Hayao Miyazaki and the animators of Studio Ghibli are well known for their animations that are rich with detail. From the animations, to the stories, you can expect Studio Ghibli to deliver a unique experience that is truly different from any other animated film. It is well noted that Miyazaki's films have different settings and appear to all take place in different worlds entirely. However, what if I were to tell you that this is not the case? What if they all took place in the same universe, all sharing a universal timeline?
Note: this is just a theory based on observation and noticing trends and ideas that could possibly connect the movies. This is not confirmed by Studio Ghibli. Secondly, this theory will not be including The Castle of Cagliostro (1977), Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), nor Howl's Moving Castle (2004) as the stories were not created by Hayao Miyazaki but only adapted to screenplay by him.
To understand this theory, we have to break it down into two forms of evidence: Evidence based on period references, and evidence based on consistent themes or elements within the films (examples being floating structures). Since the more solid evidence is in period references, let's start there. The following movies by Hayao Miyazaki have specific period references attached to them:
Time Periods of Films
Historical Based Films
1. Porco Rosso (1992)
This movie has dated references within the dialogue even as well as supplying us with the time period based on historical connections to Italian history. Porco is wanted by Italy for treason following a war. We know, from history, that the first time that planes were used in combat was during World War I (or The Great War), in 1915. However, this doesn't mean Porco Rosso takes place in 1915. The next piece of evidence is revealed when Porco Rosso mentions the "Secret Fascist Police" to Fio. The secret fascist police is referring to Mussolini's destruction of political oppression via a secret police service, leading up to Italy's involvement in World War II. These couple of facts places Porco Rosso in the time period of Mussolini's rise to power and Italy's political shift leading up to World War II.
2. The Wind Rises (2013)
Of all the movies, this is the easiest one to put a time period to. As this movie is a sudo-documentary of Jiro Horikoshi, the chief engineer of The Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, it's rather easy to put a timeframe on it. The events of the movie take place from his childhood up until his death, putting the movie in the time period between the 22nd of June 1903, and the 11th of January 1982 (however, we don't see any point during and after World War II, only mentioned in retrospect by Jiro). So considering the events were quintessential to the time of World War II, we can say this movie goes between 7/22/1903- 9/2/1945.
Non-Historical Based Films
The next part of figuring out when things take place is a little more tricky. While, we can place a general time period based on small details, but we can't put a specific time period on it because they are entirely fictional and don't contain extremely specific details that could elude us to a particular time period. However, there are clues in the animation that can help us put a time to the movie:
1. Spirited Away (2002)
This movie isn't a historical piece in the slightest. So how can we place it in a time period? Well, it's simple. It's all thanks to this specific detail:
The car is a very specific reference, as it shows the model (an Audi). That put with the fact that it is actually said that it is 4-wheel drive, paired with the model, you can accurately put a specific model on the car. The model is the 1996 A4 by Audi. Not enough proof? Well if you watch the special features on the Disney DVD, in order to get the sound correct for the scene where they drive through the woods, Ghibli sound engineers recorded the sound of the interior of an A4. Why is this relevant? Well, for the sake of bringing this around to the timeline, this means the events of Spirited away couldn't of happened before Feburary of 1996, when the model was released to the public.
2. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Again, we cannot put a specific time period onto the movie based on the story alone. However, we need to use Spirited Away to help place a time on this movie. I'll start explaining, but fair warning, spoilers are imminent. In Spirited Away, Sen says to Haku that when she was little she dropped her shoe into the river and she almost drowned trying to get it but then Haku saved her. Jump back now to My Neighbor Totoro, when Mei runs away upon hearing that their Mother won't be returning from the hospital just yet. During Satsuki's search, she comes across a group of people, saying that they found a shoe in the river and for a brief moment, it is in question that Mei drowned. However, Mei is found safely and Catbus takes them along to see their mother, and everything is okay. However, that shoe isn't mentioned again. Who did it belong to? Well, we know someone else who lost a shoe in a river, Sen! This would mean that My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away happened relatively close together, placing My Neighbor Totoro in the 90's as well.
