The world of Studio Ghibli is a well-defined universe. The stories are solidly built and the settings are richly populated, but that’s not what I mean when I say you can recognise a Ghibli film from a mile. There are things that come up in almost every one of them, but far from being repetitive, they always fill the narrative with meaning and they’re perfectly adapted to the setting of the story.
And now for my (incomplete) list of what these things are, in no particular order:
War and military parades
War is central to a number of Ghibli films (Nausicaä, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle, Grave of the Fireflies etc). Beyond being an obvious treasure trove of narrative opportunities, it's equally an introspective attempt to process the creators' own experience of the war as small children, and the terrible effects it had on Japan. Though most of the films are aimed at children, their treatment of war is unflinchingly dark, but regeneration and rebirth always follow in the wake of destruction.
The accoutrements of the war (airships, navy cruisers, military parades and propaganda) are all important aspects of showing the enemy’s degree of corruption. At the same time there's an undoubted sense of celebration: fascination with the marching soldiers, the hurrahs of the crowd, the power of the giant ships and airplanes. The machines, however, are rarely designed to look pleasing or benevolent, and the more impressive/terrible/numerous they are, the more rotten the intention behind them. They are also often portrayed as creatures (a cursed boar, belligerent giants, talking bombs), which shows that war in the Ghibli universe is a living, breathing thing: an evil power with plenty of mechanic spawns.
This is perhaps the single most often used element. Flying takes many forms in Ghibli movies: there are floating buildings (whether it’s a modest house or an impressive castle), self-built bicycle contraptions, witches’ broomsticks and the aficionado’s more sophisticated airplane. There are zeppelins, gliders, people that fly simply through walking on air, and of course, the inevitable war ships. Flying is freedom, power, beauty and passion, and, most importantly: creation.
In The Wind Rises Miyazaki practically equates flying with creativity, where the aviation mechanic’s hard, precise work corresponds to the artist’s dedication, and flying is nothing but creative soaring. Importantly, the bad forms of flying (war planes) are always bombers or destructors. Howl's nighttime sojourns come to mind - it could almost be interpreted as a depressed episode of creativity, an image of the suffering artist. That type of work is violent and shrouded in mystery, and instead of "taking him places", it drains him and turns him into an animal.
Miyazaki's fascination with planes and flight is most evident in the name of his film studio: Ghibli is "a fiercely hot wind in North-Africa", and also the name of the Caproni Ca.309 WWII-era aeroplane, referenced in Miyazaki's biopic The Wind Rises.
Makeup and Jewelry
These tend to be the outward manifestation of power and refinement, often not positive character traits in the Ghibli universe. When contrasted with the plainness and simplicity of the heroines, it becomes obvious that sparkly and heavily made up characters are generally not to be trusted.
This trend is not limited to women in the Ghibli world: Ponyo’s dad Fujimoto and the magicians Howl and Cob sport makeup and/or traditionally feminine jewelry. These characters tend to be powerful wizards, quite literally charming in their appearance. The jewelry and makeup not only signifies magical powers, it also covers up slyness.
In general, the more makeup someone wears, the less you can trust their character. Think of the simplicity of Sophie versus her glamorous, conniving mum in Howl’s Moving Castle. The Witch of the Waste is attractive, evil and cunning, but as soon as she loses her power all her makeup is gone. Yubaba is seemingly an old woman, but her numerous rings and heavily purple eyelids tell us otherwise.
Sheeta’s amulet in Laputa and Sophie's ring in Howl are notable exceptions, but those only seem to confirm that jewelry on a plain girl, in other words: power in the right hands, is not evil.
Small town setting or farm
The biggest chunk of every film, even the more urban ones, is almost always set in the countryside. Characters often have to leave the city behind (Howl, Only Yesterday, Earthsea, Arrietty) and go forth on a quest resembling that of fairy tale heroes in order to face their (often quite literal) demons. Nature is both soothing and powerful, magical and threatening, wild and unknown. In most of the stories, though, it also ends up being the place of healing where the characters find themselves, each other and happiness. This comes across strikingly in Only Yesterday, the story of a successful young Tokyo businesswoman leaving the city behind to embrace life on a farm.
Industrial revolution in an antiquated civilisation
Technical advancement is usually to the benefit of Ghibli characters, but it's always, always sharply contrasted with the bucolic, manual idyll of bygone times in the countryside. You've got Nausicaä living in what seems to be medieval times, using her gravity-defying glider matter-of-factly; or Laputa, another medieval civilization where sophisticated airplanes play a central part. Late 19th or early 20th-century Howl battles fighter planes, and even more admirably, transforms himself into a 2-person leisure glider. There's an incredible analysis on Ghibli aircraft on this blog.
As I was wondering about less obvious types of technology, I stumbled on a lovely tidbit from Kiki's Delivery Service. There is a moment in the film when modern technology (a gas-powered or electric stove) lets an old lady down. The only way she can ensure that her baking reaches her grandchild is through Kiki's suggestion to use an old wood-burning stove. Kiki lights the fire and befriends the old lady - embracing tradition over progress. When the fashionable grandchild rejects grandma and her gift, Kiki falls into depression and questions her place and traditional role in a modern society.
Technology probably symbolizes the taming of nature, as well as, occasionally, the rise of evil as people turn away from what seems to be the pure way of life. It also says to me that human conflicts and power struggles remain the same, regardless of the setting, the fantastical creatures or cutting-edge technology. An undoubtedly curious addition to those ancient societies, it amplifies but never solves the power struggles and relationships.
More than adorable pets (or annoying pests), cats are the spirit guardians of the young humans they belong to. They notice things before humans do, they instinctively know who’s trustworthy, they show the way or see into the troubled minds of their owners. All while not giving a catnip, of course.
Jiji, the magical talking cat in Kiki's Delivery Service very often voices the always upbeat Kiki's own doubts and critical thoughts. As Kiki matures and faces her demons herself, she no longer needs Jiji as a sounding board. As a result, Jiji ends up being mute - just a normal cat, so that Kiki can't link her own magic to Jiji in any way, tempting as though it is. In this way Jiji helps Kiki grow into her own person, an independent witch of magical powers.
I’m going to be honest, I’m struggling with this one. I find pigs one of the most revolting animals (don't shoot me). Miyazaki apparently likes them enough to turn one into a hero (Porco Rosso), or rather, turn a hero into a pig. I think Miyazaki shares my revulsion because being turned into a pig is a severe punishment in his films: Porco Rosso ends up in pig form to atone for his cowardice in the war, and Chihiro’s parents narrowly escape the slaughterhouse for their gluttony in Spirited Away.
This is the first part of my pretty long list of Ghibli symbolism. I'm going to post parts 2 - 76 over the course of the year. Just kidding. There's only going to be about 7. I'll cross-link the stories as soon as they are posted.
Part 2 is online now - about trains. Yeah. An entire Ghibli post just about trains.
Part 3 describes the gardens of Ghibli, a breath of fresh air in the industrial battle.
I also wrote a magazine article about what Miyazaki films tell us about lost childhood. It's not as grim as it sounds.
Let me know what you liked / think I should change / would like to see more of. That will be helpful when writing the next one.
All images, characters and events referenced © Studio Ghibli