Every year new anime series debut, and yet I keep going back to Studio Ghibli movies.
Each season I look at the roster of anime that will be premiering, and sometimes I get excited, while others I really don’t. There are a lot of fascinating series running right now, My Hero Academia for instance, among others. But at the end of the day, when I’m craving something perfect, I return to Studio Ghibli. Yes, there is a massive difference in the budget of a show and a movie, but Ghibli always went well and beyond what other studios were doing.
I am an avid fan of Studio Ghibli, I have been since I was a very young girl and my mother let me rent My Neighbor Totoro over and over and over again at Blockbuster (bless her, she has the patience of a saint). Then she bought me Kiki’s Delivery Service and I was hooked. As I got older, I began to track down more and more of the studio’s films until I had amassed a collection of imported nicknacks and movies.
I know I’m not the only one who is drawn back time and time again to these movies. What makes them better than other anime films I’ve watched, but never go back to? Why am I, and others, obsessed with this wonderful studio?
Art and Orchestration
This seems so obvious to me. Miyazaki never liked using computers to animate and insisted that his films were always made the traditional way, which meant they took longer than other companies who used computers to speed up the process of animation. He was known for being exceedingly attentive to detail, and every movie that came out of Studio Ghibli (whether or not he directed it) shows that care.
The music used in Ghibli movies also plays a huge part. Sweeping orchestrations define the works of the studio. As much as the visuals lend themselves to the grand scale of Studio Ghibli’s adventures, they wouldn’t be nearly as powerful without the rising swell of an orchestra.
Ghibli also took risks with style. While many hold true to the traditional style of Japanese animation, there were outliers among them like My Neighbors the Yamadas and The Tale of Princess Kaguya. These explorations into other styles of animation both show skill and impeccable artistry.
Moral Choices not just do or die.
The questions posed by Ghibli movies are never simple. There is no easy solution such as “kill the bad guy” or “stop the evil.” Often times it’s uncertain who is in the right. Take Princess Mononoke. In saving the forest, the humans living in Iron Town will not be able to make money and might starve. Lady Eboshi is sympathetic as she is protecting outcasts such as lepers and streetwalkers. She gives them jobs and helps them survive in a world that doesn’t want them. But, in destroying the forest, the gods there will die. Both sides have sustained casualties, but who is more in the wrong? The people who are trying to make a living where they can? Or the beasts of the forest who merely want to be left alone?
Another example is in Pom Poko. Racoon Dogs (they are adorable, please look them up) or Tanuki, are mythical beasts from Japanese lore which can shapeshift. The film looks at the dichotomy of the ever-expanding suburbs as cities spread and the animals who are driven from their habitats due to the construction. The raccoons want humans to let them continue to live in their forests, but the humans don’t realize that they are hurting the Tanuki or the other woodland beasts.
Howl’s Moving Castle further illustrates this moral conundrum by showing two countries at war, with no side being shown to be in the right. They want to use wizards and witches to fight their battles instead of talking to each other and solving the conflict. The people trapped in the cities which are wrecked by the magical devastation they cause are the center of the story.
Each time, the films pose a question and take you on the character’s journey to find the answer. The thing I love the most is that they are just characters — you don’t always have to agree with their choices, and you can imagine how you might fare under similar circumstances.
No Character is True “Evil”
Which leads me to my next point, no character is ever truly evil. Even the worst “bad guys” are shown to have at least a good reason for what they are doing. There are some who’s cruelty can’t be explained away, sure, but that doesn’t make them evil. And the characters who are shown to be the worst usually get what is coming to them.
I go back to Eboshi because she is such a great example of this. Her quest to do better for her people leads her to kill, and it’s a horrible moment in Princess Mononoke. And yet, by the time we arrive there, you don’t hate her for her choices. You understand what drove her to this moment and why she chose to take the actions she did.
In Castle in the Sky, Muska could be deemed one of the more morally dark characters in the storylines Ghibli has crafted. He was obsessed with his family’s past and felt justified in his knowledge that he was the heir to Laputa. He makes terrible choices, but never once do the heroes resign him to death, he seals his own fate.
Many stories lack the black and white narratives of their western counterparts or even other anime. In The Cat Returns, the “villain” is merely the King of Cats making a bad decision on behalf of his absent son. The King is never portrayed as evil, simply self-obsessed and fixated (as cats can be). Or My Neighbor Totoro, where the actual “evil” is the illness that separates two little girls from their mother and their struggles to understand why she can’t be with them. Or perhaps Kiki’s Delivery Service, where the only bad thing in the story is the loss of innocence and magic, and how that changes a person.
I love this because it reminds us that the people we vilify are just people. They can be reasoned with, they should be held accountable, but they are just people.
The thing that really captivates me about Ghibli movies is the timeless telling of tales. There really isn’t anything else quite like a Ghibli story. Each piece of the puzzle falls perfectly together until you have a masterpiece like Spirited Away or a heart-wrenching piece like Grave of the Fireflies (I’ve only ever been able to sit through it once). They are stories that stick with you and leave you feeling hopeful (except that last one) and hungry for more.
I was sad when Studio Ghibli dissolved, but many of the artists have come together again under a new name Studio Ponoc, and if you haven’t seen Mary and the Witch’s Flower yet, I highly recommend it. It captures much of the charm that Studio Ghibli films were known for, and while it feels like it came from a studio in its infancy, I cannot wait to see where they go from here.