From Laputa to Ponoc: The Evolution of Studio Ghibli - Part One

Undoubtedly the most revered creators of Japanese animation of all time, Studio Ghibli seems to be coming to a natural end. Miyazaki's next scheduled film How Do You Live? is directed at his grandchildren in order to help them cope with death, specifically his death. Because of this though, the younger members of Ghibli have created Studio Ponoc from the ashes, and their debut film Mary and the Witch's Flower was released in Japan in late 2017. Here, I will take a look at what I consider to be Ghibli's most significant films in the lead-up to today, and analyse what each contributed to the studio's - and the director's - style and reputation.

Be warned: there will be spoilers throughout!

1986 - Laputa: Castle in the Sky (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

Although Miyazaki produced created films like Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind and Lupin the III: The Castle of Cagliostro prior to establishing Studio Ghibli alongside Isao Takahata, I will begin with the studio's official first feature. Laputa certainly set the aesthetic standard for Ghibli: rolling hills and cloudy watercoloured skies are depicted in sweeping shots that dwarf the protagonists, and costumes and buildings have a mysterious, antiquated look. It also hits similar narrative beats, featuring an adolescent female protagonist who possesses some kind of magic, and a band of morally dubious characters you eventually warm to. The only unusual plot point I can think of is the use of a blatant antagonist in the government official Muska, who receives no redemptive arc nor reasonable motivation.

It is also here that Miyazaki established his long-running love of flight. Whether gently floating from the sky with the power of a crystal or soaring on an immense airship, Sheeta and her friend Pazu are often depicted in the air rather than on the ground. In fact, the ground is often shown as a dangerous place in this film and others, with flight serving as a means of escape, and as a symbol of freedom from society. When not tethered down by family responsibility or an unjust government, the two lead characters are free to explore, question, and love.

Though not released in the West until over a decade later, Laputa was incredibly well received in Japan and grossed over one billion yen in its home country. This success was more than enough to fund more movies, and despite not being as well known today as films like Spirited Away and Princess MononokeLaputa will always hold a place in cinematic history for initiating Ghibli's sterling reputation.

1988 - Grave of the Fireflies (dir. Isao Takahata)

A remarkable shift in tone from Laputa, Takahata's debut feature for Ghibli Grave of the Fireflies is arguably one of the most harrowing and distressing films ever made, animated or not. Set during WWII, the movie follows two children - older brother Seita and little sister Setsuko - as they desperately attempt to survive bombings and potential starvation after the death of their mother. The opening line of the film is, in my opinion, one of the most startling in cinema, said as one version of Seita looks down on another: 'September 21st, 1945...that was the night I died.'.

Rather than choosing to carry forward Laputa's legacy in terms of a cheery aesthetic and sense of determination and hope, Takahata replicated the film only in emotional complexity and thoughtful characterisation, presenting a story and imagery obviously not intended for children. Whilst Ghibli's debut film may have set the aesthetic standard, it was Grave of the Fireflies that cemented their position as purveyors of animation for all, not just for kids. This at a time when the Western fare was mainly comprised of Disney films and Don Bluth creations.

It can also be said that comparing the two features helps to define the individual directorial styles of Miyazaki and Takahata, similar but different. Whilst the former tends towards grand, sweeping stories with a personal touch, the latter works on a smaller and more detailed scale, focussing in on select individuals and slices of their lives. Takahata also has a tendency to stay within his home country, using imagery from Japanese folklore and what he personally grew up with, like the now-famous Sakuma Drops tin from Grave of the Fireflies. These differences in style seem to lead people to pick a favourite, though I find that if you look at the entire Ghibli canon, the two certainly compliment each other more than they compete, and there is often so much collaboration that it becomes hard to tell where one vision ends and another begins.

1988 - My Neighbour Totoro (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

If Grave of the Fireflies took character depth from Laputa, then the now iconic My Neighbour Totoro took everything else. This fairy tale presents two young girls living in the country and coming across a variety of sprites and spirits whilst their mother recovers from an unnamed illness (likely tuberculosis). When they come across the giant, fuzzy creature known as Totoro, the girls discover more and more magic entering into their daily lives, alongside a greater appreciation for the stunning natural world around them.

Totoro as a defining symbol for the studio is often compared to Disney's Mickey Mouse, and juxtaposing these two images reveals much about Ghibli and the fundamental differences between them and Western studios. Mickey is charismatic, made up of simple, marketable shapes, and is often depicted alongside Minnie, creating a level of human domestic familiarity whilst still providing a sense of childlike wonder in design. Alternatively, you have Totoro, who expresses itself in strange cries and grunts, has no distinct gender to speak of, and rather than being shown as a tangible creature similar to humans is presented as a spirit of indeterminate age and motivation. Though despite its mysterious identity, the regard for nature and sense of childlike warmth and joy it projects makes it unbelievably endearing. Rather than gaining appeal by being a cuter kind of human, Totoro won sympathy by being totally inhuman, yet remarkably lovable.

