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Essential Anime Heroines

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For ACMI at Home, we're sharing our curatorial insight into different films, artworks, TV series, or videogames each fortnight, as well as where you can find them online.   

Fearless, resourceful and resilient heroines have driven some of the most acclaimed and popular Japanese anime films. In 2016, we screened a selection of our favourite female characters of the genre in our Essential Anime Heroines season. Now you can meet these heroines from the comfort of home with many of the films available to stream online.

For every baddass like Princess Mononoke’s San, there are the subjugated female characters in Keijo!!!!!! (2016), designed purely for the male gaze. Unravel anime’s attitudes to women with this ACMI Conversation on anime and feminism.

Whether you’re a Ghibli fanatic, love the art of anime or are new to the genre, celebrate the growing trend of empowered female protagonists with this edition of ACMI at Home. Not convinced? Here's why you should watch anime.

Arrietty (2010)

Arrietty is a tiny 14-year-old girl who lives with her pint-sized family beneath the floorboards of a sprawling Tokyo mansion. They survive by borrowing items from humans which would otherwise not be missed. The fate of her family is put in jeopardy, however, when Arrietty befriends a 12-year-old human boy.

An inspired adaptation of Mary Norton's book series The BorrowersArrietty is yet another triumph of animation by Studio Ghibli, the creators of Ponyo (2008) and Spirited Away (2001). The film takes the book's original 1950’s England setting and seamlessly fits it into Japan in 2010, without losing any of the original's nuances.

English language voice cast includes Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, Olivia Colman and Mark Strong.

Stream on Netflix

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

In Studio Ghibli’s classic My Neighbor Totoro, two young girls, Satsuki and Mei, move into a new home in the country with their father, while their mother recovers from illness in a nearby hospital. To their surprise, the pair soon discovers that they share their home with some rather unusual creatures and even stranger neighbours – forest guardians that the girls dub Totoro. When trouble occurs, their new friends will help them rediscover hope.

One of ACMI’s most requested films, this Studio Ghibli classic remains one of Hayao Miyazaki’s best-loved animated films. Miyazaki filters this wondrous and at times surreal adventure through the plucky resilience of his two young female protagonists. The English language version also features talented voice work from Dakota and Elle Fanning.

Stream on Netflix

Princess Mononoke (1997)

A beautifully realised tale of civilization versus nature, Princess Mononoke is a true epic by Japan's master animator Hayao Miyazaki. While protecting his village from a rampaging boar-god, the young warrior Ashitaka becomes afflicted with a deadly curse. To find the cure that will save his life, he journeys deep into sacred depths of the Great Forest Spirit's realm where he meets San (Princess Mononoke), a girl raised by wolves.

It's not long before Ashitaka is caught in the middle of a battle between iron-ore prospecting humans and the forest dwellers. He must summon the spirit-powers and all his courage to stop man and nature from destroying each other.

Once again Miyazaki’s creativity fills the screen with amazing beauty and imagination. Although the narrative is set off by Ashitaka, it is the fierce bravery of San that drives the film forward, creating an iconic Ghibli heroine in the process.

Stream on Netflix

Spirited Away (2001)

During her family's move to the suburbs, a sullen 10-year-old girl wanders into a world ruled by magical creatures. Separated from her parents, who have now been transformed into pigs, Chihiro embarks on a fantastical adventure in which she encounters talking toads, walruses, penguins and a sludge monster, among other bizarre deities and demons, on her quest to find her way home.

Hayao Miyazaki's captivating film perfectly blends the unknown rules of the supernatural world with the young heroine's unblinking acceptance of her new and strange environment.

Stream on Netflix

Summer Wars (2009)

Kenji is a math whiz kid who agrees to accompany his school crush Natsuke to her grandmother's 90th birthday in the country. After dinner, he receives a long numerical puzzle on his phone and stays up all night crunching the numbers. Breathtaking contemporary anime continues to emerge from Japan including this film from Mamoru Hosoda, whose The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) is equally exceptional.

As Armageddon looms on the horizon, Natsuke, Kenji and his new 'family' set aside their differences and band together to save the worlds they inhabit in this "near-perfect blend of social satire and science fiction".

Combining both computer and hand-drawn animation with contributions from Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, Summer Wars is visually mesmerising. 

Stream on SBS on Demand

Anime and Feminism

Are the heroines of modern anime confronting the stereotyped female characters that preceded them? Or are they still designed merely to service the fantastical and unrealistic desires of male fans?

In this traditionally male-dominated genre, the growing trend of empowered female protagonists is a welcome development. Still, there’s no shortage of anime productions that feature excessive ‘fan-service’ – highly objectified representations of women.

Watch anime marketer Jessica McCallum; visual artist, curator and programmer Nikki Lam; and curator and writer Phillip Brophy discuss anime’s approach to women and test whether it could become a new ground for feminism.

Each week we're sharing our curatorial insight into different films, artworks, TV series or videogames, as well as where you can find them online. Explore ACMI at Home.