ByImola Unger, writer at
Love Ghibli, costume dramas, children's classics
Imola Unger

Hayao Miyazaki is a self-proclaimed pessimist, disappointed by the cruelty displayed by humans and convinced that the world is heading in the wrong direction. His famously enchanting films, known for their aura of magic and for celebrating the wonders of childhood, never shy away from depicting the darkness of the world.

But the Studio Ghibli films offer more than a simple form of escapist fantasy: They convey a sense of responsibility to children to make that alternate reality happen. In his memoir Starting Point, Miyazaki wrote:

To be born means being compelled to choose an era, a place, a life. To exist here, now, means to lose the possibility of being countless other potential selves. Yet once being born there is no turning back. And I think that’s exactly why the fantasy worlds of cartoon movies so strongly represent our hopes and yearnings. They illustrate a world of lost possibilities for us.

World War II

Some of the darkness in Miyazaki's films undoubtedly comes from growing up in World War II Japan. During the war years Miyazaki saw the tradition, pride and faith of this previously untouched culture crumble before his eyes. While a new, prosperous country rose from the ashes, Japan could never return to its pre-war state.

Although his family was always safe and financially comfortable, the destruction and brutality of those years imprinted themselves on Miyazaki's work as an animator. Here are some of the ways in which this sense of loss manifests itself in the Studio Ghibli filmography.

Mourning Pre-War Japan

In The Wind Rises, disaster follows catastrophe. After a devastating earthquake that wipes most of Japan off the face of the Earth, World War II puts a definitive end to the secluded Japanese way of life. The film depicts an attempt to build a new culture now steeped in Western values — something that Miyazaki and his parents experienced firsthand.

Another recent Ghibli release, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is essentially a glorification of Japanese mythology, architecture, craftsmanship and imperial traditions. While the globalized or historical setting makes most of the Ghibli stories accessible to an international audience, the ones set in Japan emit an immense reverence to the golden days of yore. Indeed, one recurring character the films used to personify tradition is that of the grandmother.

Miyazaki's grandmothers (usually dressed in traditional attire) tend to embody the wisdom and simplicity of bygone times, and if you look closely, you’ll notice that they tend to be the only Asian-looking characters. They provide much-needed guidance to the young protagonists, whether in a nurturing role, like the grandmas in My Neighbor Totoro or From Up on Poppy Hill, or a more ambiguous combination, like the twin personalities of Yubaba and Zeniba in Spirited Away.

Mankind Vs Nature

Following his wartime experiences, Miyazaki ended up despising all things industrial, mechanical or digital; he came to see them as the wrong way of life that pollutes innocence, tradition and nature. It was only later in his career that he finally yielded to the convenience of digital animation, and to this day his films are about the pressing need to return to a more natural, rural way of living.

In Only Yesterday, successful businesswoman Taeko leaves Tokyo to find her true calling in traditional Japanese farming. All that the city has to offer (Western-style music, financial security, all mod cons) pale in comparison to handpicking safflower with octogenarians in a place without electricity. According to Vox magazine, the film is about “a young girl growing up, and a young woman wondering if she's lost track of her most essential self” — and this is exactly the kind of thing Miyazaki is prompting us to ask ourselves.

Taeko is just one in a long line of Ghibli heroines trying to reconnect with nature. In Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Nausicaä keeps flying out to the poisonous jungle and secretly grows plants underground in an attempt to restore ecological balance to her planet. In Totoro, the family leaves Tokyo behind to find health and wholesomeness in the country, while in Kiki’s Delivery Service the young witch goes to a cabin in the woods to get back in touch with her magic.

Enchanted Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle leaves her war-ridden hometown behind, and in the magical garden that she receives from Howl she becomes a young girl again. It is a violation of the purity of nature, and the innocence of her childhood, when a warship appears on the horizon.

The Loss Of Innocence

Sophie runs her deceased father’s hat shop while her stepmother exploits and deceives her. In Spirited Away, Chihiro signs a child labor contract to save her gluttonous parents from being slaughtered. Nausicaä is a child soldier who kills multiple people in a dazed fury for revenge, and in The Secret World of Arrietty, the titular character is excited to risk her life to continue the family tradition of stealing.

Miyazaki takes an unflinching look at the harshest realities of life, but perhaps this is part of the appeal of his films. He never talks down to his young audience, but presents the heartbreak along with the uplifting, trusting that they are capable of dealing with both sides.

His child protagonists are fully formed, self-reliant characters who look after their parents, communities and environment. The best example might be Umi in From Up on Poppy Hill. Not only does she cook for the entire family (plus lodgers), she also excels in school, helps out with the student newspaper and saves the community center from being demolished. But does this sense of responsibility come at the cost of losing her childish abandon?

In Totoro, Satsuki and Mei are fully aware that their mother might lose her battle with tuberculosis. The two girls have to learn to look after themselves and their absent-minded father, but that doesn’t prevent them from being able to play, believe in magic or find joy. Similar to Miyazaki himself (whose mother spent years in hospital with the same affliction), Mei and Satsuki learn to both lose and keep their innocence at the same time.

Sophie from Howl is only 18, but her life has been so devoid of fun and so centered on responsibility that she feels more comfortable in the body of a 90-year-old than her own. In the end, however, she rediscovers her playfulness as an old woman and learns to be carefree again, showing us that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Women And Children

In Miyazaki's world women and children are far from vulnerable members of society that need protection. Rather, they are strong personalities who are unafraid of danger, hard work and confrontation. But this power comes from a gentle place that enables them to uphold peace and commune with nature.

In his films, it's difficult to separate magic from nature, and children (primarily girls) have a connection to these forces that adults just don't seem to possess. Kiki understands what her cat Jiji is saying, and Satsuki and Mei can see Totoro while their father can't. The primary responsibility of Nausicaä is not to rule her kingdom, but to bridge the chasm between her industrialized, belligerent civilization and wild, untouched nature.

Miyazaki sees a substantial role for strong women leaders in the transition toward a less-digital, less-industrial lifestyle. Princesses Mononoke and Nausicaä are both rather belligerent, but their underlying intention is to bring harmony between mankind and nature. Sophie tries to hold Howl back from engaging with the bombers until she destroys his mechanical world. She effects a complete transformation; he gives her a garden and rebuilds the castle as a country hut with trees in the backyard.

Reality? Check

Miyazaki’s father owned a factory that produced parts for war planes, which gave the young Hayao an absolute fascination with flying — as well as a sense of responsibility. His own safety and comfort during the war left him wishing he and his parents had done more to aid those in need and prevent the carnage. The Wind Rising is an attempt to reconcile his fascination with flight and his aversion to war, as well as to redeem his father’s contribution to the construction of fighter planes.

Miyazaki's pacifism has always been explicit. He refused to attend his own Oscars ceremony because he opposed the invasion of Iraq. And in an effort to teach kids to love nature, he is rumored to be working on a Ghibli-themed nature park. He seems to believe it is the duty of children to bring peace between man and nature, and the old master makes it his business to help children grow up responsibly. With his films so wildly successful around the globe, the message is heard loud and clear.

We need our Sophies. We need our Nausicaäs and Umis, and even our grown-up Taekos can rediscover their most essential selves. But most of all, we need Miyazaki's stubborn belief:

Even amidst the hatred and carnage, life is still worth living. It is possible for wonderful encounters and beautiful things to exist.

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