My husband and I have been Studio Ghibli movie fans since we met each other and we’ve pretty much watched them all. Whether they’re telling fantastical or real-world stories the studio always seems to create something just a little bit out of the ordinary, and the number of great heroines whose stories they’ve told frankly just makes Disney look bad (even when they’re trying). So, shove over Ariel, Jasmine and Belle, these ladies can take it from here.
A strong female leader
Nausicaa is a princess in a post-disaster world. She is compassionate and brave, a daring explorer who is capable and selfless. (Technically not a Studio Ghibli film, but still marketed that way).
Harry from The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley.
Ah, Harry! I loved her from the moment I met her when I was a small and spotty teenager. When Homeland born and bred Harry is kidnapped by the King Corlath of the Hillfolk she gets the opportunity to learn sword fighting and horsemanship and appreciate the Hillfolk’s way of life. She becomes one of the King’s Riders, wields the legendary Blue Sword and eventually unites the Homelanders and the Hillfolk to defend Damar from a Northern invasion. I got a numb butt sitting in a too-small chair reading this book way back when, and while I haven’t revisited it in years (can’t find my copy) I have fond memories of Harry, who was one of my first badass girl warriors (along with Alanna and Aerin).
An inspiring member of royalty
Although Sheeta may have a quieter demeanour than other Ghibli heroines, she is not a damsel in distress. She’s royalty, but doesn’t stay on the side lines; she is involved, kind and, despite a sad past, hopeful.
The nameless narrator of A Thousand Nights by E K Johnston is not born into royalty, but marries Lo-Melkhiin to save her beautiful and beloved sister from that fate. In her selfless desire to protect at first her sister, and later all the women of the king’s qasr, she proves herself a queen. In her constant battle against the demon within her husband she proves herself a queen. In the faith and love she inspires in those around her, and in her ingenious final solution to the riddle of her husband’s curse she proves herself a queen. If you haven’t already met her, maybe it’s time you made a little room at your fireside for Scheherazade? She has a fabulous story to tell.
A pair of siblings (or two friends who act like siblings)
Before Anna and Elsa, before Lilo and Nani, there was Satsuki and Mei. Satsuki was incredibly young when their mother was hospitalized, and, with their father at work, she has to take care of Mei. And Mei is only four with a big imagination.
Constance and Merricat Blackwood of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson might not be everyone’s first choice as an example of sisterly affection. Theirs is certainly a more tangled relationship than many enjoy, but I think an argument can be made for them. They rely on one another exclusively, Merricat on Constance for food and comfort, Constance on Merricat for bringing in groceries and for protection, of a sort. The book details Merricats continual efforts to defend Constance using her own strange brand of magic and at the end of the book we learn how Constance has unquestioningly protected Merricat in turn. For all their peculiarities they are deeply devoted to one another.
For a more … vanilla … example, friends Chito and Yuuri from the manga Girls’ Last Tour by Tsukumizu have a lovely, sisterly relationship, complete with bickering and bellyaching. Across a world almost entirely empty of people these two travel together in their battered Kettenkrad, searching always for food and water and the occasional hot bath, and musing about life along the way.
A character who has supernatural gifts
Kiki has to go off on her own to live alone, as is the custom among witches. She goes through many things that newly independent young adults face, like money problems, finding a place to stay, searching for a job and loneliness, before finding her way, thanks to her special abilities.
Well, this just has to be Prunella from Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown. She doesn’t experience anything like Kiki’s moments of self-doubt, but she is like Kiki in that she is completely and utterly herself. Powerful and talented in a world that certainly doesn’t want her to be either of these things, she manoeuvres herself into as safe a position as she can manage, isn’t afraid to do something difficult or heart-rending if it means achieving her goal and by the end of the book, has turned the world on its head. All the while being impossible to fall out of love with.
Two inspiring heroines, one who is unabashedly feminine and the other who is more of a tomboy
Gina and Fio are both heroines in this film, and they couldn’t be less alike. Gina is a young woman who is very feminine, a singer and a restaurant owner. However, she is very resourceful and capable. Fio is a teenage mechanic who is independent, goes against the flow, and isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. She may be one of the best mechanics of her time.
This prompt immediately made me think of Dimity and Sophronia from the Finishing School series by Gail Carriger. There are more tomboyish characters in the series than Sophronia, for sure, (looking at your Vieve), but certainly no character more in love with sparkle and foof than Dimity.
