DISCLAIMER: Nathan knows little to nothing about any of the topics he will be discussing in the following post. Literally everything here may be complete and spurious nonsense.
The films of Hayao Miyazaki are rightfully beloved for many reasons, one of which is their feminism. The protagonists of almost all of his movies are women or girls, who take center stage in his narratives, supported by boys, but never supplanted. Avoiding the cliche of the “strong female character”, Miyazaki’s heroines feel frightfully real, endowed with strengths and weaknesses but always characterized by empathy, kindness, and determination. Many, many smarter people than I have examined and discussed this aspect of these movies, but I do think there’s something that goes unnoticed: Miyazaki’s deep admiration for the practice of physical labor, and the ways in which this intersects with feminism to create a coherent narrative.
The title of this piece is “The Intersection of Marxism and Feminism”, and I want to make it clear that I when I refer to Marxism, I’m not referring to the economic, historical, or revolutionary theories, but rather some of Marx’s philosophical writings, specifically the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. My knowledge of this is limited to a single course in college, so it’s possible that my understanding is completely off. If you’re an actual scholar of Marxist theory, please correct me! But anyways, in this piece, Marx attempts a theoretical explanation of the importance of the proletariat. Cooperative labor, as in factories, he argues, is the highest form of human activity, as it enables us to create objects that do not and cannot exist in nature. Other activities, eating, drinking, having sex, relaxing, etc, these are mere animal pleasures, and should be minimized. The Great Sin of Capitalism in this paradigm is that it alienates us from labor. Labor, which should be a pleasure and joy, is reduced to a hated chore by the demands of capitalist economics. Or, as my father succinctly put when I was discussing this with him: “Capitalists value work too, but for what it brings them. For Miyazaki, it’s a good in and of itself.” Miyazaki may not explicitly denounce capitalist oppression, but his movies serve as showcases for a Marxist idealism of labor, filtered through a feminist lens.
The first example I’d like to talk about is Kiki’s Delivery Service, a wonderful movie that I watched literally hundreds of times as a wee lad, and continue to love to this day. Kiki is about a young witch who must make her own way in the big city, learning how to survive on her own. It’s a coming-of-age story, and it centers around an awesome airship, and it’s great and wonderful and everyone should watch it. It’s worth noting , however, that while Kiki’s ostensible purpose throughout the movie is to train to become a witch, the focus of her efforts is in starting her flying delivery service (It’s literally the title…). But this job does not merely, or even primarily, serve Kiki as a means of supporting herself. Instead, working is the vehicle through which she discovers independence and self-confidence. When Kiki arrives in the vaguely-Trieste-like city, she is scared, shy, and overwhelmed by the thousands of strangers, looming buildings, and busy streets. Her job, however, gives her a framework to interact with this strange new world, and as she works, she grows increasingly confident with clients and friends. This could easily be a Horatio Algeresque tale about the need to pull one’s self up by one’s bootstraps if it weren’t so obvious that Kiki’s material conditions don’t really depend on her job. Her landlady, Osono, gives her room and board for a pittance. There’s no real sense of urgency. When Kiki’s magic fails and she can’t work, it’s portrayed as a crushing blow to her burgeoning sense of self, not a threat to her survival.
Kiki needs to work, not because she needs to make money, but because she needs to find her place in the world. If capitalism degrades labor by reducing it to its monetary worth, Miyazaki exults it by making it the gateway to self-actualization. When telling her plans to open a delivery serve to Osono, Kiki explains it as “Flying’s my only real skill, so I might as well put it to use”. In Miyazaki’s worldview, it’s important to work, to go out into the world and put your skills to use. By taking flying, something that as a child Kiki only used for herself, and putting it use for others, Kiki becomes an adult.
Like Kiki, Spirited Away is a coming-of-age tale where a young girl must work independently of her family. But while Kiki needed to work in order to find her true potential in a city filled with supportive friends, the hero of Spirited Away, Chihiro, must work in order to survive a dangerous world of spirits. After her parents greed and gluttony traps her on the far side of the river from the world of humans, Chihiro’s only chance of surviving is to get a job in the bathhouse, giving her a place and a purpose. Unlike Kiki, who labors freely among friends, Chihiro faces a much more adversarial situation. She is bound by contract to the evil witch who rules the bathhouse, her name stolen, essentially a slave. But the films depiction of her journey shares several similar thematic connections.
In the beginning, Chihiro is shown as being whiny, scared, and sulky. When her parents are transformed into pigs, she can do nothing but run away and try to hide. The first insistence she shows of moral courage comes later, when she goes to beg a job of Kamajii the boiler man. When one of the magic soot sprites drops its burden of coal, she picks it up and briefly labors alongside the other sprites to help feed the boilers. This is the first time in the movie she does something for someone else. It wins her the respect of Kamajii, and she is able to enter the bathhouse and petition its ruler for a place on the staff.
