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

It was in 2003 that Studio Ghibli, and in particular Hayao Miyazaki's works, broke into the worldwide mainstream. Though movies like Kiki's Delivery Service had been dubbed into English by famous American actors and distributed by Disney several years prior, it was in 2003 that Spirited Away was nominated for an Academy Award. The studio was thrust into the public eye, somewhat to Miyazaki's chagrin. Despite consistently grossing huge amounts of money in Japan, Ghibli did not have attention beyond a cult following outside of its home country, and I likely would not be writing this article currently were it not for the success of Miyazaki's eighth feature. The films following it were undeniably influenced to a degree by the new influx of fans. Because of this, analysing the early films and later films separately should allow greater insight into how the studio evolved during this period of enormous growth.

Much like Part One this article will contain spoilers throughout, so be warned!

2001 - Spirited Away (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

Without question, this is the film that made Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli as world-renowned as they are today. Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a grouchy but curious girl who stumbles upon a dazzling and dangerous spirit world. She must work in an eclectic bathhouse in order to save her parents, who were turned into pigs by the cruel owner Yubaba, but along the way meets bizarre characters like Boh the giant baby, grumpy boiler room worker Kamaji, and the enigmatic and morally ambiguous No Face.

In fact, ambiguity is at the core of this feature, and although Chihiro's external issues are caused by Yubaba, she frequently needs to contend with herself and her own flaws. She begins the film sulking in the back of her parents' car, bored and passively waiting to arrive at their destination. Throughout her bizarre journey in the bathhouse, featuring moments like her bathing the stink spirit and riding the sometimes human, sometimes dragon Haku, she becomes a more active protagonist, taking control of her own future and becoming happier for it. Truly a coming of age story like no other, the strangeness of the creatures and environments only further enhances the viewer's relationship with Chihiro; you feel as bewildered and determined as she is.

I can say little more about this film that has not already been said by likely hundreds of critics, but I will finish on the view that its popularity is extraordinarily surprising to me. Not because of the quality - I love this movie dearly and appreciate it's beautiful complexity. No, instead because movies like the far more accessible and easy to follow Kiki's Delivery Service and Grave of the Fireflies preceded it, and attracted far less attention and praise than Spirited Away. The myriad of accolades that the work received does give me hope though, that the film-watching public doesn't necessarily crave the safe and predictable movies that popular studios often make. Instead, perhaps without realising it, they long to be whisked away to another world completely unlike their own.

2004 - Howl's Moving Castle (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

Even more so than works like My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle is a creation powered by emotion rather than logic. Curses are made and broken, the characters age and become youthful again, and a moving castle barely held together by a little fire demon can transport from barren war zones to pastel meadows. And yet amid all of this chaos, you undoubtedly build a connection to protagonist Sophie and the unusual family she lovingly cobbles together, and wish not for the plot to move forward, but instead to learn more about these fascinating individuals.

Following on from what Spirited Away started, Howl's Moving Castle has some of the most creative designs ever put out by the studio. The cursed scarecrow Turnip Head is undeniably adorable as he silently hops from place to place, fire demon Calicifer's penchant for eating wood is visually hilarious, and even minor characters like the old grumpy dog Hin make the movie aesthetically charming. This extends to the environments as well, in particular the castle itself, that trundles along across the wastelands with all its bric-a-brac in tow. The two hour runtime may not feel justified on paper due to the less than eventful plot, but the incredible visual detail and charm more than makes up for it, and left me in the cinema wanting more the first time I saw it.

The same basic plot in the hands of any other animation studio would result in likely a far more simplistic plot. Sophie would take her revenge somehow on the Witch of the Waste for cursing her, Howl would propose to Sophie at the end, and the film would likely reach these logical conclusions through a relatively tight stream of cause and effect. In Miyazaki's hands, the inciting incident has very little bearing on the actual narrative, and serves more to help the protagonist grow: Sophie as an old woman is forced to mature. In fact, the physical identities of the characters are all over the place in this movie; there is hardly one who hasn't been aged up or transformed into another creature. But the point remains that despite these constant physical changes, the protagonists remain who they are at heart, and many of these shifts only help to strengthen their characters, in what remains the most character driven movie Miyazaki has produced.

