“Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed. But still, you find reasons to keep on living.”Lady Eboshi( Princess Mononoke)
As we swiftly delve into what seems to be the second wave of COVID-19, the impending lockdown brings desolate, forlorn emotions to the surface. We stay back at our homes anticipating rays of hope to flicker upon us. Amidst all of this escalating pessimism, a sense of alienation, and cynicism, we strive to grasp every prospect of optimism that comes our way. While last year most of us were preoccupied with making ‘Dalgona’ coffee, playing Ludo King, video calling friends, and whatnot; I discovered for myself a production studio, popularly known as Studio Ghibli, which indeed became a coruscating lighthouse scintillating through the murk shadows of my pandemic life.
Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, a pair of artistic geniuses who would transform the way studio animation was done all over the world, laid the foundations for Studio Ghibli in the mid-1980s, and thus started the journey of this paramount anime company. Miyazaki chose the name “Ghibli,” which was inspired by an Italian World War II fighter aircraft. In Arabic, the word “Ghibli” also means “a hot desert wind.” The fundamental concept behind choosing this name was to “blow a new wind through the anime industry,” which it definitely did, as it is now one of the world’s most renowned animation studios.
Studio Ghibli has been quietly revolutionizing the world of animation since its inception by combining an endearing and empathetic worldview with rousing adventure. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s debut film, ‘Castle in the Sky,’ was released in 1984, heralding the superstar duo in their field. Miyazaki has long been Studio Ghibli’s champion, with films like ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ and ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ capping off the studio’s prolific 1980s. It wasn’t long before producer Takahata stepped into the director’s chair, directing the ominous ‘Grave of the Fireflies,’ which was released in Japan as part of a double feature with Totoro. At the beginning of the 1990s, the two Ghibli founders amicably competed with their films ‘Porco Rosso’ and ‘Only Yesterday’. In contrast to Miyazaki’s literal flights of fancy, Takahata created the latter, establishing him as a more dramatically grounded artist. But it is Miyazaki’s fantastical stories that have earned international acclaim, from the ecological war epic ‘Princess Mononoke’ to the witchcraft and wizardry of ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ to the Oscar-winning masterpiece ‘Spirited Away.’ ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’ was Isao Takahata’s final film before his demise in 2018. Other directors at Studio Ghibli include Miyazaki’s son Goro Miyazaki and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who subsequently left to launch Studio Ponoc after Ghibli went into hiatus in 2014 following Miyazaki’s retirement. He’d previously declared his retirement (after ‘Ponyo’ and ‘The Wind Rises’), but he’s back with ‘How Do You Live?,’ an adaptation of Yoshino Genzaburo’s 1937 young-adult novel of the same name.
Hayao Miyazaki has written and directed 11 of the studio’s films, earning him the unofficial title of “one of the best animation filmmakers of all time.” He is well-known for his frequent use of topics such as environmentalism, pacifism, feminism, love, and family. His films portray a happier time when people were not addicted to violence or danger through these themes. Instead, he uses his art to express his disapproval of capitalism and imperialism. Although his views may appear naive or archaic to some critics, one must admit that the childlike wonder evoked by his films is soothing.
Ghibli films are expansive and ambitious, and they are as much about the human condition as they are about humanity’s position in the universe. From environmental manifestos that speak to the terrible and merciful power of nature (‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’) to whimsical fairy tales about a girl who is completely out of her depth (‘Spirited Away’, ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’), to mythic adventures inhabited by multifaceted and flawed heroes and villains (‘Princess Mononoke’), there is something for everyone. Studio Ghibli is unrivaled in its ability to tell bold, powerful, and emotive tales, including heart-wrenching fables that reveal humanity’s darkest aspects (‘Grave of the Fireflies’, ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’). Rather than simply making films that cater to both children and adults, I believe it is the studio’s mission to produce films with a childlike sense of wonder. The studio’s ability to deliver daunting, thought-provoking fare and lovely family-friendly stories is perfectly epitomized by the simultaneous release of ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ and ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ in the same year- two films about the aftermath of World War II that couldn’t be more contrasting, and yet, be the finest.
