For nearly three decades, Studio Ghibli had led the way for magic and artistry in the realm of animated cinema. Since Japan’s most cherished animator, Hayao Miyazaki, founded the studio with three others in 1985, Studio Ghibli has grown to an unprecedented level of international acclaim — rivaled only by Walt Disney Studios in the United States. Through a combination of beautiful artwork and masterful storytelling, Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have crafted some of the most inspiring animated features in history.
The Miyazaki Legacy
Since 1986, Miyazaki has written and directed no less than seven feature films with Studio Ghibli. Each film is considered a classics in its own right, equally cherished by audiences both young and old. Miyazaki’s use of progressive themes in his work set the films of Studio Ghibli apart from the more violent and action-centric canon of Japanese animation, such as Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z. As a result, Miyazaki succeeded at elevating the world’s perception of Japanese animation to a level of substantial artistic and literary merit.
Noticing the rise of Studio Ghibli and its several feature animated films throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Walt Disney Company hoped to align itself with the Japanese studio’s work by re-releasing many of its films in the United States and elsewhere. This came at a time when Walt Disney Studios was facing a genuine crisis of identity following several commercial and critical flops (separately from the success of its production alliance with Pixar).
Since then, Disney has been largely responsible for introducing the works of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli to mainstream American audiences, and they have added to the films’ success by using several named actors and actresses to perform the character voice roles in English. As of 2011, Walt Disney Company picked up the international distribution rights for Studio Ghibli’s output, providing a significant cache of resources and commercial visibility for the Japanese animation studio as a result.
Aside from the studio’s history and its current alliance with Walt Disney Company, Studio Ghibli is perhaps best known for its remarkable creativity in the medium of traditional 2D animation. In addition, Studio Ghibli touches on many relevant themes and ideas that have to do with the crisis of habitat our world faces in this post-industrial era. As a result, not only does Studio Ghibli push new ground with the quality of animation and sound in its productions, but also accomplishes much in educating us on the importance and necessity of maintaining a mutually beneficial relationship with nature.
Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away: A Critical Comparison
In 1997, Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli released a breakthrough animated feature that would attract the world’s attention to the small Japanese animation studio. Princess Mononoke is an epic tour-de-force of animated storytelling that represents the culmination of Miyazaki’s over 10 years of experience crafting films for Studio Ghibli. The story, though significantly based in Japanese lore and spiritualism, showcases themes and imagery that had, and continue to have, special relevance with people and societies throughout the world.
Set in the late Muromachi period of Japanese history (roughly around the 16th century), the story of Princess Mononoke revolves around Ashitaka, the last prince of the Emishi people, who contracts a demonic curse from a possessed wild boar that ventured into his village. Like many of Miyazaki’s films, Princess Mononoke presents the director’s deep concern on the state of humanity’s relationship with the natural world. This is evidenced by the doings of the film’s main antagonist, Lady Eboshi, who manages the settlement that is responsible for extracting natural resources from the surrounding forest and its environs.
Known as Iron Town, the settlement’s careless and destructive methods of resource extraction led to the materialization of a curse that put the entire region at risk. Ashitaka’s quest to cure himself of the curse leads him to renew humanity’s contract with nature and put an end to the destruction instigated Lady Eboshi and the denizens of her Iron Town.
Four years later, Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli would follow up—and, in many ways, surpassed—the international success of Princess Mononoke. The animated feature Spirited Away is considered, by and large, to be the greatest film produced by the Japanese animation studio, and can be found on several lists that rank it among the best in world cinema. Like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away deals specifically with destructive nature of humanity and how the true cost of getting what one wants is often ignored or entirely forgotten about.
Miyazaki’s Spirited Away follows the trials and adventures of Chihiro, a young girl who becomes separated from her parents in the Japanese countryside. After wandering alone for some time, Chihiro soon finds herself at an old bathhouse that is inhabited by all sorts of fantastic creatures, including the witch Yubaba, who oversees the bathhouse.
Aside from Yubaba, the main antagonist of the story is a black creature with a white mask known as “No-Face.” This being is made of an ichor-like substance that resembles the look and consistency of oil. Moreover, its purpose is to tempt the denizens of the bathhouse with gold and swallow those who fail to resist this temptation.
Chihiro also comes into contact with her parents, who were transformed into pigs as a result of relieving their hunger at one of the bathhouse food stands. The protagonist’s adventures at the bathhouse and beyond presents several tests and frightening realities that she must overcome in order to find her way back home.
Both Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are animated films that successfully cross the boundary of mere entertainment into the realm of literary excellence. Both are highly reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic histories of Middle Earth, in that they showcase a long-forgotten world that becomes endangered by the selfishness and greed of those who seek to destroy it in the name of progress.
More specifically, these films lament the decay of Japanese culture and tradition, made possible by the progress of cultural homogenization and globalization in the name of economic prosperity. Using the mythos and lore of the Shinto religion, Miyazaki combats this trend by creating a fantasy realm that has special significance for the Japanese people and their spiritual roots.
The spirits and monsters that inhabit these worlds hint at the possibility that these fantastic creatures existed in Japan at one time, but are around no longer due to the devastation of humanity’s unquenchable thirst for power and prosperity. Princess Mononoke touches upon this theme, in a similar fashion to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, by presenting the Iron Town as a contagious disease that spreads indefinitely, leaving only destruction, death and hatred in its wake. Spirited Away, on the other hand, focuses more on the individual’s relationship with their own desires, and the possibility that choosing to fulfill one’s desires could have a terrible impact on others, as well as one’s self.
In the end, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are near-perfect examples of meaningful storytelling done in the medium of animated cinema. Taking a cue from Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” pattern of storytelling, Miyazaki constructed two distinct fantasies that deal with their respective heroes’ journey into darkness, only to become reborn again with the tools and knowledge needed in order to bring the world back into balance.
The huge cultural and historical impact such stories have had throughout human history goes to show that, despite Campbell’s academic oversimplification, the “monomyth” pattern in storytelling resonates with all people in all cultures to a certain degree. Miyazaki’s two masterful tales are certainly no exception. The fantasy and adventurous spirit so inherent to these tales ensure that children and mature adults can find something to appreciate and learn from the trials and successes of Ashitaka and Chihiro—regardless of one’s situation in space-time.