A fantastical bathhouse for spirits; a quaint forest where a giant fluffy Totoro resides; the idyllic Japanese landscapes and many other visual poetics are the heart and soul of Studio Ghibli Films. In recent years, these films that previously enjoyed Japanese audiences' love, soon garnered a loyal international fanbase, thanks to the streaming services. While anime was always a distinctly popular genre, Studio Ghibli formed a league of its own. If you’ve ever watched any of Ghibli’s works, you can testify that Studio Ghibli stands distinctly out and apart from any other animated films. From storytelling to their animation techniques, creators at Ghibli take a completely different approach — one that undoubtedly transports the viewers into the whimsical utopian reality.
In this blog, we try to break down some of the common elements devised by creators at Studio Ghibli which make their films so unique and enigmatic, so come, hop on in the catbus!
Established in 1985, Studio Ghibli was founded by Hayao Miyazaki and the late Isao Takahata with the goal to produce high-quality animated feature films in Japan. In the past 35 years of running, the studio has produced some of the greatest anime films such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbour Totoro to name just a few. Before getting into the more understated elements, what immediately sets Ghibli apart from its competitors is the style of animation.
The beautifully detailed visuals we see on screen are in reality individual frames that are all hand-drawn. Even with the advent of CGI back in the 1950s, animator and founder Miyazaki strongly detested using computer-generated graphics integrating little to no CGI in his films. Attesting to the analogue technique of animation, Miyazaki in the documentary, ‘Never-Ending Man’ can be seen tediously drawing a caterpillar by putting insects under the microscope.
According to Ghibli’s manager and producer, Toshio Suzuki, the upcoming film, ‘How Do You Live?’ which began production in 2016 took about 12 months (a year) to make just 12 minutes of the film and are hoping to finish it by 2023. That’s five years! With so much time dedicated to drawing and perfecting the visuals, each passing frame in a Ghibli movie will either soothe you or give you chills, but will surely make you feel something.
Apart from the technical style of animation, another facet that makes Studio Ghibli so unique is the employment of immersive realism in their visual storytelling. Immersive realism is a form of the genre that strives to balance elements of fantasy (“magic”) and realism. Miyazaki in Starting Point stated,
"Anime may depict fictional worlds, but I nonetheless believe that at its core it must have a certain realism. Stated in another way, the animator must fabricate a lie that seems so real, viewers will think the world depicted, might actually exist.”
For instance, in the movie Kiki’s Delivery Service, the protagonist is a 13-year-old witch who moves to a new town to get training. Being the only witch in a town of normal people, flying on her broom, being able to talk to her cat Jiji, are all seemingly far-fetched and fantastical. However, with detailed visuals, compelling yet simple story beats — the audiences are easily receptive to the well-crafted imagination of Ghibli’s cinematic world. Although Kiki’s world is magical and animated, the story artists skillfully balance the degree of fantasy with reality and enable the viewers to immerse themselves completely to the point where they think the world and its characters are real.
THE THEME OF HUMANISM & NATURE
While the poetic animation invites us into the world of Ghibli, what makes us stay are the feel-good themes of humanist sensibilities. Catering to its younger audience, the movies have a tone of didacticism where they intend to teach some form of lessons or insights through their stories. These are essentially coming-of-age stories where the characters go on an adventure which metaphorically becomes a journey of growing up and to a large part highlight the relationship with nature. The philosophy of humanism pins importance on humans and their individualism, focusing on ideas of freedom and empowerment as well as seeing nature as an extension of self. Hence, along with deeply personal themes, the distinguishing factor of Studio Ghibli is its portrayal of nature. Miyazaki explains,
“We don't subordinate the natural setting to the characters...That is because we feel that the world is beautiful. Human relationships are not the only thing that is interesting. We think that weather, time, rays of light, plants, water, and wind—what make up the landscape—are all beautiful. That is why we make efforts to incorporate them as much as possible in our work.”
