TL;DR – Art, Story and Music, it is a studio that excels at it all
So it has been an amazing few weeks here in the great Down Under as local cinemas have brought all of Studio Ghibli’s (株式会社スタジオジブリ) films back to the big screen. This has meant that for the first time I got to see some of my favourite films on the big screen and it has had me thinking, what is it about these films that has engendered so much love around the world? For many people in the world, Studio Ghibli films are their first introduction into the world of Japanese animation or anime, and what an introduction they are. After much thought as to why they work as well as they do, for me, I think it distils down to one factor, on the whole, Studio Ghibli films are full of beauty. So today we are going to look at the different factors that make that so, by taking a broad brush stroke across Studio Ghibli’s entire catalogue from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind¹ (風の谷のナウシカ) to today. To do this we are going to look at the stories, art, and music. Now while we will be talking about these components there may be some minor [SPOILERS] ahead for some of the films.
At the heart of every film is the story, it is the foundation stone on which you build everything else, and if your story is trash, well there is nothing that can save it. While each Studio Ghibli story is different, there are some recurring themes and plot points, like at some point someone will end up falling through the air, there will be a banquet, someone or something will start oozing some sort of liquid out from their bodies, there will be some sort of magical thing going on, or indeed there will be an adult that is not listening to a child when they really should be. However, where Ghibli excels is in telling stories that are both deep and complicated, but also accessible, and that is a hard balance to manage. There has been a lot that has already been said about Studio Ghibli films, like Mikey Neumann’s deep dive into Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫) and I don’t want to go too deep into things that have probably already been said, but instead I want to talk about how the stories have affected me, and the threads that have been pulled in me.
When I talk about complexities, one of the things I mean is how deeply rooted in Japanese myth, lore and history. ‘But Brian’ you may say, ‘these are Japanese films, why is it surprising that they rooted in Japanese myth, lore and history?’ It’s not, what is surprising is just how well they are able to incorporate these factors into their movies without alienating people from around the world that don’t have that cultural literacy. You see it in My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロ) and Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し) with the use of Japanese mythological creatures as part of the cast and stories. Now while it might be easy to pick those facets of Japanese society, however, the films go deeper than that and explore themes that resonate in modern Japan. There is the clash between modernity and tradition, industry and the environment, growing up and facing the real uncaring world. While all of these are important there is one I want to focus on and that is the nature of war.
War, its motivators and consequences are one of the most powerful themes that encompass many of Studio Ghibli’s works. Now of course nowhere is that seen more clearly than in the Grave of Fireflies (火垂るの墓), a deeply confronting but accurate look at what life is like for civilians during war. I have a friend who once borrowed a bunch of Studio Ghibli films and we forgot to warn him about this, and he kept waiting for that magical component to arrive and it never did. However, it goes deeper than this as many of the films show the human cost of war, and the disdain for the ideologies that perpetuate it. A good example of this is Howl’s Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城), one of the subplots of the film is a growing tension between two neighbouring powers. Here we see Howl conscripted up into national service due to his skills as a wizard, paralleling similar cases during the two major world wars where scientists were conscripted to make deadlier weapons. Indeed, it is taken one step further during the movie when those wizards are turned into monsters and we get the following exchange”
Calcifer: “Those wizards are going to regret doing that. They’ll never change back into humans”.
Howl: “After the war, they won’t recall they ever were human”.
As Howl’s continues on we also get to see the impacts of war, in all its devastation, as the bombs fall and indiscriminately destroy shops, houses, and the people that live in them. Of course now why is this war happening, well a prince is missing and one side blames the other. You see this further explored in Porco Rosso (紅の豚) which is set in Italy in the build-up towards WW2. Here we see the growing encroachment of a fascist state as it uses pageantry and military bravado to elicit a nationalistic response in the general public. Now given his flying record both during WW1 and since the government is keen to enlist Porco and so they go to extreme efforts to force his hand. However, given Porco’s experience and moral fibre, he understands who they are and what their goals are, and in one line encapsulates his view
Porco Rosso: “I’d rather be a pig than a fascist”.
