The first time I saw one of Hayao Miyazaki’s beautifully directed and animated Studio Ghibli movies as a child I fell in love. I remember feeling transported and alive in a way I’d never felt before. There was something vivid and wholeheartedly magical about the experience of watching one of those stories unfold before me, and it would turn into the most beautiful story ever told somehow. Due to those early experiences with getting introduced to his work, I have a lot of nostalgia associated with the studio’s movies. It wasn’t until recently that I was revisiting them, and watching others, now much older that I began to feel gratitude for what these movies have instilled in me.
What is so successful and striking truly about these many movies is that they all carry similar themes and ways of expressing them. As a kid, I wasn’t super tuned into looking into those themes, but I could feel a connection to them. My Neighbor Totoro was one of my favorites, because I have an older sister, and the characters Mei and Satsuki have this sister bond that’s the core of the story. Other Ghibli films have these strokes of representing friendship, love, and understanding. Those things felt evident and alive to me as a kid in the imagery that was animated on screen, but when I revisited them, I was struck even more how clear that all is. I loved seeing that relationship between the sisters, but that wasn’t all.
There’s this beautiful undertone of remembering to cherish life. In Totoro, the girls’ mother is in the hospital for most of the film, and there is a lot of emotion associated with this reality. It hit me, as I was rewatching it, not only the message that’s intertwined with cherishing family and things around you, but that this is one of the only instances of childhood film that displays emotion so raw and clear. Especially in the children themselves. My heart lurched as I watched the scenes where there is a stricken Satsuki, breaking down at the possibility of her mother being dead, and with Mei, instances where she fears that she has lost her sister in her recklessness running around.
For some reason, it’s incredibly cathartic to see a waterfall of emotions given like that to characters that are children. It’s done so with control though. They aren’t just crying to cry; they’re crying because they have so much pent-up inside them. And there is no scolding for this emotion, just acceptance and unleashing of it.
I thought how profound this was and how moving it probably was for little me, and other children, to see this. Teaching children it’s okay to cry, and express emotion when life is genuinely hard or they’re feeling, may not seem like such a revolutionary idea, but there is not enough of it shown in film at the moment. This is what impressed me so deeply about Miyazaki’s storytelling and control of it.
As much as this genuine flowing of emotion was normalized, I felt that themes of emotion also blended into seeing the beauty and strengths in one’s self. Which is a beautiful, understated theme.
For instance, in Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, there are two leading female characters who start off with a lack of confidence, or knowing of themselves, and they end with a renewed vision of their life ahead. Through hardships and things that they have to do on their own. With a few tears shed.
This quote particularly from Howl’s Moving Castle sticks with me: “They say the best blaze burns the brightest when circumstances are at their worst.” Isn’t that just such a beautiful quote?
Additionally, I read an article recently that said Miyazaki got inspiration for Spirited Away when he was on a trip to a mountain cabin with a family friend who brought his ten-year-old daughter with him. He noted how sullen and withdrawn the young girl was, and he sought to make a story and character that would resonate with her. Beyond the “entertainment” that’s typically present for girls her age in movies and magazines dealing with boys and crushes. I think what’s remarkable about this ambition is clearly that he constructed a well-thought-out, dimensional protagonist for the film that hits all the marks, and is someone girls can look up to. Tracing back again to my earlier point, someone that girls can feel validated in themselves looking through, having emotion that’s up and down on a journey to find themselves.
I could probably write a whole essay on the intricacies and brilliance of the many more films of Miyazaki’s genius, but ultimately, I take away so much and am so grateful for the way they have come to resonate with me in new, refreshed ways. There is a stigma attached to emotion still in our society, and although it is subtle in the larger scheme of things, the way that Studio Ghibli films masterfully weave emotion into being an integral, normal part of characters’ journeys and discovery of themselves is a feat.
Definitely give a Studio Ghibli film a watch if you haven’t in a while, or never, because I promise you that you will find something absolutely comforting that will resonate with you and teach you something greater than you ever expected.