Deep in the archives of my personal interest, one can find some pretty obscure fare: foreign films and emerging designers, unheard of albums and TV and movie history and lore. More accessible, however, is my deep affection for Studio Ghibli movies. Growing up, they were not the most popular films for children my age, but by some stroke of luck they were introduced to me in my formative years, and have thus occupied a place in my heart in the many years since.
As the Japanese film studio and its works grew in popularity over the years, the films were again called to my interest after a long lapse in my attention. I was introduced to many Studio Ghibli pictures that had been produced since my childhood, my love and fascination for them springing anew ten years after my initial introduction.
One of my favourite things about the Studio Ghibli movies is the use of the protagonist: always a young girl facing a mission or a lesson, oftentimes both. Never perverse, never dismissive; simply a portrait of a young female protagonist in all her curious and genuine glory. This is a standout portrayal when it comes to women and girls in anime; the female figures are oftentimes just sexed-up side objects mainly intended for viewing pleasure. Their character development is often small, and their clothing, even smaller.
Below: Faye from the 1998 anime classic Cowboy Bebop.
Enter the Studio Ghibli protagonist, a new take on the anime heroine, written as curious, headstrong and capable, and whose wardrobe facilitates her way of life. What’s interesting to note is the perfunctory nature of Japanese dress utilized to outfit these characters. Japanese fashion is generally streamlined, androgynous and utilitarian, a no-frills type of uniform populated by basics and staple pieces. Such is the wardrobe of the Ghibli protagonist, her clothing secondary to her larger story ark.
When the Studio Ghibli films re-entered my world years after their initial introduction, I had taken up a set of new interests, Japanese fashion included. I became familiar with the works of the Big Three of Japanese fashion (Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo) as well as their successors (Junya Watanabe, Jun Takahasi, etc.) It struck me how, should the Studio Ghibli films ever be translated into live-action films, the styling would be the least of their worries.
Take, for example, Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service, my all-time favourite Studio Ghibli film. Throughout the film, she sports a flowing black dress, simply orange flats, a tote and an unmissable red bow. Tactile, utilitarian, and very few frills involved. In the real world, Kiki might sport this Y’s by Yohji Yamamoto black pressed wool dress, Comme des Garçons ballerina flats and a CDG Girl red gingham headband, featuring the orange Discord Yohji Yamamoto Origami tote.
Image from Kiki's Delivery Service. Graphic by author.
While Japanese fashion is, for the most part, frill-free, there are small nods to out-of-the-box fashion moments. Partly an earnest rejection of tradition, partly a tongue in cheek nod to westernized fashion, these colourful fashion moments have woven their way into the Japanese designers’ hearts.
Take the colourful uniform sported by Shizuku in Whisper of the Heart. The boxy pink button down shirt and pleated yellow mini skirt, while maintaining functional status thanks to their boyish silhouettes, also incorporate an essence of whimsy thanks to their bright colouring. In a contemporary setting, Shizuku might sport a yellow Pleats Please skirt, vintage Issey Miyake knit and black CDG x Doc Martens loafers to complete the look.
Image from Whisper of the Heart. Graphic by author.
Thanks to a timely marriage of interests old and new, the parity and dichotomy of Japanese fashion can be further examined through lenses both animated and objective. Practical, utilitarian, uniform, these characters' stylings are, in a way, the most apt and freeing of all.
Cover illustration by Inci Sahin.