I like anime. A lot. So do my friends. Some people would call the films of Japanese artist Hayao Miyazaki a guilty pleasure—they're cute, they're kid-friendly, and they're heartwarming.
But I'd argue that Miyazaki's films—including my girlfriend's favorite, Spirited Away—are not a guilty pleasure but some of the best feminist films ever made.
What makes Miyazaki's 13 films special is what they say about life, its struggles, and its joys. Miyazaki's many heroines have some exceptional potential as feminist figures in ways that Western leading ladies often don't.
In many Hollywood films, narratives are built around the simplistic idea of good versus evil: "good guys" kill off "bad guys" who are devils through and through. In contrast, the flowing narrative structure of Miyazaki's films allow for a lot of flexibility in the roles played by heroes and villains. Most of the time, the hero or heroine's journey does not center on the need to violently defeat an ultimate villain. Take Spirited Away. In the film, a young girl named Chihiro slips into a magical alternate reality where her parents are turned into pigs. Chihiro does face some enemies on her quest to rescue her parents and escape back to the human world, including the ghost No-Face and a witch named Yubaba. But she surpasses them by using her cleverness and simple bravery, not physical force. Along the way, No-Face becomes her friend and Yubaba shows she's not pure evil.
Compared to Disney films, where the big-bad not only dies, but dies violently (sometimes at the hands of the protagonists), this offers a much more positive, nuanced message about what life is like. Violence as a means of problem-solving is a masculine value, so it's not surprising that—like other masculine values—it is valorized in our media, including stories we tell our kids.
Of course, in the real world, violence is not a very functional way to solve problems. It's worth recognizing when an alternative vision of story-telling and problem-solving achieves mainstream popularity, as Miyazaki movies have done both in the U.S. and in Japan (though they're certainly not known or loved on the level of Disney cartoons).
Plus, there's the fact that Miyazaki's ladies in general demonstrate more strength and complex personalities than American heroines (especially princesses) tend to. Characters Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa both actively fight to defend their homes, using both weapons and kindness. Sophie of Howl's Moving Castle is less physically active than those two warriors—particularly compared to her boyfriend Howl—but is stronger than him in many ways and at saves his life at one point in the film. I'll add that their romance, as with all Miyazaki's romances, doesn't totally dominate the picture. That's a refreshing change from the love-obsessed fare of America's female-centric narratives.
Just the ratios of female characters in Miyazaki films are better than American film. Of Miyazaki's 13 movies, nine feature a female central protagonist, often as the titular character. Compare this to numbers that show women have only 30 percent of speaking roles in blockbuster films. Miyazaki's films feature gender-balanced casts where women exist both as heroes and villains, and characters in either role have nuances and depth.
They're not a guilty pleasure, they're a film that should be on every feminist bookshelf.