The Humanist lessons of Studio Ghibli
By Sean Barrett
The strange and fantastical creatures, the richly animated environments, and the eccentric humour are all reasons why Studio Ghibli films are so famous. Ghibli’s lovability stems from the films’ life-affirming, humanist sensibility, which serves as the basis for all of the company’s other great cinematic qualities. Hayao Miyazaki, the co-founder and crucial core to Studio Ghibli’s world-renowned success, is also vital for sharing his philosophy of humanism with the masses.
Humanism is a broad philosophical view that describes an immense number of different opinions, with nothing being held concretely. But the core set of beliefs and values that Hayao Miyazaki (and in turn Studio Ghibli) expresses in their craft can be condensed into the belief that the everyday human experience will always be the most crucial aspect in our lives, that we must seek comfort in each other, and that we should try and forgo the pull and desires found in cheap indulgences. And to never forget that crisis is as much a part of the human experience as accomplishment and joy.
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The core belief and subsequent appeal of Miyazaki’s art is to tell stories of human tribulation and challenge, as well as self-discovery and triumph. Fantastical elements often extend and illuminate the human experience, but they never take centre stage ahead of the humanity found within Miyazaki’s films.
Because of this belief, Studio Ghibli’s films are known for their life-affirming lessons, all differing from story to story but all sharing a humanist ethos throughout, Roger Ebert, an esteemed film critic, said regarding Ghibli’s underlying humanist beliefs, “The drama is underlaid with Miyazaki’s deep humanism, which avoids easy moral simplifications … You won’t find many Hollywood love stories (animated or otherwise) so philosophical.”
The fantasy tropes of Ghibli films – The flying dragons, spells, spirits, and living castles – help transport us to worlds brimming with humanly unthinkable forms. Although, despite this, the characters we connect with and cheer for are human. By basing inconceivable fantastical events around human characters, Miyazaki’s films suggest that there is no limit to our desire to overcome and achieve the impossible. For example, in Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away”, its main protagonist Chihiro goes against all expectations and prevails in the spirit world, instilling in the audience a belief that If she can do it, there is no reason why we can’t make a difference in our world.
Miyazaki promotes hardship in his writing, not from a place of cruelty but one of understanding and hope. His characters’ responses to adversity reveal their true identity and spirit; their desire to endure, to rise above, shows their resolve and resilience. No words seem more appropriate to explain his belief than Miyazaki’s own;
“Always believe in yourself. Do this, and no matter where you are, you will have nothing to fear.”
Studio Ghibli’s films’ target audience is obviously for a younger one, but that doesn’t mean its messages and lessons are lost on older crowds. Miyazaki’s films are for anyone of any age to enjoy, be it a child enamoured by the world of wonder they’re viewing or an adolescent who can identify with the values and choices required to live a meaningful life from the lessons expressed within the film.
Miyazaki’s animations task isn’t to emulate real life, but to become an analogue to the experiences found within it, to find its place adjacent and reminiscent of our own but not identical; Miyazaki does this to help express his teachings of humanism as efficiently as possible. With animators having the perfect opportunity to take the rules of our world and bend them or brake however they wish, that is the true magic of animation.
There are no guidelines for making great art, but I think that meticulous effort and attention to detail is always a great place to start, and Ghibli films show us just that. Studio Ghibli spends so much money, with Miyazaki spending even more worthwhile hours honing each of his films, planning to retire with each subsequent film, only to forgo this undesired retirement for his subsequent work of art.
As eastern animation becomes more commonplace in Western culture, it is essential to remember who laid the groundwork and effectively paved the way for the art form. Studio Ghibli’s true magic has been its ability to bridge worlds, going beyond the cultural and linguistic boundaries that separate them; even though the studios’ works are all about the supernatural, there is a shared human identity of wonder, fear and loss that can be shared with all.
A photo is worth a thousand words, and Studio Ghibli has created tens of thousands of pictures that have sparked numerous worthwhile discussions, but what do you think? Are you a fan of Miyazaki’s works? And if so, what is your favourite film?