Ghibli’s worlds are limitless, ranging from an aviation enthusiast trying to forget the horrors of war and his part in it to an anthropomorphic pig who, like him, took to the sky, to two sisters seeking solace in a world where monsters are friendlier than they seem, to a lost bathhouse attendant and a girl who runs with wolves. Rarely has a director come as close to achieving Hayao Miyazaki’s magical realism. Fellow director, Isao Takahata, created worlds with stories that mirrored ours while assailing headlong into an animation style that featured a scenery reflecting emotions and using colors to convey the characters’ wishes, fears, and desires. Take the watercolor scenes, for example, the divine elegance of ‘Castle in the Sky’ next to the earth-borne and naturalistic ‘Only Yesterday,’ or the explosively expressionistic ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’ next to the sensory overload of ‘Spirited Away,’ each find a sense in telling larger-than-life tales of characters that represent the best and worst of us.
There’s something undeniably extraordinary about the enthralling Ghibli films- their ability to transport viewers into worlds that feel spectacularly unique as filmgoing experiences, comprehensive in appearance and themes, and timeless in ways that have garnered such longstanding and widespread acclaim- that elevates the studio and its releases above so many others. The designs scream pure creativity, conjuring up childhood visions of the most fantastic kind. I always consider the creatures that inhabit Studio Ghibli’s worlds, as well as how human beings contrast with them. The designs are well-balanced, making them both unforgettable and awe-inspiring. As technically and visually accomplished as Disney and Pixar’s worlds are in their advancement of CG animation, Studio Ghibli’s breath-taking hand-drawn artistry exists in an unrivaled league of its own. Ghibli isn’t inspired by the desire to create mass-appealing, story-driven franchises. Each of their works of art incorporates meticulously animated characters with hand-painted backgrounds to portray philosophically nuanced tales of wonder- some of which are more adult-oriented than the rest of their work.
In terms of aesthetics, Ghibli’s filmography is much more dynamic than Disney and Pixar’s. Despite the fact that each Pixar film has a different director, they all have the feel of being directed by a single unit. The emphasis is still on Lasseter’s distinct style, which is not always the case with Hayao Miyazaki and Ghibli.
The villains in Ghibli worlds aren’t the “bad guys,” even those on the hero’s quest are fallible and susceptible to powers like jealousy, greed, or laziness. Ghibli produced some of the best films of the last 30 years, and their legacy will live on because of their belief in humanism, traditional animation styles, and escapism. Films by Studio Ghibli are consistently inventive, thought-provoking, and absolutely interactive. Character motives surface naturally to the viewer due to the subtle characterization. Even the delicate, silent moments when the characters dreamily gaze into the distance or sigh in contemplation of life, the ones not guided by the tale, distinguish the studio and its releases from a plethora of others. Miyazaki refers to them as “ma,” which means “emptiness” in Japanese. They’re there on purpose to reflect the subtle but stringent passage of time, allowing the story’s suspense to expand into new dimensions. This is one of the many secrets of how Studio Ghibli’s universe transcends life’s relentless humdrum.
The sorcerous fabrication of the world in Studio Ghibli films creates an imaginary world- full of movement and subtle moments to simply breathe in the life around the characters. If you pause either of their films at any point, you would get a fresh stroke of a brush with which you can paint a whole universe, or even a new cosmos of your own, one that may not even be about the main character, one that is nostalgic, immersive, visually and musically ethereal and surreal, one that extends beyond reality and leaves us wanting more. Each individual mannerism breathes life into the films, whether it’s Chihiro tapping her foot to make sure her shoes are snug, Satsuki and Mei running around, or Howl and Sophie taking each footstep in the middle of the sky. The majority of the characters in these films are regular kids who find themselves in situations beyond their control. This is very true of our own lives too. It’s difficult not to succumb to repudiation and nihilism when we’re thrust into circumstances beyond our control, particularly when we’ve been in the midst of a pandemic for nearly a year and a half. The message of these Ghibli films as I interpret them is- “We are all burning away slowly and everything is fine because we are in this together.”
-Akash Rupam Ekka