An Introduction to Studio Ghibli:

An Introduction to Studio Ghibli: An Escapist Heaven for Film Lovers

By QUYNH (STEPHANIE) BUI | May 12, 2020

Cover photo via Happy Mag

The world and the situation going on is feeling more and more surreal as the days go on. As we are chained from the outside world, our reality may start to resemble an unpleasant dystopia. Since we are so desperate for any form of escapism, why not take this time to enter brave new worlds with some Japanese selections on Netflix? Studio Ghibli films paint a fantastical, magical, and aesthetically pleasing world for us to take a short break from our new “normal.” These cinematic masterpieces will carry you into inspiring heroes and heroines’ adventures as they overcome adversity. We all deserve a little mood booster, don’t we? 

Founded in 1985 in Tokyo, Japan by four filmmakers Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Toshio Suzuki, Yasuyoshi Tokuma, Studio Ghibli produces critically acclaimed animated films that highlight diverse facets of life. Some of their most notable titles include My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. Known for their spectacular hand-drawn visual animations and meaningful storylines, Ghibli’s movies are the breath of fresh air that is needed amongst the dramatic entertainment world. Despite its marketing towards younger audiences, Ghibli’s films are not made exclusively for kids, as they carry hidden metaphorical undertones. In terms of American pop culture, watching a Ghibli movie as an adult is equivalent to rewatching Shrek and catching sneaky innuendoes that went straight over your head when you were younger. The Ghibli directors have set the bar so high for the animation world that recent Disney films pale in comparison.

Image from Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle via The Spool

Nonetheless, an element that draws the audiences’ attention to the films is the visually stimulating worlds the filmmakers craft. The dreamy, mystical, and immersive Ghibli universes transcend time and place, and the audiences are transported to new magical realms where imagination and reality collide. From the futuristic world in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, to the old-school Japanese setting in Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, to the Western-inspired locations in Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Sky, the films let viewers access its intentionally crafted territories. The movies’ stunning visual elements accentuate the films’ messages with subtle and hidden metaphors that require intense and detailed scrutiny to be fully appreciated. 

Image from Studio Ghibli’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky via Medium

The films send their audiences on an emotional rollercoaster: excitement , thrill, wit and melancholy can all be experienced, which goes above and beyond what typical entertainment has to offer. Unlike the entertaining but straightforward Disney and Dreamworks movies, Ghibli plots are built upon complicated layers under a seemingly simplistic facade. So much so that the arthouse studio’s fans have been coming up with conspiracy theories for years and have attempted to decipher the deeper meanings the studio’s masterminds have so intricately inserted throughout their work.

The musical score has also hugely contributed to the films’ success, as the soundtrack amplifies the atmosphere and has become an instrumental hit over the years. It is relaxing yet intense, melancholic yet jolly, entrancing yet easing, all at the same time. My favorite tracks include “One Summer’s Day” (Spirited Away), “Merry-go-round of Life” (Howl’s Moving Castle), “A Town with an Ocean view” (Kiki’s Delivery Service) and “Carrying You” (Laputa: Castle in the Sky). If you are a fan of both instrumental music and animated movies, Ghibli films will be your match-made-in-heaven. The films’ dedicated fans have also created multiple Youtube playlists for all of your studying, relaxing, and sleeping needs.

However, the storylines and robust characters are the true reasons why Ghibli films are so beloved both domestically and internationally, uniting the world with their universal themes. Studio Ghibli offers the audience heartwarming and reflective moments while depicting societal problems and life challenges that the young, hopeful characters must overcome in their coming-of-age journeys. Two films that genuinely struck me with their contemporary, relevant messages are Princess Mononoke and Whisper of the Heart. Princess Mononoke portrays the battle between humans and nature, good and evil, where the protagonists must strive to balance and make peace between the forces. Whisper of the Heart, on the other hand, depicts the struggle of reaching one’s dream in a socially obliged modern reality. These characters, through their epic adventures, must fight and protect their beliefs and ideals, and through the process, figure out who they are and form companionship along the way.  

The empowerment of young people is one of Ghibli’s core attractions, where the strong-willed characters follow their destinies and enter adulthood. These ideas are the most apparent among female characters in Ghibli’s classics such as Princess Mononoke, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, Whisper of the Heart, and Ponyo. As feminism and gender identity in animated films have recurred a hot debate, Ghibli has proven itself to be the pioneer in its genre. The characters’ portrayal is anything but unilateral as the female and male characters all possess feminine and masculine traits: bravery and courage are paired with vulnerability and sympathy. They can be hasty, stubborn, aggressive yet caring, soft-hearted, and steadfast. As Studio Ghibli strives to maintain a balance in the characters’ personalities, their development comes naturally, creating a smooth and enticing narrative flow. 

The fine line between the characters’ personalities is not just prevalent in gender roles, but also their definition of good and evil. All of the characters, including both protagonists and antagonists, are flawed: The “bad guys” have a sense of implicit kindness while the protagonists are anything but perfect. This juxtaposition is best seen in Howl’s Moving Castle, where the male protagonist, Howl Pendragon, is a narcissistic womanizer but secretly conceals his pain. Or the fierce old female pirate in Laputa: Castle in the Sky whose ultimate goal is to steal treasures but masks her softness and compassion. Unlike many movies that are directed towards children, the studio constructs a more realistic picture and breaks the mold of stereotypically “perfect” characters by presenting their flaws.

Image from Studio Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart via Netflix-Nederland

Love also plays a central role in Ghibli’s charm as the filmmakers portray the innocent emotions that the characters experience. These romantic feelings are not necessarily passionate and physical, and yet there is something about the endearing subtlety that makes Ghibli relationships unique and affectionate. Love in Ghibli films is unbelievable and non-existent in this day and age, but it is so sweet and desirable. Love at first sight is simply not in Ghibli’s vocabulary because their relationships are not superficially and instantly formed but are developed through the culmination of hardships and challenges the characters face together. The love stories that have impressed me the most are unarguably Howl’s Moving Castle, Whisper of the Heart, and Ponyo. Their emotions, whilst relatively straightforward, are intense and powerful, lovely yet not cringey. The films also heavily imply the idea of “soulmates”, shown by how the characters support and protect each other against the odds. If that’s not romantic, I don’t know what it is. 

If you are looking for a magical experience within two precious hours of your ample time, Ghibli films are the perfect option to connect to your inner child and escape a rather bothersome reality. If you are a beginner, I suggest starting with their international hits: Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and Laputa: Castle in the Sky and allow yourself to momentarily exist in the incredible worlds of Studio Ghibli, available on Netflix. 

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