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The Eternal Appeal of Studio Ghibli

From sentiment to sorcery, here’s why we keep returning to the warm embrace of these movies

By Fawzia Khan  June 18th, 2021

The next time you’re scrolling through your Netflix library for a sticky, incredible watch, look no further than the Studio Ghibli catalogue. For the uninitiated, Studio Ghibli is the cinematic oeuvre of Hayao Miyazaki, producer Toshio Suzuki, and the late director Isao Takahata, established in 1985 and most famous for Spirited Away. These timeless movies range from chronicles of bafflingly expansive mystic universes to charming little tales based on everyday life in Japan, but they all have one thing in common – audiences keep coming back for more. Originally made for children, these endearing films have broken down linguistic and regional barriers across the globe and become cult favourites for adults alike. So what is it about these extraordinary stories that make us hit play again and again?

To put it plainly, Studio Ghibli films depict what it is to be human. While the films are a melange of fantastic visual elements, whimsical soundtracks, and strange new worlds, the storytelling is grounded in very universal human experiences. Audiences feel the grief of losing a parent, the want for companionship, the hope of young love, the wonder of discovering new lands and strange new creatures with each character, and it is this emotional connection that keeps people coming back for more. These movies are a comfort watch for many, a heart-warming gift that keeps giving with each rerun. Everything from the richly detailed Japanese food (there are whole Instagram accounts dedicated to Ghibli’s food stills) to glimpses into the serenity of Japan and its quietly captivating culture is rapturous for Ghibli regulars. For others, it’s the sense of calm the measured pace of the movies brings with them: the swaying of each blade of grass; even the supermarket runs where each hunk of beef is wrapped neatly and handed to Umi in From Up on Poppy Hill is a soothing balm for tired minds. 

A still from Princess Mononoke

When I first watched Princess Mononoke, I remember being awestruck at the stunning art that was on my screen. It is not easy to create novel realms governed by their own, distinct realities – The extent of the creativity and work that it took to make something so engaging was obviously immense. A closer look at some of the stills from the movie reveals the studio’s desire to stay rooted in its heritage, which comes through in their single-minded approach of hand drawing every single frame in the movies and painting them in watercolour while sticking to very traditional animation practices. This is almost unheard of in the era of sophisticated CGI.

A still from Spirited Away

The appearance of the Susuwatari or Soot Sprites in Spirited Away is an instance where the intricacy of the animation technique shines – each Sprite was hand-drawn and numbered so that artists could keep track of every single one that appeared in the frame. Their limbs and the rocks they carried were drawn on separate sheets, placed on one watercolour background and compiled into the final product. The best part? Despite the amazingly rich visuals, they don’t overwhelm the mind. The colour palette is soothing and a delight for the senses.

A still from Spirited Away

There is unmistakable brilliance in the way these movies give inanimate objects a very human quality, which is what Miyazaki does effortlessly. For example, when Sophie encounters the castle in Howl’s Moving Castle for the very first time, the stylised illustration and movement make it appear both terrifying but also curious and inviting at the same time. It takes cinematic skill to give something, which we would assume to be non-living, emotions and a personality through a few clever brush strokes. And many of these seemingly innocuous objects appear as easter eggs in every movie, connecting them into a single universe – fans have reckoned that the pink shoe that Granny finds in My Neighbour Totoro is actually Chihiro’s from Spirited Away, young Pazu from Castle in the Sky seems to be hiding in the background of a scene from Howl’s Moving Castle, the Soot Sprites from My Neighbour Totoro play a key role in Spirited Away, and a Totoro book makes an appearance on the bookshelf in Whisper of The Heart.

A still from My Neighbor Totoro 

There is a rare literary depth and nuance to these films, which is generally not found in media meant for children. Neither are they a casual watch – you can’t absentmindedly tune into a Ghibli movie while you’re distracted by your phone. It demands and keeps your full attention, enveloping you in its story like a warm hug, and that’s the only way these immersive, Japanese masterpieces can be enjoyed. Perhaps this is why adults return to them time and time again – they’re a sweet reminder of simpler times, shrouded in a golden haze of nostalgia, long-forgotten childhood emotions, moral lessons, and all-encompassing narratives. 

Photos: Alamy Stock Photo