Studio Ghibli: The Disney of the East

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Disney. Pixar. Studio Ghibli.

The first two names might be recognisable to most South Africans, but the last one might leave most people scratching their heads. Studio Ghibli is an anime studio which has seen a large degree of international success, mostly due to the high production quality of the animation and the fact that a lot of their movies have themes that appeal to a variety of cultures.

“Wait a minute? Anime? Isn’t that cartoon porn/really insane animated violence?”

This was a question I used to get a lot when I mentioned that I really enjoyed anime during the late 90′s. For most South Africans, their idea of anime was what they occasionally saw on video store shelves, which in many cases was animated pornography or incredibly violent science fiction. Like American audiences, we very much had the attitude that “cartoons are for kids” so most people saw anime as an attempt to corrupt the minds of children simply because it was animated.

Thankfully, a lot of things have changed since then with most people (particularly the generation that grew up with internet access) learning that anime wasn’t just pornography or violence. Unlike us, Japanese audiences were used to the fact that anime could be used to tell any kind of story, and so they were treated to a wide variety of genres. Anime stories can be adventure, romance, science fiction, sports, super heroes, and yes, even adult titles. For those South Africans who were introduced to anime in the late 90′s, there were gems like Akira and Ghost in the Shell to be found, you just had to be willing to look for them.

Another thing we have to be grateful for is the growth of anime also resulted in a successful shift in attitude towards the stories that could be told using animation. Many American animators tried to tell more mature stories aimed at adult audiences during the 80′s, but were less than successful. Movies such as Rock and Rule, Fire and Ice, and Heavy Metal didn’t see the kind of success that Disney had seen with their family orientated features, and so many gave up on producing animated content for an adult audience. Today we still don’t see many animated features that are aimed at adults, but there are now many television shows, particularly comedies, that use animation. Shows like Archer, The Boondocks, Venture Bros and of course, South Park, have developed large adult audiences all over the world.

Studio Ghibli – The Disney of the East

Studio Ghibli is dubbed by many as the “Disney of the East”. It got this name by producing many family friendly animated features, although not every movie they’ve produced is made with children in mind. Studio Ghibli was founded in Japan in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Toshio Suzuki, after the success of their first feature film Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind.

Studio Ghibli has seen massive success in Japan for many years, and had grown in popularity amongst foreign anime fans as more of their titles became internationally available. While Studio Ghibli titles had been released by other companies, it was mostly thanks Disney that we saw many of the Studio Ghibli titles start to filter into overseas markets. This deal saw Disney release Kiki’s Delivery Service in the US, with many more titles to follow.

Still, they didn’t see any major success in the international market until 2002, which was when Spirited Away won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards. For many fans, myself included, this was great as it was the first time many people looked at anime and decided to take it seriously.

Disney has released many titles since they first signed the deal with Studio Ghibli in 1996, including Princess Mononoke, Ponyo, My Neighbour Totoro, and The Secret World of Arietty.

My 3 Favourite Studio Ghibli Films

While I am a big fan of animation, I am not one of those anime fans who says “It’s made in Japan, therefore it must be better”. I’ve met more than a few of these people in my life and every time I hear these words I just roll my eyes. In my experience you can’t argue with someone who is that obsessed with something, so don’t even waste your time.

Having said that, the overall standard for Studio Ghibli’s movies is pretty high, although they have released a couple of movies that weren’t that great. Most of these less than stellar titles were directed by some of the other directors at Studio Ghibli, and not by Hayao Miyazaki, who is Studio Ghibli’s most well known and critically acclaimed director.

Here are my top 3 Studio Ghibli movies:

Princess Mononoke

The young warrior Ashitaka is out one day when a demonic boar attacks his village. He manages to slay the monster but not before it infects him with its curse. The village elders tell him that he will surely die if he cannot find a way to lift the curse. He decides to journeys to the West, hoping to find out what tormented the boar so that he may free himself from it’s deadly grasp.

This is the movie that changed the way I viewed animation, and is still one of those movies I sit down and watch at least once a year. It’s an amazing film, but it’s definitely for young teenagers and up as it deals with adult themes, and can be quite violent in places.

Porco Rosso

Set between World War I and World War II, Porco Rosso is the tale of a former ace fighter pilot who goes by the same name. The name Porco Rosso means Crimson Pig in Italian. Crimson is the colour of his plane, and the pig part refers to his appearance. He’s now a bounty hunter and spends most of his time searching for and fighting air pirates. He spends his spare time on his secret island hideaway, or at the Hotel Adriano, a popular spot amongst all the pilots, which just happens to be run by his beautiful friend Gina.

This is one that I can easily recommend for all members of the family. Porco Rosso has humor, adventure, romance, and more than a fair share of drama. It has appeal to younger audiences with it’s cheeky comedy and sometimes over the top characters, without dumbing down any of the more serious aspects that might appeal more to adults. It’s also got some excellent airborne fight sequences, which I am an absolute sucker for.

Spirited Away

Chihiro is a fairly spoilt child, who’s used to having her every need catered for by her parents. When her father has to move for work, she’s more than a little bit upset and sulks while her parents look for their new home. They discover they’re lost, but soon stumble upon the entrance to what appears to be an abandoned theme park. Chihiro senses something isn’t quite right, but doesn’t want to be left behind by her parents, so she follows them into the theme park. She and her parents discover a strange street and as they wander along, they soon smell a a wonderful aroma. It’s coming from a shop that’s packed with delicious food. No one is around but Chihiro’s parents aren’t worried and sit down and start eating, insisting they have more than enough money to pay. Chihiro tells them to stop but they don’t and not long after their first bites they turn into pigs! Chihiro discovers she has stepped into a spiritual world and that she must leave behind her childish ways in order to save her parents.

Spirited Away is a great movie, even if it feels somewhat disjointed (there are reasons why it feels that way), but is still a fantastic movie that will appeal to the whole family. It does have quite a few surreal moments, but it’s got a lot of heart and addresses many issues that children face as they grow up and face the world on their own. It also deals with many other issues, although some of them are specific to Japanese culture. This was also their first movie that I ever watched on the big screen so it’s definitely one of the more memorable Studio Ghibli movies for me.

  • Cynthia Du Plessis

    No love for Howl?

    • Rowan Govender

      Howl’s Moving Castle is one of my least favourite Miyazaki movies. Like Ponyo, it’s got its moments, but overall the story seems to be missing that spark that a lot of his other movies have.