Scrubbing floors and tubs alongside the other women, Chihiro proves herself not very skilled at the physical labor she finds herself doing. But though it’s obviously very difficult for her, she perseveres, and her character growth is expressed largely through her rising to the challenges of her job. From someone constantly terrified in the film’s opening scenes, she gains the courage and determination to take on Yubaba and win the freedom of her family. By working alongside them, however ineptly, she gains the respect and comradeship of her fellow workers, most of whom hated and despised her upon her arrival in their world. The work in the bathhouse is a physical challenge for Chihiro, but more than that, it is a spiritual one. By putting herself to work, Chihiro gains the respect of others and respect for herself.
In Kiki, the profit motive of labor is, if not absent, never the focus. In Spirited Away, it is far more central. Yubaba is almost always pictured counting money and valuable gems, the other bathhouse workers are obsessed with gold, and Chihiro must literally work or die. But the film never focuses on this, at least in relation to Chihiro. For example, Chihiro does not have to save enough to buy the train tickets that signal freedom, nor must she prove her worthiness to Yubaba by her hard work. The labor, once again, is a form of self-actualization by which Chihiro comes of age, unlocking the qualities within her that make her a powerful person. In the end, she achieves victory because of her own courage, and the support of the friends she’s made over the move’s course. All of this was possible because she did her job to the best of her abilities.
One thing I haven’t talked about so much in this essay is the feminism of these movies. Partially that’s because that’s an aspect that’s been well discussed elsewhere, but it’s also partially because in the previous two movies covered, the feminism is fairly implicit. (Side Note: I am a man. Therefore, take everything I say about feminism with a grain of salt, as it is possible/likely I am babbling offensive nonsense). Personally, I would consider both Spirited and Kiki to be feminist movies because they place narratives of female empowerment at the center, but neither of them really directly grapples with the question. Princess Mononoke, on the other hand, is quite explicit about both the feminism and Marxian labor views.
Unlike the last two examples, we won’t be looking at the movie’s central plot here, but rather a subplot. Still, it’s a very important part of the movie’s thematic arc. The story of Mononoke centers around the conflict between the ancient Gods and Demons of the natural world and the humans of Irontown, who disturb the balance of nature in their delving into the earth. What makes this different than your typical environmentalist fable is that the people of Irontown are made deeply sympathetic. Irontown is a city of outcasts. Its ruler, the enigmatic Lady Eboshi has taken in the dispossessed and despised and given them a new home and power. This is most notable in two groups; the lepers and the prostitutes. Each is a group of people society has rejected. And each, in Irontown, finds self-reliance and self-confidence through the practice of labor. The lepers become gunsmiths, working to design new and better muskets to defend the town. The former prostitutes labor to pump the bellows in the forges. They are the economic linchpin of the town’s prosperity. In some ways, the example of the lepers is the most extreme. Before Eboshi took them in, they were beggars in the street. Now, they are skilled craftsmen, with pride in their work and the respect of the fellows. However, it is the situation of the women that is most interesting.
I said that the feminist themes in Mononoke are fairly explicit, and I think that’s most clear around the women of Irontown. Throughout the film, they are portrayed as remarkably independent for females in 16th century Japan. They work independently, they are armed, and they are sexually self-confident. Their relationship with the men of Irontown appears to be entirely one of equals. This is something that is directly (and unfavorably) commented on by characters from other settlements, showing us that it’s by no means the societal norm. And it is very clear that this situation is entirely the result of their employment. (Side Note: I understand that there is a very contentious debate in feminist circles right now around the question of sex workers, and I really don’t want to get into that. Suffice it to say that I think it’s made pretty clear that these women were not just sex workers but actual sex slaves, or at least indentured servants.) Before Eboshi bought out their contracts, these women and girls were totally powerless, mere receptacles of lust. But when they came to Irontown and became forge-workers, they gained a purpose and a sense of solidarity. Throughout the movie, the women take extreme pride in their jobs, considering it their sacred calling to never let the forge fires die. The work is economically vital, yes, but it is even more important in that it gives them a distinct identity and a sense of equality to men.
This essay is not really an attempt to ‘prove’ anything. I am not trying to say that these movies are Filthy Communist Propaganda, nor am I trying to say that they are Brilliant Socialist Allegories. This year, for a variety of reasons, I found myself re-watching a number of Miyazaki movies multiple times, some that I hadn’t seen in many, many years. I think it’s undeniable that there’s a fascination with labor running throughout most of his movies, in some form or another, and I do think looking at it through a Marxian lens can show an interesting perspective. Hopefully, if nothing else, this essay makes you think a little about Miyazaki’s movies a little more.
One last note. When Ashitaka, the movie’s hero, first arrives in Irontown, he is furious at Lady Eboshi and her followers for their burning of the forests and desecration of the earth. He sees the townsfolk as interlopers, destroying what is natural with no purpose. His views do not waver until he visits the forge and takes a turn of his own on the bellows. Laboring alongside the women, he begins to appreciate the hundreds of hours of work that went into building the town, and the thousands of lives that depend on its survival. Ashitaka’s determination to preserve the balance of nature does not waver, but from then on he takes the needs and desires of the humans into account as well. Weapons and wealth did not impress him, but hundreds of women eagerly working together to make something that could never exist in nature—that is something worth respecting.