3. Ponyo (2007)
This movie probably has the least evidence. However, it does have a couple of things that we can observe and conclude on. The way the houses look, along with the design of the retirement home and the cars (before they are submerged underwater), can place us well into the 90's and 2000's. However, this movie is quintessential to the theory. But that's for later...
4. Secret Life Of Arrietty (2010)
Again, there is nothing specific pointing to the time period of this movie, however, we do see electricity, phones, refrigerators, and microwaves which can place this anywhere from the 80's onward. However, to keep things simple, I will place this as early as possible. So for the sake of argument, let's place this film in the 80's.
The next three films are where the timeline gets extremely dark, and starts to get a little more theory heavy, rather than reference heavy.
1. Princess Mononoke (1997)
This is where it starts to get a little odd. With the primary uses of bow and arrow by most characters and clunky cannons being considered revolutionary, you'd think this would belong in the past right? Well, this happens as part of the conclusion to the timeline and is the events leading up to Naussica and the Valley of The Wind. This is the first part of the future era.
2. Laputa (1986)
This film is a steampunk tale that includes unique aircrafts, and floating structures in the sky. This steampunk could essentially fit anywhere, however, within the structure of the theory, this is the second part of the future era.
3. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
This is the final chapter (which is kind of funny considering this was Miyazaki's first movie with Ghibli). This movie has advanced tech, similar to Laputa that places it in a sci-fi genre. However, to go more into detail as to where this belongs on the timeline, we will have to wait until the theory section.
The Timeline (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD)
With a timeline established, let's discuss how this storyline works. The official order of this theory is in this order.
1. Porco Rosso and The Wind Rises (Overlapping Time Period)
2. Secret Life Of Arrietty
3. My Neighbor Totoro (with events leading up to Spirited Away)
4. Spirited Away
6. Princess Mononoke
8. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Spirits and Humans Beginning to Interact
I bet you are dying to know the story. Well, here you go. The story goes like this. It all starts with the proof of spirits and divine powers, with the story of Porco Rosso, who is cursed with a pig face until he learns not to act like a pig. Along with this, the story of Jiro is well underway, leading up to the events of World War II. While this doesn't have too much to do with the progression of the events, it does establish we are in a timeline where spirits and supernatural events can occur. This theory exists in The Wind Rises in the form of the dream sharing between Jiro and Caproni. Fast forward to The Secret Life Of Arrietty, where for the first time, we see people interacting with spirits openly when Shawn and Arrietty interact and how humans affect spirits. Jump forward in time again, to the events of My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited away, where we in turn see spirits affecting humans. While we see that some spirits have good intentions (for example Totoro, Kamajii, Lin, and Haku) we also start to see that other spirits are capable of insidious behavior towards humans (for example No-Face and Yubaba).
Ponyo and the Beginning of the Apocalypse
Believe it or not, this very innocent tale is actually significant towards this dark story and actually is the beginning of a long stretch of time that leads to the inevitable destruction of mankind. And we give all the thanks to this gentleman right here:
This man is Fujimoto, Ponyo's father, who in response to the belief that his daughter was being kidnapped, sent up massive waves and drenched most of the town underwater. Some would say noble, some would say brash, I would say apocalyptic. Note that while this story does come to a happy ending with Ponyo becoming human and staying with Sōsuke, and Sōsuke's mother and the old ladies all being alright. The water level stays where it's at. To put this in perspective, a majority of land, save for the high up hills where Sōsuke lived, are now covered with water! While this is a kid's movie, we can go ahead and assume that this brash action by Fujimoto killed millions of lives and furthermore, this couldn't of been an isolated area where the water level rose. These actions were global. This event could of killed millions, if not billions of people and washed away entire cities.
The Beginning of The Post-Apocalypse
I would just jump in and start talking about Laputa, however this is where things get a little complicated. Based on different regions, this apocalypse caused by Fijimoto may of had different effects. For some, this may of not affected people at all, like countries with lots of inland. However, for countries that were smaller, there could be the argument that this event could of been cataclysmic, setting people back hundreds of years. This is where we branch off temporarily in the part of the world where Princess Mononoke takes place, and where Laputa takes place.