Sophronia is the kind of girl who wants to know things – how something works, why something was said, where that door leads – and does the necessary to find out. She’s happy climbing around the outside of the airship school she attends and sneaking into teachers’ rooms and takes great delight in the freedom of movement afforded by more gentlemanly dress. Her best friend Dimity, on the other hand, loves the foofy-est fashions, wears the sparkliest jewellery, chatters endlessly and really just wants to get married and settle down. She is nevertheless a steadfast friend and has a “guileless craftiness” that she employs to great effect.
Your most relatable character
Shizuku is an eighth-grade student who can’t quite focus on school as much as on her favourite books. However, through encounters with an ambitious boy who seems to have a likely chance at meeting his goals, a cat who rides trains, an antique shop owner, and a cat statue called the Baron, Shizuku is determined to meet her own goal and become a writer.
(I love Shizuku, but I want it on record that I love Taeko from Only Yesterday just a tiny bit more. I watched it when I was the same age as she is in the film and I was in a strange in-between sort of place in my inner life and Taeko just epitomised all of that for me so perfectly. I still can’t watch Only Yesterday without sobbing buckets).
Pamela Dean’s Janet from Tam Lin immediately springs to mind here. I love Janet. I love her practical side and her poetic side and her curiosity. I love how she thinks about herself and about other people. I love her family and, while it is nothing like mine, I can imagine being a part of it, and I can imagine having her friends. She is so open to life that she makes me feel happy and hopeful even when I don’t want to, (which makes this a good book to read after watching Only Yesterday I’ve just realised!). Janet is a character that I have been and that I want to be, if that makes any kind of sense at all.
A female character who is physically strong
San has been raised by wolves. When humans begin to invade her home forest to make towns and use the resources for themselves while killing the spirits and animals within, San refuses to let it be. She takes a stand and becomes the village’s greatest obstacle. She is such a force to be reckoned with that they give her a name: Princess Mononoke.
Chava from The Golem and the Jinni by Helena Wecker is the golem of the title, and incredibly strong. She is unusual too. A female golem, crafted to pass as human, and intended as a wife for the man who commissioned her creation, she is gentle and curious and plagued by her ability to hear all the clamouring desires of the humans around her. She is taught that caution and propriety are things that will protect her and practices both with great care, but there is a moment, late in the book, where she displays her great physical strength. In any other book it would have been a ‘Hurrah!’ moment (‘Take that, you bounder! You cad!’), but Chava’s world is not prepared for such things.
A character who has a great character arc
At the beginning of Spirited Away, Chihiro starts off as a whiny, spoiled ten-year-old girl. However, during her time working at a supernatural bath house, she discovers parts of herself she didn’t know she had. The story is about her finding the strength she already had but was unaware of.
One of my favourite character arcs is that of Lola Hart in Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack. The book takes the form of twelve-year-old Lola’s diary, and it tracks her progress from middle-class Manhattan schoolgirl to violent street-gang member as American society crumbles around her and her family. The single greatest thing about this book is the way in which Lola’s language changes to reflect this descent. It’s so smooth a transition that you find yourself reading her later blunt and slangy entries with as little difficulty as you read her earliest Standard English ones. And there is a creativity and a poetry to her later language that you can’t help but appreciate amidst the flames and rubble of the broken world she is left with.
A character who may not have supernatural abilities herself, but is memorable anyway
Haru is a typical high school girl: kind, clumsy, and a little forgetful. But she soon finds herself involved in events that are out of her control. In a way, it is because of her normalcy that she can find her way out of her situation and become stronger because of it.
I’m taking this prompt as an excuse to trot out my love for Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin books again. Cithrin bel Sarcour doesn’t have a magical bone in her body, but she’s a brilliant (underage) banker. I don’t know what witchcraft Abraham is gifted with, but through Cithrin he makes banking not only interesting, not only fun, but absolutely bloody fascinating. Cithrin herself is beautifully flawed, she makes mistakes, she has some complicated relationships, and she’s an alcoholic for much of the series, but her heart is that of a gambler and I found myself as swept up by her plots and ploys as I would have been by espionage or derring-do.