2010 - The Secret World Of Arrietty (dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi)

The Secret World Of Arrietty is the debut feature of director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who has held a huge part in carrying forward the Ghibli legacy since creating this quiet and detailed adventure. An adaption of beloved children's book The Borrowers, this movie follows the teenage Arrietty as she demands to explore beyond the confines of her tiny home under the floorboards, and the subsequent consequences when a boy and his family discover her existence.

The attention to detail in Ghibli's domestic settings has always been meticulous and thoughtful, but Arrietty is definitely the most creative and charming example. From the buttons stuck to the wall as decoration, to the pins stabbed into wooden beams as makeshift staircases, to the pot-lid mirrors and lemon peel lampshades, every frame feels lived in and packed with references to a life beyond the slice of story you're presented with. Though mostly prominent in the aesthetic, this also features in various narrative elements, such as Arrietty often being threatened by a fat cat named Niya, or having to fight off bugs with a sewing pin she uses as a fencing foil.

Miyazaki may be known for the European aesthetic of the architecture and style in his films, but Yonebayashi here exemplifies a kind of British sensibility. The setting is an old manor house, the characters frequently sit around with a cup of tea, and the plot is even adapted from an English children's book. He would later develop this in a work I will discuss later on, but he has already in Arrietty began to bridge the gap between a British and a uniquely Ghibli Japanese style. This includes a greater focus on the female lead than in the source material, the fusion of traditionally anime-style character designs with English looking backgrounds, and one dub (superior, in my opinion) that features almost entirely British talents. Though only on a small scale, The Secret World Of Arrietty is a debut that uses the legacy of Ghibli to allow Yonebayashi to develop his own distinct feel.

2011 - From Up On Poppy Hill (dir. Goro Miyazaki)

Following the somewhat plodding Tales From Earthsea, an attempt at a Princess Mononoke or Laputa style epic, Miyazaki's son Goro returned to animation with a romantic drama co-written by his father: From Up On Poppy Hill. Certainly more down to earth and easy to follow than many previous films, Goro Miyazaki's second feature, set in the early 1960s, shows the life of the quietly determined Umi, who is still hopeful that her dad, long since lost at sea, will return home to her. From the titular Poppy Hill, she raises flags with encouraging messages for him every morning, attracting the attention of a boy from school who works on the harbour. With the context of Goro's apparent resentment towards his father, the latter apparently neglecting the former in favour of filmmaking, this narrative becomes all the more tragic and personal.

Some criticism has been levelled at From Up On Poppy Hill for its apparently simplistic storyline similar to other anime from studios of a perceived lower quality. Whilst I can understand this, the Ghibli details are still there, particularly in the set-piece of the Latin Quarter, which houses the school's clubs. In amongst the huge dust-coated building, offices for each group are covered in details like post-it notes stuck onto lampshades and schedules scrawled out on half smudged blackboards. Every room feels well lived in by the students, and the location truly feels like the heart of the movie.

A less complex watch than many of the others I have discussed, From Up On Poppy Hill still has the same level of care and attention as the more well-known creations. Goro Miyazaki will always unfairly be put under a microscope due to his father's success, and his currently shaky reputation only serves to show how sparkling the studio's reputation is. If a charming, feel-good movie like this can be considered mediocre for Ghibli, it's only because Spirited Away and many others were hard acts to follow. I look forward to seeing more from the younger Miyazaki, and hope to see him stretch and grow as a director.

2013 - The Wind Rises (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

Originally planned to be Miyazaki's swan song, The Wind Rises incorporates many of the acclaimed director's trademarks and as a result feels like his most personal movie. Interestingly, it is also his most controversial, receiving criticism from both American and Japanese nationalists upon its release. The plot follows Jiro, a young man who dreams of flight and designing beautiful planes, along his bittersweet journey through life and love. Though the film is very loosely biographical, based on the life of the real-world engineer Jiro Horikoshi, it often comes across as a metaphor for Miyazaki's own illustrious career, and the various sacrifices and dilemmas he faced in pursuit of his artistic dreams.

