Everyone should grow up watching Ghibli, but, if you didn’t, it’s not too late to start now.
Every young girl has watched a Disney film at some point. One of my favourite movies was The Little Mermaid (1989), a movie with an Academy Award-winning soundtrack, four Golden Globe nominations and a main character who disobeys her father to chase after a boy. Of course, when I was six, I didn’t really focus on that aspect; I was more interested in the music, and the quirky red-headed girl who somehow thinks having legs is cooler than being an actual mermaid. I had a shelf of videos (yes, proper old, blocky cassettes) that was entirely Disney, so that is what I watched. I knew other films existed; I dabbled in Pixar and was quite taken with a few of the Barbie movies, but it wasn’t until my Dad sat me down to watch Spirited Away (2001) that I dove into the bizarre world of Studio Ghibli and found characters who actually made sense.
As a particularly skeptical nine-year-old, the cover of Spirited Away did not fill me with confidence. There was no wasp-waisted princess, no little animals desperate to burst into song, and honestly, the girl in the middle (Chihiro) seemed just as unimpressed as I was. In short, it wasn’t Disney enough. But as each new scene unfolded (scenes which are too numerous and bizarre to give an adequate synopsis, but include pigs, a bathhouse, a giant baby and that very relatable inconvenience of a floating mask eating all of your coworkers) I saw something that I had never experienced in my Disney movies. Ariel might have had her prince to defeat the evil witch, but Chihiro was going to do it herself.
However, Ghibli films are not about one person triumphing alone, and neither are they about overcoming some great evil villain. At the heart of all Ghibli films is love and human strength. Chihiro is aided by a number of friends whom she picks up along her journey, and the driving force behind the story is her need to save her parents. In Kiki’s Delivery Service a struggling, young, broom-less witch, risks her life to save her friend when no one else can. The title of MyNeighbour Totoro (1988) may leave you to assume that the film is about a magical friendship with a cuddly forest creature called Totoro, but what really shines through is a sibling bond so much more authentic and beautiful than that of Frozen’s Anna and Elsa. I grew out of dreaming for a Disney happy ending, but never out of wanting a Ghibli friendship.
It’s not only the emotional depth of the characters that make Ghibli films so magical. The worlds themselves are just so much more vibrant than those of Disney. As a child you might picture a castle as a big grey building, with a king, a queen and maybe some knights riding about. Disney takes that castle, makes it pink and inhabits it with some fairies and talking mice. Ghibli, on the other hand, makes that castle a huge mechanical creature, occupied by an angsty wizard and his quick-witted fire demon. Howle’s Moving Castle (2004) blew my mind and still does to this day. It is like nothing else that you’ve seen, a phrase that could describe so many Ghibli films.
It is not only the originality of these films for which they deserve praise, but also the fact that they make the magic seem tangible. Sofi is travelling through the streets of a very ordinary town when the wizard, Howle, takes her hand and walks her up through the air. Mei is simply playing in her back garden when she first spots the mini Totoro. They show us scenes so much more familiar than those of Disney and infuse them with magic so that the enchanted and every day blend seamlessly. As a child that is exciting, as an adult, it is inspiring.
There is also a darker side to Ghibli’s worlds that you won’t find among the likes of Agrabah and Atlantica. Disney’s fictitious settings are not without their dangers but they always feel unrealistic and detached. Even as a child you know that Aurora will wake up from her hundred-year sleep, that a prince will break Snow White’s curse or that Cinderella will escape from her life of servitude. None of it poses any real-life threat. Disney says that the outcasts are the bad ones and if you are good and kind then evil cannot touch you. Ghibli shows evil in a much more real and human way.
Princess Mononoke (1997) features a battle between man and nature, with the young hero becoming caught between both warring sides. Pom Poko (1994) follows a community of shape-shifting raccoons who push back against the humans building over their forest. In Howle’s Moving Castle we see the destruction caused by a fruitless human war. There is no clear villain in these movies, no evil individual announced by a cloud of lime green smoke. We have to look further, realise that each character has their own depths and motivations and that bad things don’t just happen because of some maniacal, half-octopus woman. The movies aren’t hopeless and the characters are often able to overcome adversity. If Disney teaches you that simply being good overcomes evil, then Ghibli seems to say that finding the courage to be good can be a struggle in itself, but a struggle worth enduring.
The beauty of the films doesn’t just come in the storytelling, they are visually stunning and fantastic to listen to. I may, from time to time, randomly launch into a rendition of Under the Sea, but it doesn’t give me the same chills as hearing the music from a Ghibli film. I can’t deny that Disney has produced some iconic images but, in comparison, it seems a little plastic, mass-produced perhaps. Ghibli is art. The food, the water, the stars, the untidiness, the fields, all come to life in a way that they don’t in Disney. In Ponyo (2008), each falling raindrop creates ripples upon the ground and Sōsuke’s coat drips into a small, dark puddle at his feet. There is so much movement in a moment that is actually very still. You don’t get that in Disney.
I don’t want to bash Disney entirely, I simply wonder why, instead of growing up with Ghibli masterpieces, so many people are only exposed to animation in the form of singing animals and sparkling princesses. We all deserve to find a movie as special as Spirited Away has been to me, to have our imagination carried as far as mine was. If you find yourself realising that you haven’t watched a single one of these, then it is time to change that. You may have missed out on the magic of seeing them as a child, but I enjoy them just as much aged 20 as I did when I was 10.