7 Reasons Why People Should Love Studio Ghibli More

I don’t think anime gets enough credit in the West. I shouldn’t be surprised, having already written an article on the subject, but it’s true: anime doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It’s usually frowned on at best and discriminated against at worst, and it was once referred to homourously-but-not-humourously as “those Chinese fuckin' things” by an Academy voter during last year’s Oscars. More specifically, the individual was referring to The Tale of Princess Kaguya in that context, which leads me to…

I’m that predictable.

Anyway, it’s somewhat interesting how Studio Ghibli fits into this anti-anime "epidemic". On one hand, the studio’s more mainstream than most other anime, thanks largely to Disney, which means that people have at least heard of them. On the other hand, it’s not frequently brought up. In my personal experience I’ve even had to prod conversation, in which case one or two people would exclaim, “I know them, they made (insert title here)!” before going back to discussing the latest development in Game of Thrones. It’s discouraging, as I really think there’s more to Studio Ghibli, particularly as an entry to anime, that makes their filmography easily accessible.

Ergo, here are 7 reasons why I think Studio Ghibli deserves a lot more public attention:

1. They make movies, not TV shows.

This first point seems kind of moot: they make movies, so what? However, if you stop to think it over, it’s not really irrelevant. Most anime is televised, meaning it follows the rules of a show. This means 12-26 episodes on average of content, sometimes even more. At roughly 20 minutes per episode, minus the openings and endings, you’re looking at anywhere from 4 to 8.5 hours of story for a single series, and even more for genres like Shonen. That’s a lot of material, and a pretty big commitment, for one anime.

In contrast, Studio Ghibli makes anime movies. Due to time and budget constraints, the average Studio Ghibli movie is roughly 2 hours long. If you want to be technical, most aren’t even that. They’re, therefore, less of a commitment to watch by default. Plus, they’re usually tightly-written, and you can extrapolate everything you need in a short period of time. Add in that there’s a lot of depth packed in these movies, and you have more incentive to re-watch them several times.

Ultimately, the advantage here is time. If I were to watch, say, Fullmetal Alchemist in its entirety, I’d be spending close to 17 hours. For that amount of time, I could watch Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, my four favourite Studio Ghibli films, back-to-back and still have time remaining. If you want to be technical again, I’d could marathon them in little more half the time it’d take to finish that one show. Therefore, it’s not only more feasible to watch Studio Ghibli over most anime shows, it’s more feasible to watch Studio Ghibli over most shows period.

2. They’re great for kids…mostly.

When you think “anime”, chances are the words “family friendly” don’t come to mind; after all, the West associates that with their animation, but anime fans know how adult it can be. Not only is it responsible for some really graphic violence, sexuality and mature situations, but even its more kid-friendly stuff is gutsier than the West is used to. It seems like the two sides of the Pacific exist in two, totally separate worlds, with our side being more childish and Japan’s side, um…less so. And, to an extent, that’s true, especially given the history of the two hemispheres and their approach to the medium.

Which makes it more appropriate that Studio Ghibli, the bridge between the two worlds, would have a lot of movies geared to families. It sounds weird saying that, but, save Princess Mononoke and maybe Grave of the Fireflies, none of the studio’s twenty-one entries are really objectionable for kids. And even the aforementioned exceptions I can see older kids watching if they’re mature enough. And honestly, Studio Ghibli’s biggest strength is appealing to kids. Why else are movies like My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away are so well-loved?

Of course, the question then becomes if this is a good way to introduce kids to anime. To that, I’d say yes. Because while anime is often more graphic than this, at the same time it gives kids a great primer into Japanese culture. And it does so subtly, as none of the Japanese elements are too foreign for kids to grasp without some pretty basic explanations. It’s something to remember the next time your children can’t quite get past the Pokémon stage.

3. They’re great for girls.

This point in particular is especially important for all you ladies. Far too often in entertainment, it seems like girls are shafted in favour of their male counterparts. They’re either relegated to love interests, side characters, damsels in distress or flat-out sex appeal, and all in the name of making boys look better. For a gender that comprises more than half of the world’s population, this is distressing, no? And yet, while not as bad as it once was, the issue hasn’t gone away.