I have mentioned Miyazaki's love of aircraft and flight before, and it is in this film that it truly comes to the forefront. Though not able to become a pilot himself due to his poor eyesight, Jiro is shown walking along wings and soaring through brilliant blue skies in dream sequences that demonstrate the highs and lows in his reality. In my opinion, the most beautiful sequence of the film is a short one in which Jiro and love interest Naoko chase a paper plane that is flying around the hotel they are both staying in, the swooping angles, quick pace and vibrant colour exciting the lovers almost as much as the viewer. It is in this scene that Miyazaki's love for flight, even on such a small scale, becomes clear; to him, it represents all that is beautiful and unshakeable in life, if only temporarily.

The film may have a feel of finality, but this did not carry over into Miyazaki's career, as shortly after the film's release he announced he was once again coming out of retirement to make the short Boro the Caterpillar. Since then, he has begun work on How Do You Live?, which he hopes will reach completion in 2019, designed as a message to his grandson explaining that he will be 'moving onto the next world soon'. The director certainly seems fixated on his own demise, and for us the viewers it means more touching animations that aren't afraid to tackle these existential subjects in a thoughtful, ambiguous, and courageous way.

2017 - Mary And The Witch's Flower (dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi)

Here we arrive at the creation of Studio Ponoc, the name of which comes from the Croatian word for 'midnight' to suggest a new dawning following the inevitably setting sun of Ghibli. Though despite this new dawning, Ponoc will always be imbued with the rich history of its predecessor, with debut feature Mary and the Witch's Flower containing what many would consider Ghibli hallmarks. When the titular protagonist comes across a magical flower, she is temporarily granted magical abilities and is transported to a world far beyond her own sober country life.

From the beginning, there are some clear similarities. Mary is a classic Ghibli heroine, a young girl with magical powers like that of Kiki, but with the unassured nature of Chihiro and the curious spirit of Mei. But I don't wish to pigeonhole this new character, because director Yonebayashi brings so much more to Mary, such as her distinctive design - now the Ponoc mascot. There is also the rural setting, the action taking place at the height of summer and bearing much resemblance to movies like Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Other similarities to Ghibli's debut exist in the spectacular action sequences, specifically the opening scene; a young witch makes perilous leaps against exploding colours as she attempts to escape an unknown threat.

Similarly to Arrietty, Mary And The Witch's Flowerwas adapted from an English children's novel, with Yonebayashi seemingly developing somewhat of a taste for this English aesthetic. Moreso than just the source material though, glimpses of British hits like Harry Potter can be seen in the wizarding school Mary comes across, as well as in the whimsical yet precarious tone. And although only a subtle difference, Yonebayashi's female leads don't just fall into a situation where they need to make their way in the world like Chihiro or Sophie - they actively search for more, wishing for something greater than the simple life they lead at the start.

While I have only looked at a selection of movies from the Ghibli canon, each contributes to and develops the voice of the studio. Kiki's Delivery Service emphasises the Marxist ideas in other Ghibli films and features one in a line of young female protagonists finding their place in a chaotic world. Porco Rosso is explicit with its anti-war themes, the cursed lead character even proclaiming at one point 'I'd rather be a pig than a fascist'. Even the smaller scale offerings like The Cat Returns bring a subtle sense of humour and wonder that is sometimes lacking in the large Western studios that are more often than not concerned with marketing and the zeitgeist (The Emoji Movie, anyone?).

As shown by this brief retrospective, Studio Ghibli stretch far and wide in their filmmaking, with frequent tropes and aesthetics being twisted and turned by each director into something entirely new. Though I firmly believe that their legacy will remain strong in the minds of film lovers long after both Takahata and Miyazaki have passed (the former having done so earlier this year), I also have a belief in Ponoc. If they open their doors to new talent who can build even further on the potent history of Ghibli, they could keep what has almost become a tradition alive for decades longer. I can't wait to see what direction we are taken in by them.

Latest Articles