The Magic of Studio Ghibli's Animation


Ting Chen

Studio Ghibli Logo
Studio Ghibli Logo


The best parallel for Studio Ghibli in American culture is Disney, and thus Hayao Miyazaki is sometimes known as the Japanese Walt Disney. However, Miyazaki himself always disdained that title even though he took inspiration from early American animated works including those of Disney, his works have always had more mature themes compared to those of the West. While in America, animation is often disregarded as nothing more than children’s entertainment; in Japan, animation is a legitimate storytelling vehicle where mature themes can be expressed to both adult and child audiences(1). Studio Ghibli combines the fanciful settings and styles of Disney with thought provoking themes as it concentrates on the emotional aspects of its characters instead of the action. This focus on emotion is what lets the films provide answers to the questions of human existence(1). How do we overcome challenges? Why do good people do bad things? How do we be happy and find fulfillment? The main reason why people enjoy Studio Ghibli films so much is because they show us humanized characters who we see ourselves in(1). Thus, we feel empathy for the characters as well as reality of the world we are viewing. By the end of a movie, we understand ourselves better after seeing the characters’ experiences in the story as they resonate with what it's like to be human. Helping his deep story telling was Miyazaki's unique techniques of hand drawing all of his animations without working with screenplays or scripts (6). Essentially that meant that Miyazaki would make the story as he drew it and saw fit. This aids in developing the themes visually in the films Miyazaki would create. Many seemingly random moments that occur in Miyazaki's films would all resolve at the end with stunningly well results. Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki have combined to create over twenty feature-length films; the following four are some of the most renowned and influential films the pair have created.




Spirited Away


Spirited Away
Spirited Away

The most famous of Hayao Miyazaki's works, Spirited Away won an Academy Award in 2003 for Best Animated Feature, making it the only Japanese as well as hand drawn film to win an Academy Award(2). Miyazaki also famously refused to attend the Oscars in protest of the United States involvement in the Iraq War, stating "I didn't want to visit a country that was bombing Iraq."(3) In the movie, the protagonist Chihiro and her family are moving in to their new home when the father takes a wrong turn and unwittingly enters a world meant for spirits. The parents eat some food meant for the spirits and turn into pigs, thus Chihiro must work for the witch who owns the world around them in order to free her parents. The film itself contains many of the recurring themes in Miyazaki's films which include a strong, young female protagonist, overcoming challenges and growing in the process, animism and a sense of magic, a blurred line between good and evil, and critique of modern society, in this case the failings of capitalism. Chihiro starts out as a scared, somewhat bratty child but as she journeys on her quest to free her parents, she grows independent and competent. Chihiro had lived a life of relative luxury and pleasure but once she experiences the shock of having to grow up and work in order to save her parents she grows into a more capable and stronger person through her hard work. Additionally, Miyazaki creates each character as an amalgamation of tenderness and savageness, therefore there is no clear evil villain and no character is without faults(7). This makes the characters more realistic and the movie overall more enjoyable as the characters' imperfections are what we sympathize with. Finally, this film also criticizes the replacement of traditional values with the greed of our modern society as well as the degradation of the environment(7).


Miyazaki masterfully uses imagery to evoke emotion. In this shot, we feel Chihiro's pain when she realizes her journey to free her parents will be long and tiresome.
Miyazaki masterfully uses imagery to evoke emotion. In this shot, we feel Chihiro's pain when she realizes her journey to free her parents will be long and tiresome.






Princess Mononoke


Princess Mononoke
Princess Mononoke

Unlike most of Miyazaki's films, Princess Mononoke contains a stunning amount of violence and graphic material. From huge gashes on the giant boar god to the main characters' arrows taking off the whole arms of samurai, the gruesome details of war are shown but they are never overwhelming8(). Instead they show how violence affects the world around it, affecting both nature and people equally. The main premise of this film is the epic battle between humankind and nature as we continue to encroach and exploit the environment. The film takes place during the Japanese feudal era, however it is also a time of great change as iron and guns begin to proliferate throughout the country. Yet, the nature gods and spirits still walk the earth and thus an inevitable conflict is set up. Miyazaki takes no sides on this conflict as both nature and humans are painted grey. Again there is no clear cut evil or good. The humans who want to destroy the spirit gods also help shelter lepers, prostitutes, and other marginalized members of society while the forces of nature are gentle but extremely ferocious when it comes to defending their homes. This nuanced approach to depicting complex characters is what truly sets this film apart from other environmentally themed films. In the battle between technological achievement and our spiritual roots in the forest, good and evil and violence and peace exists on both sides(8).



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The epic battle between the humans and the forces of nature symbolizes our own struggle with the environment.
The epic battle between the humans and the forces of nature symbolizes our own struggle with the environment.






