Studio Ghibli has been producing some of the world’s best anime films for over 3 decades. Hayao Miyazaki, one of its co-founders, uses strong female characters in whimsical settings to create memorable movies that stay with you long after they have finished.
I first became interested in Studio Ghibli when I was at college. During a media studies lesson, I was shown Howl’s Moving Castle. That was the first time I had ever seen anything anime, apart from the hugely popular Pokemon. I always saw anime as something a little strange and hard for me to understand. When I was growing up, the only animation I saw was that of Disney or the cartoons I watched on TV. That was what I was used to – the Western world’s style. But here was something created from the minds of the Japanese. Although inititally unsure as to whether I would enjoy it, I watched Howl’s Moving Castle with an open mind.
For those of you who don’t know the film, it revolves around a young girl called Sophie, who gets turned into an old woman by a witch’s curse, and the time she spends with a wizard named Howl. On that first viewing, I found myself very quickly falling in love with it. It was probably the most fantastical thing I had ever seen. Among the long list of characters is a humorous fire called Calcifer and the unfortunate-looking Witch of the Waste. Along with a jumpy scarecrow that follows the castle around (which has legs and moves like a creature, by the way) it made for such a strange yet endearing story. That is exactly what I loved about it. It’s a love story at its core, not something I’m usually interested in, but it also teaches valuable lessons about being shallow about looks, amongst other things. I suddenly found myself wanting to explore Studio Ghibli some more.
My favourite Ghibli film is the iconic Spirited Away. Released in 2001, it is the most successful film in Japanese history. You will find some of Hayao Miyazaki’s most infamous characters within this film, including a floating head wearing a cape called No Face and a giant baby. Sen, the young girl who the narrative revolves around, is said to be based on the 10 year old of one of Miyazaki’s friends. She begins the film as an innocent girl who seems weary of the world around her, reliant on her parents for safety. As they explore an abandoned fairground in those early scenes, Sen urges her parents to leave. But they continue their journey and gorge on food they find at a stall. Sen watches as her parents are turned into pigs by the spirits that inhabit the fairground, having been taken over by their greed. She is then forced to live amongst the spirits at the bathhouse in order to get her parents back. She uses her inner strength and charisma to save herself and her parents from this intimidating world, proving herself to be the most powerful female character within the narrative.
This is what Miyazaki does so well. As a pronounced feminist, he creates these inspiring female characters knowing that his audience will be able to relate to them wholeheartedly. I love watching films with strong female leads because it makes a change from the somewhat dominating male presence in many movies. And girls are just really cool. Princess Mononoke from the film of the same name, Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service and Nausicaa from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind are other females from Ghibli films who also radiate this sense of strength and independence. In fact, most if not all films produced by Studio Ghibli include central female characters. This in itself is a real triumph.
Of course, I cannot talk about anime without mentioning the animation itself. It is truly beautiful and drawn with the most incredible detail. The colours are vibrant and the landscapes and settings are other-worldly. I find myself getting lost in them. Whether it’s a village by the sea, a vast valley or an inner-city town, the settings are always amazing. It’s hard to imagine the pain-staking process that must go into the creation of the animation for each film. But it brings so much joy and emotion to the narrative that Studio Ghibli wouldn’t be same without their icon style of drawing.
I think it’s impossible to simply watch only one Ghibli film without starting an everlasting love affair with the studio. The stories they create are so unlike anything else and it is animation at its very best. I sometimes describe Studio Ghibli to those who are unaware of it as a Japanese Disney. But it is so much more than that. I grew up watching Disney films, as most young girls do, but never did their films stay with me as much as Ghlibi has. It’s the combination of the narrative, characters and settings that make them so special and I will always be in awe of them.