Recently, I unearthed a small satchel full of my childhood drawings, concealed in the loft behind stacks of old pots and pans, feather dusters, and, in excellent taste, my mum’s lifetime collection of Winnie the Pooh memorabilia. Sifting through the (impressively wonky) sketches of Totoro, Ponyo, and what I can maybe generously make out to be Howl’s Moving Castle itself, I was really reminded of how truly — perhaps borderline gluttonously — I loved Studio Ghibli as a child. It’s a love that’s endured well into the equally obsessive, if slightly more alcoholic, era that is my early twenties.
Anyone who’s ever watched a moment of, or maybe even just spotted a still from one of these films, knows that they are just beautiful, bewildering and bewitching. Ghibli’s films are intricately hand drawn and animated by one of the studio’s five co-founders, Miyazaki. Magic and realism are combined in his artistry and in the plot to produce something quite special. These movies are imbued with musical cues and often tackle adult themes as they follow the mostly female protagonists in their adventures.
To me, what makes Ghibli so special is that it presents us with stories about girls — real girls. Miyazaki’s heroines are not beautified, wide eyed, sweet-smiled Disney concoctions. Often when we think of feminist depictions of women onscreen, transcendental characters like Wonder Woman who fight wars ‘like a man’ (and without growing leg hair) come to mind; the girls of Ghibli are saved from this fate, too. These stories follow girls with ambition, intellect, empathy, a sense of play and fun and straight up bravery. Their function as strong female protagonists is not to act like men. They fight monsters, warlords, and spirits, and all the while they act, talk, think, just like girls. It feels like coming up for air.
These girls are not left alone on their adventures; they are provided support in a companion or a romantic interest, although never granted a saviour. Romantic interests are inscribed into plots to aid the protagonists rather than rescue them from a monster or wake them up with a kiss. It’s the total counterpoint of the plots of the classic Disney movies I grew up watching. There’s also often an absence of male survivors.
The ‘prettiness’ of Ghibli’s heroines is frankly unimportant. Because why would it be? They roll around our screens with muddy faces and functional clothing. Nausicaä in Valley of the Wind (1984) wears a durable, functional jumpsuit to glide about the sky. Sheeta of Castle in the Sky (1986) changes into trousers when she realises her dress isn’t practical, yet she retains her own girlish element through soft pastel colours. Sophie of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) spends most of the movie under a curse that turns her into an old woman. It is only when she starts to feel confident in herself, and help others, that the spell breaks.
What I find to be particularly unique to Ghibli is the movies’ insistent inclusion of ordinary moments. There’s a real appreciation for the mundane; stillness and routine domesticity is accounted for, given space in these films. We watch these characters in their most everyday moments. And they feel real for it. They brush their hair, sweep, sew, tie their laces, huff and puff at spilt milk. This humanity is something so essential and yet so often missing in films. In my young eyes watching as a child, these girls were like me. They chatted and did the dishes and occasionally sobbed in the same way I did, but they were mythic. It’s for this reason that it’s not surprising to me that Miyazaki bases his characters on people he has met in his real life. The totality of these girls’ characterisation and lives really resonates.
Miyazaki told Roger Ebert in 2002 that he wants to make movies “especially for the daughters of my friends”. It is this sentiment that makes his movies so utterly special.
Illustration by Emily Christaki