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How Ghibli animation studio cast the spell of 4-decade of anime magic

Ghibli animation studio has fans from all over the world enchanted by its magic. With the distinct animation style and storytelling, the studio has formed a league of its own, establishing itself as one of the legends in the animation industry.

Ghibli animation studio on becoming an icon

How Ghibli animation studio got its beginnings

Ghibli animation studio’s early days traced back to the 1960s when Miyazaki and Takahata first met. After working with each other for a decade, they decided to start their venture in the mid-1980s. Miyazaki, Takahata, and Suzuki founded Ghibli studio, a small animation studio in Tokyo's suburbs, in 1985 with funding from Tokuma Shoten, a Tokyo-based publishing company.

Ghibli studio was founded with a single objective in mind. Instead of chasing international commercial success like many traditional animation studios at that time (for instance, Disney), it aims to investigate the depths of the human soul, thus providing Japanese and international audiences with poetic stories that would express all of its complexity. The hallmarks of Ghibli animation studio are no international business strategy, but only a concern for the integrity and excellent quality.

Turning to the early releases, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was the trio's first feature film, telling a post-apocalyptic fantasy adventure based on Miyazaki's manga of the same name. It was a success upon release under the Tokuma Shoten name, and it spurred the small team to start working on their next project.

Ghibli animation studio - Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Source: IFC center)

Then, Ghibli studio released Laputa: Castle in the Sky in 1986, telling the story of a young orphan boy and a farm girl who set off to explore the mythical floating city of Laputa.

Ghibli animation studio - Castle in the Sky
Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Source: DevianArt)

3 iconic Ghibli films that captivated the world

Ponyo

Ponyo tells the story of the character of the same name (voiced by Nara), a goldfish that escapes from the ocean. A five-year-old human boy, Sōsuke (voiced by Doi) rescues her after she is washed ashore while being in a glass jar.

Ghibli animation studio - Ponyo
Ponyo (Source: Pinterest)

The animated movie was a huge critical and commercial success. At the 8th annual Tokyo Anime Awards in 2009, Ponyo received five awards. Moreover, at the 32nd Japan Academy Prize, the film received honors for Animation of the Year and Outstanding Achievement in Music.

Ponyo is also one of the highest-grossing Ghibli animated films, earning over $203 million worldwide. With this impressive number, it became the fifth-highest-grossing anime of all time.

Spirited Away

Spirited Away follows the experience of Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl who goes into the mythical world of gods and spirits. Following the witch Yubaba's transformation of her parents into pigs, she is forced to work in a bathhouse.

Ghibli animation studio - Spirited away
Spirited Away (Source: Pinterest)

The movie grossed a massive 31,680 billion Japanese yens in Japan as well as earned multiple international awards. Among these awards is the Golden Bear Award at the 52nd Berlin International Film Festival and, more importantly, the second Oscar ever awarded for Best Animated Feature.

The Secret World of Arrietty

Based on The Borrowers, a Mary Norton children's fantasy novel, the film follows the narrative of Arrietty, a young Borrower who lives beneath the floorboards of an ordinary family. Sho, a human boy that suffers from a heart ailment who lives with Sadako (Sho's great aunt), becomes her friend. When Sadako's maid, Haru, notices the disturbance in the floorboards, Arrietty and her family must go, even if it means leaving their beloved home.

Ghibli animation studio - The Secret World of Arrietty
The Secret World of Arrietty (Source: Pinterest)

For the year 2010, The Secret World of Arrietty became the highest-grossing Japanese film at the Japanese box office. The movie has grossed over US$145.6 million worldwide, nowadays still one of the highest-grossing Ghibli films even to this day.

How Ghibli animation studio created its enigmatic animation style

The artistry behind Ghibli’s worldbuilding

Since the early 2000s, international cinema has been familiar with anime and manga styles. However, Ghibli studio manages to set itself apart with its signature worldbuilding. In all Ghibli animated films, this approach does not simply represent constructing landscapes, but a way to breathe life into inanimate objects.

As viewers, we can easily spot this identity-affirming element in how Ghibli depicted various movements of the objects: from the way Sophie’s hair blows in the wind in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), the ship moves on the water, leaving behind ripples in Ponyo (2008), and the bugs’ walk-in Nausicaa of the Valley of The Wind (1984).

Ghibli animation studio
Ghibli animation studio’s worldbuilding (Source: Asia Pacific Arts)

With all of these above instances, Ghibli animation studio creates a dynamic and highly realistic sequence of movements that has logic and follows principles of physics, rather than exaggerating details – a method much-loved by current anime artists.

