Spreading the feminist spirit of Hayao Miyazaki as ‘Spirited Away’ debuts on Blu-ray

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"Spirited Away," Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning masterpiece about a girl who becomes trapped in a sort of resort for earthbound spirits, was released on Blu-ray for the first time earlier this month. Photo provided

“Spirited Away,” Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning masterpiece about a girl who becomes trapped in a sort of resort for earthbound spirits, was released on Blu-ray for the first time earlier this month. Photo provided

Surrounded by her most valued possessions, a girl sprawls in the backseat of her parents’ car, her world upended by her family’s move to a new, faraway home.

It was a scene strongly reminiscent of the new acclaimed hit Disney/Pixar film Inside Out. But I wasn’t watching Inside Out. I was finally getting the chance to watch my new copy of the acclaimed hit Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away, released for the first time on Blu-ray this month.

Seeing the Japanese animation legend’s 2003 Oscar winner for best animated feature in glorious high definition, I was not only astounded again by the richness of his storytelling but also by the influence one determined game-changer can make.

I’m a devoted Miyazaki fan, an ardent admirer of his visually captivating flights of fancy, his dedication to telling animated stories that are complex and not watered down and of his habit of making strong, multifaceted women and girls the main characters in his movies.

Spirited Away is an epic coming-of-age adventure about a girl named Chihiro (voice of Daveigh Chase in the English-language version), who stops with her parents at what they think is an abandoned theme park on their way to their new home. Instead, the strange place turns out to be a sort of resort for earthbound spirits, Chihiro’s mother and father are turned into pigs for trespassing and stealing food, and the girl must figure out how to cope in this bizarre new reality and rescue her parents. Although she starts out sullen, spoiled and lazy, Chihiro rises to the challenges of a gloopy stink spirit, a name-stealing witch and a fierce, injured dragon.

While American animated lead characters are rare outside the Disney princess stories, they are commonplace in Miyazaki’s fantastical films, including Kiki’s Delivery Service, about a 13-year-old witch living on her own for the first time; My Neighbor Totoro, about two sisters who encounter wondrous woodland spirits near their new country home; and Howl’s Moving Castle, about a young hatmaker who is transformed into an old lady by a jealous witch and seeks out a mysterious wizard to change her back.

Such representations of women and girls in lead roles are desperately needed. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that females comprised just 12 percent of protagonists in the top-grossing films of 2014. Despite high-profile women-led hits like Divergent and Tammy, as of last year, the situation had worsened, not improved, over the past decade: The latest figures represent a drop of three percentage points from 2013 and a fall of four percentage points from 2002, according to Variety.com.

“There is a growing disconnect or gap between what we might perceive as being the current status of women in film and their actual status,” Dr. Martha Lauzen, the center’s executive director and the study’s author, told Variety.com. “A few high-profile cases can skew our thinking.”

Although women buy about half of movie tickets and represent about half the population, they rarely get a chance to see other women on the screen. And the women they do get to see on the screen are often defined by men, or as Variety puts it, “they’re the girlfriend, the mother or the wife. Their value is determined in relation to the people they bed, marry or birth.”

But Spirited Away even turns the tired narrative about a damsel in distress waiting for her prince to rescue her (and later marry her, naturally) on its old gray head as 10-year-old Chihiro embarks on a side mission to save Haku (voice of Jason Marsden in the American dubbed version), the boy who initially helps her adapt in the spirit world who turns out to be more than he seems as well.
Although such a role reversal may seem revolutionary for people who have grown up on a diet of Disney animated princess tales, most of Miyazaki’s movies feature women and girls who may get by with a little help from their friends but don’t need to be rescued by one of the boys.

Even when Miyazaki puts a princess in his films, they tend to be gallant leaders (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind) or fierce warriors (Princess Mononoke) who bear little resemblance to passive characters like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, who are more likely to be praised for their tiny-waisted prettiness than for any personality attribute or personal achievement. Just compare Disney’s The Little Mermaid to Ponyo, Miyazaki’s own cinematic adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale: Instead of a sexy teenager in a seashell bikini top who longs to become a human after falling in love at first sight with a handsome prince, Ponyo is a fish-girl with formidable magic powers who longs to become a human after falling in love with a kindly boy who helps her when she is injured and accepts all her eccentricities.

