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Posts Tagged ‘Hayao Miyazaki’

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

For those of you who don’t know, this is the first official installment of a series discussing princess characters who break the Disney princess stereotypes. The first princess up is Nausicaa from Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. I’ve talked about Nausicaa before on this blog, but it’s impossible to talk about stereotype-defying princess characters and not mention her. In fact, one of the things that I like about this character is that she’s a princess who’s not afraid to be in the front lines of things and get stuff done herself. I’ll try to go over the major points that differentiate Nausicaa from stereotypical princesses in this post.

To give you a general idea of the story, Nausicaa lives in a postapocalyptic world some time in the future; humankind has driven the world to the brink and pollution has made much of it uninhabitable. In addition, humans have lost most of the industrial knowledge of their ancestors. But none of this has stopped people from fighting amongst each other and wars are occurring between groups of people over the few resources that exist in a poisoned land. Obviously, this isn’t a world for the fragile and naive princesses from Disney and truthfully, we never see Nausicaa twirling around at lavish balls or fawning over princes.

TYPICAL PRINCESS TRAITS 

Before I go off on how different she is from Cinderella or Snow White, Nausicaa does have certain similarities to stereotypical Disney princesses. As I pointed out last week, all Disney princesses are kind, innocent beings. Nausicaa isn’t naive, but more so honest and has undiminished hopes and she’s definitely shown to be a kind and peace-loving. Another element that I did not mention but that exists at least in a couple of the Disney princesses is a certain self-sacrificing nature, kindness taken to the extreme; Nausicaa has this as well. There is nothing wrong with these characteristics in princess characters; it’s the way they are handled and Nausicaa is the prime example of this.

While the earliest Disney princesses were kind and innocent to the point of sleep-inducing boredom, these traits in Nausicaa, combined with a few other traits like bravery, strength, and a brain, become some of her strengths. Many in Nausicaa’s world are blinded by things like ambition, greed, anger, or even misconception, fueling the destruction of their world. As a result, Nausicaa’s unbelievably pure and understanding nature cuts through much of this and shocks the people around her into awe. Much of her battle is dealing with the hatred in the world.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

NON-TYPICAL PRINCESS TRAITS

But Nausicaa doesn’t just get through to people by standing around being really nice; as I mentioned earlier, she has other traits and circumstances which transforms her from a nice princess to an inspiring and interesting figure. Nausicaa is the princess of a small group of people and her position as the daughter of the king actually holds power and responsibilities. The fact that Nausicaa has power is very distinctive difference between all the Disney princesses, none of whom are ever shown to have any power whatsoever as a princess. As for responsibility, some of the princesses do have a little (Jasmine, for instance, originally has the responsibility to marry for the good of her country), but it’s limited. In the manga version of her story, her father is ill and has no son so, Nausicaa must go to war in his place. In the movie, for the sake of her people’s well-being, she must become a political hostage. In both versions, Nausciaa takes plenty of risks to keep people from completely destroying the world. Because of this, she can’t just simply be kind, but also tough, resilient, and know how to act on her own. In fact, Nausicaa makes all of her moves of her own accord and takes a lot of action. As a result, coupled with her motives derived from her kind, innocent nature, Nausicaa helps many. This is what earns her not just the love of people but also respect.

There are several other major differences including Nausicaa’s intelligence, which is actually important to the story, and that there is only the slightest whiff of romance in either the movie or the manga. As for the romance, I will just say there is nothing wrong with romance, but since we see so many stories with female leads where romance takes center stage, it’s nice to see one where the independent female lead is the focus. Finally, while I realize Disney’s princesses are made for a young audience, I just want to point out that the movie version of Nausicaa’s story still only receives a PG rating.

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Earlier this week I composed a post about one of my favorite Hayao Miyazaki movies, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and discussed the strength, depth, and contrast of the protagonist and antagonist, Nausicaa and Kushana. While delving into it, an old thought occurred to me about Miyazaki’s female protagonists: almost all of them have short hair, if not through the whole movie, by the end of the story. Yeah, thanks for pointing out the obvious, you might be thinking, but I want to take a closer look at this trend which I believe is more than just a fashion statement. So, continuing on with the Miyazaki theme, let’s take a closer look at some hair!

First of all, there are many examples of strong female protagonists who begin with short hair; Nausicaa, San from Princess Mononoke, and Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service are a few. Kiki is on a journey for adventure, San lives with wolves and tries to protect the forest, and, if you haven’t read last week’s post, Nausicaa is the strong-willed princess who fights intolerance.  Three girls who face ups and downs, but begin with confidence and independence.

Sheeta from Castle in the Sky

On the other hand, Sheeta from Castle in the Sky and Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle–who both begin their journeys with long hair–have some interesting trends in common that differ majorly from the three characters listed above (besides names that both start with “s” and movie titles with the word castle” in it).

Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle

Both girls are burdened by something at the beginning. Sheeta is chased after by several groups of people due to her connection with a fabled land in the sky known as Laputa and thus is living a life that’s like walking on a thin rope, in fear of the next step. Sophie is in no mortal danger at the beginning of the story, but it’s revealed that she doesn’t have much confidence in herself and is overshadowed by her livelier, pretty sister and a little later, she has to deal with a curse placed on her.