In addition, the worldbuilding is impeccable thanks to Ghibli's unrivaled attention to detail. Ghibli animation house’s detail-oriented approach results in a long & laborious process. For example, How Do You Live? (2021) was animated at a rate of one minute/month. Similarly, the part in Princess Mononoke where the Tatarigami appears was so difficult that Ghibli's animators spent more than 1,5 years on getting the scene right.

Ghibli animation studio
Ghibli animation studio’s attention to detail (Source: Unoriginal Reels)

Beyond that, the beautifully detailed visuals that we see in Ghibli animation studio iconic films are individual hand-drawn frames, with little to no CGI. Ghibli rarely resorted to technology, if at all, that intervention also accounts for a small percentage, as seen in the case of Princess Mononoke.

For these reasons, studio Ghibli animated movies, in a way, are considered masterpieces. Whether soothing you or giving you goosebumps, each passing frame in the movies will surely make you feel something.

Immersive realism - how Ghibli finds reality in a world of fantasy

Besides the technical aspects of its animation style, Ghibli studio also becomes so unique thanks to the implementation of immersive realism in its visual storytelling. Ghibli’s movie is instantly recognizable for the realism behind surrealism.

This immersive realism starts from Ghibli animators’ views on animation. Miyazaki once famously stated: "Anime may depict fictional worlds, but I nonetheless believe that at its core it must have a certain realism. Stated in another way, the animator must fabricate a lie that seems so real, viewers will think the world depicted, might actually exist.”

Ghibli animation studio
The legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki in his works (Source: The New York Times)

A telling example of this principle is Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), which tells the story of a 13-year-old witch who moves to a new town so she can get training. At first sight, many elements of the film are all quite far-fetched and purely fantastical. These elements range from being the only witch in a normal town, being able to talk to the cat Jiji to flying on a broom.

Ghibli animation studio - Kiki’s Delivery Service
Reality and fantasy combined in Kiki’s Delivery Service (Source: CBR)

Nevertheless, the story artists have skillfully balanced fantasy with reality. Thereby, the Ghibli animation studio Tokyo’s movie enables its viewers to completely immerse themselves to the point where they think the world and its characters are real.

The theme of humanism and nature in Ghibli’s animation movies

While the initial allure of Ghibli animation studio often comes from its poetic animation, what makes people stay and remember are the themes of humanism of sensibilities. Ghibli studio, unlike ordinary animation studios, was founded with a single objective in mind. With each movie, the studio knows exactly how to weave simple and pure stories around complex matters. Even for the overwhelming themes, the studio can convey them in a subtle and non-patronizing manner.

Ghibli animation studio
Feminism in Ghibli animation studio’s works (Source: Screen Robot)

On the surface, Spirited Away is simply a story about Chihiro and her journey to rescue his family. Princess Mononoke is the story of Ashitaka looking for a cure for the curse he has. Howl's Moving Castle is a love story between Howl and Sophie. Kiki Delivery Service (1989) is the story of the little witch Kiki.

However, taking a deeper look, they contain themes about the self and identity, the interdependent relationship between man and nature, feminism, man and war, and appreciating the little things that bring joy to people.

Another unique feature of studio Ghibli animated movies is the romanticism of the ordinary. Hayao Miyazaki called this the art of “Ma” (emptiness). The principle states that it would be pure business if the film only has nonstop action with no breaks at all. However, if you integrate a moment of silence, the tension building in the film might expand into a new dimension. If the film contains tension at 80 degrees all the time, the audience will inevitably become numb.

For many people, some of the most cinematically gorgeous shots in Ghibli's whole filmography are those that are far more subdued and understated in nature, instead of those that are action-packed or with peak conflicts.

Ghibli animation studio
Ghibli animation studio’s depiction of the ordinary (Source: The Stork))

The pace of the film is steady, providing the perfect background to celebrate beauty in the ordinary & mundane actions: Ponyo enjoying his meal, Sophie making hats in Howl’s Moving Castle, Takashi and Matsuke arguing over the TV remote in My Neighbour Yamadas, and Shizuku studying in Whisper of the Heart.

Above all, we can see that Ghibli established its core value as an animation studio that takes humanity from the Japanese point of view as the original. As a result, Ghibli’s animated films have a universal appeal. Suitable for all people from different demographics, the films help break the preconception that anime and animated movies are only for kids.

Conclusion

With mass appeal and cultural references, the Ghibli animation studio carries irresistible magic that many people have fallen under. Its works are instantly recognizable, setting themselves apart from those from the Western animation industry and other Japanese animes.


References:

Asherkaye.medium.com, The immersive realism of Studio Ghibli

Nofilmschool.com, The master of “Ma”: Legendary Director Hayao Miyazaki is set to retire




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