We all have crossed paths with Disney at some point in our childhood or even after growing up. Disney is known for its classics that have wrapped the universe with its fantasy and magic. These classics all but guarantee a virtual happy ending. The movies they produce can be enjoyed by all ages irrespective of the theme. But, is Disney the only one doing it the best? Well, maybe not.
Studio Ghibli is a passion project by co-founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata with producer Toshio Suzuki. Ghibli probably is not as well known as Disney. This Studio has made its mark in the entertainment industry with Spirited Away in 2002. This is a company that produces Japanese animated movies keeping the young audience in mind, and magic realism at its core.
In contrast to Disney’s big name, Studio Ghibli is still a child. However, here is where the genius minds, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata come in with their bewitching creativity. And this creativity and surrealism is what helps them score one over the giants of animated movies.
Why are Ghibli movies so good?
Briefly said, Ghibli movies are so good because they focus on the ecstatic line between fantasy and reality, stressing the sensitivity of the human condition. It finds beauty and solace in the simplicity that makes Studio Ghibli movies better than Disney movies.
Hayao Miyazaki is a genius who came out of his retirement for the nth time because filmmaking is his passion. He weaves simple yet profound themes on life into his movies; thus creating something enchanting.
Disney has created all its films based on good prevailing over evil or hero conquering the villains; giving a positive yet false hope. On the other hand, we have Miyazaki who thinks such a strategy is “rotten”. He mainly focuses on the little line between good and bad. His films project the beauty that exists in the world as well as evil, which tells stories of both hope and despair.
“I want people to have fun. That’s my motivation. It’s because if I can entertain people, maybe I deserve to exist. I have this repressed need to feel useful”Hayao Miyazaki
Miyazaki was originally inspired by European architecture and setting that is boldly presented in his early works like “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or “Porco Rosso”. But into the 90s and onwards after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Japanese elements became prominent. Particularly, he took inspiration from his deep-rooted beliefs of Shintoism-there is life and spirit in everything.
To him, for good filmmaking one need not travel into space to find other worlds but must look closely around him to find the secrets of one’s own world. This idea gave birth to movies like “ Princess Mononoke”, “ My Neighbour Totoro”, “Secret World of Arrietty” and of course “ Spirited Away”. For over 35 years, Ghibli films have offered us spectacular visuals without parallels. But their most captivating feat is that they make us look at the world around us with new eyes.
But what about the real world films where often the opposite is also true. In “The Wind Rises”, a historical melodrama where the scenes are given a spark of stylized fantasy. From the terrifying Great Kanto Earthquake which ripples across the landscape like a willowy bedsheet to the energy and magic shown in Jiro’s airplane engineering profession. With Ghibli, Miyazaki’s love of flying is captured in both reality and fantasy – “ airplanes are beautiful dreams”.
Art and Cinematography
In this world of Japanese animation legends, Studio Ghibli is a world filled with extraordinary characters, uncanny transformations and, breathtaking fantasy landscapes where it seems anything is possible.
Like two girls standing at a bus stop and a giant forest spirit walks up beside them. “My Neighbour Totoro” might be Ghibli’s most iconic adventure but what makes this scene so appealing isn’t Totoro himself. It’s his enthusiastic response to the rain!
Scenes like this are scattered everywhere in the Miyazaki movies where surreal stories home in on mundane details to perfection. For instance, in “Ponyo”, in the middle of a tsunami, a supernatural fish girl discovers a new favourite food or in “Kiki’s delivery Service” where we are enthralled by the young witches’ otherworldly powers, as we are by the alchemy of baking. Thus, food in Ghibli movies has been a magical thing from the start alongside magic.
Following this, one of the major differences in the cinematography styles of Disney and Studio Ghibli is the attention to details. “雰囲気(funiki)” literally translates to atmosphere or mood is a concept vividly used in Japanese animation that is alien to the gag based Disney Princess movies. The incorporation of details in the background adds to the story making the Ghibli world feel full and close to real.
Another element will be the use of silence. A pillow shot that gives a space between all the action. A second to breathe. Miyazaki refers to it as, “間(Ma)” a moment between a clap that breaks the tension and allows the film to grow deeper and richer.