All the more reason why Studio Ghibli is great. Of the twenty-one films in their repertoire, fourteen star girls. Of the remaining seven, five of them feature girls in roles that rival their male counterparts. In general, they all feature competent girls in some capacity. They’re not damsels in distress, pointless love interests, wasted side characters or sex appeal, they’re characters with actual depth. And they usually pass The Bechdel Test too, as a side-note.

It’s great because girls deserve to be interesting alongside men, and not second-tier to them. It’s a mantra that studio founder Hayao Miyazaki has espoused on several occasions, but it’s a lesson the West could stand to learn. It doesn’t matter age, gender or background, women matter. They matter enough to be represented in media fairly. So the next time you want to introduce your daughter, sister, girlfriend, mother, wife, grandmother or even female friend to anime, start with Studio Ghibli. They’ll thank you for it, trust me!

4. There’s something for everyone.

This is the most-general of the points so far, but it might also be the most specific. Despite being family-centric, Studio Ghibli has a lot of cross-appeal. They’re a lot like Nintendo in that regard, as, despite their catalogue, there’s something for pretty much anyone in the animation house’s library. You can search back to 1984, when their first film was released, and find something to your liking. Don’t believe me?

Let’s say you’re a fan of epic fantasy? Well, you have Princess Mononoke to keep you busy. Light fantasy? My Neighbor Totoro, The Tale of Princess Kaguya and The Secret World of Arrietty say hi. How about witches? Kiki’s Delivery Service. Coming of age stories? Do I even need to list the number of coming of age films?

There’s even an example of cheap laughs, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and how not to make a movie, Tales from Earthsea, in the studio’s repertoire. So they have you covered in every regard. It doesn’t matter if it’s a kid’s sleepover, movie night with your significant other, or something to analyze in film class, Studio Ghibli has something for you. It’s one of the reasons why I regularly return to their films, after all! And if you still don’t believe me, well…why not prove me wrong by watching them for yourself?

5. They tackle themes and ideas not normally discussed in Western animation.

One of the downsides to animation being a kid’s medium in the West is that many films, even the great ones, rarely tackle heavy themes. They might touch on them, but when the going gets tough, well…you know. Because of this, a lot of heavy, and often serious, subjects that are important for children to be aware of are never explored. It’s a shame, because kids aren’t stupid. They deserve to be challenged more than we’d like to admit, and not doing so poses a great disservice to not only them, but also adults who don’t normally stop and think about these issues. It’s one of the problems I have with Disney movies, but it can be extended to other studios too.

All the more reason why Studio Ghibli is so vital, as they touch on these topics. Environmentalism, for example, is handled masterfully in Princess Mononoke, while mental illness and abandonment issues are at the forefront of When Marnie Was There. Even The Tale of Princess Kaguya and Grave of the Fireflies, two of the most-haunting films I’ve ever seen, tackle societal expectations and how they can negatively impact youth, which is something an animated movie over here would never dream of discussing! It’s these types of bold choices that generates discussion, which is why I’m glad someone out there cares enough to initiate conversation at all.

Now, does this mean Studio Ghibli is open to everything? No. Their LGBT representation is surprisingly scarce, so much so that their only film to attempt it, When Marnie Was There, somewhat cops-out on addressing it. Conversely, their sole attempt at incest, From Up on Poppy Hill, falls to the wayside in favour of something more standard. But that they even attempted those two topics at all is pretty impressive, so kudos! And kudos to you should you ever decide to watch these films.

6. They’re great at introducing Japanese culture to the West.

I touched on this somewhat earlier, but it deserves elaboration because it’s such a crucial, and also bizarre, point to make. The world of anime is weird, complete with so many Japan-isms that it can be scary to the uninitiated. (Take it from experience, I’m well-aware of this myself.) After all, there’s so much about anime, and Japanese culture, that’d never fully translate with a Western audience (and vice versa,) so tackling it head-on is like wrestling a hungry lion. Where do you begin, and how do you begin it?

The answer to both questions, I believe, is with Studio Ghibli. As anyone who’s read my Beginner’s Guide on the company knows, what sets the studio apart is how un-Japanese it feels while still revelling in its own culture. True, elements like the education system, how people eat, nursery rhymes, festivals and such are a strong part of the Studio Ghibli experience, but the trick is how uniquely subtle they’re used in relation to other anime. They’re not forced down your throat, they’re not bizarrely ambiguous, no riddles or confusion at all! They’re simply presented at face-value, and that’s that.