Sheeta and Sophie also seem to go through a greater amount of character change by the end than the girls who begin with short hair because, unlike Nausicaa, San, and Kiki, Sheeta and Sophie begin with less independence and perhaps confidence in themselves. To compare the story lines of a short-haired girl versus a long-haired one, while Nausicaa already has the courage to do what she needs to do and just needs to use it, Sophie must first gain confidence in herself before she can truly save anyone else.

Interestingly, it’s at this point of climax where Sophie has gained her confidence that she gives up her hair, giving the moment a feeling of starting anew. The same feeling exists at the end of Castle in the Sky as Sheeta gazes on, free of her burden at last, her new, short hair blowing in the wind.

Chihiro

Of course, this trend doesn’t always hold true; Kiki’s Delivery Service is a journey largely about growing up and personal change although Kiki still begins the story with a larger amount of confidence than Sophie (although it wavers at points) and without a large burden like Sheeta. Also, Spirited Away‘s heroine Chihiro begins with long hair and keeps it even though she goes through a large amount of inner change and gains more strength by the end of the movie.

Nevertheless, the timing of the shortening of Sheeta and Sophie’s hair in their stories and the fact that the girls who already have freedom begin with short hair remains a point of interest. Whether Hayao Miyazaki consciously decided to have short hair represent freedom or not, pop in those films and see what conclusions you come to!

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Art of Hayao Miyazaki and many of his characters.

For those of us in the anime (japanese cartoons) community, the name Hayao Miyazaki is like Steven Spielberg is to film lovers: pure genius. The name almost certainly (if not certainly) gives avid fans a guarantee for a fantastic ride with each frame so detailed a person could hardly look at it as anything less than art and stories that play our hearts like skilled musicians, leading viewers along perfectly whether through hardship or great, whimsical fun. But shining just as brightly among the jaw-dropping art and heart-felt stories are Miyazaki’s characters, many of whom are strong females and none of which are to be missed, be they “villains” or “heroes.”

One of my absolute favorite Miyazaki films is one of his earlier films by the name of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind created in 1984 (it’s actually an adaptation of a manga of the same name also created by Miyazaki). The story centers around an inquisitive young woman in a postapocalyptic world ravaged by deadly toxins. The people of this world set some time in the future share it with a race of giant insects that are largely feared by the people. (You know how people react to an itsy-bitsy spider in their house? Just imagine how they’d feel if that spider was as big as them!)  Of course, our heroine, Nausicaa is more curious about these creatures than she is afraid and often ventures into the forests they inhabit, living a peaceful life in her quiet valley. But everything changes when a plane from another country crashes in Nausicaa’s people’s valley.

Introduced through this story are many great characters, but the two I’ll focus on are the protagonist, Nausicaa and the antagonist, Kushana.

Nausicaa makes a wonderful heroine for many reasons. Of course, as I said, Nausicaa is adventurous and courageous; She enters forests filled with toxins and potentially dangerous insects with her gas mask on and curiosity as her guide, exploring and searching for new materials to use. But Nausicaa isn’t the reckless and often stupid type either. There’s a brain under that skull and she doesn’t waste it. Nausicaa is inventive and quick to realize her situations which helps her more than once throughout the course of the story. She can also use a gun and a sword, but her strength doesn’t come from that; in fact, one of Nausicaa’s greatest qualities is that she could use violence, but instead struggles for peaceful solutions (although not in the holier-than-thou, blind-to-reality missionary sort of way).

Wow! Imagine a female character that holds your attention even though she's completely covered up!

The other thing I love about Nausicaa (and many of Miyazaki’s other female protagonists) is that she can’t really be placed under any stereotypes. She’s certainly not a girly girl, but I wouldn’t call her a tomboy either and Miyazaki never resorts to cheap, sexy heroines. I believe that this is partly due to the fact that Nausicaa wasn’t created in a fashion that limited her to her gender; in other words, her gender is not her identity. Nausicaa is Nausicaa, simple as that. She’s not a cookie cut out, but a unique, one-of-a-kind character who truly seems human.

Kushana, too, is unique so it should come as no surprise to hear that she’s an opposite to Nausicaa in many ways (of course, maybe you guessed that from the fact that she’s the antagonist). Kushana shows some of the same strength and resilience as Nausicaa, but while Nausicaa has almost a child-like purity to her at times, Kushana is a hardened adult. She’s lived (a little) longer than Nausicaa and from the looks of it, it hasn’t been a picnic as she already has a number artificial limbs (again, Miyazaki isn’t vain about his female characters) and a toughness well-developed.

The other major difference between Nausicaa and Kushana is that while Nausicaa vies for non-violent options, Kushana seems embedded in the violence. She’s in charge of the foreign military that invades when that mysterious plane crashes in Nausicaa’s valley. Kushana can be quite ruthless in contrast to Nausicaa’s mercifulness, taking hostages and fighting until it truly is over. Yet Kushana isn’t some half-crazed villain with no soul and a cackling laugh like nails on a chalkboard; another one of the strengths of Miyazaki’s films is that in some ways, there are no “villains,” only characters with different methods or objectives. This gives the stories a deeper taste like chocolate with a touch of cinnamon; it’s good, but only gets better with that bit of contrast.

And you know what just hits these two characters out of the ball park for me? Both Nausicaa and Kushana are princesses! Now that’s the kind of princess we need to see more often. So, thank you Miyazaki for making real, three-dimensional characters who aren’t restricted to the stereotypes of their gender (female and male) or other set roles that show us what real characters are made of.

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