Studio Ghibli: Cinema of Wonder

With the release of seven of Studio Ghibli’s much beloved films to Netflix, Odin O’Sullivan explores three key works of studio co-founder Hayao Miyazaki

As one of the world’s most beloved animation studios, it is surprising that it has taken this long for Netflix to buy the rights to screen the work of Studio Ghibli. With the staggered release of seven of the studio’s earlier films, we take a look at co-founder and director Hayao Miyazaki’s first three features under the Ghibli banner and see how they inform the studio’s wider style and ethos. After the studio was founded in 1986, Miyazaki directed three of the first four features released during the remainder of the decade. Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbour Totoro (1988), and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) are not only wonderful pieces of work in their own right, they are also integral to the formation of the studios style, substance, and thematic content

The studio having only opened the year before its release, Castle in the Sky can be considered the first Ghibli production. Naturally, Castle in the Sky explores many of the themes, traits, and stylistic flourishes for which the studio would later become famous; the natural world and humanities relationship with it, the positive and negative implications of technological advancement, and the beauty in the everyday. Although these themes come across slightly heavy-handed in this early feature, Castle in the Sky is at its best when it explores the quiet moments amongst its larger set-pieces, a trait which becomes synonymous with later Ghibli films.  

Similarly, some of the characters are underwritten; the main antagonist, Colonel Muska is rather one dimensional in his villainy, and Sheeta, despite being one of two protagonists, begins to fade into the background as the film progresses. But this is something that Miyazaki more than makes up for in the following films, situating Castle in the Sky as a significant touchstone in Miyazaki’s development as master filmmaker. 

Following Castle in the Sky is the universally acclaimed cult hit My Neighbour Totoro. Here Miyazaki pairs back any unnecessary narrative, conflict, and even dialogue. Instead the film focuses on two small sisters, Mei and Satsuki, who move to the country with their father in order to be nearer their convalescing mother. My Neighbour Totoro is, simply, one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. Miyazaki emphasises a close relationship between our sister protagonists, and the natural world that makes up their playground; the woodland spirits, Totoro and others, here embody a kind and caring natural world. My Neighbour Totoro really shines in its depiction of a wonder only experienced in childhood.  Everything is an adventure; even cleaning a dusty old house is exciting and new. Miyazaki constructs a joyous serenity that exists in the everyday; in a light breeze in the garden, in writing with the door open, in getting water from the well, in walking to school. All these things are focused on by Miyazaki and he holds them in such reverence that they feel truly important. 

After Totoro came Kiki’s Delivery Service. Kiki, a young witch, must spend a year away from home and set up a practice in a different town; the only problem is she doesn’t know what her talents are. Kiki is easily one of Miyazaki, and indeed Studio Ghibli’s, most well written, relatable, and important characters. What she does and how she feels is universal. Searching for a place to belong and creating work that fulfils you is what Kiki wants, and, in a way, is what we all want. The world Miyazaki creates here is just as lush and beautiful as his others. Whereas Castle in the Sky creates a magical version of Welsh mining towns and Olympian Cities in the sky, and Totoro takes place in the beautiful Japanese countryside and its deep green forests, Kiki is set in a coastal European-style city. Yet, Miyazaki still creates pastoral beauty that lives alongside human innovation. The people our protagonists meet in Miyazaki’s films are kind, warm, and dedicated to their communities, be they small villages or giant cities. Your baby sister wanders off and the whole community mobiles to help find her, or summer winds blow an airship off its moorings and you fly your broom to save your friend.

There are no villains in Totoro or Kiki; antagonism arises from chance, or everyday human issues.  The lack of a singular villain results in films which are all the more contemplative. If there is no moustache twirling antagonist to blame for all the wrong in the world then we as an audience must come to our own conclusions. The way in which Miyazaki handles complex issues such as death or mental illness while still foregrounding all the beauty that life has to offer is unique to him. In doing so Miyazaki becomes a filmmaker who truly reflects life in all its complexity and magic.