It’s 30 years since Castle in the Sky, the first of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated tales for Studio Ghibli, was released. Justine Brooks says a heartfelt thanks for the magic.
Modern legend has it that when a mother enthusiastically shared with Hayao Miyazaki the fact that her kid watched his films every day, he turned to her and said that no child should be watching movies every day – that should be something for special occasions, like birthdays.
But you probably couldn’t be blamed for wanting to binge watch Studio Ghibli films. In the West we grow up on Disney animations; in Japan they have Studio Ghibli, which produces films of such animated beauty and sensitivity, they make Disney films look like they’ve been made by cats.
The founder of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki is a film-making and animating genius. And as a thinker and man of ideas, he’s an absolute legend.
Also, the Ghibli characters are real. There are proper female leads. Who aren’t princesses. And when they are princesses they’re absolutely kick-ass and save the world from destruction. Like the epic Princess Mononoke (1997) where a young woman raised by wolves enters into battle with an industrialist (also a woman) who has been destroying the forest in order to fire up her iron foundries.
Studio Ghibli’s women aren’t just interested in meeting the perfect man and settling down to have children while their cleavage is displayed as prominently as possible. Says Miyazaki, “Many of my movies have strong female leads – brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe in with all their heart. They’ll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a saviour. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.”
Studio Ghibli is all about forceful female characters: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) is the tale of a young witch who turns up in a new town and comes up with a business venture that allows her to make a living and support herself. In Spirited Away (2001), a young girl combats all manner of monsters, creatures and bandits in an otherworldly bathhouse to rescue her parents who have been turned into pigs. There’s no ‘someday my prince will come…’ here.
Every Japanese kid starts out life watching My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and for that reason I’d urge Ghibli virgins to start there too. Apart from being full of stunning scenes of Japanese country life and compelling creatures such as the super-cute soot sprites (susuwatari) and of course the amazing Totoro, a wise anthropomorphic cat-come-owl-come-raccoon, this film tells a really human tale in which two young girls move house with their professor father while waiting for their mother to recover from a long-term illness in hospital. In every Studio Ghibli film there’s real-life morality to be learned. And while there’s sentimentality, there’s never sappiness.
In Totoro, as in many Studio Ghibli films, there is a strong reverence for nature and an urgent environmentalist agenda. Woodlands, oceans and rivers are regarded as precious, magical places where mysterious yet benign creatures live, both actual and of the spirit world. And it’s often in these wildernesses that characters reach epiphany or wisdom.
Miyazaki combines elements of traditional Japanese mythology with western folk and fairy tales so we get storylines where boys turn into dragons mixed with Alice in Wonderland symbolism.
Like a true artist, Miyazaki shows us the kind of magic that hides behind the everyday, that comes out when people really take the time to look. Of course it’s mostly children who have the ability and the imagination to see the magic – we all know that most people lose that ability when they reach adulthood. But somehow Miyazaki gives us all the opportunity to glimpse that magic once more.
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Justine lives in beautiful north Leeds with her 12-year-old daughter and a lurcher called Lionel. She runs a PR and marketing agency and is writing a novel.