These themes are at once deeply Japanese, but also are themes that can resonate across cultural divides. They are human stories, and that is why they are so powerful and so affecting.
While story is deeply important, when you are an animated film you have to be judged on your animation and art as well, like a live-action film would be judged on in its framing and lighting. A lot of the great animation studios in the world have a particular style, be they Pixar, Aardman, Laika, or Dreamworks, and Ghibli is no exception. So to look at Ghibli’s style we will explore movement and the details.
When talking about animation the first thing we have to give a shout out to in Studio Ghibli films is the movement, because it is the most realistic I have ever seen. So even though Studio Ghibli films are cartoons/animations, and have giant cat buses and other fanciful characters, it is also creating an animation style that is very close to real life. Because of this, you have to be very careful not to instantly fall into the uncanny valley, and how the animators avoid this is by focusing on characters movement. Now, of course, this is not just characters running around, it is old ladies climbing mountains, characters dancing down a murder of crows, it is little people climbing through the walls of a house. It is also people falling through the air, the wind whipping their clothes and hair into a frenzy, whilst leaves flitter through the air, which of course happens in almost every film at some point. You also see the movement in water which also features heavily in many Studio Ghibli films, from majestic lakes, to small streams, rain, and even the encroaching sea. They, also have a particular focus on facial expression, yes sometimes they are overblown, and some characters have over-exaggerated facial features. However, at all times they feel genuine, which is such an important facet in conveying emotion. Of course, if you watch the films, you’ll see that the animators don’t take the easy road a lot of the time, always, to borrow a phrase from Who Framed Roger Rabbit ‘Bumping the Lamp’. You see this in the way that the lighting is always changing, like when someone turns on a lamp, or moves around a crackling fireplace. Or indeed as a character starts to turn invisible, so you have animated the character over the environment that you have to show through the character, well until she eats something from the world and solidifies again.
Now as well as the animation where you see the beauty of Studio Ghibli is in the broad strokes and the small details. Tony Zhou popularised the phrase ‘Every Frame a Painting’ in his YouTube series, and I can see no better example of this than in Studio Ghibli films. There are so many frames from across all of the films that you could take a still of a turn it into an artwork that could hang in a gallery. These are beautiful shots of the mountainside, forests full of spirits shaking their heads, of islands with secret bays, trains that bellow smoke, of ferries that bring the spirits across the water as the sun sets. It is these grand masterpieces that entrance you and draw you deeper into the world, but for me what keeps me in the world is not the beautiful landscapes, but all the small details. More than anything else these worlds feel lived in because the animators have an attention to detail that makes the worlds feel real but also not cluttered. Take My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロ), when we first arrive at the new house, you see the dust, the textures of the walls, the countryside with its foliage, it feels like a place you could go and visit and it would be there. In Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し) you see it with what Sen’s parents think is an abandoned theme park. It has a worn texture to it, you feel like it was a place that was once visited by thousands but now remains empty. Oh at that is before we get to the food, goodness from bacon and eggs all the way to grand banquets the food in Studio Ghibli films is exquisite and I am getting hungry now just thinking about it. Also, the filmmakers of Studio Ghibli like to use the details to tell a story, take Howl’s Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城), when we first get into the castle, we see it is cluttered, disorganised, and centred around Calcifer. This scene is full of small details, but it also mirrors the character of Howl, and gives you an insight to both who he is and the main story of the film. All of these little details help with the world building, you can have in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (風の谷のナウシカ) a post-apocalyptical world with an encroaching poisonous jungle, or in Laputa: Castle in the Sky (天空の城ラピュタ) a world where a giant city floats in the sky, or even in Porco Rosso (紅の豚) a world where a pilot gets cursed to become a pig and everyone just goes with it. Studio Ghibli creates beauty with both the words and art and everything in-between.