An emotionally strong character
Sophie doesn’t think much of herself for a lot of the story. She doesn’t think she’s pretty or memorable, especially when compared to her younger sister, Lettie. It gets even worse when she’s cursed to look like an old woman. When she finds a new life that involves the mysterious wizard Howl, a fire demon, Howl’s apprentice, and many others, she is shown to be resilient and intuitive.
It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned Ice Cream Star, but she popped into my head for this prompt. No other candidates need apply. The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman tells the story of Ice Cream Star and her ‘Sengles’ a group of feral children in a world in which no one reaches adulthood any more because of a disease known as ‘posies’. Ice Cream Star loves fiercely and with abandon, it is her defining quality, and while the story had its flaws, particularly past the halfway mark, her voice and her heart kept me reading to the end. That she never loses hope, despite everything, makes for compelling reading.
A heroine who happens to be a child
Ponyo is one of the youngest Ghibli heroines at only five years old. But she still gets a lot done, including becoming human, discovering things, finding a best friend, and saving the world.
I couldn’t find a five-year-old (there aren’t as many kicking about as you’d think), so it’ll have to be twelve-year-old Mosca Mye from Fly By Night and Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge instead. Mosca is sly and clever, loves language (and is terribly adept at insults), and is never afraid to rise to the challenge of lying her way into or out of a situation. That a grumpy goose named Saracen is her animal companion says as much about her as it does about the goose. That she has chosen to attach herself to conman Eponymous Clent is even more telling. She is far and away my favourite burgeoning criminal mastermind.
An unlikely heroine
Arrietty is a Borrower: she is tiny and survives by stealing small things that humans won’t miss. Yet she’s curious about the human world and does braver things than most humans would be capable of doing, despite her tiny size.
Eddi McCandry is not the unlikeliest heroine there is, but she’s certainly a reluctant one. War For the Oaks by Emma Bull tells the story of how musician and singer Eddi gets drawn unwillingly into a faerie war, just when she’s trying to start up a new band. She is one of those warm and inspiring people, always able to laugh at herself, never quite able to see how cool she is. She understands the importance of dressing for success (ah, the outfits … *swoon*), she’s able to roll with the punches, and, man, can she sing.
An inspiring character who overcomes an obstacle
Set during World War 2 this film tells the story of Jiro and Naoko. Naoko has tuberculosis. However, she doesn’t allow this to cripple her, and enjoys life in the fullest way, which includes painting and falling in love. Even being placed in a sanatorium doesn’t break her.
I’m torn between Mori from Among Others by Jo Walton and Connie from Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy for this one. Both have some pretty hefty obstacles to overcome. Mori is alone in the world after losing her twin sister, her mother is mad, and she’s just been shipped off to boarding school. She has also had to come to rely on a walking stick to aid her in getting about. You couldn’t create a character riper for ostracization. And that Mori finds solace in books and welcome in a library speaks to me more than I can say.
Then there is Connie. Connie is also alone, is poor and uneducated and seen as a second-class citizen and is incarcerated in a mental institution for a piss-poor reason. She has no power and no freedom. She does, however, have a connection to the future that allows her to see another world, to walk around in it and talk to those that live there. And from that connection she discovers that maybe she does have just a little power after all. Connie doesn’t get a triumphant ending in which she is able to overturn all the wrongs done her, but her capacity for love, despite everything, is truly inspiring.
A character who challenges social norms
In a time where women were expected to follow social norms such as blackening teeth, shaving eyebrows, and being forced into arranged marriages, Kaguya refuses to play along. She would much rather be outside, enjoying nature and playing with friends.
Hear me out.
The ‘social norm’ for Evangeline’s kind is to be enslaved by a parasitic Arthroplana. The Arthroplana see Beastships as dog-like: lesser creatures with moderate intelligence that are eager to please and therefore trainable. They use a carrot and stick method of training to cow a Beastship into service as a vessel and workhorse. But, as is often the case, while a Beastship can live without an Arthroplana parasite, an Arthroplana cannot live without its Beastship host. When Evangeline learns to exercise her imagination and discovers within herself a far greater intelligence than her parasite Tug would have ever given her credit for, she challenges the norm and ultimately wins her freedom.
Phew! This was a long one, wasn’t it? Great fun to do though. If you feel like having a go, tag yourself in! Even if you don’t – have you seen many Studio Ghibli movies? Which one is your favourite? (And that age-old question: dubbed or subtitled?)