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The Wonderful World of Studio Ghibli

Charlie Bodsworth

Friday, 5 April 2024

After having watched basically every Ghibli movie out there, Charlie has come to tell you why you need to watch them, and to tell you all about what's behind the curtain in this Japanese animation studios creation of wonder.

The wonder of Howl’s Castle, the eyesore of Yubaba, the insanity of Totoro’s full-toothed grin. Studio Ghibli creates masterpieces, and that’s no understatement. You may already be familiar with their wonderfully nonsensical settings and highly detailed 2D animation style, leading to both incredible beauty and (intentionally) excruciatingly uncomfortable ugliness. While I’m not yet finished, I desperately want to share with you my experience watching Ghibli’s entire filmography and tell you why you need to watch more of it!


Most Ghibli films seem to fall into one of three  categories:  war and environmental tragedies,  Japanese slice of life and  whimsical fantasy.



The smallest yet hardest hitting of the three, Studio Ghibli’s tragedies do something rarely seen in animation films; they allow emotions to breathe. They don’t shy away from the most intense effects of destruction , depicting familial abandonment, child starvation, and even full-on decapitation. And when these themes come to a climax, they never cut away quickly. These moments sit for uncomfortably long, so you can realise every pain-staking part of  the characters’ experience.


In Grave of the Fireflies, a war film known for being a tear-jerker,  Seita finds his mother in a makeshift hospital, fully bandaged from severe burns after a bombing, with her eyes and mouth the only things left uncovered. The disfigured image of her burned face is left on screen for many seconds with no dialogue, no music, no cutaway. It’s just raw. I’ll be honest, I had to look away, and still this moment is imprinted in my mind.


While the social messaging in Ghibli’s war and environment films is notoriously pronounced, its handling of them in these ways make them so worth the watch.


Slice of Life

An interesting category, Ghibli’s slice of life films tend to be incredibly culturally specific to Japan. They cover matters such as nostalgia for the countryside and traditional family roles. Unfortunately, these topics were a little lost on me. However, it seems from the home reception that these films really struck a chord with the Japanese .  I would really recommend these to people who want a deeper understanding of Japan and its social and familial sticking points.


I want to quickly highlight one film: My Neighbours the Yamadas. There are a couple of Ghibli films that break the artistic mould; simplifying the animation style, making drawn lines more visible, and creating minimal background pieces (sometimes removing backgrounds altogether). My Neighbours the Yamadas is a wonderful example of this, giving it a homemade and slightly corny feel to reflect the family at the centre of the film’s loose plot.



Now what Ghibli is probably most famous for: Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Arrietty, and everything in between! The main feature that always strikes me about Ghibli’s fantasy world-building is how soft it is. Compared to the J. R. R. Tolkeins of the writing world, Studio Ghibli pioneers soft world-building. This means leaving a lot (if not, all) of how a world functions unexplained - from magic systems, to politics, to spirits, and even character backstories. You are thrown in the deep end, with little to no context. The sense of wonder created by this technique is unparalleled. It’s what makes Ghibli unique. this leaves room to focus on emotion and connection, both between characters and between the character and the audience. It’s also a creative way to allow the viewer to interpret the narrative within these unexplained words as best suits them.


My unsung hero here has to be Ponyo. It’s child-like and completely joyful, with no particular villain, only parents looking out for their children. Ponyo’s magic reflects this too, seemingly formed of young Ponyo’s will to be with Sosuke. And yet, she marvels at the most mundane human things like a good bowl of ham ramen. It is chirpy and cheerful and the perfect film to cosy up to on a rainy day.


So, what’s the takeaway? Obviously, I recommend Ghibli’s films to anyone. They are so intricately woven together in production, narrative, and style, that I feel they are a real cinema staple. Just let yourself be transported to a different world, where not everything makes sense, and experience the magic and emotion found within.


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Japan film animation review Charlie Bodsworth


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Barbara Dawson

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Lovely tasty dish. Try it you won’t be disappointed.

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Aunty Liz

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Very tasty and cheap. I often have this for tea!

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average rating is 3 out of 5

Being a bilingual family (French mother and British father,) living in France I thought your article was extremely interesting . Have you research on bilingualism ? It seems that when the mother is British and the father French and they both live in France their children seem to be more bilingual than when the mother is French and the father is British . This is what we called mother tongue , isn't it ?

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average rating is 3 out of 5

Such an interesting article!

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