And yet, you learn a lot about Japan through them! Like how the Emishi people were the Japanese-equivalent of the Incas (aka Princess Mononoke.) Or how Japanese, public high schools are like our private schools (as explored in Whisper of the Heart.) Or how Japanese people congregate in bathhouses en masse (it’s a focal point in Spirited Away.) Or how Japanese people are huge on food culture, etiquette and presentation (as seen in various Studio Ghibli films.) These and more are all shown without feeling preachy or cryptic, making them excellent insights on a microcosmic level.

7. They’re relatively easy to find.

But let’s say everything I mentioned prior doesn’t matter to you. You don’t care about length. You’re not interested in family-friendly content. You don’t care about female leads. You’re not interested in inclusivity. You’re not interested in thematic difference. You’re not even interested in Japanese culture. Well, what else would make Studio Ghibli worthwhile?

Simple: their repertoire's pretty easy to find. I remember HMV would always carry the latest Studio Ghibli films in bulk in their anime department, and sometimes in their Disney/family-friendly departments. Every time I went in there and looked, there was a movie I’d never seen before. Even some Disney stores, Toys-R-Us stores and general video stores had Studio Ghibli films! And when that failed? Well, there was always Amazon.

I credit that for helping me with my anime fix, as I have no intentions of engaging in a hobby that’s too difficult to keep up with. Not to mention, they’re pretty reasonably-priced compared to anime series, so I can afford them on a dirt-cheap budget. Which is great, since I live at home and am unemployed. Which is even greater because I’m not burning through my savings as fast as if I were buying other anime films and shows alike. Bottom-line: that they’re affordable and easy to find means that, at the end of the day, there’s no excuse to not check their films out (unless you’re lazy, in which case shame on you.)

Overall, there are plenty of reasons for Studio Ghibli to receive more attention than they already do (which, considering the internet, is a fair bit.) Therefore, the next time your friends talk Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, you can bring up Grave of the Fireflies in return; in fact, you can even suggest they watch it, only to realize what a mistake that was when they stop talking to you next week! (But seriously, if that’s enough to lose a friend over, then that person wasn’t a good friend anyway.)


  1. Hold just a second- you actually thought "When Marnie Was There" was trying to flirt with lesbianism? You plainly misunderstood the film's intentions, then. The film objectively did not "cop out" of LBGT representation because it was never even trying to portray LBGT relationships in the first place. Its totally illogical to fault a film for not being something it was never trying to be in the first place. Those flirtations with lesbianism you thought you saw? With all due respect, that wasn't the film showing you anything of the sort- that was you reading something into the film that simply wasn't there. They were adapting a preexisting novel about something else entirely, and that something else is therefore what the film was always supposed to be about from its very first frame- and what it therefore is about in the final product.

    Could Studio Ghibli have made a film about a lesbian relationship? Sure, they most certainly could have, But if they wanted to do that here, they wouldn't have chosen to adapt a story that had nothing whatsoever to do with a lesbian relationship, now would they?

    Otherwise, very good article here, one I can generally get behind.

  2. Okay, in hindsight, my comment probably comes across as sounding harsh, when that wasn't my intention, so please forgive me for that.

    I do stand by the point I made, though: your belief that "When Marnie Was There" flirts with homosexual themes is simply flat out wrong. In fact, as I recall, the whole reason there was a hullabaloo over the movie's poster in Japan is because it gave some Japanese audience members the mistaken impression that the film was going to be part of the Yuri genre. People who then showed up for the film discovered that it didn't have an ounce of homosexuality in its body. The poster totally misrepresented the movie to the Japanese public. So if you want to get mad over the marketing guys for designing a misleading poster, I can understand and respect that. But what I can't endorse is your assertion that the film itself touches upon upon lesbianism. It does not. As I said, it was an adaptation of a book that did not involve that kind of a relationship at all, and thus played itself out accordingly. If you got any Yuri-style vibes from this movie, that says a whole lot more about how the ways in which platonic same-sex affection can be socially expressed have decreased over the past one hundred and fifteen years than it does about the movie [I speak from my knowledge of world history]. The book was written by a British woman born in 1910, who died in 1988. Understandably, being a woman from that time and world, she wrote a children's book that did not touch upon homosexuality at all. And by choosing to adapt this particular book, Studio Ghibli made a conscious decision before they ever drew a single frame of animation not to make a movie that so much as touched upon homosexuality.

