Animation has changed a great deal in the last few decades. What was once considered to be a children’s genre has evolved into a medium for stories of all kinds, and I believe this is due in part to the works of Studio Ghibli. Studio Ghibli is a Japanese animation studio, founded in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki, Isao Takahata, and Yasuyoshi Tokuma. They are responsible for almost two dozen animated features in the last 37 years.
To some, Studio Ghibli is a household name; I can name several people who grew up on these movies and treasure them more than any Disney production. They consider their childhoods marked by director Miyazaki’s colorful art, relatable characters and epic imaginative adventures. Many others, myself included, discovered them later in life and mourned the fact that they had “missed out” on such an experience. To my surprise, however, they captivated me even at age twenty. So what is it about these films that manages to charm audiences of all ages?
The first Ghibli film I watched was Princess Mononoke, which is a bit of an outlier in the studio’s catalog for a myriad of reasons, one of them being the fact that it was rated PG-13 for extreme violence and frightening scenes. The story takes place in a fantastical depiction of 14th century Japan and follows a boy called Prince Ashitaka: a young man trying to restore harmony between nature and humanity, which has begun the rapid and destructive process of industrialization.
The movie is rife with beautiful landscapes and plenty of fantasy elements, but as the rating might suggest, it doesn’t shy away from blood and gore. Many of Miyazaki’s movies carry a prominent antiwar message, but this one is able to fully explore the theme within the looser regulations of a PG-13 film. It’s full of contradictions; nature is beautiful but it is also powerful and will fight back if it must. Humanity is selfish, but also full of empathy. The film doesn’t so much depict the morally justified battle between a protagonist and antagonist as much as present a complicated issue that challenges the viewer. Upon my first viewing, Princess Mononoke felt more like an art piece than a simple movie. I loved it.
Kiki’s Delivery Service was another movie that took me by surprise. The story introduces us to Kiki, an adolescent witch leaving home for the first time to advance her training. Admittedly, my expectations were much lower for this one, I’m ashamed to admit, as I believed it’s family-friendly nature would render it shallow. Of course, Studio Ghibli proved me wrong, delivering a relatable story about maturity and coming of age that can appeal to any age group.
The titular character, Kiki, struggles with finding her place in a new city, but also with balancing her work and personal life. As her delivery work consumes her life, she loses her lifelong love for flying on a broomstick and is eventually unable to use magic at all. The film compares her plight to that of an artist, who may lose their inspiration when under the pressure of monetizing it. This stunned me.
As an artist myself, I’d never seen a movie articulate the feeling of creative burnout this well before, much less one directed towards children. I was almost emotional when Kiki found solidarity in her artist friend, who then proceeded to coach her through the slump, emphasizing the importance of taking time away from the stressor to recharge. While the themes of independence and coming of age have been discussed for well over a century, Kiki’s Delivery Service was years ahead of its time when it comes to the concept of self care.
Every Studio Ghibli film I’ve seen since has had a similar impact, always ensnaring me with gorgeous visuals and keeping me riveted with surprisingly complex ideas. Much to the despair of its fans, the studio closed for a few years following the retirement of Miyazaki in 2014, releasing only one movie since. However, it’s been announced that the director has temporarily emerged from his retirement for another Ghibli project, due to release in 2023.
Studio Ghibli has captivated children and adults alike since the 1980s, their timeless messages never faltering in relevance. My hopes are that this new release will continue the tradition and add a new classic to their collection, introducing their artful animation to yet another generation.