The Fantasy Environments, and Heroines, of Hayao Miyazaki

Last week my fellow Book Warrior Nafiza discussed The Myth of the Female Heroine and called for complex and interesting heroines who don’t completely lose their characters in the face of a five way love triangle (an excellent comment by Janet regarding X-Men follows this article). Nafiza’s arguments rang true for me, when I think of fantasy, and, particularly YA Fantasy, and female characters and heroines I too am hard pressed to justify that they are truly “strong” or, at the very worst, even consistent. Yet, as Yash pointed out there are some diamonds in the roughh (i.e. within Sarah Rees Brenan’s works) and I too shall present us with some some truly sparkling heroines from the works of Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki’s heroines are strong, but they are complex and their heroism only comes about through their journey (which often relies on the fairy tale tradition) as they realize that they can make a difference in the world that they live in.


Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1981-1994)

First, a little about Miyazaki and his works.

Miyazaki has been writing manga and creating films since 1963 –  and has recently released his last feature length film The Wind Rises (2013) (which was, like Nausicaa, adapted from a manga series of his own creation – these Manga are beautiful and follow different storylines and I highly recommend them!). The endurance of Miyazaki’s works can be chalked up to, I would argue, the simplicity of his stories. Miyazaki toys with the classic fairy tale and recreates the simplicity of the plotline and magic found in those tales. There is a hero, there is a problem, the hero recieves aid (often magical), runs into difficulties (usually following the rule of three), discovers the answer to the mystery and endeavours towards a resolution. Happily, in Miyazaki’s works these resolutions are never neat and tidy, though they are often quite satisfying.

The magic of Miyazaki’s works is often linked directly to the environment, and it is in these environments that Miyazaki’s works truly stand out. Each location is such a detailed blend of the real and the fantastic such that, with wide-eyed wonder, the audience is hardly able to discern where magic truly exists – within our own natural environment or only within the realm of the fantastic. From the toxic undergrowth of Nausicaa’s mushroom jungle to the crumbling halls of the floating city of Laputa, from Totoro’s giant camphor tree to the seascapes of Kiki and Poco Rosso, Miyazaki creates a series of imaginary worlds filled with magic and exquisite beauty unequalled in fantasy.

This is, of course, intentional. As each of the Heroines are closely connected to the natural world one of the clear agenda’s of Miyazaki’s works lies in environmentalism and encouraging environmental stewardship. Miyazaki’s female heroines are typically innocent in that they haven’t known evil and are generally creative, empathetic and intuitive. Their defining feature is their curiosity and their relationship with nature. While this might obviously leave their male counterparts in the dust, Miyazaki’s works are not so simple – there is always the chance for balance.

For example, Patsu from Castle in the Sky and Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke, do not merely support the female heroines but oft-times find themselves opposed to them. Patsu is an inventor and an engineer working with mechanics and towards progress, but it is not depicted as crude but often beautiful and his awe of the giant robot is understandable though quite the opposite of Sheeta’s reaction. His connection with the cogs and machinations of industry also makes Sheeta’s natural connection to the magical island of Laputa nearly impossible for him to comprehend, though he is drawn to understanding how it works. Ashitaka and Mononoke are often pitted against one another – and often fight with one another. Throughout the film they are at odds and neither are completely right, but they are young and resilient and, in order to end conflict they work together.

While I do enjoy the equality of Miyazaki’s films, something that I am drawn to in particular is the environmental message. The heroines of Miyazaki’s landscape – Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa or Sheeta from Castle in the Sky – all discover that without the survival of the environment magic will not survive either. Indeed, when nature looses a battle in these stories life for the heroines is changed forever. Conservation, stewardship and leadership rest on the shoulders of the female protagonists as they endeavour to discover the strength within themselves and the means to save the ones that they love and their worlds.


