I’ll be honest: I’ve always been a Disney girl. I know all the princesses’ songs off by heart, and could talk for hours about the musical symbolism of Mulan. But beyond Disney and Pixar, animation has never been something I’ve taken that seriously in film. I dismissed Studio Ghibli’s work as children’s movies in a language I couldn’t begin to comprehend. Having spent a week watching Hayao Miyazaki’s films, however, I’ve finally realised what I was missing.

I began with Spirited Away. I had little to no expectations, other than the shot of No-Face on the bridge reminding me of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. But two hours later, and it’s up there among my favourite films. Miyazaki weaves together a boundless imagination with a striking colour palette to create a new world of Kami (spirits of Japanese Shinto folklore). I think what made this film so enjoyable for me was its sense of authentic originality. For once, I didn’t find myself anticipating formulaic plot twists based on earlier ideas: the characters, narratives and dialogue seemed to me to be one of a kind, and I realised that the childishness I had dismissed Studio Ghibli films for is exactly what gives them their magic.

“Miyazaki introduces us with a pretence of normality, then envelops us in the possibilities of believing the fantastical.”

Miyazaki achieves this through the absence of limitations. Each story is wrapped up in the glow of a child’s imagination, welcoming the spectator into blissful innocence. From each film I watched, characters stood out as tableaus in their own design. The flight of the dragon in Spirited Away blends into the clouds themselves, combining sky and sea into a fused landscape. Similarly, the cat bus in My Neighbor Totoro streaks through the countryside and hills with surprising grace, even climbing telephone poles. The reveal of Howl’s bird-like form in Howl’s Moving Castle is breathtaking in its twofold evocation of fear and awe. It would be remiss of me to not mention the Forest Spirit in Princess Mononoke, who grows from a seemingly normal, albeit majestic, stag, to a monstrous creature with a tangible control over the landscape around him. Miyazaki introduces us with a pretence of normality, then envelops us in the possibilities of believing the fantastical.

Satsuki searches for Mei among a beautiful landscape in My Neighbor TotoroTWITTER/crosseyedbear

There is also a certain whimsicality to Studio Ghibli which makes me reassess the idea of a family-friendly film. Ponyo fits the category, with clear protagonists, a simple narrative, and amusing secondary characters. But unlike so many of the Disney originals that have plagued my expectations, the focus of a happy ending is not on a romantic love. Love, for Miyazaki, exceeds this. His films showcase respect and adoration for parents, to the point where the few Japanese words I do now know include terms for “mother” and “father”. The love between friends and siblings is also championed, with the relationship between Satsuki and Mei being arguably the most important storyline in My Neighbor Totoro. Even when a romantic love interest is signified, like Howl and Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle or Kiki and Tombo in Kiki’s Delivery Service, this is not done overtly. The connection between people extends far beyond our expectations of dating or flirting, with true love transcending time and space. Chihiro and Haku’s love reveals his identity as a river spirit, which, when compared with the heteronormative marriages of Disney films, highlights the power of a Studio Ghibli storyline.

All of this is not to say that Miyazaki’s films are devoid of action, or indeed tragedy. Howl’s Moving Castle, while based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, explores deeper themes. Miyazaki retains elements of a steampunk aesthetic, which, set against the backdrop of extensive green valleys and rural European towns, gives us excitingly surprising visuals. But the real power of this film lies in its attack on the futility of war. Miyazaki expresses his anger towards the US invasion of Iraq through the sadistic Madame Sullivan, who continues the war despite her omnipotence. Only Howl seems to truly understand the idiocy and lasting impact of the conflict: After the war, they won’t recall they ever were human.”

The striking forest visuals of Princess MononokeTWITTER/aniconicshot

Similarly, Princess Mononoke paints a startling picture of humanity as brutal murderers of the world around them. Man-made Irontown’s bleak and desolate colour palette contrasts the beauty of the forest, where the trees are bathed in dappled sunlight, and even the shadows of clearings feel safe. Miyazaki favours nature as incomprehensibly powerful, but still milder than the threat of human greed. It’s a difficult film to watch in our current climate crisis, but essential nonetheless.

“The notion of home comes to mean so much more than people or places, but rather a sense of calm within the self.”


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Nature itself is probably the overarching theme of the Studio Ghibli films I’ve seen so far. It is personified and humanised, to the point where the characters of the landscape are preferable to the people who inhabit them. The meticulously drawn countryside of My Neighbor Totoro brings a backdrop of comfortable peace to the sentimentality of the story, while the cascading ocean in Ponyo both reflects and expands on how it would appear in real life. I would happily inhabit all of these worlds. Whether it’s Kiki’s journey to find a town that will accept her in Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s nomadic life of yearning for a place to settle down in Howl’s Moving Castle, or No-Face’s longing for a simple existence away from greed or money-making, all of these characters are simply searching for a home. The notion of home comes to mean so much more than people or places, but rather a sense of calm within the self: I have a lot to learn from this idea.

Having immersed myself in the worlds of Studio Ghibli, I doubt I’ll ever return to being the Disney fan I once was. To even compare the two now feels like an insult to Ghibli. I have so much respect for Miyazaki and his craft, and feel inspired to create my own stories of youthful innocence, belonging and imagination. To put it simply, I have been well and truly Spirited Away.