in the typically masculine role, is always the one to initiate physical contact. After he first convinces her to take his hand on the occasion of their first meeting, he touches her as often as he can, often using his physical presence to take control of their interactions. When he offends her, he aggressively tries to stop her departure by holding on to her canoe, forcing her to escape into the trees. Later, Smith startles Pocahantas into silence by touching her hand when she demonstrates the Indian gesture for "goodbye," and initiates the kiss that drives Kocoum into a jealous rage. In some ways, it is a relief to see Smith helpless and wounded at the end of the film. For the first time, Pocahantas is able to tower over him; it is he who asks her whether she will come with him, and passively accepts her decision Ė much in contrast to his earlier persona. In watching Nausicaš and Mononoke for patterns of physicality, contact that is not initiated by the heroine herself is rare. Nausicaš embraces others, but the only time a male touches her first is during the conclusion, where Asbel whirls her in the air. Though there is a romantic overtone to this interaction, the festive and loving air of the villagers as they surround her in a tremendous group hug makes the touch an extremely non-sexual one. Similarly, Ashitaka initiates contact with San only rarely, and then never in a sexual context. San is generally the aggressive party before she learns to trust Ashitaka, twice drawing his blood. Once he has proven himself, however, she is the first to initiate intimate, if necessary contact: when Ashitaka is so weakened by his near-death experience even to chew the tough dried meat she offers him, she chews it herself, feeding him directly from her mouth. Ashitaka reaches out physically to San only in moments of extreme need Ė he prevents her from committing violent acts, calms a fit of hysteria with a gentle embrace, and puts a comforting arm around her when they put their lives in danger to offer the forest spirit its head. The respect shown for both of Miyazaki's heroines' personal space, so to speak, emphasizes visually their independence and authority. In adhering to the traditional active-male/passive-female relationship for physical encounters, however, Disney effectively undermined the feminist message that Pocahantas seems to have been meant to convey. While romantic love is as important a theme in Mononoke as it is in Pocahantas, Ashitaka and San's love is between equals; Smith, on the other hand, seems at least subconsciously to seek to undermine Pocahantas's autonomy.

Though Disney is still unmatched in the sophistication of its animation, the content of its films is still far from cutting-edge. Miyazaki's films are much richer in content and complex in plot Ė they are films for children to grow up with and grow into, much like the best of classic children's literature; Mononoke, while still a family film, was marketed for older children and young adults. Disney, on the other hand, seems to be increasingly ignoring the older contingent of its audience to produce films with overly simplistic storylines and gaping plot holes (as anyone who groaned when a group of six Huns nearly took over Mulan's China knows). Further, the portrayals of Mulan and Pocahantas bespeak a schizophrenic political agenda Ė the two heroines behave in extremely conservative, regressive ways at some points in the films (Pocahantas's passive role in her sexual relationship, Mulan's return to family life) and in extremely progressive ways in others (Pocahantas's powerful defense of living in harmony with nature, Mulan's successfully fulfilling the traditionally male role of a soldier). Perhaps the reality simply is that in terms of unity of message, Miyazaki's total creative control over his films produces pieces that are far more artistically and thematically coherent than Disney's films, which see the creative influences of many different minds and hands. In terms of providing strong female role models for our children, however, the choice between Disney and Miyazaki is clear: the future of feminism in animated films is undoubtedly Japanese.




Works Cited

McCarthy, Helen. Hayao Miyazaki, Master of Japanese Animation. Berkeley, California: Stone Ridge Press, 1999.


Mulan. Dir. Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook. Perf. Ming-Na, Lea Salonga, and Eddie Murphy. Walt Disney Home Video, 1998.


Nausicaš of the Valley of Wind (Kaze no Tani no Nausicaš). Dir. Hayao Miyazaki. English language version by JA Films. Original Japanese language version by Nibariki, 1984.


Pocahantas. Dir. Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg. Perf. Irene Bedard, Judy Kuhn, and Mel Gibson. Walt Disney Home Video, 1995.


Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime). Dir. Hayao Miyazaki. English screenplay by Neil Gaiman. English language version by Miramax Home Entertainment, 1999.




Copyright (c) 2000 by Christine Hoff Kraemer