Indeed, something often pointed out is how Miyazaki’s tales don’t really offer an antagonist but rather focus on the fragility and resilience of the Earth’s environment – a storyline which generally connects with the fragility and resilience found within the female heroine. The driving force behind these stories is generally a struggle between differing opinions, goals and factions – whether it be regarding resources (Mononoke, Laputa) or within oneself (KikiSpirited Away) it is the environment, the natural world, that offers the fantasy and the magic of Miyazaki’s tales and it is the female heroines that realize the magical potential of themselves and the environment.

Problematic as connecting the spirit of the environment with the female gender and resting the fate of the environment and humanity on the shoulders of our youth, I would argue to excuse Miyazaki’s work for a couple of reasones.

  1. Really, the future of the environment does rest on the shoulders of our youth – but that doesn’t mean we can’t change our lifestyles too!
  2. None of these characters or worlds are simple. I said earlier that the storyline is simple, the plotline often resting upon the fairy tale tradition but the worlds and characters of Miyazaki’s tales are complex and, without a clear “good” and “evil” they offer a depth of differing opinions that is rich and worthy of discussion.

Not only are Miyazaki’s works a surreal visual experience, but they are unique blend of western fairy tale and fantasy.

That said I have an ADMISSION to make before I let you go. As much as I love the majority of his Miyazaki’s works there is one that I absolutely detest and that is Ponyo (2008).



This is a retelling of The Little Mermaid and I so disagree with this film that is has dampened my adoration of the conservation and powerful female heroines that Miyazaki has produced. In this film we have Ponyo leave the ocean to be with Sosuke (a human boy she instantly fell in love with), on land she goes to school and begins to assimilate as she grows from a half-fish/half-girl creature into a full girl. At the end of the film her mother, the ocean, appears and asks Sosuke if he will take her and take care of her forever. He says yes and that is the end. I just do not like that Ponyo, who is so full of life and so imbued with the magic and connection to the ocean gives it all up to be with Sosuke – and also that both mother’s are a-ok with this.


However, aside from this film – I have some recommendations for you.


Works for Older Readers/Viewers

Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (1984)

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Castle in the Sky (1986)

Slightly Younger

Spirited Away (2001)

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) (good for anyone really!)

Porco Rosso (1992)

Younger Still

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

Pom Poko (1994) (about Raccoons saving their home)



P.S. I apologize for my absence last week- my sister got married and I was distracted by good times and family!


18 responses to “The Fantasy Environments, and Heroines, of Hayao Miyazaki

  1. You know, apart from Princess Mononoke, I never really thought about looking at how the environment in treated in Studio Ghibli films. This was a really interesting thing to bring up Steph! Now, of course, I must watch everything all over again. Thanks for that …

    • Haha – it’s been a week of binge watching for me too.

      Yes, the environment is important in each of the films in their own way. In Spirited Away, for example, Chihiro’s relationship with the spirits and special bond with the River Spirit Haku (who was forced to leave his home because of pollution, and of course the polluted River spirit adventure) are important because she helps these spirits realize what they once were. The film has a lot of nostalgia for the environment and the pristine nature of the past. It often calls for a return to the natural form (like the big baby who turned into a bird, or Chihiro herself who becomes Saan for much of the film).
      :) So much fun!

  2. One of the interesting things, I thought, about Porco Rosso is that while the young female lead is a self-actualized individual who is more than just a girl, none of the male characters, except for Rosso, seem to notice.

    It has a dissatisfying ending until you realized “Hey, the girl doesn’t exist to save the pig-man from himself”.

    Also, Kushana from Nausicaa deserves a special shout-out, as a complex villain who ends up becoming a complex co-coprotagonist in the comic.

  3. I came to Miyazaki late in life through the mediation of a roommate very high on all things Asian. I was astonished and deeply moved, and one of my catch phrases has become “A pig’s gotta fly.” I think the most appealing thing besides his genius for scenes and characters is the universal Jungian fairy tale structure: tales that translate across all languages because they reflect the almost pre-vocal story telling of the ancients. Heroes and quests, courage in the face of adversity, and mystical helpers who recognize your value and step in on your side.
    He has created a canon of sweetness and beauty out of a life begun in horror. A rare man and the world is lucky to have him

  4. How would you consider the female protagonist in Whispers of the Heart? It’s a wholesome teenage romance, but it doesn’t require a love triangle, a jealous third-party antagonist, or some damsel-in-distress situation. No plot twist or anything. It’s a great movie, but I wonder what characteristic(s) would you describe her?

