In the first half of this month, the Belcourt Theater in Nashville put on a retrospective of the films of Studio Ghibli, the iconic Japanese animation studio founded by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. I made it out to see five of the films shown: Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle, and Takahata’s Pom Poko. Originally I was going to just post five short reviews of each, but as I’ve thought about it, I’ve decided to take a different approach this time and look at the films as a whole and pick out a few of the themes and story traits that recur throughout Miyazaki’s films and set his animated films apart, as well as comparing and contrasting Takahata’s film to illuminate some differences and similarities between the two directors.
1) Magic Realism - Miyazaki’s films belong to the fantasy film tradition, but they tend to lean more towards the realm of magic realism than pure fantasy. This is in contrast to other fantasy films like, for example, The Lord of the Rings films,which exist in a world that is clearly and explicitly not ours (I know Middle-earth is technically supposed to be on Earth, but it’s not a world truly relatable to ours and that is purposely imaginary). Miyazaki’s films, however, give the impression that they do exist in our world, or at least somewhat recognizable versions of our world. Howl’s Moving Castle is something of an exception, as it is made up almost entirely of fantastic imagery (although the film’s depiction of international wars fought by conscripted wizards almost makes it “realist fantasy” instead), but the other three Miyazaki films make clear that they are taking place in our world. Spirited Away opens with a normal modern-day suburban family and is set in an amusement park abandoned during Japan’s Lost Decade, Kiki’s Delivery Service is set in an entirely modern world that just happens to have witches as accepted members of society, and My Neighbor Totoro is similarly set in a modern countryside village that happens to be home to wood spirits. These films all make a special effort to tie their stories to the viewer’s reality with modern language, clothing, technology, and in the case of Spirited Away, specific allusions to recent historical events. By utilizing magic realism in his films, Miyazaki does two important things. Firstly, he aligns his films with Japanese tradition and folklore, which is full of stories of spirits, demons, and magical creatures existing and interacting with humans, so that his films invoke a sense of history and national pride, one of many factors contributing to their success with Japanese moviegoers (four of his films are among the top ten highest-grossing films in Japan, with Spirited Away being number one). Secondly, he makes the films more engrossing for children, because the stories and the magic are taking part in the world that they live in, letting them believe they can find their own Totoro. This is perhaps a small distinction, but one that sets it apart from other fantasy film and animated films, particularly those of Disney. Takahata’s Pom Poko definitely fits into the magic realism category, although that’s actually unusual for his Studio Ghibli films, which are otherwise not fantasies in any sense. The magic realism here still serves the same purpose of invoking national tradition, featuring the shapeshifting tanukis of Japanese folklore, but the purpose is slightly different as the film is meant as a warning to Japanese viewers not to forsake their traditions and their natural surroundings in the name of modernity and urbanization, a much more adult-oriented message than Miyazaki’s films, which is perhaps the biggest distinction between the two directors.
2) The sanctity of nature - An abiding respect and love for nature permeates throughout all of Miyazaki’s films. The topic of nature and environmentalism is most directly approached in Princess Mononoke, but alas, I did not see that one at the retrospective, so I’ll avoid discussing in detail here (especially since I’ve already done so in this review). No matter, though, because nature is still an important topic in the four films I did see. The most explicit treatment of nature is in My Neighbor Totoro, as the wood spirit Totoro aids the kids in growing plants for their ill mother, but in this film and the others, the power of nature is best expressed through Miyazaki’s gorgeously lush animation, depicting a number of idyllic natural landscapes. In Totoro, it’s the rural countryside, with its sprawling rice paddies and thick forest surrounding a giant, almost ancient tree; in Kiki’s Delivery Service, it’s the ocean surrounding Kiki’s newfound city home and the woods where she stays with the painter Ursula; in Spirited Away it’s the moonlit river flowing underneath the bathhouse and the landscapes that pass by Chihiro’s train window; and in Howl’s Moving Castle it’s the fog-covered mountains that hide the castle and the pastoral field of flowers that surrounds Howl’s childhood cottage. While the cities and buildings in Miyazaki’s films are always delicately detailed and designed, it’s quite clear that the natural landscapes hold special meaning for him, and they are always a wonder to behold. His appreciation for nature also extends to animals, found in every film, often as sidekicks to the protagonists, and nature spirits, like Totoro, Howl’s Calcifer, or Spirited Away’s Haku. In this, Miyazaki almost suggests a magical aura to nature itself. Takahata would seem to agree based on Pom Poko, which is very explicitly about the sanctity of nature as the tanukis fight to save their forest and their lives in the face of urban development. Takahata ascribes a magical aura to nature as well, although his idyllic depiction is tempered by the reality of modern urban sprawl’s inevitability, making his version of nature seem far more vulnerable to the whims of man than any of Miyazaki’s films, which tend to believe the opposite - man at the whim of nature.
