Miyazaki's strong female characters inspire Goertz' interest in anime

Like many parents of young children, Professor of English Dee Goertz and her husband, Rick Bennett, who teaches in the College’s art department, often found themselves looking for ways to entertain their two daughters.

One evening, when the girls were ages four and seven, Bennett brought home a movie from the Duggan Library. Goertz thought his choice, “My Neighbor Totoro,” by the acclaimed Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazki, looked dumb, but after about 30 seconds, quickly changed her mind and thought the writer/director was a genius.

That first  experience led to Goertz’ interest in studying Miyazaki’s work — both film (anime) and printed comics (manga) — and deepened her growing appreciation for Japanese culture.

Miyazaki had long since achieved critical and commercial success in his native Japan before becoming known in the U.S. with the 1997 release of “Princess Mononoke,” produced in English by Disney’s Pixar.

His 2001 blockbuster hit, “Spirited Away,” about a 10-year-old girl who, while moving to a new neighborhood, enters an alternate reality inhabited by spirits and monsters, captured Hollywood’s attention. The film won the 2003 Academy Award for best animated feature and is Japan’s highest grossing film to date with sales of more than $274 million worldwide.

Goertz shows the animated feature to one of her Great Works classes. Part of what fascinates Goertz are the differences between the Japanese and American versions.

“The ending of the original is much more ambiguous, but American audiences don’t like ambiguity, especially kids, or parents of kids,” she said.  In the Japanese version, when the girl, Chihiro, reunites with her restored parents (who had been turned into pigs), the family simply gets in the car and drives away.

For the American version, Chihiro responds positively when her father asks her about going to a new school, saying, “I think I can handle it, Dad.”

“That dialog doesn’t exist in the Japanese version,” said Goertz. “There’s not even a suggestion that she remembers what has happened to her.”

Since she knew nothing about Japanese culture prior to studying the anime master, Goertz began to explore related areas, i.e., Japanese fairy tales, and learned ambiguous endings were quite commonplace.

It’s one of many concepts she explored for her paper, “The Hero with the Thousand-and-First Face: Miyazaki’s Girl Quester in ‘Spirited Away’ and Campbell’s Monomyth” written as a chapter for the book “Millennial Mythmaking: Essays on the Power of Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, Films and Games,” edited by John Perlich and David Whitt (McFarland, 2009).

Anime’s strong female characters, especially coming from a highly male-dominated society, align with Goertz’ interest in feminism. What keeps her coming back to the director’s work is his characters span a variety of ages.

“I’m looking at female characters in different generations and the mythology attached to them,” said Goertz. “Miyazaki has grandmothers, working women, teenage girls (as well as) children — all interesting characters, strong and assertive.”

In addition to Miyazaki, Goertz enjoys the 25-book manga series, “Fruits Basket,” about a young girl who works as a maid to several young men in the same house, and the comedy manga “Azumanga Daioh,” about a group of high school girls. The show has resonated with men as well as young women.

“Female characters can be very meaningful to men, and not just because they have pretty bodies” she said. “They can express things that even in a male-dominated society you wouldn’t want a male character to express, like vulnerability. (Men) who also feel that (emotion) sometimes can relate to that character.

Hanover has an anime club on campus that has 46 students; Goertz serves as advisor. She also uses anime in her English senior seminar class, particularly the film, “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” an early Miyazaki work she considers very accessible.

“I like to show those films (to my students, because I want them to know that you can take something that’s something you would watch for fun and still analyze it in a scholarly way,” said Goertz.

“ ... there is something in them that (students) can think deeply about, and that’s really important for Hanover students and lifelong learning so when they go off and watch movies on their own they can apply that same critical thinking.”