    A story can only cop out of something if that something was actually there to avoid confronting in the first place. So, because "When Marnie Was There" was never attempting to so much as allude to LBGT issues in the first place, let alone bring them up unambiguously, there are no LBGT themes contained within it. It is therefore not at all a valid criticism of the movie to claim that it copped out of addressing LBGT themes.

    1. I didn't know any of that information, so I guess I probably jumped the gun.

      My point does remain, though: Studio Ghibli has never fully attempted non-heterosexual romance. It's one of their many failings, according to Tumblr. It doesn't bother me on a personal level, since I'm not gay in any way, but it's definitely something that could be worth reading into about the company given how widely respected and beloved they are around the world.

      Aside from that, not much else I can really add to your points. Well, maybe that your comments came a little later than I initially thought...

    2. I wouldn't say "never fully". It would be more accurate to say "has never tried at all."

      "it's definitely something that could be worth reading into about the company"
      I can see how one could make that argument. But that's a debate about the social views of Studio Ghibli's employees outside of their artistic endeavors. I don't see it as a valid complaint against the artistic quality of Studio Ghibli films themselves. After all, a film's artistic quality has way less to do with what it chooses to be about than it does with how it is about whatever it chooses to be about. I personally find Disney's The Little Mermaid to be rather morally suspect, for example, but I would maintain that its a well acted, animated, and scored movie nonetheless.

    3. I guess. I also give The Little Mermaid a pass because it was somewhat progressive for 1989 standards. It's still not my favourite Disney movie (I wouldn't even put it in my top 10,) but it was at least trying something new for the time. Conversely, since I expect a lot more from Studio Ghibli given their track-record, I'm probably more disappointed in When Marnie Was There because I didn't feel like it really delved into what it could've delved into as strongly. But you're right about how execution > concept...

    4. " I'm probably more disappointed in When Marnie Was There because I didn't feel like it really delved into what it could've delved into as strongly."

      Maybe I'm wrong, but from your use of the phrase "as strongly", it seems to me like you're having trouble letting go of the notion that "When Marnie Was There" flirts with the idea of a lesbian subtext. As I've already explained, it doesn't, not even to an infinitesimally tiny speck of a degree, and it never tries to. What it *does* try to grapple with are themes of depression, unjustified self-loathing, irrational feelings of abandonment, and introversion. And after seeing the film for a second time, I find that my initial view that the film delved into these concepts thoroughly, thoughtfully, and respectfully has not changed. On the contrary, my respect for the film's handling of these themes has only increased. For reasons I will not explain because I'm not about to share my personal life and experiences with you, I can personally affirm that this movie *gets* these issues to a truly massive degree.

      Typically, when I disagree with other peoples' opinions of a film, I can understand where they're coming from, even if I don't agree. "When Marnie Was There" is one of those rare cases where I just don't get the vast majority of the criticisms. I know I'm pretty close to being alone in holding the viewpoint I'm about to state, but I can live with that fact: as far as I'm concerned, "When Marnie Was There" is one of Studio Ghibli's very best films, one that can stand proudly alongside such classics as "My Neighbor Totoro", "Grave of the Fireflies", "Princess Mononoke", and yes, "Spirited Away".

  3. On a different note: something which I think gets greatly neglected in discussions of how Studio Ghibli handles gender is the fact that it doesn't cheapen its male characters, or else reduce all of them to buffoons, in order to make its female characters look good. Their male characters are allowed to be just as three-dimensional and varied as their female ones. That might not sound like a big deal, but its an artistic choice that automatically places Ghibli's films above a goodly amount of female-centric American animated films *cough*Brave*cough*. It also makes their female characters that much more realistic, having realistic men to interact with. Studio Ghibli absolutely deserves it reputation for fantastic female characters; I'll forever love them for that. But I think its fair to say that its male characters don't always get enough credit.