Miyazaki’s movies are often referred to as the antidote to Disney’s simplistic, boy-and princess-centric animated fare, but to be fair, Disney is the one that is bringing Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli movies to America, producing the English-dubbed versions and releasing them into theaters and later onto DVD and Blu-ray.

And Miyazaki’s movies seem to be making a difference: Witness the thematic similarities between Spirited Away, which somewhat literally tracks the spiritual journey of a girl whose recent move catalyzes her transition from childhood to adulthood, and Inside Out, which quite literally follows the challenging emotional journey of an 11-year-old girl whose family moves from her beloved Minnesota to a new home in San Francisco.

Inside Out is just the second of the 15 movies in Pixar’s 20-year history to boast a female protagonist, which isn’t nearly enough. But one can’t help but wonder if Disney/Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter’s Miyazaki fandom influenced Inside Out — and hope that this is just the first sign that Pixar has absorbed the Studio Ghibli custom of making movies about women and girls who aren’t just fair maidens in need of a prince.

While my 8-year-old son staunchly refuses to lay eyes on any Disney princess films, he will happily spend an afternoon with Ponyo or with Mei and Satsuki, the sisters from Totoro. To him, princess movies are “girl stuff,” but Miyazaki’s movies are magical adventures that are as much for him as for his little sister. I would argue that better characters and richer storytelling make a big difference in his perception of these films.

There’s a perception in Hollywood that movies about women and girls can’t perform well at the box office. But Spirited Away is the top box office performer in Japan’s history, and Inside Out last weekend became Pixar’s top-opening film of its 20-year history with $91.1 million. Inside Out’s box office take fell a mere 42 percent in its second outing to $52.1 million this weekend, for an early domestic total of $184.9 million, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Hopefully, these kind of numbers will encourage Disney and other animation houses to catch the spirit of Spirited Away and continue to expand on the wonderful feminist legacy of Hayao Miyazaki.

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Meryl Streep Instructs Congress On Equality
- Kudos to three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep for sending a  letter Tuesday to each member of Congress asking them to revive the Equal Rights Amendment, according to the Associated Press.

“I am writing to ask you to stand up for equality – for your mother, your daughter, your sister, your wife or yourself – by actively supporting the Equal Rights Amendment,” Streep writes. Each packet includes a copy of “Equal Means Equal,” a book by Jessica Neuwirth, president of the ERA Coalition, the AP reports.

Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972. Over the next decade, 35 states ratified it, three short of the 38 needed to add it to the Constitution. The proposed amendment states, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Los Angeles Film Festival’s Feminism Scores
- Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Film Festival scheduled a slate with 40 percent of its films directed by women. During the festival, The Los Angelese Times invited five of those directors and the head of the festival, Stephanie Allain, to its newsroom to discuss the broad issue.

The interviewees included Zoe Cassavetes, whose “Day Out of Days” is a sadly comic chronicle of the humiliations of being an actress; Marya Cohn, whose “The Girl in the Book” is a drama about a young assistant book editor forced to promote a male author with whom she has a disturbing personal history; Daphne McWilliams, whose documentary “In a Perfect World” confronts the challenges of boys raised by single moms; Renee Tajima-Peña, whose documentary “No Más Bebés” tells the story of the forced sterilization of Mexican immigrant mothers at a Los Angeles hospital during the 1970s; and Delila Vallot, whose documentary “Can You Dig This” profiles urban gardeners in South Los Angeles.

My favorite question-response in this must-read roundtable feature:

What’s the stupidest reason you’ve ever heard for why women can’t direct?

Vallot: That we’re not ambitious, that there aren’t enough female directors, that our content isn’t something the larger audience will respond to. That doesn’t make any sense. Fifty percent of the population is female.… We do show up to the theaters, and a lot of the times we make the household decisions of what the family’s going to see.

BFI London Film Festival Partners with Geena Davis Institute
- The BFI London Film Festival on Tuesday unveiled a collaboration with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and Women in Film and Television, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The festival will host the Institute’s first Global Symposium on Gender in Media outside the U.S. on Oct. 8, the day after the festival opens with Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette.

“Media images have a huge impact on our perceptions and on our social and cultural beliefs and behaviors. Our new global study explores how global films may be reinforcing negative gender stereotypes with movie audiences of all ages,” Davis said.

-BAM

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