International screens: Studio Ghibli
Lauren Walsh, Music Editor, gives an excellent, whistle-stop tour of Studio Ghibli’s films and history. A must-read.
Studio Ghibli is a Japanese animation studio founded in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki after the trio had worked together on the 1984 film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Joe Hisaishi also composed the score for Nausicaä and would later go on to make the music for many more Studio Ghibli films. The studio’s first-ever film was Castle in the Sky, released the following year in 1986. There have since been over 20 more films and even a Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, inspired by the many movies and which even shows some short films exclusive to the museum.
The name ‘ghibli’ comes from the Italian word for a desert wind found in Libya, as Miyazako, Takahata, and Suzuki wanted to “blow a new wind through the anime industry”. If you are wondering whether to pronounce it with a g or a j sound, then take your pick because, if you are sticking strictly to the Italian, then a hard ‘g’ sound is used, but in Japanese, the word is romanised as ‘Jiburi’, with a ‘j’ sound.
Time is taken to show the beauty of nature, or a satisfying meal being made, which gives the feeling of life ‘slowing down’, something essential in today’s fast-paced world
Studio Ghibli films are heart-warming and often have a nostalgic vibe. The animation style is simple yet beautiful, with stunning scenery, whether of a rural Japanese village, bustling Tokyo, a shining sapphire sea, a flowering garden or an immersive magical land. The films have a calming atmosphere, which is in part down to the incredibly heartfelt soundtracks, but also due to their emphasis on the smaller things in life: in addition to the story, time is taken to show the beauty of nature, or a satisfying meal being made, which gives the feeling of life ‘slowing down’, something essential in today’s fast-paced world. Co-founder and director Hayao Miyazaki is quoted as saying, “I would like to make a film to tell children ‘It’s good to be alive.'” This positive outlook on life is the overriding message of all Ghibli films, making them suited to all ages, not only children.
While primarily aimed at children, these movies also teach kids valuable life lessons about courage and friendship and even tackle more complex issues. For example, Pom Poko (1994) and Princess Mononoke (1997) were arguably ahead of their time in environmental activism. Ponyo teaches Japanese children not to be afraid and get to higher ground during tsunamis. The main characters of most Ghibli movies are young girls, providing girls watching with good role models and teaching them that girls can be heroes too.
The main characters of most Ghibli movies are young girls, providing girls watching with good role models and teaching them that girls can be heroes too
As well as the prevalent theme of nature found in many of the movies, the theme of love, friendship and family is also central to many Ghibli films and is shown throughout the compelling relationships between characters, whether friendships, romantic relationships, parent-child bonds or just community ties.
Perhaps the most famous Studio Ghibli films are Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke; Spirited Away is the second highest-grossing Japanese film worldwide, and Princess Mononoke won the Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year and arguably introduced the rest of the world to Studio Ghibli. My Neighbour Totoro is another well-known Ghibli film, and the titular character Totoro can be seen on the studio’s logo. However, if you’d like to start your Ghibli journey with some of its more obscure films, then try The Tale of Princess Kaguya – which has a unique art style based on a Japanese folk tale – or Ocean Waves, which never had a cinema release. My favourites are Kiki’s Delivery Service and Arrietty, but it doesn’t matter which film you start with, as they all make for a relaxing, enjoyable viewing experience.
However, the studio’s future is still being determined, with its most recent film, Earwig and the Witch, receiving a negative critic reception. The change to a 3D CGI style of animation is partly to blame for the film’s 29 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, with the critics’ consensus saying, “With a story as uninspired as its animation, Earwig and the Witch is a surprising—and near-total—misfire for Studio Ghibli.” But director Hayao Miyazaki, responsible for some of the studio’s most successful films, has come out of retirement to work on his final film, titled How Do You Live? to be released in July 2023. So, perhaps there is hope for the future after all.