Into the mind of studio Ghibli: More than cartoons

At some point in your life, you’ve probably been sucked into a movie so enchanting it left you speechless. There was something about that movie, like you were standing next to the characters or you were an extra in that very scene. Whatever it was, you probably spent the next day telling your friends how much they absolutely HAD to see that movie. These are Studio Ghibli movies.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s animated. Roger Ebert said, “I want to see wondrous sights not available in the real world, in stories where myth and dreams are set free to play. Animation opens that possibility, because it is freed from gravity and the chains of the possible. Realistic films show the physical world; animation shows its essence.” Studio Ghibli creates infinite worlds in which things that could never be accomplished in a movie studio are brought to life.

Miyazaki drawing


Hayao Miyazaki, who co-founded Studio Ghibli with partner Isao Takahata, has been one of the major driving artists who helped the studio create eight of the 15 highest-grossing anime films in Japan. He is a director, producer, screenwriter, animator, author, and manga (comic book) artist. Weaving stories for over five decades, Miyazaki is an internationally acclaimed storyteller.

Directing movies such as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and most recently The Wind Rises, he often refers back to certain themes: humanity and its connection to nature and technology, and the complexities of maintaining a pacifist ethic in the face of violence. In addition to this, his protagonists are often strong women—a refreshing diversion from the stereotypical heroic male.

There’s much to be said—or thought about—when it comes to his choice in themes and characters. They stray far from the typical Hollywood fill-in-the-blanks scripts and pioneer into genuinely new territory. Often, Miyazaki’s movies are completely void of traditional villains and instead contain antagonists with their own redeeming qualities. Just as in real life, there is no black and white, and sometimes the bad guys have their own real reasons.


Ghibli was given its name by Hayao Miyazaki from the Italian word ghibli, meaning a hot desert wind. His goal was to “blow a new wind through the anime industry,” and he did just that. The western world tends to see cartoons as for children, with themes that never seem to mature into stories that adults can relate to.

Studio Ghibli has taken the idea of cartoons and anime and shown just how much a painted picture can convey. Sometimes in great movies, viewers enjoy seeing an unknown world in front of their eyes; but in Ghibli movies, participants are taken by the hand and flown through vivid drawings of fantastical beasts, unrecognizable flying contraptions, and ancient thriving kingdoms—all while narrating a story that speaks to any human being, child or adult.

The music is just another cherry on top. Composer Joe Hisaishi, who has provided many of the soundtracks for Ghibli’s movies, stands behind you as you watch and sends you on a rollercoaster of emotions with his magical baton. Music creates the ambiance and moves the feelings, and Joe Hisaishi perfectly accomplishes this.

Ghibli movie characters


In Spirited Away, the beginning scene opens up to Chihiro and her family driving through green countryside pastures and ultimately stopping at a tunnel. The sound of the cicadas, small roadside Shinto statues overtaken by vines, and the light coming through the trees all so perfectly encapsulate life in countryside Japan. In My Neighbor Totoro, Satsuki and Mei run through farm fields and greet neighbors, stirring up an oddly nostalgic feeling in viewers for past childhoods.

It’s not just fantasy that Ghibli aims to do. It’s a glimpse into the nooks and crannies of Japan, with an added animated swirl to a real-world recipe. To a certain extent—aside from things like a gigantic cat bus in Totoro—the lives of Ghibli’s characters could be the lives of everyday Japanese kids on their way to and from school. Sure there’s fantasy, but didn’t all of us live out a bit of fantasy when we were kids?—Cardboard swords and paper pirate hats as we assumed the lives of history’s swashbucklers and battled neighbors down the street.

These movies are, to put it simply, an adventure. It is always a joy to start one of these movies, and it is always a tiny little letdown to see the ending credits and realize that the ride is over. If you haven’t seen one yet, go grab some popcorn, throw on your favorite pajamas, and enjoy the world of Studio Ghibli.

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