What Studio Ghibli Teaches Us About Storytelling - Thee Sim Ling

Have you ever watched a film by Studio Ghibli? Chances are, you probably have seen at least one movie from Studio Ghibli’s impressive collection of animated films including, Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle and countless others. Founded in June 1985, the Japanese studio has made more than 20 films that have enraptured the attention of children and adults alike. These films have been described as “beautiful”, “breathtaking”, and “magical”. But, what exactly makes these stories so appealing to every audience member? As a writer, I want to dissect the deeper layers to these stories.

Without the intriguing and unique characters in the Studio Ghibli world, is there even a story to tell? Each Studio Ghibli film is led by an ensemble of dynamic characters that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. Many of the leading roles are held by young girls who are strong and independent, uncommon in the male-dominated film industry. Not only that, many of the characters aren’t even human at all, but animals and inanimate objects such as the flame burning in a fireplace.

Closely linked, Studio Ghibli creates complex story worlds that are fantastical and immersive. All of them hold innate possibilities of something practically unimaginable on the planet we live on. One day, you can meet supernatural beings at a bathhouse. Another day, you can follow a young witch striking out on her own. Yet another day, you can dance with a ginormous furry creature and a furry cat bus. Each film is set in a storyworld with its own set of rules and norms. Nothing’s impossible in the Studio Ghibli universe.

Furthermore, Studio Ghibli doesn’t just think about the plot or storyline of the films they make. They boldly tinker with other elements of art intertwined with their stories, such as animation and music. Everything is usually hand-drawn, giving in a retro and nostalgic feel, but thanks to the amazing animators, the transitions are smooth and modern. In terms of music, Mamoru Fujisawa, a.k.a. Joe Hisaishi, was the mastermind behind Studio Ghibli’s memorable tunes that accompany the colourful worlds. He wrote soundtracks influenced by many genres such as Japanese pop music, impressionism, Chinese scales and a special blend of Eastern and Western worlds. If you’re an artist in any medium, you may find it difficult to comprehend how your form of art can ever work well with another. But, all kinds of art are interlinked, and when these forms are blended, masterpieces can be made.

Studio Ghibli films are enjoyed by a wide range of people. Audience members can range from young, wide-eyed children to sagely, world-weary seniors. These stories appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds because they focus on universal themes anyone can easily understand. My Neighbour Totoro, for example, is inspired by filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s experience of growing up in post-war Japan. He remembered children in his town frequently mispronouncing the town name “Tokorozawa” as “Totoro”. The film alludes to childhood innocence and imagination. Meanwhile, Only Yesterday has no whimsical fantasy elements and is an adult-focused story on going back to your roots and rediscovering yourself, easily relatable for an older audience. In the vast catalogue, there is a film for everyone.

Perhaps Studio Ghibli films are attractive because they’re Japanese films in a league of their own, not Western ones. They don’t follow the normal tropes and storylines. Studio Ghibli also highlights unique themes and conveys important messages. These films cover a diverse range of issues relevant to our society even today, such as familial relationships, childhood, adulthood, growing up, human greed, pollution, the environment and more. Studio Ghibli is also famous for having darker undercurrents to its stories, compared to Western creators such as Disney, with fairytale stories following gender norms and rarely discussing hot topics.

After reading about the magic of Studio Ghibli, why stop here? Experience the magic by watching one of the above-mentioned films yourself!

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