• Old soul Sophie of 'Howl's Moving Castle'. The film is one of many Studio Ghibili stories originated by women. (SBS Movies)
There's a supreme irony at the heart of controversial comments from a key figure at the animation powerhouse.
By
Briony Kidd

10 Jun 2016 - 1:50 PM  UPDATED 10 Jun 2016 - 1:50 PM

Beloved of audiences worldwide, Studio Ghibli's strike rate for producing quality feature-length animated films is second to none. Remarkable not merely for their artistry and storytelling prowess, Ghibli films tend towards the idiosyncratic. The company has championed many an oddball or outsider protagonist, beginning with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in 1984.

More notably still, most of Ghibli's best characters have been of the female persuasion. From the young-yet-old Sophie of Howl's Moving Castle to spirited siblings of My Neighbour Totoro to the adorable Ponyo, they're lightyears from the good girl/vixen tropes more traditionally employed by Hollywood.

How disappointing then to read comments this week by lead producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, who was asked whether the studio would look at employing a woman director in future.

In an interview with The Guardian to promote the new film When Marnie Was There (directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi), Nishimura explained: “It depends on what kind of a film it would be. Unlike live action, with animation we have to simplify the real world. Women tend to be more realistic and manage day-to-day lives very well. Men on the other hand tend to be more idealistic – and fantasy films need that idealistic approach. I don’t think it’s a coincidence men are picked.”

Whether there's such a thing as a 'male' or 'female' brain is a debate almost as old as history. The Greeks pondered it, Shakespeare wrote about it, and I'd suggest that neither science nor art has yet resolved the issue to anyone's complete satisfaction. We'll probably still be talking about it a hundred years from now (if Global Warming or World War III doesn't make it a moot point).

It's only when value judgments are brought to bear, to define allegedly 'masculine' qualities as implicitly superior, for instance, that the discussion begins to sour... and becomes a riskier enterprise for all concerned.

But hey, no hard feelings from me. Nishimura thinks women are handier with budgeting and shopping lists? He'd hardly be Robinson Crusoe there, if the distribution of domestic duties in households across Australia is anything to go by.

Gender stereotyping is far from a rarified pastime. From “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” to “boys will be boys” to “girls just wanna have fun”, it's all around us.

Let him hash it out at dinner parties with friends, I say, and good luck to him.

But the sting in the tail is, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence men are picked.”

Here Nishimura implies that his company has a policy of not hiring women for its top creative jobs due to their unfitness for the task.

Whoops.

I really hope he misspoke, and that no such “policy”, informal or otherwise, exists. But at the very least his comments hint towards a cultural problem at the company, and should prompt introspection. Talent is talent, in whatever body it's housed, and such a narrow-minded approach can only lead to missed opportunities.

Here I can't help but be reminded of a similar policy once held by Disney and poignantly encapsulated by a 1938 letter sent to a Miss Mary Ford: “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men”, she was firmly told.

It's uncomfortable to think of young Japanese women encountering a similarly intractable roadblock in 2016.

The great irony, that Ghibli has made so many subversive and arguably feminist films for children, can hardly be ignored. If Nishimura's comments are indicative, how did it even happen?

At this point it's worth pointing out how many of Studio Ghibli's stories originated from female minds.

  • Howl's Moving Castle is based on a novel by the English author, Diana Wynne-Jones (adapted and directed by Hayao Miyazaki).
  • Kiki's Delivery Service is based on a novel by Eiko Kadono (adapted and directed by Miyazaki).
  • Whisper of the Heart (directed by Yoshifumi Kondô and adapted by Miyazaki) and The Cat Returns (directed by Hiroyuki Morita and adapted by Reiko Yoshida) are both based on manga by Aoi Hiiragi.
  • Tales of Earthsea (directed by Gorō Miyazaki and adapted by him and Keiko Niwa) is based on books by the iconic American author Ursula K. Le Guin.
  • Arietty is inspired by the popular Borrowers stories by Englishwoman Mary Norton (again, adapted and directed by Hayao Miyazaki).
  • Even When Marnie Was There (directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and adapted by Masashi Andō, Keiko Niwa and Hiromasa Yonebayashi) is based on a novel by a woman, Joan G. Robinson.

They may have been brought to the screen in the inimitable Ghibli fashion, but there's no excuse for forgetting who created the aforementioned characters in the first place.

Women. Not Nishimura—and, for all his genius, not Miyazaki—but a succession of wildly and gloriously 'idealistic' women.

Whatever the fate of the company in these changing times – the economic realities of producing hand-drawn animation on a large-scale are beginning to bite, according to The Guardian article – its formidable legacy has been shaped by many imaginations, and a good proportion of them were female.

All hail Studio Ghibli, and the women who helped to build it.

Read more of the latest SBS Movies news