By Gabrielle London
Studio Ghibli makes me want to tear the sun out of the sky and eat it. I can visualize it—a platter is brought out into a golden-toned room, colorful Sicilian crockery decorated with a tumble of rice or pasta. Underneath the pearl colored cloche is the fiery star, adorned by a pour over of sunlight like a vodka sauce over chicken and penne. It glows insistently, waiting to deposit the conscious feeling of life’s intense and gilded beauty into the physical body of its consumer. Fork and knife cut through molten heat, revealing, in an orange wedge, inklings of love and knowledge. Open is the mouth of the basking body at the head of the immovable table, ready and expectant for the unknowable taste of being brought to life again. Though dramatic and rather extreme, this is the only way I can think to illustrate the authority Ghibli movies have over my emotions, or further, my being. I have always been and always will be a lover of the arts; near to my heart is an ardent adoration for the visual depiction of life and feeling, the all-encapsulating breath of existence. Again this may seem dramatic just to describe one film studio, I know. But one of the many attractions of Studio Ghibli—and there are many—is its ability to communicate the deepest churning emotions of the tranquil soul through its animation style. I say this with every ounce of sincerity. The Japanese animation studio is undoubtedly the best in the world, and its founder Hayao Miyazaki a torchbearer of inspired, astonishingly true art.
One of the many captivating aspects of Studio Ghibli is its ability to depict the genuine warmth of human emotion through simple artistry. The animation style, which relies on soft curves and roundness, holds an ability to show the most niche comforts in life in such a way that it reaches not just the eyes, but the heart and soul. In the recent decade, many of the most acclaimed studios have chosen to leave hand-drawn animation behind in favor of more realistic, hyper-detailed CGI. But Studio Ghibli has stubbornly and boldly refused to follow the trend, and it is all to their benefit. There is a beautiful fluidity and humanness to hand-drawn animation that Ghibli has chosen to embrace, only furthering the enthralling depth of their films that no other studio can achieve. The gentleness of gouache and watercolor backgrounds crafted by the hands of experienced artists are a call to the ebb and flow of nature as it coexists with humans, not trying to depict landscapes as accurately as possible to real life but instead focusing on the energy. The same is true of the movement of the characters. Because animation drawn by hand must utilize the ambience of a scene including score and dialogue as well as clear expressions to convey feeling, Ghibli is often able to deliver powerful emotional value within their films and characters. They have managed to create the perfect balance between highlighting the subtlety of micro expressions, and commanding scenes with the forward vitality of emotion. This golden ratio awards Studio Ghibli with the truest representation of our minds, the connections between our hearts and souls and how they present in our actions.
Another of the many devastatingly appealing factors about Studio Ghibli comes from the actual art of the movies. The character designs are not developed with the intent to appeal to audiences, but rather to consider the actual personalities of the characters themselves and their motives. They make incredible use of color theory and shape, relating the curves or sharp edges of a character directly to their individual purposes. An excellent example of this comes from Kiki’s Delivery Service, in which each person is described in their design alone. Kiki’s face is soft and young with a slight sharpness which represents her conflicting views of the world as innocence melds with new maturity. Tombo’s boyish charm and yearning for a knowledge of aviation is expressed in the desaturated colors of his outfit and his nimble figure. Osono and Fukuo are depicted as mature and dependable in Kiki’s eyes through the greatness of their statures and boldly defined shapes of their designs. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Howl’s shimmering and vastly arrogant personality is explained through his gaudy outfits, and the jewels he adorns himself with. The Witch of the Waste’s design softens as she learns to be selfless for once, her appearance growing uglier as she lets her guard down, becoming unafraid of her own decay. Yu Baba of Spirited Away is portrayed with rough edges and gnarled texture to match her sense of duty and self-preservation.
Beyond this aspect of character design, the backdrops and landscapes of the films hold grand and breathtaking scenery, so vivid that anyone would wish they could be dragged into the endless lightheartedness and serenity of an imagined world. They depict quaint villages in tiny mountainsides, speckled with cozy Swiss-style homes and pastel breadths of wildflowers. In another world, a bustling cliffside city looks out upon an ocean, alive with prismatic bursts of sun. Imposing mountains may loom over shadowed quilts of rolling hills, or an ancient shrine crawling with soft, dark moss. In the auditory distance, a delicate cello orchestra settles over the world to narrate the character’s journey. There is a beauty to Ghibli landscapes which is near indescribable—the studio awakens the soul and enlivens it, impelling at an unspoken wish as though it could come true.
Still, there is more to love about Studio Ghibli films. They radiate pure comfort; the most simplistic, everyday aspects of life become vastly calming and enchanting. This transcends the boundaries of language as well, each voice cast carefully selected to be as acutely solacing as the original Japanese. Disney was presented with the challenge of casting the English voices which many know and love of the movies, and they delivered with astounding precision. Familiar voices like that of Christian Bale (Howl, Howl’s Moving Castle), Liam Neeson (Fujimoto, Ponyo), Matt Damon (Koichi, Ponyo), Betty White (Yoshie, Ponyo), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Jiro, The Wind Rises), and John Krazinski (Honjo, The Wind Rises) hold a certain soothing cadence which speaks to the same quality as the original language. Further, the films produce a comforting love of everyday tasks. The ability to depict an action as ordinary as slicing a tomato or pulling up the heavy covers of a bed as the very imagery of human nature is art within art. The mundane becomes extraordinary, and the extraordinary becomes the fragments which piece together an understanding of the beauty held within Ghibli movies.
It is these moments within the varied films that define them, which provide the most clarified idea of what the studio seeks to bring about in its audiences. I have never felt such happiness about the so-called “little things in life” as I have while watching Studio Ghibli movies. In another world, a character is simply pinning clothes to a long wire. They spread their hands out in a soft patch of grass warmed by a sun melting into the horizon, watching fireflies while listening to the sound of bells in the distance. At a table, they sit quietly while a wood burning oven simmers in the background, the smell of fresh bread wafting through the halls. Soundly do they sleep under a pile of blankets as an open window lets salted air breathe life into the dusky room. It is an intentional action of Hayao Miyazaki to add these endlessly peaceful shots into each of his many films, becoming something of a trademark. Yet it is far more than a simple choice on the part of a skilled director—these scenes seek to embrace the idea that life, in even the most basic understanding, is special. Every part of living and breathing, of moving through the motions of the day, is special. There is nothing that can be done in any aspect of existing that lacks value—there is incredible worth and charm in the overlooked parts of living and the things which we give little headspace to. Whether this is a subtle nudge to envision life through the softened framework of a Ghibli movie or simply a method of artistry that adds to the allure of the films, it is all too effective.
I am not arrogant enough to claim that I am an expert on Studio Ghibli just from having watched a handful of their films. However, I have certainly seen enough of their arsenal of breathtaking, hand-drawn animation to comment on the intricacies. There has not been one of the eleven I have seen which hasn’t impacted me thoroughly, and that hasn’t been strikingly unique and elevated in its artistic beauty. Studio Ghibli deserves every bit of recognition it gets and more. From the heart-wrenchingly profound symphonic scores that span through each movie to the immensely moving hand-drawn art, these movies capture every ounce of human feeling and emotion. What it means to be and to love and to find joy in existence are the very questions whose answers can be determined by Ghibli. There is a fleeting whimsy in the reality of life which is caught by the studio, and held fast in its endless purity. Anyone who has never seen a Studio Ghibli film is missing a great appreciation of an astounding art, and anyone who has is seeing life through a greater lens of beauty.