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when marnie was there

Studio Ghibli filmmakers discuss gender onscreen and off

Hayao Miyazaki's successors examine the different approach men and women take to fantasy, and the creation of their famous female characters

Studio Ghibli is famous for its hand-drawn, delicately animated masterpieces, and its fantastical, strong female characters have time and time again taken the lead. From Chihiro/Sen, the ten-year-old girl forced to grow up faster than she wants to in Spirited Away, to the wild warrior, San, raised by wolves in Princess Mononoke and the kingdom-leading Nausicaä in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

In an interview with The Guardian, animator and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and producer Yoshiaki Nishimura discussed the legacy of the studio’s great director Hayao Miyazaki, who retired in 2014, as well as the state of animation today. They also touched upon the approach men and women take to fantasy and animation, as well as the position of their female characters, mentioning their latest release in the UK, When Marnie Was There.

Yonebayashi described Anna, the film’s protagonist, as “an androgynous character, in the transition between child to adulthood, a very sensitive age”. When asked why he chose a female lead, he explained, “I’m male myself, and if I had a central character who was male, I’d probably put too much emotion into it, and that would lead to difficulty in telling the story.”

When Marnie Was There traces the story of the introverted, asthmatic 12-year-old as she drifts between a salt marsh and a dilapidated mansion. She develops an infatuation with the only inhabitant of the abandoned house, an ethereal child named Marnie who “may or may not be real”.

The animation house is on a kind of hiatus right now, with no concrete plans further than the Cannes-premiered collab with Michaël Dudok de Wit, The Red Turtle. However, the pair were asked if Ghibli would ever hire a female director. Nishimura said, “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.”

Back in 2013, Miyazaki, the brains behind many of the studio’s best-loved films, said: “Many of my movies have strong female leads – brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe in with all their heart. They’ll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a saviour. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.”