3) Self-actualized girls - If I ever have a daughter, I’ll definitely want her to watch Miyazaki’s films, because they feature some of the best if not the very best young female characters that animation has to offer. All four of the films here have girl protagonists who through the events of their respective films find the strength and confidence waiting inside themselves. The two youngest are Totoro’s Satsuki (ten) and Mei (four), and their self-actualization is also the one most rooted in realistic terms, despite the presence of Totoro. In truth, while Totoro is an important part of the story, the film is not about him as much as it is about the girls coming to terms with their mother’s illness and the possibility that she might not ever come back home (happily, the film doesn’t kill her off, a move that would have been more about making the audience cry than expanding the story or its themes). Satsuki struggles with the emotional burden of her mother’s illness and staying strong for the sake of Mei, who idolizes her as many young siblings do their older siblings, but by the end of the film she is able to fully accept and grow into her role as older sister and accept her responsibility for her younger sister. Kiki’s search for self-confidence is put in relatively literal terms when her lack of confidence in her own abilities as a witch causes her powers to fade (a cruel bit of self-prophecy, but an accurate one when considering that Kiki’s powers are symbolic of artistic talent), but in time of crisis she’s able to let her true bravery and determination show, and her discovery of her own purpose and ability brings her powers back to her. It’s perhaps significant too that the crisis involves her saving a boy, not the other way around, and that she finds encouragement at her lowest point from older female friends, particularly one who is herself a painter. Spirited Away’s Chihiro makes perhaps the most dynamic change, starting the film as an extremely nervous young girl, scared of almost everything she sees, but as the story progresses she quickly becomes the bravest character in the film by far, completely ridding herself of fear simply by treating everything and everyone around her with kindness and love, so that by the end of the film, even her parents recognize a change in her, a maturity and independence that wasn’t there before. Howl’s Moving Castle is the only one of the films with a true love story (there’s some young “puppy love” in Kiki and a strong relationship formed between Chihiro and Haku in Spirited Away, but neither is truly romantic in nature) and perhaps tellingly also features the oldest protagonist at 18, who then spends most of the movie as an old woman. The significance is that the girl, Sophie, has the same concerns and anxieties about herself that many young women do (and young men, for that matter) - that she’s too unattractive and uninteresting to find love, but the curse that makes her look old, although obviously distressing at first, eventually liberates her to release her anxieties and truly be herself, finding the strength within her to save Howl and all of their friends. Again, the key is that she, like the girls in the other films, empowers herself, finding support in friends and family but not being empowered by them, and she saves the man she loves, not the other way around, which is very often the case in similar animated films (ahem, Disney). Pom Poko doesn’t make as a strong an impression on this point. There is a prominent female tanuki leader, and other females in the film, but the majority of the film’s character are male. Takahata shouldn’t get any flak for this, though; his previous film, Only Yesterday, is one of the rare anime features specifically targeted to adult female audiences.
4) No villains/anti-violence - Despite technically being two different points, I put these together because they go hand in hand. This is perhaps my favorite aspect of Miyazaki’s films, and what most particularly distinguishes it from Disney’s animated films, which almost always insist on having an evil antagonist who must be killed by the end of the film, usually in a very violent or gruesome manner. In Miyazaki’s films, violence is never the answer. Again, Princess Mononoke is more direct on this topic (simultaneously his most violent film and the most pointedly anti-violence), but it shows up in some form in all of his films. Howl’s Moving Castle does make a point of referencing violence, as it takes on the theme of pointless war and the risk of Howl completely losing his humanity if he continues to fight in the war. The other films, however, feature no violence - well, unless you count No Face eating the bathhouse employees as violent, but since none of them actually die, I choose not to. Spirited Away and Howl both have characters in them that are antagonistic/villainous in nature, but the film makes a point of redeeming all of these characters. Spirited Away turns the monstrous No Face into a gentle creature who seems to want nothing more than a friend and has Chihiro bid the witch Yubaba a kindly farewell, recognizing that she’s not as bad as she seems, and Howl turns the conniving Witch of the Waste from villain into an ally. Meanwhile, Kiki and Totoro both have absolutely no antagonists at all, which seems almost revolutionary these days. Seriously, just think of how many of Disney’s cartoon features have an antagonist in them compared to how many don’t (also notice how much less attention the films without antagonists are given), and then think of how many of those antagonists are killed without even a hint of remorse. It’s hard to imagine that ever happening in a Miyazaki film. Pom Poko is a bit interesting in this context, as it doesn’t have a direct antagonist, but on the other hand, mankind as a whole is more or less the film’s antagonist. The film is also more openly violent, as several tanukis and several humans are killed over the course of the film, but the film is still in opposition to violence. When the most militaristic of the tanuki leaders insists that the only way to fight back the development destroying their land is to kill the humans, it sounds fittingly drastic and upsetting, although he is no less justified in choosing violent means then were the Native Americans defending their lands against European settlers (then again, is violence ever truly justified? That’s a debate for another day). In the end, though, violent tactics are no more effective than any other tactic, giving the impression that Takahata agrees with Miyazaki on the point that violence solves nothing.
There are of course many more themes and ideas that could be brought and explored in regards to these five films, but these four are simply the ones that struck me the most and seemed most indicative of what makes Studio Ghibli stand out so distinctly in the world of animated film and cinema as a whole. In keeping with traditions, my sun ratings will follow, but I’d gladly recommend any of these five films, and I’d feel safe recommending any other Studio Ghibli film as well. If you haven’t been exposed to any of their films, particularly those of Miyazaki, a director worthy of being considered one of cinema’s greats, I’d highly suggest doing so whenever the opportunity arises.
My Neighbor Totoro: ☀☀☀☀☀
Five out of five suns
Kiki’s Delivery Service: ☀☀☀☀
Four out of five suns
Spirited Away: ☀☀☀☀☀
Five out of five suns
Howl’s Moving Castle: ☀☀☀☀
Four out of five suns
Pom Poko: ☀☀☀☀
Four out of five suns