‘Where imagination begins’: What makes Studio Ghibli films so special? 

Dana Villano

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‘Where imagination begins’: What makes Studio Ghibli films so special? 

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From mainstream classics like ‘Spirited Away’ and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ to underrated hits like ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ and ‘The Wind Rises’ – let’s unpack the magic that makes the best of Studio Ghibli films so compelling

MANILA, Philippines – “Where Imagination Begins,” – so goes the slogan of the famed Japanese animation studio loved all around the world. With an extensive catalog of works spanning nearly four decades, Studio Ghibli’s quiet, contemplative style of storytelling has continued to captivate audiences both young and old with their thoughtful and sensitive portrayals of the human condition. 

As the latest film of founding director Hayao Miyazaki – a man whose work has become synonymous with the animation studio – The Boy and the Heron hits Philippine theaters, let’s take a look at some of the ingredients that make up a Studio Ghibli film.

Their stunning animation

One of the first things that immediately stands out when watching any Studio Ghibli film is the hand-drawn animation that’s become a trademark of their productions. And in a movie landscape that continues to be dominated by works made using CGI and the latest technological advancements, the studio’s commitment to showcasing the beauty of its traditional craft continues to show why it’s one of the best in the business. 

Pick any frame from your favorite Studio Ghibli film and you’ll find insane attention to detail; for instance, this clip taken from From Up on Poppy Hill where Umi and Sora visit the Latin Quarter is a work of art all in itself. From the colorful flags and posters adorning each room to even the contents of the newspapers scattered on the table, their illustrations are truly the stuff dreams are made of.

‘Where imagination begins’: What makes Studio Ghibli films so special? 

It’s this quality that makes each venue feel real, setting the stage for the magical worlds in which the characters find themselves. 

Their heartfelt soundtracks

What would a Studio Ghibli film be without its OSTs? From the cheerful lilt of “First Impression” from Ocean Waves to the deeply moving “One Summer Day” from Spirited Away; from the legendary music of The Legend of Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke to the dreamy wistful sounds of A Journey (A Dream of Flight) from The Wind Rises – every note is purposeful, telling a story without needing words. 

Listen to “Sunrise ~ The Breakfast Music” in From Up on Poppy Hill and you can almost smell the eggs frying and hear the bacon sizzling in the pan, or visit a quaint seaside village in your mind’s eye when you listen to the meandering theme song “A Town with an Ocean View” from Kiki’s Delivery Service. Whichever Studio Ghibli film you watch, their soaring soundtracks make the stories onscreen come to life, perfectly tailor-made to match the distinct feel each movie strives to encapsulate. 

In a thinkpiece on the subject by Sabukaru, it’s put this way: “The theory behind why Ghibli’s music is so beautiful is that it focuses so deeply on emotion rather than storytelling, making it an immersive but interpretive experience when combined with dreamy or even heartwrenching scenes.”

And in an interview with the New York Times, acclaimed composer and music director Joe Hisaishi had this to say: “The music does not need to match every character. Rather, it’s about emotion, something the character might be feeling…. There’s already something that the audience might be feeling just watching the film.”

This focus on emotional storytelling in all of the individual soundtracks of their films makes for a thoroughly enchanting ride that continues to captivate listeners today

Their nuanced characters

These films are masters of emotional depth. Often portraying protagonists in the prime of their youth, the earnestness with which characters interact is astonishingly refreshing. Scenes like the one from Ponyo where Sōsuke meets Ponyo for the first time are raw and eager, allowing us to peek into the rich inner worlds of even the littlest children. Studio Ghibli films take such care with their characters, showing us that we truly pay attention to the things we love.

In Whisper of the Heart, we travel alongside our protagonist Shizuku as she writes about her adventures with the Baron. Shizuku has to confront her family’s disapproval and her dissatisfaction with her craft as she grapples with her blossoming feelings toward the newfound people in her life. The way Studio Ghibli depicts its female characters allows them to be complex individuals, with unique and often contrasting wants, feelings, and desires. By doing this, these films place women of all ages in the spotlight and take us on their journey, too.

And that’s another thing! While there are typically romances in Studio Ghibli films, what we see more are how their relationships move them, how they grow as a result. In this clip from The Wind Rises, we see a kind Jiro first meet a young Nahoko; as their story progresses, they eventually get together – but that’s not where the focus lies. What we do see is the couple’s dedication to one another amidst Nahoko’s worsening health, the sacrifices they make to stay by one another’s side, and why they’re all the better for it. 

Ghibli isn’t afraid to do that to their protagonists, either. At a key turning point in Howl’s Moving Castle, we see our titular hero Howl lose his marbles over a bad hair day: “I can’t live like this!” he sobs. “I see no point in living if I can’t be beautiful.” Where other studios might balk at having their heroes be seen as vain and shallow, this is where the film thrives. The studio understands that people are never as one-dimensional as movies have them be – and yet, we love them anyway, just like we come to love people in all their imperfect natures. 

Studio Ghibli’s capacity to humanize even the people we have the most difficulty understanding is only one of the many ways they’re one of a kind.