From the expansive shots of rice fields to the closed-off groves where folkloric creatures hide, the aesthetic is Ghibli at its most recognisable. The cool and sharp colour palette of greens and blues is at its most vibrant, and the creativity in the creature design was the start of many many more to come, particularly from Miyazaki. When people think of Ghibli, they often think of My Neighbour Totoro, and for good reason.

1994 - Pom Poko (dir. Isao Takahata)

One of the more divisive films I will be discussing, Pom Poko follows a group of Tanuki as they attempt to save their forest home from urban development, with little success. Ghibli has never been a studio willing to simplify and water down its own culture to sell a product to a foreign market. Takahata's tale doesn't feel the need to over-explain its folklore, which to a Western audience can easily come across as outlandish and absurdist. Raccoon dogs transform into human beings, other animals and household objects, and often grow and shrink their enormous testicles to fight the demolition and achieve their goals. To be clear, Ghibli didn't just make this superpower up - it dates back to Japanese legends about the creatures.

The experimental switching of art styles may also prove somewhat confusing next to the consistent art styles of previous works. When seen by human characters, the tanuki are drawn in an anatomically correct and realist style, but when left to their own devices they talk, walk on their hind legs, and adopt a far more cartoony and anthropomorphic look. This adds to the air of mythos surrounding Pom Poko, visually suggesting the powers that the tanuki have and the tendency of modern people to disregard spirituality and the environment, a common trope in Ghibli films.

Following the affecting Grave of the Fireflies and the sweet character study Only YesterdayPom Poko is best viewed as an example of the huge variation in Takahata's filmography. Miyazaki is incredibly consistent in style and content: female protagonists, environmental themes, the motif of flight and European style settings almost all come up in each of his films. In contrast, Takahata will happily go from a war drama to a film about a ragtag group of racoon dogs that almost plays at times as a nature documentary. Definitely not the most accessible of the Ghibli movies, Pom Poko is still an intriguing example of the studio at its most bold.

1995 - Whisper of the Heart (dir. Yoshifumi Kondo)

The first film from the studio directed by someone other than Takahata or Miyazaki, Whisper of the Heart clearly marks an important point in Ghibli development. Before, it may have been easy to describe the collective works as that of two auteurs, but with Yoshifumi Kondo's first and only work for Ghibli, it becomes harder to separate the studio from the style and vice versa. And this movie certainly doesn't feel out of place; a teenage girl obsessed with fairy tales explores Tokyo to try and find elements of one in her own life, falling into romance on the way.

Having noted the similarities, Kondo's approach to urban life is certainly more sympathetic and idealised than that of Miyazaki or Takahata. The different neighbourhoods are painted with a level of gentle affection, and the cosy apartment is a vast contrast to the sprawling castles and airships of prior Ghibli fare. In fact, the most recent result of Whisper of the Heart's legacy was a series of 'Chill Lofi Beats' YouTube videos to study to, that featured a looped clip of protagonist Shizuku doing homework in her room. This best exemplifies the tone of the film - warm and intimate with a laid-back pace.

Sadly, Whisper of the Heart was the only feature Kondo would direct before his death in 1998 at age 47, and the idea for him to one day take the reins and run the studio would never come to fruition. I personally see glimpses of his influence inside the later creation from Ghibli From Up On Poppy Hill, which has a fairy tale feel and is about young romance at its core. Regardless, his debut work will always remain a part of the Studio Ghibli legacy as a charming and comforting movie.

1997 - Princess Mononoke (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

Here we reach what many critics consider to be Miyazaki's magnum opus, Princess Mononoke, an impressive technical and visual feat on what feels like an enormous scale. The two hour and 15-minute length of the film was the longest the studio had ever produced, and was essentially unprecedented at the time for an animation. Thankfully for the animators, it was also Miyazaki's first work to utilise computer animation, likely allowing for the unbelievable amount of frames that needed to be produced. The epic feel carries over from the aesthetic to the characters as well - the lead characters are not kindly village girls or playful creatures, but banished princes, wolf princesses, and immensely powerful forest spirits.

Environmental themes have been explored prior to Princess Mononoke, particularly in My Neighbour Totoro and Pom Poko as previously mentioned, but never to such a complex and nuanced degree. Notably, the film is one without a clear-cut antagonist, but unlike Totoro is one in which numerous characters are culpable for the tragedies that take place. Though would-be villain Lady Eboshi is destroying the forest for personal gain, she is also providing jobs and shelter for the ostracised lepers, as well as giving greater opportunities to the women of Iron Town. Miyazaki vilifies no one in this film; everyone has a complex motivation, and this makes the inevitable conflict of man and nature far more powerful.

Along with TotoroPrincess Mononoke has produced some of the most iconic images for the studio. Even if you have no concept of the film, there is a high chance that you will know the image of a glaring San next to her growling wolf mother Moro. For this alone, the movie is significant for Ghibli,  but it is truly the enormous sense of scale and technical innovations, as well as the complex themes, that have given it the groundbreaking reputation it now holds.

Here I have covered a little over a decade of some of Ghibli's defining works but in Part Two, I will explore Miyazaki's breakthrough to Western awards and audiences, and what this meant for the studio's creative direction, as well as for the eventual creation of Studio Ponoc.

Read Part Two...

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