I first came to know about the Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli when I was a kid, having watched the English dubbed Ponyo with Noah Cyrus as the main character. I was fascinated with the animation, the bright red for Ponyo’s dress and orange for her hair, and the deep blues that made up the ocean. Everything was simply beautiful, and even for a kid, I followed along with the storyline, sharing the same joy that Ponyo and Sosuke felt, the same tiredness, the same wonder at life. Little did I know, just a few years later, I would be completely in love with the other films coming out of the company and could, and would, feel those exact emotions, once again comforted just by watching.
To give some context for these lofty feelings, I’ll begin to explain. The films exist in different fantastical and alluring, yet quotidian, realms: an abandoned night village in Spirited Away, the European countryside in Howl’s Moving Castle, or a floating city in the clouds like in Castle in the Sky, among others. Some of the visions for these films come from books or are based on history, and most of what is considered “the greats” have all been directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki, perhaps the most known founder of Studio Ghibli, is an animator, director, screenwriter, artist, producer, you name it. He has worked on countless Ghibli films such as the ones aforementioned, as well as the classic My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke, to name only a few.
Now: why I love these masterpieces. I’ll pick three, even though there are so many more things to love about Studio Ghibli films.
First, the visual art style is captivating. As I previously mentioned, many of Studio Ghibli’s most popular films have been directed by Hayao Miyazaki. He brings his unique art style to each story, literally drawing (get it?) inspiration from his early years sketching manga and his world travels. One scene that always gets stuck in my mind is when Howl, the pretty and mysterious main character of Howl’s Moving Castle, takes Sophie to his flower field. There we see a beautiful and sprawling expanse of pink, blue, and yellow flowers being framed by blue ponds and an even bluer cloud-filled sky. Sophie wears a blue dress and mauve ribbon, standing out against the lush green of the field peeking out through the flowers.
The second thing I love about Studio Ghibli productions is the music. Each film, though existing in some similar worlds, takes on new life when paired with their musical scores. The brilliant mind we can thank for these soundtracks is Joe Hisaishi, a Japanese composer who has written the scores for a myriad of Ghibli films. I am seriously enamored by the lilting tone of Hisaishi’s Merry Go Round of Life, which is the main theme of Howl’s Moving Castle. Of course, you can’t hear the song I’m talking about and my descriptions can’t do it justice. You actually might have heard it on TikTok as the background to so many hopeful people’s cottage-core dreams. The piano tied with the strings, the rise and fall of the notes, the tempo changes, all come together to make a gorgeous song that many have said they want to be played at their wedding. I don’t think I’d mind that! This song makes me want to be at a ball, twirling around the dance-floor wearing a dress I would probably faint at just by looking at the price tag.
Finally, the third thing that makes me gravitate towards stories of cat buses, walking sentient-fire-powered-houses, young witches, and bathhouses for spirits, is that in every scene, I can recognize something so normal. Howl cares about his vanity, so much so that he covers himself in slime and sulks for days on end when something goes wrong. We do that too, sulk and worry about the way we look, sans the slime. In Spirited Away, Chihiro wears a white and green striped shirt that looks curiously similar to one that I had. In Whisper of the Heart, Shizuku rides public transit and chases after a cat. All these little things make Studio Ghibli films so personal and normal, even when mixed in with magic. I find myself drawn towards the quotidian in watching movies, noticing the human-ness of the character’s actions and words. With Studio Ghibli, though I am brought into worlds I have not visited myself, I am always aware of what grounds the story in realism. What might be boring or plain in real life suddenly feels beautiful and important because of the way that each film sheds light on those details, giving them life and meaning and a certain romance. The films say: let yourself fall in love with the ordinary.
In high school, I wrote an essay comparing the magical realism that Hayao Miyazaki is so deliberate with in his films to the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s similar usage in his book 100 Years of Solitude. I mean, I was obsessed! I took every opportunity I got to recommend these films to people, tell them my favorites and why I loved them so, just as I am doing now. Now that you’ve heard my three favorite parts of the films, go watch them and find out your own! I promise, they’re worth every bit of your attention and time. Maybe you’ll fall in love just as I did, finding yourself that the characters have a special place in your heart, that when you need comfort, these will be the first anecdote you choose. I hope so. Happy watching!