Their love of the natural…and the supernatural

The best Studio Ghibli films always pay homage to the beauty of both the landscapes and cityscapes in rural and urban Japan.. If the view count on these Studio Ghibli nature loops on YouTube is any indication, viewers are enthralled by the feelings they get from the gorgeous scenery, which is only amplified by the gorgeous animation work. 

‘Where imagination begins’: What makes Studio Ghibli films so special? 

But if the realism of these scenes serves to ground the world they create, it’s the supernatural elements that truly elevate them. With elements taken from Japanese folklore, the studio takes moviegoers who may be unfamiliar with the culture on the ride of their lives. 

Perhaps the most obvious example of being thrust into a fantastical new world is Spirited Away, which is widely considered one of the greatest films of all time and has even gone on to become the highest-grossing film in Japanese history. The story is centered around Chihiro’s harrowing journey into the world of “kami,” or the spirits of Japanese Shinto folklore. Chihiro really goes through it, as she has to witness her parents be turned into pigs by the witch Yubaba and take up work in the witch’s bathhouse as she strives to free herself and her parents and finally return to the human world. 

Ghibli’s latest offering The Boy and the Heron also promises a similar journey, this time with a young boy named Mahito who stumbles upon an abandoned tower leading to a strange new world with a talking gray heron by his side. These journeys that the characters go on are often emblematic of our own struggles in our day-to-day life; although we may not exactly be trapped in the world of spirits, we too, may feel a little lost from time to time in unfamiliar territory. 

But the unfamiliar, we are reassured, can also be a source of such joy. And that’s precisely the ethos of My Neighbor Totoro, a delightful film about two young sisters who come across friendly wood spirits in the countryside of postwar Japan. Mei’s first meeting with Totoro has her see Totoro as a strange new creature, yes, but even then there remains a trust – one that is tentative at first, but one that slowly grows and is rewarded over the course of the film. 

Many even believe this movie to be representative of man’s relationship with our environment at large, with nature depicted as something that will provide for our needs and yet demands that we respect it in kind. Not many other studios can pack such profound messages into their films with children at the helm! 

They take their time

Perhaps the most distinctive trait of the Studio Ghibli film, these movies are sometimes misunderstood as films where “nothing much happens.” After all, Hayao Miyazaki’s formula of storytelling with Studio Ghibli often stands in stark contrast with “the frantic cheerful action” often seen in mainstream animation. But in Miyazaki’s 2002 interview with Roger Ebert, he had this to say: “If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness[.] But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension.”

Miyazaki continued: “The people who make the movies are scared of silence, so they want to paper and plaster it over.… They’re worried that the audience will get bored. They might go up and get some popcorn. But…what my friends and I have been trying to do since the 1970’s is to try and quiet things down a little bit; don’t just bombard them with noise and distraction.”

Miyazaki’s statement neatly sums up Studio Ghibli’s four-act structure, believed to employ the art of kishōtenketsu which has been described as having a “wandering quality.” The fact that these films take their time is a huge part of their ability to better reflect the pace real life takes – after all, our own lives are rarely as action-packed as we see onscreen, but even then, we are told, these stories are still worth telling.

It’s a marvel that even in the midst of talking creatures and inanimate objects come to life, Studio Ghibli films can make you feel like all these adventures could actually happen to you, too. 

They make you believe in good again

At the end of the day, Studio Ghibli films deal with a lot of sensitive subjects that even adults may have difficulty navigating, with a lot of them set during war-torn eras or natural calamities with innocent civilians caught in the middle. These films aren’t afraid to go dark, thrusting even the littlest of children into the most harsh of circumstances.

But in Miyazaki’s Roger Ebert interview, he describes the principle behind Studio Ghibli as follows: “What really matters is the underlying emotions – that you never let go of those. [We want] to follow the path of children’s emotions and feelings as we make a film. If you stay true to joy and astonishment and empathy[,] you don’t have to have violence and you don’t have to have action. They’ll follow you. This is our principle.”

Films like the ones Studio Ghibli make aren’t artificially sweet; they don’t give us tired old adages about how everything is right in the world and nothing bad will ever happen. But what they do accomplish is showing us that even against the odds, where there is darkness, there is light, and that makes the light all the more meaningful. 

The message Studio Ghibli aims to instill is not a mindless statement that our world is perfect; rather, it is that even in spite of it, there is beauty to be found in the world we live in. And perhaps, in a single sentence, this is the most enduring quality of Studio Ghibli films that has captivated audiences all around the globe: that they allow you to fall in love with the here and now. 

Every one of these elements is executed to perfection, and so when they come together, they create a beautiful feast for the senses, and that’s exactly what you get with Studio Ghibli films. These films continue to resonate with people with their universal themes of the power of friendship, love, and the triumph of good over evil.

These movies’ meandering nature and loving attention to detail remind us that it’s really not about the destination; it’s about the journey we take along the way, the roses we stop to smell. It’s all these little things, in the end, that count.

Dana Villano is a Rappler intern.

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