Whisper of The Heart


Whisper of The Heart
Whisper of The Heart



A bildungsroman of sorts, Whisper of The Heart evokes a sense of nostalgia as the characters experience the struggles and uncertainty of finding a purpose in life during adolescence. This combined with the youthful creativity of the characters creates a film simple in its humanity(5). At first the film seems like a run of the mill teenage story; this simplicity is deceiving and also part of the film's genius as we progressively explore how the two main characters, Shizuku and Seiji, look for something higher than living a simple life in the city(5). Seiji knows exactly what he wants to do in life, become a professional violin maker. However, he faces opposition from his parents who want him to go to school. Shizuku on the other hand finds herself lost and confused on what she wants to do with her life until one day her love interest Seiji moves to Italy to complete an apprenticeship for violin making. This jump starts Shizuku's ambitions in life as she challenges herself to create an artistic piece herself, writing a novel. As she dedicates herself to the novel, her grades start to drop as she devotes every waking hour to creating this book so much so that it almost destroys her. At the end of this process she is exhausted and demoralized before her mentor reads the novel and encourages her to continues on saying that he knows it's no masterpiece but he recognizes the hard work that went into it. The movie's depiction of the creative teen who is filled with ambition and ideas but has no life experience to back it up resonates with everyone as we all have gone through this phase. The animation style in this is grounded in reality as 1990's Tokyo is depicted authentically and beautifully, however there are enough whimsical moments when we enter Shizuku's imagination that show the fleeting high of creativity as the stresses of life weigh you down(5).


Youthful struggles with finding a meaning to life ring in their humanity.
Youthful struggles with finding a meaning to life ring in their humanity.






Laputa: Castle In The Sky

Castle In The Sky
Castle In The Sky

Laputa: Castle In The Sky is the epitome of adventure films from Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. The film starts out with a swashbuckling chase scene as a mysterious girl with a mysterious blue stone falls out of an airship only to be caught by a boy in a mining town. The girl is being chased by bandits and government agents because they want her and her blue stone to unlock the secrets of Laputa, a floating city created by an advanced civilization. The city of Laputa draws inspiration from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels as well as Hindu and Biblical mythology(4). The style overall of the movie is very retrofuturistic steampunk with flying airships and giant robots being abundant. This is combined with the wonder and excitement of films such as Indiana Jones to create a fantastic marriage between aesthetic and themes(4). Speaking of themes, like many other Miyazaki films, the main theme in this movie is about a balance between two seemingly irreconcilable forces. Laputa is an technologically advanced marvel with giant robots that guard the city. However, these robots are also caretakers of the nature that exists in the city such as lush gardens, man-made rivers, and the giant living tree in the center. Even though we haven't achieved harmony with nature yet, it certainly is still possible. We haven't been able to peacefully coexist with the environment at the moment, but that doesn't mean we never will. In addition to that, Laputa also is shown as a monument of progress that represents the potential humankind can achieve when in harmony with disparate elements. This potential however can change drastically depending on who controls it, greedy government agents who long for power and military dominance or the innocent children who just want to preserve the floating city(4).




Laputa shows us what we could be in the end, fulfilling that sense of wonder and adventure with a vision of a better tomorrow.
Laputa shows us what we could be in the end, fulfilling that sense of wonder and adventure with a vision of a better tomorrow.


Works Cited

1. Hayao Miyazaki - The Essence of Humanity. N.p., 6 Oct. 2015. Web. 8 June 2017.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52raDbtNpa4

2. Hood, Bryan. "Big in Japan: A Guide to the Films of Animation Master Hayao Miyazaki."Rolling Stone. N.p., 19 Feb. 2014. Web. 7 June 2017.
__http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/big-in-japan-a-guide-to-the-films-of-animation-master-hayao-miyazaki-20140219__

3. Pham, Alex. "Miyazaki Breaks His Silent Protest of America." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 21 Nov. 2011. Web. 07 June 2017.
__http://herocomplex.latimes.com/anime-2/comiccon-miyazaki-breaks-his-boycott-of-us/__

4. Runyon, Christopher. "The Studio Ghibli Retrospective: ‘Castle In The Sky’." Movie Mezzanine. N.p., 10 Nov. 2013. Web. 7 June 2017.
http://moviemezzanine.com/studio-ghibli-retrospective-castle-in-the-sky/

5. Runyon, Christopher. "The Studio Ghibli Retrospective: ‘Whisper of the Heart’." Movie Mezzanine. N.p., 19 Jan. 2012. Web. 7 June 2017.
__http://moviemezzanine.com/studio-ghibli-retrospective-whisper-of-the-heart/__

6. Schindel, Dan. "THE MOVIES OF STUDIO GHIBLI, RANKED FROM WORST TO BEST."Film School Rejects. N.p., 17 June 2015. Web. 7 June 2017.
__https://filmschoolrejects.com/the-movies-of-studio-ghibli-ranked-from-worst-to-best-b480bffd7fb7/__

7. "Sparknotes: Spirited Away." Sparknotes. Sparknotes LLC, n.d. Web. 7 June 2017.
__http://www.sparknotes.com/film/spiritedaway/themes.html__

8. Townsend, Emru. "Princess Mononoke." The Critical Eye. 5x5 Media, n.d. Web. 7 June 2017.
__http://purpleplanetmedia.com/eye/film/mononoke.php__