Films for My Daughter: Searching for the Ghibli Heroine

A witch makes a great role model in Kiki’s Delivery Service.

In honor of the late great film critic Roger Ebert, I’ll be doing a series of posts on short film reviews for about 40 movies. I’ve grouped them into what I hope are interesting sets.
During the first two years of my daughter’s life, I barely had time to watch any movies. Almost all of my TV and dvd entertainment consisted of NHK children’s shows, Sesame Street, Hayao Miyazaki movies like My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, The Secret World of Arrietty and Ponyo, and later heavily fast-forwarded musicals like the Sound of Music, the Wizard of Oz and Grease. I’ll be reviewing some these as well.

So once Moka started pre-school, I had some free time and I peered into a Tsutaya, Japan’s biggest dvd rental chain, and was delighted to find that they were offering 4 movies for 1,000 yen. In all, I watched over 40 movies over the winter. I caught up on Oscar-nominated films for the past 3 years, as well as terribly made indulgences I had been dying to see.

A tiny thief in The Secret World of Arrietty.

The first set of movies I’ll be reviewing have women as the central character in action flicks or dramas. I won’t be reviewing the movies as much as I’ll be evaluating the heroines as a suitable role model for my daughter.

One of the central themes of Ghibli movies is that the main character is always a young girl of great courage. They are role models I want my daughter to have. And so they’re on the short list of videos she’s allowed to see. But not all of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies are appropriate for a toddler. So my favorite, Princess Mononoke, with its graphic violence and demon-possessed animals, will have to wait.

princess mononoke
An eco-warrior adopted by wolves in Princess Mononoke.

What is the Ghibli heroine?
Most of the heroines in Hayao Miyazaki movies are in their early teens. I once heard in an interview that he felt a new age of girls is emerging and so he wanted to address that in his films. The Ghibli heroine is adventurous and courageous, but sometimes prone to recklessness. She is cheerful and undaunted by setbacks. She is intelligent but operates from the heart. She’s compassionate and also has a strong sense of justice and fairness.

Out of the 40 movies I watched only 13 had lead female characters in which the film centered around them. The five reviewed here are the action-oriented films. Let’s see how they measure up to the Ghibli heroine.


Black Swan
Natalie Portman plays a doe-eyed ballerina rehearsing for her first lead performance. She is supremely skilled, and innocent in her ambitions, but she descends into hallucinations and self-destructive behavior due to the singularity of her obsession with ballet and the pressures of being a soloist. The dominating presence of the company director and the creepy mother who lives through her don’t help either.

Good role model?
Her dedication to her art is to be admired. Dedication to the point of madness, not so much. Innocence is fine but complete lack of savvy? No.

Portman is fantastic, but Mila Kunis steals scenes. She reminds me of when Angelina Jolie overshadowed and pretty much stole Winona Ryder’s lunch money in Girl, Interrupted. How post-modern is it that Ryder plays the aging ballerina that Portman replaces! Kunis and Jolie both played smoldering off-kilter characters you couldn’t keep your eyes off of. How about those two as role models? Sure, if you want your daughter to be charismatic but self-destructive hellcats.


True Grit
The main character is a tough girl who seeks vengeance for her father’s death and hires bounty hunters to help her. Two of the most entertaining scenes are of her negotiating with a local businessman securing horses and supplies for her trip. She uses guile, legal threats, and misdirection. Though she’s only 13, she navigates the macho world of the wild west.

Ghibli material?
While she has the leadership abilities, toughness, bravery and intelligence of a Ghibli heroine, she has none of the compassion. Her goal is vengeance and all other people are just a means to reach her goal. She doesn’t look like she’s capable of having fun. Although grieving for her father probably contributed to her grimness we see a flash-forward of her as an adult and she comes across as someone no one around her likes to be around.

I want my daughter to be assertive and not be intimidated by a man’s world. But I also want her to exercise compassion. And above all, I want her to laugh a lot. Although if Moka were to seek revenge for my death, that would be pretty bad ass.


But if you really want revenge, why even hire someone? Why not do it yourself? That’s what Zoe Saldana’s character does after she witnesses her parents be assassinated. She seeks out her thug uncle in the US and trains to be a killer. Luc Besson obviously has a thing for girls training to be assassins because basically Columbiana is the Latin Leon: the Professional. The film itself is 87% derivative, but the formula is entertaining and the remaining 13% variation of the niche genre makes the 90 minutes not a waste of time. (And that, kids, is how you use completely made up statistics to support your backhanded thumbs up.)

Suitable role model?
While I admire the heroine’s willingness to do the dirty work herself, and train her whole life to avenge her parents’ deaths, I’d rather have my daughter spend her time doing something more life-affirming, like training to be a CIA operative and getting the Navy SEALs to do the deed.

Ability to defend herself, good. Killing people for money, bad.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
If you really want a bad-ass character, Lisbeth Salander has to be one of the most compelling fictional characters I’ve come across. The trauma of her childhood had made her develop a cold unrelenting detachment. She views the world as a pared-down calculus of what people want, especially from her, and dealing with them appropriately, like lab rats.

She’s a talented computer hacker. And though physically small, she is a vicious brawler. I read the book first and Rooney Mara’s portrayal was better than the one in my imagination.

A father’s worst nightmare?
Is there anything hipper than a bisexual punk hack avenger chick who dispatches rapists and mass murderers? Lisbeth’s survival skills are awe-inspiring. She maximizes her mind and body and is a holy terror to bad evil men. But, and this is the understatement of the year, she’s not a people person.

However, perhaps that was the best way she could deal with her trauma. Maybe there was no way to emerge less emotionally damaged, less dismissively wary of new people. Given the circumstances, Lisbeth is quite admirable.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
Our final heroine is closest to a Ghibli ideal. Katniss Everdeen, played by current “it” girl Jennifer Lawrence, has survival skills comparable to Lisbeth, but in contrast, she shows concern for and empathy to those around her. Like Satsuki in My Neighbor Totoro, Katniss takes care of her younger sister.

I have a great fondness for post-apocalyptic dystopias and so enjoyed the premise: a ritualized gladiator reality show in which children from formerly rebellious provinces fight to the death. What could have been a stupid exploitation film becomes a sly fable critiquing mass media, authoritarianism, and how we shape popular narratives.

A Ghibli heroine?
Katniss uses a bow and arrow. Enough said. Cool role model.

Also, she wins the tournament without ever really killing anyone. Maybe my assessment is colored by the ultra-charm of the actress. But of the five movies reviewed here, she’s closest to the Ghibli heroine. Tough, smart, compassionate. Fighting injustice, connecting with people.

Not every movie heroine needs to be perfect. That would just be another ideal girls feel pressured to become. We just need more role models to choose from. The variety of the five here are a good start. But of the 40 movies I watched this winter very few had any women or girls of color. Even of the four Ghibli movies (made in Japan) approved for my daughter’s age, two of the heroines were white, only one was a girl of color (Japanese), and the fourth one was a fish.


Aside from Columbiana, of the other live action films I watched the only other woman of color character of significance was Sue, the Hmong neighbor in Gran Torino. She was spunky, alert, brash and assertive. She stood up to the cranky old white guy next door and also to the gang that terrorized her neighborhood. She did her best to protect her little brother from joining the gang while also acting as a bridge between her immigrant family and her host country. She did all this with a sly sense of humor.

It’s too bad that in the end she was portrayed as a victim, succumbing to Clint Eastwood’s pathological (albeit entertaining) need to be the impenetrable hero. Still, it was a promising start and remarkable in a major Hollywood film. More please!

Those were some serious movies we looked at. Next let’s look at the heroines in comedies.