Lessons for 2020 From the Films of Studio Ghibli
Susan Napier on the Legendary Studio's First Big Success
What would a young girl in a post-apocalyptic Japanese anime have to say to our pandemic world of 2020? Plenty, if the young girl happens to be Nausicaä, the eponymous heroine of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the film that launched Studio Ghibli, the famous Japanese animation studio. While set in the 30th century, the film features a world with uncomfortable similarities to our present moment, including mask-wearing humans who must confront global calamity.
Since May 27th, HBO has been streaming the entire Studio Ghibli catalogue to great fanfare in the arts press. The studio has long been considered a national treasure in its home country, Japan. But few in America understand why or have grasped the significance of Ghibli’s oeuvre for our times. American film critics use words like “beautiful” and “sweet,” (Nicole Sperling, quoting Kevin Reilly, The New York Times, May 28th, 2020) or “enchanting” (Aja Romano, Vox, May 27th, 2020) to describe the studio’s output, suggesting that these films might be ideal escape fantasies for viewers during the pandemic lockdown.
These descriptions are appropriate. Ghibli films deserve acclaim for their stunning imagery and fascinating, surprisingly complex characters. But what this enthusiastic coverage misses is that, over the last 40 years, Studio Ghibli has created films that are deeply, indeed painfully, relevant to the stressful world of 2020.
In the US we still tend to think of animation as being for children. But Ghibli films are for everyone, or at least everyone who has experienced joy and hope, sorrow and despair. They are “message” films that manage to be utterly un-didactic and un-patronizing, inspiring viewers to think and feel something beyond the ordinary.
The films do feature many child protagonists and are definitely family friendly. But Ghibli’s two greatest directors, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, were willing to have their young protagonists confront soul-searing devastation and loss on a level almost never seen in American animation.
Nor do Ghibli films always wind up with a typical Hollywood style “happily ever after.” The two young orphans of Miyazaki’s fantasy adventure Castle in the Sky: Laputa, for example, discover what appears to be a vanished utopian kingdom only to learn the heartbreaking lesson that human beings may not be ready for utopia.
The young characters that populate Ghibli’s world are hopeful and courageous. But above all they are resilient, dealing with loss and catastrophe with inspiring patience and thoughtfulness. Their catastrophes can take place on the personal level, such as the young girl Chihiro’s sudden loss of her parents in Miyazaki’s Academy Award-winning fantasy Spirited Away. But they can also be worldwide cataclysms, as in Takahata’s heartbreaking drama Grave of Fireflies, in which a brother and sister attempt to survive the firebombing of Japan in World War II.
But the Ghibli movie that is perhaps most appropriate for this pandemic year is Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the movie whose box office success back in 1984 enabled the founding of Studio Ghibli. The film is set in a terrifying future world where toxic spores have poisoned the environment to the point where venturing outside necessitates a mask at all times. But masks ultimately cannot stem the poison’s effects. Old people die before their time and children do not reach adulthood. Rather than banding together, the last remnants of humanity fight each other to the death across a toxic wasteland.
Other directors might have had a Mad Max figure emerge, dealing with devastation by using the traditionally masculine tools of brute strength, cunning and ruthlessness. Miyazaki instead gives us one of his most luminous creations—the young princess Nausicaä. Nausicaä is smart—she builds a laboratory beneath her father’s castle in order to study the toxic spores. She is also an excellent aviator. Some of the movie’s most memorable scenes depict her flying her glider above the wasteland. And she is a powerful swordswoman, willing to use force if absolutely necessary.
But the traits that make her most distinctive are also ones that can serve as inspirations for all of us in dark times. These are her immense compassion, imaginative and thoughtful intelligence, and profound empathy. This empathy extends not only to struggling humanity but touches all the entities that make up the world around her.
Nausicaä believes that all life is sacred and she shows this, not only when she tenderly holds the diseased hands of one of her father’s elderly compatriots but also when she gazes in joyous wonder at the monstrous but surreally beautiful creatures that have managed to thrive in the toxic environment. She gives us a model of acceptance, joy, and courage in a world that at times seems incomprehensibly dark.
Nausicaä’s box office success enabled the founding of Studio Ghibli. Over its nearly 40-year existence the studio has produced 21 films. These include epic masterpieces such as Princess Mononoke, set in a war-torn 14th-century world. But its works also include smaller gems such as My Neighbor Totoro, in which two little sisters learn to cope with their mother’s illness and the possibility of death.
Both of these films are by Miyazaki but, among recent Ghibli offerings from other directors, perhaps the one most suited to our times is Takahata’s extraordinary final film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Although the film is based on a 10th-century fantasy, its message resounds with bittersweet appropriateness in the 21st. A radiant little girl is sent down from the moon to learn the poignant lessons of life on earth.
The work is indeed “sweet,” “beautiful” and “enchanting.” But the sadness and wonder that underlies the story make it something more—profound and inspiring. As the movie’s theme song suggests, the world in which we exist is like a wheel that constantly turns, bringing joy, sorrow, spring, winter. Studio Ghibli brings us the world in all its evanescent beauty and sorrow, a fitting message for the complicated time we live in.