For those of us softened by Disney and raised on a generous and CGI-heavy diet of wisecracking anthropomorphic cars and chattering precocious animals, the complex, delicately artistic and largely under-explored world of Japan’s foremost animation house Studio Ghibli might be unfamiliar, even strange.
For here, stories and women don’t mould themselves to fit into the male hero’s predestined path to glory and girls don’t try to win over boys in the hope of successful marriage alliances. Although films like Up (2009) and the deliciously funny Shrek franchise have offered much to look forward to in recent years, Studio Ghibli’s productions have long been part of a richer and more sophisticated tradition of storytelling and animation.
Co-founded in 1985 by the legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki and fellow filmmaker Isao Takahata, Ghibli’s films have been favourites in film festival circuits. But with Princess Mononoke (1997), the studio’s first extensive foray into CGI, and the much-acclaimed Spirited Away (2001), which even brought Miyazaki an Oscar win, the studio’s products have received widespread recognition.
A few years ago French animator Sylvain Chomet paid tribute to a bygone age and its slowly dying forms in the wistful and beautifully crafted The Illusionist (2010). The story, about an ageing stage magician whose trade is no longer relevant, also mourns the end of the era of hand-drawn animation. In a time when digital animation has become the norm, Ghibli’s productions have perhaps responded to Chomet’s plea and boldly held on to the charm of traditional hand-drawn visuals. Despite incorporating digital elements, Miyazaki has always insisted on the importance of hand drawing on paper and fans continue to believe that it is this craftsmanship that has infused the works with a more realistic quality.
Nausica of the Valley of the Wind (1984), though a pre-Ghibli work, was significant not only because it was instrumental in the inception of the studio but also since it contained many of the themes that were to become recurring and signature motifs. The film grew out of a manga that Miyazaki had been serialising in the magazine Animage and is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the young princess Nausica must save the planet, which finds itself in the midst of an ecological nightmare.
A critique of consumerism and its effects on modern life; a concern and respect for the environment; a love for the idyllic countryside; an engagement with mythology and folklore; a belief in the importance of community, pacifism and the harmonious co-existence between man and nature are themes repeatedly explored in the films belonging to the Ghibli canon. Elements of Shinto can be found in My Neighbor Totoro (1988), where nature is infused with spiritual powers. The idea of co-existing of separate realms seen in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away is also reflected in the way many of the narratives seamlessly move between reality and fantasy.
A preoccupation with culture native and foreign frequently comes through. Ghibli’s productions have regularly adapted works from classic English children’s literature where Western texts interact with eastern symbols. Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) and When Marnie Was There (2014) are notable examples. Attempts to establish links between contemporary and traditional Japanese culture are also visible.
Most of Studio Ghibli’s films are peopled with brave, intelligent and free-spirited young heroines at the juncture between childhood and adulthood who in the course of their fantastic adventures must come to terms with issues of self, identity, belonging and otherness. Simplistic categorisations of good and evil, so common in Western animation, are done away with. Instead, morally ambiguous characters abound. These films recognise that in the real world children must inevitably confront adult issues and hence subjects like sexuality, death and violence, rarely addressed in traditional animation featuring child characters, are boldly broached. Critics and viewers have pointed out that starkly opposed to Disney’s sanitised versions these films with their love of the grotesque are closer to the darker and more ‘grim’ world of European fairytales.
Finally and perhaps most exciting of all is Miyazaki’s long-nurtured love of aviation and fascination with flying creatures and machines, which comes across in so many of his creations: Totoro and the flying cat bus in My Neighbor Totoro , the evil witch Yubaba on her nightly rounds in Spirited Away or Kiki soaring high on her broom in Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989).
Through these creative works, Studio Ghibli’s celebrated artist-auteur has exhibited an endearing sense of wonder and insatiable appetite for adventure.
The author is a Mumbai-based freelance writer