Hayao Miyazaki, who I consider the master of Japanese animation, has continually challenged conventional societal norms with the characters in his works. What makes Miyazaki’s work captivating is the way he uses the power of storytelling by harmonising Japanese folklore and history to produce a defamiliarising impact on the audience. This defamiliarisation is most apparent through gender norms. Although strong female protagonists are often the most noticeable feature of Miyazaki’s animated films, his works also feature a unique portrayal of male characters that challenge traditional norms of masculinity. When I say “strong female protagonists,” it may seem like something unconventional (although it is not, we still get impressed by a bare minimum effort when we see any female character that does not fit traditional gender norms) if we consider conventional gender norms. But his works’ unconventional gender representations extend beyond their heroic lead female characters. Even though Miyazaki’s courageous female protagonists break conventions, his portrayal of male characters is also powerful. By portraying male characters with classically feminine and masculine traits, he redefines masculinity and broadens the possibilities for male identity in animation. 

Miyazaki’s approach to masculinity diverges from the rigid and sometimes one-dimensional representations often seen in the animation industry. Instead of conforming to traditional standards that define masculinity as emotional or physical detachment, Miyazaki creates characters that defy these expectations and represent a more complex and flexible concept of gender. One of the most striking examples is Howl (Takuya Kimura) from Howl’s Moving Castle. Howl is an emotionally expressive and powerful wizard introduced as a charismatic character with extreme beauty and a touch of vanity. He spends hours dressing up and styling his hair to show his beauty to the fullest whilst also being fearless and protective, sacrificing his life to save Sophie, the main character. They both find strength and support in each other, resisting societal expectations of gender roles in relationships. Miyazaki does not hold back from creating Howl’s character as vulnerable and sensitive,  challenging the biased notions of what it means to be a typically masculine and strong character. By defying gender preconceptions, Howl demonstrates that a male character may easily embody both conventionally feminine and masculine traits. His self-assurance and confidence indicate that having good looks and being sensitive to others do not have to come at the expense of bravery or strength.

Another great example is the character Haku (Miyu Irino) from Spirited Away. Haku, primarily introduced as a mysterious companion, uncovers vulnerability and emotional depth afterwards. His fluid identity, shaped by magical transformations, encounters the fixed boundaries of gender roles. Miyazaki uses Haku to demonstrate that strength and courage are not exclusive to traditionally masculine traits but can be found in vulnerability, empathy, and adaptability. Traditionally linked with femininity, these attributes set characters like Howl and Haku apart from the steady and stoic masculine stereotypes usually shown in animation. By juxtaposing strong, autonomous female characters with these “feminine” male characters, Miyazaki creates a universe in which gender roles are inclusive and multidimensional. He challenges the dichotomy of masculine and feminine by presenting a range of expressions that go against conventional norms. This is especially important for animation, a medium sometimes accused of maintaining gender stereotypes in its depictions of characters. Although Miyazaki’s thoughtful treatment of gender fluidity has drawn appreciation for fostering less prejudiced gender stereotypes in our real and imaginary worlds, some contend that these characters’ subtlety fails to effectively refute stereotypes or that some audiences fail to recognise their importance.

Miyazaki’s gender-fluid male characters challenge masculine stereotypes, embracing sensitivity and complexity while inspiring viewers to re-evaluate fixed gender boundaries and find strength in our shared humanity. Though his works are still both criticised and praised, Miyazaki’s gender-fluid characters continue to have a subtle impact, gradually shattering stereotypes, challenging conventions, and encouraging more inclusivity in animation. 

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