This region would be an example of a place with smaller surface area. With regions like this people were forced to start all over, and with the populations of humans being lower, natural habitats started to regrow allowing animals to repopulate and grow and eventually become prominent enough where humans that did remain began to live in tandem and even start to worship them. This is where the story of Princess Mononoke starts to come in. To make the story brief, the story follows Ashitaka, who is cursed by a demon and must solve a war that is brewing between humans and the forest spirits. The humans of Irontown want to tear down the forest to help grow and cultivate their people. However, this threatens the spirits of the forest and they send their own warriors to protect it. While this movie does have elements that point it towards taking place in the Muromachi period of Japan (approximately 1337 to 1573), this theory suggests that this takes place hundreds of years after the events of Ponyo. The evidence towards this could be pointed towards Irontown, a settlement settled by the Ocean. It would make all too much sense, that the people who are more technologically advanced are the people who lived by the old cities. To make a long story short and yes, spoiler alert ahead, the animals and spirits win the fight. However, this is the prelude to the conclusion of the timeline, and marks the first moment where nature conquers mankind. We will see a more heightened example later, farther down the timeline.
Obviously, the apocalypse that took place in Ponyo hit hard globally. However, as I stated earlier, it hit some areas harder than others. In response to the water level rising, it is possible that people spent time and resources on developing technology to allow them to live off the ground and in the sky, which is the case revealed in the story of Laputa: The Castle in the Sky. For the sake of trying to keep the spoilers to a minimum, I will not go much into the story because most of it doesn't pertain to the timeline. However, there are a couple of things that need to be noted. First, while there were many flying cities in the sky. A catastrophe occurred, forcing humans to live back on the ground, however the catastrophe is never really described in detail (but we are going to explain it soon). However, a lot of the technology survived in the form of the aircrafts that they use, to the advanced tech we see in Laputa. Secondly, Laputa is described as holding ancient and powerful technology (which will also be addressed in the next section).
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
This is the final conclusion to the timeline. To put it plainly, it's what happens when the world of human prosperity (the world of Laputa) meets the world of spirit prosperity (the world of Princess Mononoke). In the beginning of the story, it is described that it has been 1000 years since the Seven Days of Fire, an apocalyptic war that destroyed human civilization and gave birth to the vast Toxic Jungle. This sounds like a catastrophe that could possibly explain the events depicted in Laputa! Now we have a reference to go off of. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind takes place 1000 years after the events of Laputa and Princess Mononoke. By now, a toxic jungle has grown and the spirits of the forest have unleashed bugs of astronomical proportions, capable of destruction on a massive scale. While there are some remaining humans that learn to live in harmony with the forest (the Valley of The Wind), there are of course, other territories that don't desire to live in harmony with a toxic jungle, for example, the Tolmekians, who intend to destroy it with an ancient warrior. More connections can be drawn when Princess Lastelle of Pejite pleads with Nausicaä to destroy the cargo before dying. The cargo is an embryo of a Giant Warrior, lethal genetically engineered bioweapons that caused the Seven Days of Fire. This could be hinting towards the ancient technology that was sought after in Laputa. Throughout the movie we see the progression of the people of The Valley of the Wind fight the Tolmekians in fear that attacking the forest will unleash a horror, and it does, as the Ohm tear apart the land. In the end, the people do make peace with the Ohm, yet this story is in vein because in the end, the jungle remains standing, and the sad truth is this jungle will grow, and its toxins will destroy mankind. While there may be peace now, it is not forever lasting, it will eventually die, and the spirits will be the only things to remain.
Again, this is JUST A THEORY. The world of Miyazaki is rich with detail, but what makes his films all wonderful and beautiful are that they play on our imaginations. We can make his pieces whatever we want to make them and what I'm trying to say by that, is that Studio Ghibli truly released some of the most enjoyable work that one can create.