Today: February 28, 2024

The Genius of Ghibli

It’s easy to love Studio Ghibli.

It’s easy to love Studio Ghibli.

Since the company was founded in
1985, the Tokyo-based animation Studio has produced seventeen features and
seventeen bone fide classics. That’s quite a claim, but Ghibli’s success is a
genuine phenomena. At home, they’ve broken record after record with each
successive feature trumping the previous, in terms of both critical acclaim and
box office takings. Ghibli releases regularly out sell US blockbusters in
Japan, but their audiences aren’t just home grown. Fans are part of a broad
church, from hard-core anime Otaku,
to those who appreciate more traditional family films. Ponyo (main image), released in 2008, reached Number Nine in the US box office
charts in its opening weekend. Last year, Arrietty,
became the highest grossing Japanese film of the year. In an industry dominated
by Disney, Dreamworks and Paramount,
Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away (2001)
is the only non-English language animation ever to be awarded an Oscar. And
such success has nothing to do with high-profile marketing campaigns or
merciless merchandising. In fact, it’s only relatively recently that
collectables based on Ghibli characters have become available to buy. So, what
was it that turned Studio Ghibli from three-man operation into a billion yen
business? Simply the ability to tell great stories.

Breezy Beginnings

It all started in 1984 with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a
whimsically sweet animation based on the manga by Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki already had a thriving career in Japanese
TV but the success of Nausicaä spurred him to set up his own company.
Filmmakers Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki, who had been long-term
colleagues, were invited to join the venture and anime history was made.

In the West, we tend to think of
anime as cutsie, static, over-stylised animation, where every character has
huge eyes and impossibly long legs. In Japan, though, the term is much more
fluid, applying to all forms of animation. However, even the most fervent fan
of Japanimation would admit that, by the 1980s, much of the nation’s anime
output had started to look pretty formulaic. Ghibli had big ambitions. Their
name comes from the Arabic word for the sirocco wind, and the trio hoped that
Studio Ghibli would be a fresh breeze, blowing away tired, old anime

Their first feature Laputa: Castle in the Sky was a fantasy
inspired by the floating Laputan cities featured in Gulliver’s Travels. The result was a beautifully realised and
heart-warming tale of two friends, Sheeta and Pazu, fighting to save their
world’s last floating city. Beneath the fantastical characters and fairy tale
settings, Ghibli animations always have big themes and in Laputa you don’t have
to dig too deeply to unearth the larger story. During the filming, Miyazaki
visited Wales, which was then in the grip of the miner’s strikes. Inspired by
the way in which the tight-knit Welsh villages fought to save their communities,
Miyazaki’s tale became an homage to a vanishing way of life and a critique of
the destructive power of politics and big business.

Grave of the Fireflies,
which tells the tale of two sisters, orphaned during the Second World War,
followed in 1988 and won international acclaim. Pulitzer Award winning critic, Roger Ebert, praised it as one of the
most powerful war movies ever made, commenting that Grave of Fireflies was “an
emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.” A
fresh breeze indeed!

Welcome to Wonderland

Arguably it was My Neighbour Totoro which was Studio
Ghibli’s breakthrough film and provided the company with their famous logo –
Totoro – a nature spirit who is as famous in Japan as Winnie the Pooh is in the UK.

The film is a beguiling tale of
two young girls who move to the country with their father while their mother is
in hospital recovering from an illness. In many ways Totoro was to become the
archetypal Ghibli movie. It is, of course, beautifully observed and lovingly
crafted. Its characters are rich and believable. But Ghibli’s real skill, which
came to the fore in Totoro, was the ability to put us into the mind of the
protagonist. In this case, it’s the mind four year old Mei, whose imagination
and wonder infuse the film and take us back to a time when exploring a garden
and making new friends were very big adventures.

Kiki’s Delivery Service
followed in 1989, winning the Animage
Anime Grand Prix
prize for its tale of a young witch’s struggle to make her
way in the world. Despite critical acclaim, though, it took some time for the
rest of the world to cotton on to the genus of Ghibli. Audiences fed on a diet
of Disney found Ghibli’s movies too slow, too confusing and, in many cases,
simply too Japanese. In fact, in the 1980s, New World Pictures produced an
English-dubbed version of Nausicaä, which had been so heavily edited to make it
palatable to US audiences, that it was virtually unwatchable. Rather than bow
to commercial pressure Ghibli adopted a no cuts policy and the decision has
proved to be a sound one. The world would be a sterile place if artists only produced
work they they knew would sell. By sticking to their guns, Ghibli have retained
their unique cultural and artistic voice and this has been their greatest

Whisper of the Heart
(1995), which has just been re-released on Double Play DVD and BluRay, is for
instance quintessentially Japanese. On the surface, it’s a tale of schoolgirl
Shizuku’s burgeoning love for local boy, Seiji and would be easy to dismiss as
a chick flick or a coming of age movie if it wasn’t for Ghibli’s legerdemain.
With a deft touch, Ghibli turns this simple story into a film filled with myth
and magic. Indeed, the fantasy sequences, involving a dapper talking cat called
The Baron, were so popular that Ghibli released a film starring the character
in 2002’s The Cat Returns.

My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999) is another tale in which Japanese life forms the canvas for
story of family trials and triumphs, which is told in a series of wonderfully
observed vignettes. In Spirited Away Miyazaki returned to Japanese mythology
with an Alice in Wonderland style
tale of a young girl lost in a world of spirits and demons. The Wonderland
which Miyazaki created for his heroine Chihiro, is a marvellous madhouse packed
to the rafters with Japanese witches, dragons, disembodied heads, stink spirits
and a masked demon called No Face, who quickly became a poster boy for the
film. It’s heady stuff and one of Studio Ghibli’s more fearlessly creative
productions. It’s a film which is alive with vibrant, quirky, characters – No
Face, the dragon Haku, and the sister-witches Zeniba and Yubaba – any one of
which would have spawned a spate of sequels if this were a Western production.
Fortunately, Studio Ghibli understand that part of great storytelling is
knowing when to stop. We don’t need sequels, prequels or specials. Studio
Ghibli still have plenty of new tales to tell and millions of eager kids and
kidults waiting, once again, to be spirited away.

Paula Hammond - Features Editor

Paula Hammond is a full-time, freelance journalist. She regularly writes for more magazines than is healthy and has over 25 books to her credit. When not frantically scribbling, she can be found indulging her passions for film, theatre, cult TV, sci-fi and real ale. If you should spot her in the pub, after five rounds rapid, she’ll be the one in the corner mumbling Ghostbusters quotes and waiting for the transporter to lock on to her signal… Email:

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