While writing Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau rejected the idea that the spiritual and the practical were opposites: ‘If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.’
Following the news that Studio Ghibli’s back catalogue will become available on Netflix (released in batches from now until April), I sat down to watch and rewatch the Japanese anime classics and found Thoreau’s words ringing in my ears. This is partly because Studio Ghibli made an entire, enchanting film around that precise image (Laputa: Castle in the Sky, 1986) but also because Thoreau’s view underlines one of the central reasons behind the animation house’s appeal. Their dreams, however fantastical, are always anchored rather than untethered. Their emotions, however sentimental, frequently have a tinge of melancholy, longing or, at least, incompleteness. Their form of magic realism places great importance on the realism side, as much as it captivates with the spectacle of magic.
Attempting to explain why their films resonate so much goes against the poetic spirit of Studio Ghibli, where enigmatic space is continually left for the audience’s imaginations to roam. Yet, there is something worth examining in the assertion by Studio Ghibli co-founder and anime titan Hayao Miyazaki that: ‘The creation of a single world comes from a huge number of fragments and chaos.’ There is no shortage of apparent chaos in the films’ strange locations, rituals and creatures but from what or where do the fragments derive? Quintessentially Japanese, the films delve deep into the country’s history, folklore, superstitions (the Operation Yōkai ghost parade of Pom Poko, 1994, for instance) and stories – whether of fiction or memory. There is always some reference point in reality or, at least, in some genuine historical belief. It’s startling to find real-life architectural counterparts to filmic references: Notoya Ryokan, for instance, which served as inspiration for the otherwise-otherworldly bathhouse in Spirited Away (2003).
Guided by Miyazaki and his fellow co-founder, the late Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli’s astonishing Japanese backdrops and landscapes are the result of direct studies in the field – from the farmlands of Only Yesterday (1991) to the wilderness explorations that informed Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Princess Mononoke (1997). The aim of conducting such extensive research was not merely to achieve aesthetic accuracy but to understand how such environments worked and could be navigated. Part of the soulful quality viewers find in Studio Ghibli films stems from the empathy shown not just to characters but to the environment and to how both need each other to survive. There is an almost animist relationship between the two, which is threatened time and again through development (Pom Poko), war (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988) and pollution (the real-world mercury poisoning, and strange resurgence, of Minamata Bay that provided Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind with such tragic yet ambiguous undercurrents).
Yet, for a cultural phenomenon that seems to personify its nation, Studio Ghibli’s breadth is also remarkable. A rich, if romanticized, occidentalism towards Europe manifests as a tender, even haunting world seemingly inspired, stylistically, by vintage airline posters. The European collage that forms Koriko city in Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) is Miyazaki’s vision, built from first-hand studies of European cities, of what the continent may have been like had it not torn itself apart in two World Wars.
Most importantly, Studio Ghibli goes beneath the surface. When creating Laputa: Castle in the Sky, for instance, they followed Jonathan Swift’s example from Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and asked: what would people do if they actually had access to magical powers? The answer is not utopian. This gets to the essence of Studio Ghibli and to how their enthralling and varied back catalogue is united by a fascination with what goes on in people’s hearts. This is never polemic, even in the anti-war Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), though there is certainly an underdog spirit at work. Having witnessed the Welsh miners’ strike of 1984 first-hand, Miyazaki was moved to incorporate the surroundings and sentiments he’d seen there into Laputa: Castle in the Sky.
The risk inherent in fantastical storytelling is that, since anything can happen, the emotional power and tension from perilous scenarios might be lost. Yet, although characters may be able to do all manner of outlandish things in Studio Ghibli films, where they really connect with the viewer is when characters come up against their limitations, uncertainties or obstacles. Childhood is a place of nightmares as well as wonder. Even a film as charming as My Neighbour Totoro (1988) has a dark side: the absence and serious illness of the mother in the story casts a shadow over the film – just as it had Miyazaki’s childhood, whose own mother was hospitalized for long periods of time with tuberculosis. This is not autobiography, but neither is it entirely fictional.
Perhaps the reason viewers invest so deeply in these ostensibly imaginary worlds, however, is because of the films’ paradoxical dedication to real life. In December 2016, a YouTube clip went viral in which the eager representatives of a technology firm present Miyazaki with a zombie-like 3D animated model that grotesquely drags itself along the ground, expecting him to be impressed by its shock value. He replies to them by referring to a disabled friend and how hard it is for him to undertake a simple high five. ‘Whoever creates this stuff has no idea what pain is whatsoever […] I strongly feel that this is an insult to life itself.’ It’s a funny clip in a painful way, given the obliterated enthusiasm of those pitching, but it demonstrates the character and integrity at the core of Studio Ghibli. Rejecting the false and dangerous certainties of good and evil, heroes and villains, glory and ignominy, these are worlds in which characters grow, make mistakes and find redemption, where people are scared and doubtful but venture into the unknown anyway, where beauty and love exist in spite of everything. As spectacularly imaginative as Studio Ghibli films can be, they also teach us how important it is to live beyond the comforting lie of illusion.
Main image: Hayao Miyazaki, My Neighbour Totoro, 1988, film still. Courtesy: Studio Ghibli