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Posted in Film
April 26, 2018

Gender And Sexuality In The Animated Films Of Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki, Part 2 (Hiroko Miyashita)

The following is the second of a three-part series.  The first installment can be found here.

In general, as Laura Mulvey argues, female characters in past, traditional stories were portrayed as quiet and weak. At that time, women were not considered as important as men in society, therefore the stories used male characters as a symbol of power which reflected society at that time (833).

Furthermore, it was usually a male character that finally led to the happy ending in the past narratives. Using Murvey’s phrase, this depiction suggests that literature narratives reinforce patriarchal structure and society, and further layer the ideology of the patriarchy (843).

What is more, the protagonists in Alice in Wonderland, Frozen and Spirited Away reflect not only strong and independent women but also reflect emotional growth of the characters that comes from life’s unexpected trials and tribulations. This reflects the feminist standpoint theory Kawashima argues which focuses on female experience so females can much better know and understand problems they face and solve them .

Because self-growth and empathy are the tools the female protagonists use to solve their problems, female audiences can more readily sympathize with the characters. At first, Alice and Elsa refused to face the reality and escaped from it. However, their actions did not help them or solve their problems.

In Alice’s case, she had to face the mystery in the wonderland and understand others and herself to go back her real world. Elsa went to the mountains, but it got her little sister tangled in difficulties. In order to save her little sister, Elsa had to accept her true self and open her heart to her little sister. Chihiro, also needing to evolve to solve her problems, was able to link the fact that she was in the mysterious world to an evil spell that had been placed on her parents. Chihiro had to be strong, independent and use her understanding of other characters in the story to gain the necessary knowledge to save her parents.

Indeed, there is a Japanese word musubi ‘tie/connection’ that is key to this story. Chihiro received a hair band from a good witch because she could understand others in the story.

Therefore, Chihiro’s hair band is not only a physical item to tie her hair up or simple commemorative item of her time in the mysterious world, but it is also a symbol showing her connection with others and her true self she found in the mysterious world. Given this perspective, it could be said that the mysterious or wonderland and their trials and tribulations are the essence of the stories that reflect the protagonists’ struggles and developments.

Mirror-Stage and Dichotomy of Female Characters in Alice in Wonderland, Frozen, and Spirited Away

According to Mulvey, it is also helpful to use psychoanalysis in order to understand what the cinematic narratives mean (833).

Post-Freudian psychiatrist Jacques Lacan argued the concept of the mirror stage.  According to Philip Smith and Alexander Riley, “Lacan suggests that during the ‘mirror stage’, the infant comes to look at itself in the mirror and thereby creates the illusion of self-unity” (29)”

The concept of a mirror is related to their connection with other people. For Lacan, another person is like a mirror. A person reflects him/herself out to others and finds his/her illusion of self-unity inside other people. Lacan’s concept can be seen with Anna and Elsa of Frozen. Anna does this with Elsa. Anna is a mirror for Elsa, and Elsa is a mirror for Anna, therefore they can grow to understand each other in a deeper way. Finally, this contributes to Elsa becoming strong enough on her own and discovering her true self. In the theme song of the movie Let It Go, Elsa sings and says it is time to test limits and break on through.

These lyrics show Elsa’s deep desire to finally be herself. These words indicate that she has indeed become strong enough and her mind becomes more free and open. Incidentally, the Japanese translation of this song title is Arinomama de. This means “to be in one’s true colors” or “be as you are”. It could be said that this Japanese title expresses Elsa’s growth even more clearly than the English title does.

In Spirited Away, Chihiro had part of her name captured by an evil witch to imprison her, and was called by a different name “Sen” in the mysterious world. Seeing this from Lacan’s psychoanalysis perspective. Sen is a mirror to Chihiro.

In the mysterious world, there is a bad witch who attempts to control people by capturing their names in order for them to lose their true selves or identities, and thus, she can control them. This witch’s action causes people to lose virtue and become much greedier.

When Chihiro meets the witch, the witch attempts to do the same thing to her. The witch does away with a Chinese character 尋 (hiro) in Chihiro’s name to change her original name in order to make her lose or forget her true identity. Doing away with some of the letters in a name changes their true nature. In addition, taking away some of these letters causes a person not to be whole, thus losing their full power. This is what the witch’s intentions were.

However, Chihiro was strong enough to keep her true identity in spite of her name change, unlike the other characters in the story. Not only that, this does cause Chihiro to undergo a significant change in her character under her new name, Sen. Under this new name, using all her strength and courage which comes from deep within her true self, Chihiro becomes even stronger, and thus, she finds her real self. In addition, through this conflict with the witch, she becomes more independent and strong, overcoming the circumstances she is in.

Since Chihiro is able to keep an unclouded perspective of her situation, she retains pure of heart even after her name change. She grows more and more courageous and independent as an individual. Analyzing this through Lacan’s theory, Sen is a mirror to Chihiro, and thus, she finds her self-unity causing her to be more whole and strong by the end of the story.

In other words, Chihiro goes through a self-realization. There are other symbols of self-realization in the story like a statue covered in algae that Chihiro sees at the beginning of the story is no longer covered by the end. This uncovering indicates Chihiro’s fresh growth and renewed mind. This scene gives refreshing charm to the movie as well.

Other female characters in Spirited Away, twin sister witches, also clearly display Lacan’s mirror stage concept. The evil witch called Yubāba and the good witch called Zenība take important roles in the story of Spirited Away. The two witches are twin sisters. Twins are often a unique situation within any form of literature. Twins can be identical in appearance such as the case of Yubāba and Zenība, or so identical as to be one entity at the same time and have similar personalities. Yubāba and Zenība look the same but act very differently.