    1. That might be true, but I didn't feel a need to state that because males are rarely underrepresented in mainstream media. Even when they're goofballs, they're still usually more interesting than their women counterparts.

      Also, I didn't mind Brave. But that's just me...

    2. I find it quite relevant, however. While I'm inclined to give filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and assume no harm is intended, I have to ask: how is it *not* insulting to women if a film with pretensions to emotional realism is only interested in them in scenarios where the men are reduced to caricatures and the women are not? Does this not send the message [albeit perhaps unintentionally] that women are only interesting when the men around them are not- or that they can only shine when the men around them are not capable of likewise shining? Films like "Brave" don't remedy the issue you speak of so much as they just invert it. Studio Ghibli's films are above such a shallow, simplistic, insulting solution.

      In short: one the many reasons Studio Ghibli's female characters are so great is that their male counterparts don't need to be shortchanged in order for them to shine.

    3. I guess, although Tales from Earthsea still kind of fails at any sort of character writing, male or female. But it's a point worth noting, and I might put it at #8 if this list were any bigger...

  4. Well, in a paradoxical sort of way, that actually makes "Tales from Earthsea" an example in gender equality in screenwriting. After all, if both sexes are written equally poorly... ;-)

    "I might put it at #8 if this list were any bigger..."
    I was thinking it could have fit under an expanded and slightly revised form of #3, but you wrote the piece, so you be the judge.

    1. Well I already covered my full thoughts on Tales from Earthsea on our site's podcast, so I won't say much else other than that I guess you're right about that. Still, it's kinda late to change anything, so I'll leave it at the original "#8" claim from earlier...

    2. I heard that podcast episode. You pretty much summed up my own thoughts on the film. Its not exactly a great movie [though I've seen way worse], but it doesn't really make me all that angry, either. I might be even fonder of William Dafoe's performance of the dub than you, though. His rendition of Cob's breakdown at the end is hilarious.

      Also, when it comes to Ghibli heroines, Fio Piccolo really needs more love. I was watching a tribute video to the studio's female characters recently and her absence was a glaring hole I just couldn't ignore.

  5. Its a testament to how engaging this piece is that it keeps giving me thoughts.

    As I think on it, I'm still not really sure whether one ought to consider "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" a Studio Ghibli film. Yes, they own the copyright. Yes, the animation style is very similar. Yes, it explores/uses themes and motifs that are also explored/used in several of the movies of Studio Ghibli. But when you get down to it, "Nausicaa" is technically a Topcraft production. I can see why someone would want to consider it a Ghibli effort. But I just can't bring myself to do the same. I much prefer to see it as the culmination of Hayao Miyazaki's pre-Ghibli efforts -or at least as a transitional effort. His earlier work for the Lupin III franchise, while by no means entirely lacking in depth, used broader brush strokes and archetypes [albeit to fantastic effect, but that's a separate topic.] Nausicaa's level of ambition for its characters and themes, like "Future Boy Conan" before it, seem to be striving more towards the heights that Miyazaki's Ghibli work would [for the most part] attain. But for all the film's ambitions, it can't entirely escape the sort of black-and-white thinking and archetypical character work that was justifiable in Miyazaki's early work, but is less welcome here.

    Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. Lots of people praise "Nausicaa" the film as a masterpiece and Nausicaa the character as one of Hayao's greatest heroines. As much as I enjoy the film, I simply cannot agree. The movie's world-building is impressive, without a doubt. Yet it’s put in the service of a story that's ponderously expository in many places and that's very unsubtle in delivering its message. Nausicaa's few character flaws are barely a factor, and the movie places her in the right so often [read: basically every single time] that she barely comes across as human- something which cancels out the positive effect of the nuances of the conflict between the three different factions. In many cases, she comes across as a wish-fulfillment character that exists to hammer home The Message [insert trademark symbol here]. This frustrates me greatly, as I really, really want to like a female character like Nausicaa, who manages to be so capable *and* isn't a horrible or a shallow individual. But it’s hard when the course of the plot, and the fawning reactions of the other characters towards her character, feels so at odds with any desire on Miyazaki's part to have her come across as a human being. If there were at least one other character in this film's universe as capable as her, I think she might have been more palatable. As it stands, I feel like she's only partially formed as a character- something that I can't say for almost all of Miyazaki's subsequent heroines.

