Image Credit: TOHO/ Studio Ghibli
I’ve woken up a few times in lockdown with a heavy, muffled feeling, as if life was passing me by but I wasn’t in it. Sometimes, I’ll miss a Zoom call or a meeting because I’ve forgotten what day of the week it is. But today, I stepped outside for my daily walk and tried to see the world through different eyes. I noticed the sway of the cowparsley in the breeze, and the slow sweep of the clouds across the fields.
In other words, I tried to imagine I was in a Studio Ghibli movie.
Ever since the Studio Ghibli films were added to Netflix, I’ve been using the lockdown to make my way through them. These Japanese coming-of-age cartoons, usually featuring strong female protagonists, magic and folklore, and vivid natural settings, whisk you away to another world, far away from the mundanities of lockdown life. The simple scenes are often the most breathtaking, and the small details - like the butterflies drifting past Totoro as Mei sleeps in My Neighbor Totoro - help me to appreciate the casual magic of the world around me. Studio Ghibli is a world away from the action-packed animations of Disney, but just as entertaining.
The beauty of these films lends much to the studio’s most successful director, Hayao Miyazaki. At the heart of his aesthetic is the Japanese phrase mono no aware, which can best be described as the gentle sadness toward the transience of all things. This is a recurring theme in so much of Japanese art and literature, and one which Miyazaki translated into the quiet beauty of his films.
Such a belief is central to the Japanese religion of Shintoism, which lies at the heart of many Ghibli films, such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Shintoism involves the belief that every object is imbued with a spirit, and therefore encourages reverence and gratitude for even the more mundane elements of life. This is the philosophy of Studio Ghibli, and a mindset that I think we have lost sight of in modern life. When we live so much of our lives online, we look for quick, easy forms of entertainment, and prefer to live in the fast lane. But the beautiful animations of Studio Ghibli show that much of life is lived in the simple moments.
If you don’t know where to start, here are a few of my favourite Studio Ghibli films, complete with their most aesthetically pleasing moments...
Film: My Neighbor Totoro
What makes it special: This is perhaps the most iconic Ghibli film, in which two girls move to the countryside and befriend a forest spirit called Totoro. I love the way the film treats their childish imaginations with as much seriousness as adult concerns.
Beautiful moment: When Satsuki and Mei are waiting for the bus in the rain, and Totoro joins them. A raindrop hits his nose with a rhythmic plink, plink, and Satsuki gives him an umbrella.
Film: Spirited Away
What makes it special: This film is weird and wonderful. After seeing her parents turned into pigs, young Chihiro stumbles into a world of spirits and gods, and must rely on her own wit and bravery to restore her parents. I slightly fell in love with the soot sprites.
Beautiful moment: When Chihiro sits down in the garden and eats a steamed bun, tears streaming down her face. This moment always brings an ache of nostalgia, and reminds me of the comfort of food in Studio Ghibli films. Food is treated with so much attention, such as the bowls of Ramen in Ponyo and that piece of pineapple in Only Yesterday.
Film: Howl’s Moving Castle
What makes it special: This adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy novel is funny and enchanting. It begins with Sophie, a hatmaker, and her encounter with Howl, a vain and moody wizard who lives in a castle with legs. This is the first Ghibli movie I watched, so it will always be special.
Beautiful moment: Near the end, when Howl leads Sophie through a meadow full of wildflowers. The blue sky is perfectly reflected in the stream, and we see Sophie’s shoes as she jumps across it.
Film: Kiki’s Delivery Service
What makes it special: This is the coming of age of a young witch who must move away from home to gain her independence. I particularly loved her sassy cat.
Beautiful moment: The opening scene, when Kiki is lying in an empty field with her radio by her side. Her skirt rustles in the breeze, and a bee buzzes in the air above her. Bliss!