Although Chihiro begins to see them both as Granny, Yubāba still uses her powers for profit while Zenība uses her powers more sparingly. Without Zenība, Miyazaki could never depict the potential that Yubāba could have; she is not necessarily always an evil witch, but instead given time and the right environment she could be the kind grandmother Zenība is. Yubāba’s greed has to be balanced out by Zenība’s kindness. Zenība says that they are “two halves of a whole”, and thus it is suggesting that together they are able to balance each other out, perhaps rub off on the other.

People cannot have evil without some good, nor can they have greed without generosity. Yubāba and Zenība are essentially yin and yang; people cannot have one without the other, and is a very eastern representation of the dichotomy of good and evil. Yubāba and Zenība are constantly together, unable to be separated thus creating two opposing identities.

Lacan’s mirror stage concept can lead the discussion toward the consideration of female characters from a dichotomy point of view.

From this point of view, the story of Alice in Wonderland has a traditional good and evil storyline; Alice is depicted as a good character, and Queen Judith of Hearts is a bad character, so Alice is pretty, and Queen Judith of Hearts is ugly. In Frozen, the sister princesses Elsa and Anna are in binary opposition.

Elsa takes all the responsibilities because she is the eldest sister who will become the queen. On the other hand, Anna is depicted more freely because she is a younger sister who have no responsibility for the kingdom. In Spirited Away, it could be said that Chihiro/Sen represents right and Yubāba represents wrong. However, as mentioned above, it cannot be said that Yubāba is bad by any means. Rather than discussing Chihiro and Yubāba, it is more relevant to compare Chihiro and Alice or Miyazaki and Disney.

Even though both these protagonists are little girls in general, Miyazaki depicted Chihiro as a very normal, not so pretty girl while Disney depicted Alice as a cute, sexy girl. Chihiro wears short pants, while instead Alice wears a frilly apron-dress. This difference could be considered that it reflects the social morality and ethics in Japan and the West even though the release dates of the two films had a big gap.

Alice in Wonderland premiered in 1951, and Spirited Away was released in 2001. In Japan, historically, it has been often considered shameful if women show their sexuality in public, and this morality still exists in modern Japanese society. Comparing Spirited Away and Frozen, however, Disney Studios still has princesses. Frozen was released over ten years after Spirited Away which already had an ordinary girl as the protagonist.

Therefore, Disney productions indeed could be considered to have a male-dominated vision of character creation because their depictions of their female characters are generally cute or pretty looking, as mentioned above, even in films such as Alice in Wonderland and Frozen despite having independent female protagonists.

Identity and Empathy – Key Concepts for Understanding the Relationship between Popular Culture and Society

As seen above, considering identity is key to understanding the relationship between popular culture and society, especially to understand the acceptance of Miyazaki’s animated film Spirited Away outside of Japan.

In order to explore why Japanese anime appeals to non-Japanese people, NSusan apier identifies five fan tendencies:

  • Fans identify and empathize with the anime characters because of the enormous range of themes.
  • Some fans are self-conscious about identifying with both anime characters and calling themselves anime fans.
  • Identifying anime characters is clearly inspiring.
  • Fan identification in general is often related to hopefulness and to nostalgia, and this is true in the case of anime fans as well.
  • The most frequent form of identification is on a more complicated and deeper level. It allows the viewers the chance to explore the complications of their own social identity during tumultuous periods of adolescence and young adulthood. (180-182).

Napier notes that “fantasy can provide concrete metaphors for human emotional states in ways that may have more impact than a realistic portrayal” (183). Interestingly, Miyazaki also considers nostalgia as the key concept of fantasy.

According to Yoshioka, Miyazaki believes that all Japanese share a certain sense of past is another important focal point (257). Thus, he uses traditional Japanese motifs in his animated films. In trademark Miyazaki fashion, indeed, the animated film combined stunningly beautiful graphics, with a social message, and did so with a plot that can be enjoyed by both children and adults alike (234).

Napier also argues that in the fantasy world of Japanese animated films, anything should be easy for fans to feel empathy toward. Thus, readers and audiences can participate in the world of anime. The protagonists from American comics are usually supernatural heroes gifted with paranormal physical powers. Unlike the American protagonists, the protagonists from Japanese manga and anime are normally people with heightened pro-social traits.

In order to understand the relationship between popular culture and identity in Japan and the United States, this aspect cannot be ignored because, as Davis mentioned, since the appreciation of animated films implies that the acceptance of unreality of animation, it is possible for audiences to empathize with sympathetic characters in animated films (103). For example, the protagonist Chihiro from Spirited Away is a ten-year-old girl.

In the animated film, Chihiro becomes stronger and more independent through circumstances that she is in by experiencing many unexpected trials and errors. Alice from Alice in Wonderland is also a little girl. As a means of fantasy, Alice’s girly appearance such as an apron-dress and curly blond hair, and also her performance like having afternoon tea would work well to lead audiences from the normal into the fantasy world.

However, compared to Chihiro, due to this very fantasy production, people have more difficulty relating to Alice. In fact,  Srividya Ramasubramanian and Sarah Cornfield argue that since the protagonists from Japanese animated films are quite similar to the readers and audiences not only in Japan but also in the world, characters from Japanese animated films could even become role models for not only Japanese audiences but also for western audiences (3).

Hiroko Miyashita is a Japanese language instructor at City University of New York, the New School, Adelphi University, and New York University.  She is a writer and a New York City licensed tour guide.

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