In these movies, reality does not always require action. We see this in the painted hyper-real countrysides of “When Marnie was there” and “Only Yesterday” where the characters’ emotions seem to be saturated by their very surroundings. Or as in “Whisper of the Heart”, for the young lovers, even a sleepy commuter town brims with a promise of an adventure.
Isao Takahata, the other genius has taken animation to another level. He uses “dialogue motion” that is portraying the motions of the voice actors in the characters. A similar work of Disney will be “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and more films in the modern era. But Takahata, pushed it further by illustrating the small details like change in facial muscles or innocent topics of conversations. They are not hyper-dramatized, instead he explores the precise emotions of the characters that are lost in live action.
Director Takahata was committed to correct movement and precise timing that adds to our passive entertainment. Like in “Grave of the Fireflies” when Setsuko is easily distracted and dancing in short bursts or how Seita delicately feeds Setsuko pieces of watermelon.
His observation of the smallest of details helps him to transition smoothly in the abstract scenes. Like in the “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”, when Kaguya falls in despair and runs away. Sometimes her pace is so frantic that it looks like even the artists cannot keep up with her; as if she has become real.
After decades of filmmaking, Ghibli movies have never wavered from the commitment to originality. Among their recent feats, “The Red Turtle” is a hand drawn minimalist film without any dialogue, with beautiful scenery and a profound story. With the power of animation it invites the viewers to place meaning upon it, and it’s extraordinary as a result. Ghibli movies have aged with modern animation styles using their primitive methods. This is the beauty of keen observation turned into animation.
Studio Ghibli movies were generally intended for kids taken directly from the misadventures of Miyazaki’s childhood. All these strong characters seem to be the projections of what he wished to be despite his mistakes. He took inspiration from his war-stricken childhood, his family business of aircrafts and even his sick mother.
He built protagonists from the essence of the ruins of what remains than what is lost. Miyazaki permeates very motivated characters who inspire actions and are generally not passive. They don’t follow any formula or arcs to accomplish a goal. The leads carry the power to surpass adults and do what is right. They have very few monologues and are neither imbued with rich emotional values.
“Without talented people you can’t make good films.”Isao Takahata on Miyazaki
Not all of Studio Ghibli films have a happy ending. And not all of Ghibli’s protagonists are men. This alone makes it stand out from the pack! Insanely confident female characters like San, Nausica, Chihiro or Sophie and even female antagonists in his films are an homage to his independent mother who fought against tuberculosis for a long time.
Miyazaki has always held his female protagonists on par with their male counterparts if not higher.
“Many of my movies have strong female leads—brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe with all their heart. They’ll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a savior. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.”Hayao Miyazaki
In essence, Ghibli movies are the love letters to the younger generations, to whom Miyazaki entrusted the will of the protagonists and wish them to pick up the details with their observational skills to make the world a better place.
Disney vs Studio Ghibli in recent times
Since 1930 Disney has been churning out 3-4 classics per decade apart from the 20-year rest between the 70s and 80s. But recently Disney seems to have taken a U-turn in producing its films. Instead of releasing classics of our generation, they leaned on working their way through their old films giving everything a fresh coating of CGI.
Though former CEO of Disney, Bob Iger says they are not afraid of risking their status quo, what they are doing right now is nothing but contradicting themselves. With the remakes they add little originality which takes away the nostalgia from the stories and makes them worse.
While 2D drawings are timeless, CGI is doomed to age badly. The live actions may look glossy now, but in decades when computer animation will get infinitely better the charm won’t last.
Thus, as Disney strays further away from the originalities Studio Ghibli further embraces them. Director Miyazaki, the workaholic he is, is again at it since 2017 on a new project “How Do You Live?”. So, despite Spirited Away having a cult classic status there is little to no chance that we will get a Part 2 or a remake of the same.
In conclusion, Disney might have stunned the world with its animation and storytelling for a long time, however, Studio Ghibli is better at plucking a string in people’s hearts. The animation and depth of the story is appealing to every age group bringing us down to a world of awe and respect. While I still have faith in Disney’s ability to get back its past glory away from the cheap route they have taken, I am also very thankful to the Ghibli Mascot for carrying forward the brilliance of originality and raw animation.