    So for my part, at least, it’s not just the fact that "Nausicaa" is technically a Topcraft film that keeps me from considering it a Studio Ghibli film. It’s also that its character and thematic work is handled quite differently than that of the vast majority of Studio Ghibli movies. In terms of ambition, animation style, and theme, "Nausicaa" has more than its share of parallels with Ghibli productions. But in terms of presentation, however, it comes across as quite different- at least to me it does.

    Though again, I do enjoy "Nausicaa" a lot. I just think it tends to be quite overrated by many viewers. I'll still take it over the steaming pile of fecal matter that is James Cameron's "Avatar" any day, though.

  6. I liked Avatar (although I've never had much of an attachment to James Cameron's work as is,) so it's always disheartening to hear it be called "garbage". Oh well!

    As for Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, I only call it Studio Ghibli because Studio Ghibli considers it one of their own. And while it's seriously flawed, I enjoy it in the same vein as Disney's early features and The Wizard of Oz: on an emotional level. I could pick apart the film for hours, but in the end it's still a very personal 4.5/5 because I don't care about most of its flaws. Especially considering when it was made...

    1. The true depth of my hatred for Avatar seriously belies the fact that I don't bear any ill will towards anybody who enjoyed it; I'm good friends with more than one person who did. But for all that, it just used trope after trope that struck a raw nerve in me repeatedly until it was bleeding heavily. I've seen movies that were objectively much worse, but the *ways* in which Avatar frustrated me fall under some of my very biggest pet peeves in storytelling bar none. I consider it to be part of what I call the "Unholy Trinity of Cinema", the other two members being "Kingdom of Heaven" and "God's Not Dead". All three are films I consider to be rotten garbage on a moral and/or philosophical level [if in very different ways], even though they have some genuinely good performances and technical aspects, and so I cannot enjoy them no matter how hard I try. And I'm someone who tries extra hard to find the good in a movie no matter what, so for these films to alienate me so greatly is quadruply frustrating.

      I am glad I saw Avatar for one reason, though: it gave me a much deeper appreciation for "Princess Mononoke", which I was initially somewhat cool towards. On a thematic and moral level, Hayao Miyazaki was able to craft the movie Avatar *should* have been all along. Instead of a black-and-white moral situation, Miyazaki gave us a more realistic grey. Instead of putting a halo around nature, he didn't hide how cruel and petty the natural world can seem. Instead of demonizing those who exploit the environment at the expense of nuance, he portrayed them as the human beings they truly are. Instead of trying to craft a [mostly] white hat/black hat situation and then inadvertently making the bad guy more sympathetic than the hero [which takes some real storytelling incompetence when your villain is a xenophobic bigot, let me tell you], he gave both sides good and bad points. Instead of asking us to root unreservedly for a man who shacks up with someone else's girlfriend behind his back and expecting us to find that romantic, he gave us a protagonist who was actually likeable and honorable. And instead of having his protagonist choose one side so unreservedly and ignore a golden opportunity to make trebly sure that if somebody messes up the situation further, it won't be even partially his fault, he made his hero a peacemaker with a more nuanced view of the situation, and who never fully commits to either side because he knows it wouldn't be right to do so.

      So thank, you James Cameron, for making me realize how I underestimated the worth of one of Hayao Miyazaki's most famous films.

      Your defense of "Nausicaa" is subjective, but perfectly respectable, and its one I can sort of relate to. I'm someone who, for all their objective flaws, can always find something worthwhile in all three of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels with every viewing [although "Dead Man's Chest" is genuinely underrated]. And those are hardly the only movies I've quite enjoyed that other people have either had mixed reactions to, or else outright panned.

      "And while it's seriously flawed, I enjoy it"

      I always hate to criticize both "Nausicaa" and "Howl's Moving Castle" in front of their fans, because the depth of my criticisms can really obscure the fact that I quite enjoy both films. For all their flaws, they've both still got something that keeps me coming back to them. For "Nausicaa", its the worldbuilding. For "Howl", I think its the characters; like Disney's "Frozen", the script needed a lot more work, but the people who inhabit it are oddly charming and/or intriguing.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts