Studio Ghibli, the most prominent animation studio in Japan, has become a notable organization for presenting alternative coming-of-age stories to stereotypical Disney Princess narratives. As Studio Ghibli’s films were critically acclaimed and Disney was struggling with its own productions pre 90s, they decided to acquire the distribution rights to Studio Ghibli’s library in 1996 (this was also a period when there was an increase in quality moviemaking at the Disney headquarters).
Disney released the Japanese Studio’s flagship film, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001), to Western audiences in 2002 with an English dub. It won the Academy Award for the Best Animated Feature Film in 2003. According to Roger Ebert’s 2002 review of Spirited Away, a large part of the film’s critical success is due to “Miyazaki’s works (“My Neighbor Totoro,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Princess Mononoke”) hav[ing] a depth and complexity often missing in American animation.” (1) Ebert notes that this complexity is apparent because of Miyazaki’s incorporation of “Ma,” or gratuitous animation that makes the film seem realistic. Yet, Ebert does not note a more explicit justification for why these films are notable in the animation movie canon–they contain strong female leads which are unseen in pre-2000 animated Disney films.
This piece highlights how Spirited Away’s heroine, Chihiro, subverts the Disney Princess tropes. I compare Spirited Away to one of Disney’s flagship films, Beauty and the Beast (1991). Beauty is a fruitful film to compare to Spirited Away as it is one of Disney’s few animated films to be nominated for the Best Picture Award. Beauty is like Spirited Away in plot–an adolescent girl transitions into a young woman. However, Beauty’s protagonist, Belle, becomes a passive princess. Chihiro, on the other hand, evolves into an independent adult.
In Beauty, Belle’s father is imprisoned by Beast for trespassing. Belle crosses into the spirit world to save him. In Spirited Away, Chihiro and her parents explore the ruins of an old amusement park, only to realize that they have entered a whimsical space. Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs for feasting on the spirits’ food without their permission. She must rescue them.
Chihiro submits to her parent’s captor, Yubaba, to recover them. Likewise, Belle must placate Beast by surrendering herself to him to save her father from incarceration (beast allows for a prisoner exchange: Belle for her father, thus she is hopeful that Beast will later release her). Beast hopes to convince Belle to love him. In Belle’s journey to earn Beast’s trust, she is overcome by Stockholm Syndrome. This is a win for Beast, but a loss for young girls who “learn” from Disney’s fables.
In Spirited Away, Chihiro helps Yubaba overcome her need to control people. And Chihiro reunites Yubaba with her Twin Sister, Zeniba. In doing this, Chihiro overcomes her passive position.
Although Studio Ghibli presents progressive portrayals of young women learning to navigate the world, Disney has never promoted Studio Ghibli’s films. In 2011 Gkids acquired the rights to the North American distribution of Studio Ghibli’s library. In 2019, HBO Max attained the streaming rights to the Studio Ghibli canon. HBO’s quality TV and film curating proves to be intact in the streaming era. Disney launched its own streaming service (titled Disney+) on November 12th, 2020 without a single Studio Ghibli film to be found. Did Disney ever buy into the art of Studio Ghibli’s vision? Or were they content with archiving films that they felt raised young women?
- Ebert, Roger. “Spirited Away Review.” Rogerebert.com. September 20, 2002, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/spirited-away-2002