Mar 16, 2023
How Miyazaki invited culture and fantasy into our childhood
In my early childhood my family would often have dinner parties at my aunt and uncles. These would usually end with me and my older cousins in the basement watching whatever Studio Ghibli movie they could scour from their cupboard. I still have this resonant feeling of Ponyo playing as I slipped into slumber with a belly full of food. My memories of Ponyo aren't concrete, instead they’re melded with the promise of giggles and joy of my cousin’s four walls. Studio Ghibli was a lot of our childhood’s safety blanket. The blanket that drapes over the pillow fort that gave us a space for whimsy and for our imaginations to run wild. For this reason, Studio Ghibli feels so personal whilst having a special place in many children of the early 2000s’ hearts.
In 1984, Studio Ghibli seamlessly worked its way into the Western media landscape acting as a gentle educational voice. Taking inspiration from Japanese folklore Hayao Miyazaki began to weave tales of seemingly limitless imagination for all. With North American minds being largely dominated by American tellings of Hans Christian Andersen fairytales, Ghibli offered a new perspective on wonder. The beauty in Ghibli however, seems not only to lie in its ability to share a different cultural perspective but in how it can seamlessly weave that perspective into new and existing stories. I believe a prime example of this is Miyazaki’s choice to adapt Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid into the film Ponyo. While The Little Mermaid had been brought to the screens by Disney in 1989, Miyazaki brought a Japanese perspective to the Danish tale, blending cultures in a seamless celebration of child-like-wonder.
What I believe to be one of the most exciting creatures in the Studio Ghibli folklore blend is the “cat bus” in My Neighbour Totoro inspired by the Bakeneko. Meaning “changed cat,” the Bakeneko is a shape shifting creature in traditional Japanese folklore. However, in this story, it offers kids a fluffy, safe and joyful journey. Furthermore, Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997) has the Yatsukamizuomitsuno, known as “Shishigami” or “deer god”. While not always presenting as a mystical deer, this creature possesses the ability to create a planet—illustrating the importance of respecting wildlife and the Earth.
As a kid, I remember how much I admired the distinct art style Studio Ghibli offers, inspiring me to experiment in drawing anime style. Furthermore, it inspired me to design films that have the distinct dream factor inspired by Studio Ghibli. “The world-building is impeccable” says 2D Animation Student Donna Kim. “As a child, watching Ghibli films made me feel at home, as if I had walked into Zeniba’s humble cottage [or had taken] a seat inside the warm, fuzzy cat bus from My Neighbour Totoro.” Donna continued “Ghibli has a way of evoking complex emotions and touching upon more difficult themes without rubbing it in your face.” A beauty that spoke so strongly to her that it inspired her pursuit of animation.
Studio Ghibli has not only sparked wonder in our minds it also raises young viewers with an openness to many cultures. To their additional credit, the studio has trailblazed the way for other international children’s entertainment companies to share their own stories with the world. Through immense care and connection to innocence, Studio Ghibli has truly helped promise an educated group of tomorrow’s dreamers.