Studio Ghibli films are beloved for many reasons: the strange and fantastical creatures, the richly animated worlds, the oddball humour. However, it’s the life-affirming, humanist sensibility of the films that is most essential to Ghibli’s lovableness, the foundation from which all its other great cinematic qualities can sprout.
Although the films are filled with otherworldly environments and beings – No Face in Spirited Away, Totoro in My Neighbour Totoro, Baron in The Cat Returns – the central pull of the ‘Ghiblian’ film is to tell stories of human tribulation and challenge, of self-exploration and triumph. Often, the fantastical elements expand and illuminate the human experience. In Spirited Away, the ‘spirit world’ allegorises the foreign and tumultuous nature of growing up. The many allusions to fairy tales in Whisper of the Heart collapse the distinctions between idealised romance in fairy tales and the experience of love in the real world. Sophie’s unexpected transmutation into a 90-year-old woman in Howl’s Moving Castle explores the importance of freeing oneself of self-doubt.
Studio Ghibli films never obscure the difficulties of life. Rather, they grapple directly with adversity and the characters struggles. The cinematic technicians of Studio Ghibli – Miyazaki, Takahata, Yonebayashi, Kondō, to name a few – understand that crisis is as much a part of the human experience as accomplishment and joy. This truth is plentifully imprinted in each ‘Ghiblian’ feature, as characters encounter inner anguish and external hardship: Shizuku’s feeling of failure in Whispers of the Heart; Ashitaka’s liminal, ungrounded position amid a raging war in Princess Mononoke; Chihiro’s fight to save her parents from an existence as pigs in Spirited Away.
Indeed, it’s the characters' relationships to adversity that fully manifests their identity and spirit – their ability to overcome, to rise above, is what reveals their determination and resilience. No words seem more apt here than Miyazaki’s: “Always believe in yourself. Do this and no matter where you are, you will have nothing to fear.” Typically, possessing the qualities of fortitude are enough to emancipate the characters of burden and suffering, paving the way for harmonious and prosperous futures. These victories are rarely achieved alone in Ghibli films, but supported and made possible by trustworthy friends, companions and allies. Speaking of his habit of drafting female heroes, Miyazaki said: “they'll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a saviour.” Chihiro would not have stood a chance of saving her parents if it weren’t for Haku; Haru could not have escaped the Cat Realm without the help of Baron, Toto and others; Mei might not have been found if Satsuki didn’t enlist Totoro and the Catbus’ help.
Studio Ghibli films are united around the importance of relationships. They are essential to achieving great things, and beyond that, happiness, purpose and life itself. Characters in Studio Ghibli share their triumphs with friends and family. And we get the sense those triumphs – unto themselves – aren’t what the characters celebrate. Instead, we usually see them embracing, laughing together, smiling together. That’s certainly the case in Spirited Away, Whisper of the Heart, and My Neighbor Totoro. They celebrate their love for one another. As Shawn tells Arriety, “My heart is stronger now because you’re in it.”
Though sensitivity to human life rests at the base of the humanist formula, Miyazaki and his fellow Studio Ghibli directors embellish their wonderful aims through the animated format. The sphere of animation, at first, might be scoffed at by film purists, but its use goes to the very core of the thematic richness of Studio Ghibli’s films. Indeed, the colourful, multilayered images – probably at their most awe-inspiring in Spirited Away – don’t just exist for us to marvel at; they reflect the reality of our complex world, highlighting to us the ample beauty of our very existence. It is no mistake that Miyazaki always does “everything by hand, even when using the computer.” This is because the act of creating and animating is the act of promoting harmony between human beings. The animation, thus, tells us visually that life is an unmissable ride of worthwhile experience.
To a similar degree, the conventions of fantasy – of flying dragons, spells, ghosts, living castles – take us into worlds rife with humanly unimaginable forms and activities. Yet, the characters with whom we identify, and whom prevail, are human. By basing the conventions of fantasy around human protagonists, the Studio Ghibli film seems to say there is no limit on our ability to conquer and accomplish. Chihiro prevails in a spirit world. If she can do that, then there is nothing stopping us from making in a difference in our world.
The thematic idea on which Studio Ghibli films are predicated – that humans are inherently good, autonomous, productive agents – isn’t pulled from an ahistorical vacuum. It is traceable from ancient Japanese history, an entrenched national consciousness that encourages people to be modest, industrious and respectful to others. The earliest manifestations of such values are in Japanese mythology, in texts such as the formative Nihon Shoki. Gods are attributed human dispositions such as love, and the texts endorse ideas of respecting nature, family customs and practising empathy.
Although these cultural staples are now long-enduring, they became particularly prominent in the post-WWII era of Japan. Literary figures such as Mishima (the subject of Schrader’s 1985 film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters), Murakami and Ōe; and cinematic figures such as Kurosawa, Ozu, Ichikawa, like never before, began tackling the big questions of humanity: Why are we here? What is our purpose? And, how do we rediscover our humanity after the horrors of war? The artists never took a step back from these gruelling, intractable questions, confronting them from various angles: recognising our capacity for barbarity, depravity and unconscionableness. But they never forgot our compassionate, loving, venerable side, even if it appeared dead.
Akira Kurosawa’s explicitly post-WWII films – Stray Dog, The Quiet Duel, I Live in Fear – best wrestle with the malaise that beset post-war Japan. And while the films are bleak, they are also understated tributes to the endurance of suffering. “The role of the artist is never to look away,” Kurosawa said. And he doesn’t, allegorising the suffering of his people in WWII through Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki in The Quiet Duel, a man who contracts syphilis from a reckless patient. As a consequence, Fujisaki delays his marriage to his fiancé, Misao. Unsurprisingly, this causes him uncontrollable pangs of pain and grief. Like the people of 1940s Japan, Fujisaki is faultless for the circumstances in which he is enveloped. Kurosawa’s gritty, contemplative inflection of humanism is reflective of the state of humanity in the ’40s and ‘50s. As Japan has blossomed into a respectful cohesive nation, the ‘Ghiblian’ film offers a different brand of humanism, one that has evolved for the better since post-war WWII; for it is more focused on celebrating our successes than on ruing our missteps.
Another reason the Ghibli film offers an optimistic, ‘utopian’ kind of humanism is because of its target audience. It goes without saying Kurosawa’s exploration of humanism would not be appropriate, nor interest, adolescents. The result is that the Ghibli film emphasises the possibility of “wonderful encounters and beautiful things to exist,” in Miyazaki’s own words. The underpinning of humanist principles should be understood as providing adolescents with not only an entertaining experience, but also a pedagogical one. Youngsters become acquainted with the obstacles and complications of life, and are empowered to identify what values and choices are necessary to live a meaningful life. Chihiro, Shizuku, and Satuski are teenagers themselves, who learn from their own experiences as much as adolescent viewers will. In this regard, it seems apparent Studio Ghibli was motivated to create humanist films, in part, because of the need to educate and support its young target audience. Many of whom will be the future leaders of this world.
To many minds, the crowning achievement of cinema is to illuminate and explore the magic of what it is to be human. If that’s true, the brains of Studio Ghibli are luminaries of cinema, presenting us with complex profiles of humanity itself. But the ‘Ghiblian’ film is probably most indispensable for its paeans to the indomitable human spirit. No doubt, this was director Yoshifumi Kondō’s driving motivation to make Whispers of the Heart. Kondō worked so tirelessly on it that he passed away from illnesses linked to severe overwork. For him, it seems, Whisper of the Heart represented the purpose of life itself.