Now for me, as I have grown up I have found the thing that sticks with me more and more, is the music. When the music is good it captures my heart and mind, and I can find myself getting wrapped up in it and mussing about it in the weeks and months to come. Now I wouldn’t be bringing up the music if it wasn’t a core component of what makes a Studio Ghibli film work, because like everything we have mentioned here it is all about building a world and filling it with emotion. Sometimes it used to situate the film in a time and place, like for example the soundtrack for Porco Rosso (紅の豚) who uses a combination of piano and brass to evoke that inter-war period. You can see this clearly in The Bygone Days (帰らざる日々), from the soundtrack, the piano opens and you see that longing back for the day when things were simple and someone hadn’t been cursed to be a pig, but then the brass starts and soon the sax comes in and we hit that full 1940s swing.
As well as this, Ghibli uses music to indicate that there is a change coming, take The Cat Returns (猫の恩返し), it has the piano at the heart of the soundtrack like so many Ghibli films which you can hear in The Baron (バロン). However, there is a moment when Ghibli want’s to shift your perspective, let you know that something odd is barrelling towards Haru. We don’t see anything at first we see some lights off in the distance and sounds of agitated cats, and then the strings start. A low slightly off-kilter combination of strings and percussion which at once both invokes cats shrieking at each other, but then is also completely different. Thus the Procession of the Cat King (猫王の行列) prepares you for something odd even before you see the cats walking on two feet, and the secret service cats running along protecting the procession, and the Cat King voiced by the impeccable Tim Curry in the English version speaks.
While all of these are important in constructing the beautiful soundscape of the Studio Ghibli films, where it works best is where it is providing the emotional countenance of the scene. You can hear this in Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫) and Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し), but for me, the best example is my favourite of the Studio Ghibli films Howl’s Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城). At the heart of Howl’s is a musical cue that you hear in refrain a couple of times (indeed if you have seen the film you are probably already humming it as we speak #SorryNotSorry), but it’s not until A Stroll Through the Sky (空中散歩) that we hear it in all its glory. It is a theme that in its bare form it reflects a calm serenity, but it its full orchestral it epitomises that moment of pure joy, pure excitement. The whimsy of the theme is in stark contrast with the music used for the battles later in the movie. We start seeing that military influence in Run! (走れ!) with the use of snare drums and later on with the brass blaring with Love Under Fire (戦火の恋). However, even at the lowest moment, the refrain of love breaks through, and this is the power and beauty of Ghibli’s music.
One of the most telling factors about the wonderful films from Studio Ghibli is that whenever I ask people to pick their favourite first you get that long pause and look of confusion as they try to narrow it down to just the one film, and then no matter the group you will always get a mix of answers. This is a kind of diversity of opinion that you don’t often see, and it is a testament to the beauty and power of them as a medium. For me, if you really pushed me I would have to pick Howl’s Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城) over Porco Rosso (紅の豚) by the slimmest of margins but I’m really interested to know what your favourite is, so let me know in the comments below. Now if you have never seen a Studio Ghibli film and this article has interested you, well if you are Australian you can pick the movies up from the distributor Madman (#NotASponsor), or find them in some specialty retailers like JBHiFi (#NotASponsor), or indeed if you are lucky you may have a friend whose collection you can pilfer. But you should really give these films a watch, or indeed if you are like me a rewatch or two.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the animators, directors, and cast members from Studio Ghibli
Studio Ghibli Films Directed by – Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Yoshifumi Kondō, Hiroyuki Morita, Gorō Miyazaki & Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Studio Ghibli Films Written by – Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Reiko Yoshida, Gorō Miyazaki, Keiko Niwa, Riko Sakaguchi & Masashi Ando
Studio Ghibli Films Scored by – Joe Hisaishi, Michio Mamiya, Katz Hoshi, Shang Shang Typhoon, Yuji Nomi, Yuji Nomi, Tamiya Terashima, Cécile Corbel, Satoshi Takebe & Takatsugu Muramatsu
¹ Yes we know that Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (風の谷のナウシカ) is not technically speaking a Studio Ghibli film, but it is at the heart of the founding of the studio so we will include it here.