Akihiro Miwa: Meet the trailblazing Japanese drag queen who voiced a Studio Ghibli icon

An image composed of a picture of Akihiro Miwa, a Japanese drag queen and queer icon, and pictures of Miwa from different films

Some of Studio Ghibli’s most beloved characters were voiced by Akihiro Miwa, the singer, cabaret star, drag performer and queer icon.

Studio Ghibli is world-renowned for its fantastical stories, breathtaking visuals and characters that burrow into the emotional corners of the soul. 

Yet, with almost two dozen films created since the studio was founded in 1985, there has yet to be a film that explicitly touches on LGBTQ+ issues or characters. That doesn’t mean the films aren’t beloved by LGBTQ+ folks for their magical stories, which can be very queer-coded in many regards

What some fans may not know is that some of Studio Ghibli’s most recognisable characters were voiced by a Japanese drag queen, queer icon and survivor of one of the atomic bombs dropped on the country.

In 2022, a behind-the-scenes clip of Akihiro Miwa’s recording sessions from the production of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke went viral on Twitter. 

It shows Miwa, the voice of Moro, the old god of wolves, going through multiple takes to find the perfect tone and cadence for the character’s laugh.

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For fans, seeing Miwa nail the creepy, powerful and gruff laugh of Moro was truly exhilarating, and it opened eyes to just how talented they are – though for many, this wasn’t news.

Who is Akihiro Miwa?

Akihiro Maruyama, better known by his stage name Akihiro Miwa, became a sensation in the ’50s as a singer, celebrated for his feminine-like beauty, and dubbed “sister boy” in the press.

He came out publicly as gay in the 60s, becoming one of Japan’s first LGBTQ+ celebrities.

Miwa was born on 15 May, 1935 in Nagasaki, a city on the north-west coast of the Japanese island of Kyushu. 

He was just 10 when an American B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, which exploded a few kilometres away from his home, on 9 August, 1945 during World War II. Three days earlier, another B-29 dropped the world’s first deployed atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. 

Miwa would later recall the absolute still silence and awful deafening roar in the seconds after the bomb was deployed, killing tens of thousands of Japanese people. The family decided to evacuate, but Miwa saw the horrific injuries of those who survived the atomic explosion.

It left a lasting mark on Miwa, but it didn’t extinguish his passion for music. He recalled wanting to be a singer from a young age, learning both how to sing and play the piano, in an article for Japanese public broadcaster NHK

Miwa wrote that his music teacher invited him to “join a female soprano group” when he was in junior high school. He sang some “nursery rhymes” in the chorus of the NHK Broadcasting Chorus, and that was the “first time” he sang for an audience in the public sphere. 

A few years later, Miwa left Nagasaki for Tokyo, Japan’s bustling capital city, where he supported himself with his remarkable singing. 

By 17, he had established himself as a cabaret professional, and he started working in gay bars and nightclubs. He signed an exclusive contract to become a singer at the Silver Paris club and was marketed as a singer of an ‘unknown’ nationality, age and gender. 

Miwa skyrocketed to fame in 1957 when he sang a Japanese cover of the French song “Méqué méqué”.

In the 1960s, as his popularity was growing, Miwa came out publicly as gay, a profound moment in the conservative country. He described in an interview how it was common for people to be fired from their jobs because they were gay at the time, and he said many people died by suicide as a result.

Yet, he said he wanted to ‘hold his head high with pride’ by living as his authentic self in the public sphere. 

Akihiro Miwa, a Japanese drag queen and queer icon, wears a blue outfit as he discusses different aspects of his life
Akihiro Miwa has remained true to himself and been outspoken on social issues, including the Japanese government and militarism. (YouTube/RED Chair)

Japan, where homosexuality has been legal since 1880, is relatively liberal compared to some Asian nations. Yet, the country still lags behind on key LGBTQ+ rights including protections for queer people against discriminationsame-sex marriage legislation and removing archaic surgical requirements for trans people to have their gender legally recognised. 

Miwa has enjoyed a long, successful career as an actor, singer and entertainer in the years since coming out. He’s appeared on screen, in films, media campaigns and written several books. 

Having voiced Moro in 1997’s Princess Mononoke, Miwa returned to the Ghibli universe as the Witch of the Waste in the 2004 Oscar-nominated film Howl’s Moving Castle. He also voiced the mythical Arceus in the original Japanese version of the 2009 Pokemon film Arceus and the Jewel of Life.

As well as his entertainment career, Miwa is known for his outspoken thoughts on social issues. He was critical of former prime minister Shinzo Abe pushing through a series of measures in 2015 that would allow the military to send soldiers on overseas missions for the first time since WWII. 

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