Rough Sketch: Women in animation as heroes over trophies

In Arts & Entertainment, Columns, Lifestyle
(Courtesy of Studio Ghibli)

There is a strange habit among artists to idealize the female form in ways that satisfy a troubling lust for unrealistic perfection. While on the flip side of the spectrum, there are some artists who attempt to depict women as they actually are, regardless of whether or not their work is considered stylized.

Two animators couldn’t be more reflective of these two approaches than Ralph Bakshi and Hayao Miyazaki, both of whom are considered pioneers within the field of animated feature films.

Both directors’ older fantasy works have a lot in common when it comes to basic storytelling. Miyazaki’s “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” and Bakshi’s “Wizards” take place on Earth in the future with fantasy and science-fiction elements in their storylines.

The similarities end between “Nausicaä” and “Wizards” with how their male and female  characters are portrayed. Both the primary protagonist and antagonist of “Nausicaä” are female, and both are portrayed as courageous leaders of their own people while both the primary protagonist and antagonist are men in Bakshi’s film.

In “Wizards,” Princess Elinore – a half-fairy – may raise some parents’ eyebrows as she wishes to learn magic from an old wizard in order to become a full-fledged fairy. Her design leaves very little to the imagination, her clothes resemble a g-string swimsuit more than anything someone could travel in.

Elinore is often used throughout the film as something desirable for both the viewer and the characters to gawk at as the quest unfolds. She even gets the dubious privilege of being an old wizard’s lover by the end of the movie. It feels more like the attainment of a trophy for the main character than the beginnings of a real relationship between two fleshed out characters.

In a world that is filled with narrative and artistic opportunity, Bakshi drenches his one important female character in sexy clichés. Elinore’s homogeneous bust, large pouty lips and ditzy demeanor prove so distracting that it undermines the more intriguing aspects of his work. If she didn’t feel plucked from a stoned 16-year-old boy’s wet dream, “Wizards” could be easily recommendable to just about anyone with a taste for the bizarre. It certainly isn’t a great film, but it is an important artifact from animation history. It also feels far seedier and sleazier than it needs to be.

This is especially true when films like “Nausicaä” prove that an animated fantasy can be empowering to women without making much of a fuss about it. Our hero, Princess Nausicaä, is not portrayed anymore sexually than many of her male counterparts. She is pretty and youthful, but is more characterized by her tenacity and selflessness than by her outward appearance. Not once throughout the course of the movie, even when she is captured, is Nausicaä considered a prize or trophy to any man.

In fact, a subplot in which Nausicaä joins forces with a boy from another nation could have easily blossomed into a cliché romance if the film were handled by a lesser talent. Instead, Miyazaki uses the opportunity for Nausicaä to serve as an inspiration to the young man. Love doesn’t grow, but there is a building of mutual respect and understanding. It is sad how rare it is to see two characters near the same age and of opposite genders share ideas and feelings without the filmmakers feeling obligated to have them kiss.

Miyazaki has a habit of favoring strong female characters in his works, and while some of his films include love stories such as “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Princess Mononoke,” they feel like a natural extension of characters and circumstances rather than a fulfillment of the artist’s own personal fantasies.

“Many of my movies have strong female leads, brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe with all their heart,” Miyazaki said in an interview with the Guardian. “They’ll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a savior. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.”

While Bakshi does not discuss the approaches he takes in portraying women within his films in many interviews, his approach to animation is significantly different from Miyazaki’s.

“The art of cartooning is vulgarity,” Bakshi said in an interview with Metroactive. “The only reason for cartooning to exist is to be on the edge. If you only take apart what they allow you to take apart, you’re Disney. Cartooning is a low-class, for-the-public art, just like graffiti art and rap music. Vulgar but believable, that’s the line I kept walking.”

This is where I think the key difference between an artist like Miyazaki and Bakshi really lies. Bakshi’s work feels far less constricted by narrative whims or preconceived notions of right and wrong. They often feel greasy and discomforting. It feels so grimy that you can run your finger across your TV set while one is playing and be able to peel a layer of mold away. While there is certainly charm to this approach, and most animation enthusiasts know that “Wizards” does have moments of pure “WTF?!” joy, that still doesn’t justify the way in which Bakshi constantly objectifies women through his work.

From “Fire and Ice” to “Fritz the Cat” to “Cool World,” almost every female character in Bakshi’s work can fall in line with Princess Elinore. Busty, clad in something skimpy and always hypersexualized.

Yet an artist like Miyazaki, whose vision has managed to thrive despite a Japanese animation industry that often uses sexualized anime girls to sell shows and movies, looks at his work as less of a caricature and more of a direct expression. His inspirations for the women in his films are an extension of how he sees women in the real world.

“I create women characters by watching the female staff at my studio,” Miyazaki said in an interview with the Telegraph. “Half the staff are women. You don’t need so many samples. All the role models I need are around me. But they don’t realise it’s them in the film. I use their essence rather than their physique or their faces.”

If there is a message to be gained by this comparison of two influential artists, it is that I’m glad that in an animation landscape where the word “for adults” often means “it has tits and blood,” someone like Miyazaki is a miracle. He proves that you can make truly mature and artistic animated films without having to demean women in the process.

It really isn’t that hard. It really isn’t.

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