    I think Kiki was very respectable because her antagonist was herself. You can obviously note her self-confidence changing from the beginning to the end. I found her to be strong simply for believing in her own capabilities as she started on a journey with the mere support of a talking cat. Sophie’s biggest contender was also her self-confidence, but the Wicked Witch (?) was prominent as a villain whereas Kiki’s Delivery Service didn’t seem to have any.

    Regardless, Princess Mononoke would still be my favorite Miyazaki film. I love Mononoke as a heroine, but Lady Eboshi (I believe that’s her name?) was also a really powerful character in my opinion.

    • I definitely agree about Lady Eboshi – she is a strong contender and very dynamic characters – clearly not evil, but not on the side of the environment like Ashitaka or Mononoke and so antagonistic. Wonderful.

      With regards to Kiki and Sophie, I do think they are their own antagonists (and Howl is also his own worst enemy) – the Witch of the Waste is a player in the plotline but not really a big bad. So I agree there too.

      As for the new Miyazaki film “Whispers of the Heart” I have yet to watch it – but it’s sitting beside be (I got caught up watching all the oldies).

      If you haven’t before, I totally recommend reading the Nausicaa graphic novels – they follow an amazing and fantastical storyline and Nausicaa herself is so endearing and sincere. She’s kind of like Korra (from the newest Avatar series).


    • I would say that Whisper of the Heart was something like one should not sacrifice one’s dreams for a relationship, but two people with dreams can support and understand each other, helping one another pursue their dreams.

      • Oh, I love that.

        I’m going to watch it tonight (haha, Mikey will suffer through another animé – oh, don’t worry, he really likes them too), I’ll get back to you guys tomorrow!

        • Slight spoiler: the spinoff, the Cat Returns is cuter and better, in no small part because it has Rene Auberjonois and Tim Curry as the villains in the english dub. It’s probly my gf’s favorite Miyazaki movie after Howl.

  5. I absolutely love all of the Miyazaki films I’ve seen. And I’m so glad you brought up the importance of the environment in all of his animated works, since it’s something I’ve noticed, too! I wasn’t aware that most of his films were based on mangas, though. Are there any you would recommend? Or should I start out with the Nausicaa graphic novels, as you recommended to Stefanie, above?

    • Nausicaa is originally a manga series, as is “The Wind Rises”

      The roots for many of his other films (Porco Rosso, Mononoke and Spirited away) can be found in some of his other works of short stories or translations.

      I would recommend Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind for sure – and if you want more, I’d go to The Wind Rises. ^_^

  6. I’m so glad I’m not the only one out there who didn’t like Ponyo! I feel like most people thought it was cute…but it made me rather uncomfortable haha! I can’t believe that I STILL haven’t seen Princess Mononoke OR Totoro, which are two I think would probably become new favourites (Although I’m unsure whether anything will ever topple Spirited Away for me). On a side note, have you ever watched The Cat Returns? It’s not a Miyazaki film, but it is Studio Ghibli and is one of my favourite things ever. Mostly because the English dub features Cary Elwes, and it turns out Anne Hathaway is actually a really good voice actress (who knew?)

    • Yes… Ponyo… cute but incredibly irritating. I think this is one that I’d love to hear what Janet has to say about it. I just disliked the overall message – inexcusable to have a girl given (and give everything up) to a little boy… *shudders*

      You would love Mononoke! It might topple Spirited Away, it is very good.

      I will for sure check out The Cat Returns – I’m 11nth in line at the library!

      :) Thanks for comment.

  7. Pingback: Favorite Posts from June | Literary Vittles·

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