Ponyo (2011) is one of Ghibli’s films that manifest this human-nature relationship when the 5-year-old Sōsuke befriends a goldfish Ponyo after freeing her from a jar. While there are scenic and beautiful visuals of clifftops, the ever-present pollution and debris in the sea also persist in the corners of the frame. Treating nature with kindness and restoring the once ephemeral state of nature are sub-themes visible in many other Ghibli films — attributing to its the larger goal of creating not just visually pleasing art but also art with a reason.
ROMANTICISATION OF THE ORDINARY
Delving further into the humanist themes, a distinct yet common trait of Studio Ghibli films is the romanticisation of everyday life. Unlike Disney films which are often rooted in deep, tragic conflict; conflicts in most Ghibli films do not do the heavy lifting of building narrative but are instead, fleeting and quite simple. The pace of the film is steady with importance given to ordinary and mundane actions: Sophie making hats in Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo enjoying his meal, Shizuku studying in Whisper of the Heart, Takashi and his wife Matsuke fighting over the TV remote in My Neighbour Yamadas are few of many instances which celebrate the beauty in mundane.
These quiet and sombre moments may not necessarily push the story forward but allow opportunities for worldbuilding as they establish the time and space of the characters’ world. Miyazaki terms it ‘Ma’ which in Japanese means emptiness.
“If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness, But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.” -Miyazaki
Some of the most cinematically beautiful shots in the entire filmography of Ghibli are not the ones with the peak conflict or tension but rather they are the ones that are considerably more simple and subdued in nature.
NON-ROMANTICISATION OF ROMANCE
While there is the romanticisation of the ordinary, a unique trait of Studio Ghibli films is their non-romanticisation of romance. The treatment of love is distinctly different from how we have been primed through years of watching fairy tales or stories of boy meets girl and the happily ever after. Although Ghibli films cater to a much younger audience, they treat complex subjects such as love with a lot more maturity. Love finds itself in equations between friends, siblings and even a degree of loving the self. Hayao Miyazaki as an auteur detests the belief that just because a boy and girl are in a movie, a romance must take place. He puts it this way:
“I want to portray a slightly different relationship, one where the two mutually inspire each other to live - if I’m able to, then perhaps I’ll be closer to portraying a true expression of love.”
An interesting way in which Ghibli films overturn our expectations of traditional romance is by having female protagonists in most of their films. This choice was quite ahead of its times considering the sexually saturated and outright misogynistic characterisation of females in manga or anime. The female protagonists in Studio Ghibli movies are strong and sensitive, beautiful and smart for they ARE the saviours rather than being the ones who need to be saved.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, released back in 1984, features a heroine with an in-depth characterisation: an adorable dork who loves nature and fights to bring peace between humans and nature. Nausicaä is a great example of how Ghibli successfully overturns stereotypical representations unlike the scathing tokenism observed in other animation production houses.
If you’re looking for another Ghibli film with a strong female lead, I would totally recommend checking out Whisper of the Heart. The protagonist, Suzuki, is a young girl who, much like all of us, is trying to figure out her purpose in life. Her passion for writing is ignited when she meets a boy named Seiji. The love between them isn’t all-consuming but rather liberating as they help each other navigate and pursue their dreams. Miyazaki sums up this phenomenon in Ghibli films perfectly,
“Many of my movies have strong female leads...They'll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a savior. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.”
Be it the tediously laborious hand-drawn animations or the atypical storytelling approach, what one can observe is the honesty and love with which every moment and scene in the Ghibli films are created. It is easy to lose yourself to the utopian fantastical reality of Studio Ghibli as the childish innocence and wonder envelop you. Hayao Miyazaki crafts his movies with the hopes to create art that stirs something within the depths of our souls and does so successfully. While the enigma of Studio Ghibli is a lot more than the techniques mentioned in this blog, they forge personal relationships with each viewer and each viewing experience, so seek for yourself as you magically step into the unforgettable world of Studio Ghibli.