As a millennial, Disney has been a big part of my life growing up in the early 2000s. For any animation film junkie, the moment you ask their favourite animated film, 8 out of 10 times the answer is a Disney film. Does that mean no other studio has the fan-base that matches the supremacy of the studio giant? Maybe yes. However, there’s a studio far out in the east that has given Disney a run for its content since the 1980s. Studio Ghibli, established in 1985, is a prominent name in the Japanese Anime genre and is known for heart-warming films depicting the nuances of Japanese folklore and traditions. Though Buena Vista (Walt Disney Motion Pictures) holds the international distribution rights of Ghibli Studio films, the power of content is still in the hands of the latter with a serious ‘no cuts’ clause.
So what makes us talk about the Ghibli studios right now? Well, Disney has recently released the live-action version of one of its first South-Asian films, ‘Mulan’, and while we all love the 1998 animated version, the film, like much of its other Disney Renaissance counterparts, lacked the depth of the diversity. While the live-action film is yet to release in India, and efforts have been made in the times of inclusion, to make it as authentic to the culture it is representing, let’s take a step back and refocus our gaze to a studio which has been relentlessly producing authentic eastern stories, the kinds Disney can never make.
The ‘Spirited’ adventures
The essential soul of the Ghibli studios are it’s magical creates, which unlike fairies, are rooted in the culture of the east. The spirits are the magical beings in the universe, derived from the ancient cultural belief of ‘everything is alive’. In ‘Princess Mononoke’, the main story revolves around the Forest Spirit. In Ghibli’s most successful film, ‘Spirited Away’, the entire magical journey takes place in the spirit land, the kinds we hear stories from our grandparents. In ‘Castle In The Air’, it’s again the magic of the stone that drives the entire storyline. The entire magic in the Ghibli Universe is rooted to the elements that make the Universe. They are not just writers’ figment of imagination, but imagination rooted into a culture’s history and beliefs. Now, Disney can make their Mushus, as a part of comic relief, but in Ghibli’s universe Mushu would be more than that – it’ll be an ancestral significance with not just magic but a guiding light to Mulan’s spirit.
(A still from Princess Mononoke)
Magic in mundane
In ‘My Neighbour Totoro’, Mei and Satsuki’s mother is suffering from an illness, leaving the two young girls to support each other. It is during these dark times that they become friends with the magic within, and their surrounding, invoking the care of the great forest spirit. In ‘Kiki’s delivery Service’, a witch finds her calling in something as mundane as delivering goods to people. In ‘Whisper In The Heart’, the whole story revolves around a girl and her passion for writing a story and discovering her affection towards an ambitious boy. The emotions that are mostly addons, in grand and adventurous Disney films, become plot for an entire film in the Ghibli world. The care to nuances and emotions given to the characters in each and every film is commendable, making even the most mundane life magical without even a touch of pixie dust.
(A still from My Neighbour Totoro)
Gut-wrenching other side
Not everything in this Universe is happy and cheerful. The Ghibli Universe doesn’t shy away from presenting harsh realities of characters. The best example is ‘Grave of Fireflies’, a film set during World War II and the effect it had on siblings, who become orphans and are left to fend for themselves. The innocence of Setsuka and the struggle of her older brother Seita, splits your heart into two and you are left wondering about these two characters for days to come. No Disney animation has been able to capture the girth of existence and the darkness of human apathy till now. Ghibli did it in 1988.
Not just PG-13 anime
Since the 2010s, notably since ‘The Princess and the Frog’, Disney has made a clear point in making films that are not just about magic. With films like ‘Up’, ‘Inside Out’, ‘Coco’, and even ‘Moana’, we’ve seen great diversity in the content, making it not just a fairytale meant for kids. However, it still has a long way to tread, to follow the footsteps of the Ghibli Universe. With films like, ‘Only Yesterday’, ‘From Up The Poppy Hill’ and ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’, Ghibli Universe has set a benchmark, too high to achieve. ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’, talks about spirituality , the essence of enlightenment and the price of that enlightenment. The story starts like any fairytale but takes a deeper turn when Kayuga reveals her actual motive of coming to Earth and giving up the land of enlightenment. This is a film you can’t watch with your seven-year-old, without the kid having some deeper questions. Similarly, ‘Only Yesterday’, is a series of a woman’s past experience, told in such a simplistic and true fashion, that even a 25-year-old, sitting in India could relate to them.
(A still from Ponyo)
Japan has always been ahead of the curve with its anime genre, with classics like ‘Naruto’ and ‘The Death Note’, the Manga series has enjoyed a niche and deep fan following. However, the takers of Ghibli Universe don’t have to be niche, as they are as simplistic as Disney films, yet as deep as the Japanese storytelling. Rooted in culture, with mass appeal, the Ghibli Universe is everything that Disney lacks in terms of far-eastern representation and inclusiveness. If you’ve been a hardcore Disney buff, you need to give Studio Ghibli a chance and let yourself experience a world of animation that goes beyond the reach and understanding of the west.
Also, an additional tip, watch them in original Japanese audio with subtitles, there are a lot of gestures and tone that the English dubbed version misses out on, just like the authentic magic of the east.