Picture this: Our protagonist, a young Jiro, deftly crosses his roof toward an aircraft adorned with bird-like wings. Upon clambering into the cockpit, he spins up the rotor, and the wind begins lifting the craft off its supports. As the aircraft ascends, the musical score swells with the lone chirping of a mandolin. Suddenly, the mellow score bursts into the full swing of an orchestra. The Japanese countryside floods with sunlight as Jiro soars over its pastures. He continues his flight through town, each location more scenic than the last.
Then, silence. A hulking Zeppelin enters the frame, eclipsing the sun. Jiro urgently flies toward the behemoth to investigate. All of a sudden, his goggles burst into a pair of thick glasses, and he loses control of his craft. Slamming into one of the Zeppelin’s carriages, Jiro’s beautiful plane shatters. Flung into free fall, he reaches out helplessly. A moment later, he wakes up.
These first minutes of The Wind Rises (2013) was the catalyst for my obsession with Studio Ghibli. To me, this scene best encapsulates what Studio Ghibli has accomplished in its 35 year history. The dreamlike worlds of Ghibli never fail to instil awe and wonder. At the same time, they aren’t afraid of facing reality’s harsh truths, even if it means sacrificing beauty.
Over the last 3 decades, Ghibli has established itself as the world’s leading production studio for hand drawn animations. Although, it would be impossible to discuss Ghibli’s success without mentioning its two creative figureheads: Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, the latter whom in particular has become synonymous with the studio brand.
The Beginning of an Era
First meeting whilst working at Toei animation, Takahata would go on to produce Miyazaki’s sophomore feature, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind in 1984. Nausicaa, which garnered critical acclaim for its mature investigation of man’s impact on the environment, would mark the beginning of a lifelong collaboration between the two. The gratuitous amount of detail given to imagery and movement was especially lauded. It would also mark the first collaboration between Miyazaki and legendary composer, Joe Hisaishi, who has composed for every Miyazaki feature since.
Given the financial success of Nausicaa, Miyazaki. Takahata, among others, co-founded Studio Ghibli in 1985 on the grounds that they would stay true to the art of hand drawn animation. Studio Ghibli quickly began dominating the domestic market in the 80s through early 90s. Films like Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and Porco Rosso (1992), performed exceedingly well, both critically and financially. Inevitably, the small studio began catching the world’s attention.
A distribution deal with Disney in the mid-90s introduced Western audiences to this branch of Japanese cinema. Most notably, Princess Mononoke (1997) was the first Studio Ghibli film to get a substantial release in the United States. It quickly cemented Studio Ghibli’s place in animation.
Studio Ghibli’s success peaked with 2001’s fantasy epic, Spirited Away, which became, and remains, the highest grossing film released in Japan, and the only Japanese winner of an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Spirited Away provided a gateway for a new generation of young audiences.
That said, Ghibli films have a timeless quality that makes them accessible for all ages. Most notably, they possess the ability to evoke memories, emotions, and above all, a childlike sense of wonder, best reflected by their characters.
Dreams of Skies and Flying
In Miyazaki’s films, young protagonists often gaze into the sky in wonder. Unsurprisingly, his characters materialise this wonder through flight.
Miyazaki’s own father ran a company that manufactured parts for Japanese warplanes in World War 2. Miyazaki’s guilt over his family’s wartime profiteering informed his pacifist views. By the same token, it fuelled his fascination with aviation and aircraft, a motif in nearly every one of his films. Like a reflection, his characters find joy amongst the skies. Airships in Ghibli films are fittingly debonair; framed with great elegance. In contrast, warships are portrayed as grey, hulking behemoths; a blemish on the impeccable landscape. This tension between beauty and corruption is prevalent in most of Ghibli’s works. Often, this tension is drawn from the filmmaker’s own experiences.
For Takahata, his experience surviving World War 2 is most prominently explored in his magnum opus, Grave of the Fireflies (1988). Although the film focuses on personal tragedies, Seita and Setsuko’s suffering is still punctuated by moments of levity, hope and wonderment. Their untimely deaths speak volumes for the corruption of childhood in the midst of war.
Regarding aircraft, Miyazaki conveys their aptitude to be works of art as well as tools of war, often juxtaposing the two. As Giovanni Caproni describes in The Wind Rises, “The dream of aviation is cursed”. Ultimately, both Caproni and Jiros’ works of art are used as weapons of mass destruction; their dreams turned into perverse versions of themselves. Characters like Jiro often find themselves betwixt and between. Perhaps this is where Miyazaki treads the line between fantasy and reality, Clearly, liminality is a common thread in his films.
The Universal Appeal of Coming-of-Age
In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki undergoes a rite of passage to become an independent witch. She initially struggles to navigate big city life without guidance from her parents. Furthermore, she is unable to reconcile the differences between traditional and contemporary witchcraft practices. And in Princess Mononoke, Ashitaka finds himself torn between two warring factions, fruitlessly negotiating peace. While in Spirited Away, Chihiro is trapped in a state between life and death. Coincidentally, her journey begins in the midst of her family moving house, which in itself, is a crucial childhood transition.
We often find ourselves in the midst of transition at every stage of our life. Be it travelling to a different country or getting employed for the first time. Changes are as much part of our lives as it is for the characters of Studio Ghibli. Perhaps this is what makes their personal conflicts so identifiable.
The way Takahata and Miyazaki draw upon their memories create narratives that are intimate yet universal. At their core, Studio Ghibli films capture the trials and tribulations of childhood, as well as the moments of wonder that punctuate our struggles.
Going back to that opening scene. Like Jiro’s dream, we can’t all expect a life of absolute perfection. Yet, as the works of Studio Ghibli suggest, the difficulties we face in reality make those brief moments of beauty all the more wondrous.
Text By Charlie Chua