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How Studio Ghibli Films Paint a Picture of Youth

Sarah Olive's suggestions of different ways that we might identify Studio Ghibli's works as children's films
Head and shoulders of a baby
© University of York

What aspects of Studio Ghibli’s films make them identifiable as ‘children’s films’?

  • Teenage or children protagonists. These are often the narrators, whose viewpoint the stories are told from. Additionally, there are adult protagonists reflecting on their childhood through flashbacks. Films like Graveyard of the Fireflies and My Neighbour Totoro foreground a sibling pair. In the films, you can see several girl characters wearing versions of the traditional Japanese school uniform, still seen in Japan today: a blue and white sailor-style dress in Whisper of the Heart and a red pinafore outfit in Only Yesterday.
  • Parent substitutes and children ‘parenting’. The baby Princess Kaguya learns to toddle under the watchful eyes of the bamboo-cutter and his wife; food, shelter and employment is provided to Kiki by the heavily-pregnant bakery owner Osono in Kiki’s Delivery Service; a grandmother-figure-cum-housekeeper features in My Neighbour Totoro; and a big brother cares for his little sister in Graveyard of the Fireflies. Did you notice the Victorian dress (smock, caps) of some of the characters (Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle)? Do they evoke for you British films with sympathetic orphan characters, such as the musical Oliver!? Absent parents or parent figures are often the impetus in these films for the child protagonists to embark on physical journeys that contribute to and/or symbolise the character’s growth towards adulthood. They can be seen as the dispatcher, helper and donor archetypes established by writers on folklore and fairytale such as Vladimir Propp and AJ Greimas (out of which much children’s film has evolved, think Disney’s remakes of Brothers Grimm stories). There are also adult figures that connote the villain types. The narrator describes Sophie as ‘a beautiful girl turned into an old woman by a wicked witch’ with overtones of Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast.
  • References to, or adaptations, of fairytales and childhood classics. Even if we aren’t familiar with Japanese children’s folklore, so can’t read the films for allusions to them, we can recognise Princess Kaguya emerging from a stalk of bamboo as like Thumbelina in the Western fairytale tradition. Arrietty is Thumbelina-sized, smaller than the leaves and flowers she carries in this video clip. The girl in The Cat Returns dwarves the buildings in the cat town she enters, like Alice in Wonderland. In Spirited Away, we see Chihiro’s parents turned into pigs and penned up awaiting slaughter in punishment for their greed in scoffing a magical restaurant buffet, perhaps reminiscent of the transformation of naughty boys to donkeys sold for labour on Pleasure Island in Disney’s version of Pinocchio. Meanwhile, Jiji is the black cat companion of trainee witch Kiki. Some Ghibli films are based on existing manga (often mangas denoted in Japanese as for young women or children, such as Aoi Hiiragi’s Whisper of the Heart and Eiko Kadono’s Witch’s Express Home Delivery). Sometimes they are based on manga written by one of the anime’s directors, such as Porco Rosso. Meanwhile, the children’s novel by Diana Wynn-Jones was adapted for the anime Howl’s Moving Castle.
  • Journeys. The video’s narrator reels these off. Child protagonists shake off their reliance on adults, sometimes through rebellion, sometimes with their parents’ blessing, and move towards independence. They journey to find the flying Laputa Castle in the Sky; young witch Kiki ‘heads off to the big town to learn her craft, ends up using her slowly developing powers to run a delivery service for the town she resides in’; Sophie searches for a cure in Howl’s Moving Castle, ‘featuring themes of building confidence and, of course, innocent love’ and Ashitaka leaves his community and sets about ‘ridding himself of a dreaded curse’ in Princess Mononoke. Emotional journeys include ‘the ups and downs of teenage love’ in Whisper of the Heart and coming to terms with sexual attractiveness in Princess Mononoke.
  • Dream worlds explored by child protagonists. Castles in the sky, castles of cat kingdoms, kingdoms with Emishi princes and wolf princesses (Princess Mononoke), spirit worlds about in Ghibli. The video’s narrator casually flags up that Whisper of the Heart has ‘a few dream sequences thrown in’ and includes a scene with some dialogue from a character saying: ‘This is a dream. This world’s a dream’ (The Wind Rises, 2013). Sometimes these dream worlds seem to represent a liminal world between childhood and adulthood.
  • Supernatural powers, friends and resources help the protagonist’s explore these dream or spirit worlds (although the villains and threats they encounter there may be similarly endowed). Witness the flying sequences from Wind Rises, Princess Kaguya, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbour Totoro, and Howl’s Moving Castle. We see the protagonists flying on a dragon in Spirited Away, a magic top in Totoro, ‘heart racing action sequences as Kiki really kicks her broom into high gear’ outstripping a police car, and characters running on water in Ponyo. Often these supernatural friends come in the form of magical animals…
  • Anthropomorphism. In terms of animals with human characteristics, behaviours and intentions, as well as animal-technological mash-ups, we see talking cats (Kiki’s Delivery Service, The Cat Returns), the cat bus with its glaring headlights and spidery multiple legs (My Neighbour Totoro) and the spider yokai, variously translated as ‘spirit’ or ‘monster’, Kamaji (Spirited Away).
  • Nature. Strongly associated with childhood and healthy maturation by British Romantic writers such as William Wordsworth, Ghibli shows the way in which their films wonder at nature’s marvels, like the eponymous insects in Graveyard of the Fireflies and the ‘forest spirits’ and gods which take the forms of a majestic stag in Princess Mononoke; advocate for environmentalism in the latter film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Spirited Away where endangered species cling onto existence, industry threatens and mutates flora and fauna, waterways are polluted with industrial waste. Often the child protagonists enter these green worlds alone, from their starkly contrasting city or suburb environment, requiring a period of adjustment or tutelage from local people to (re)connect with nature (The Wind Rises, Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, Only Yesterday, When Marnie Was There), before they interact to their mutual, individual and collective, flourishing.
© University of York
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Pictures of Youth: An Introduction to Children’s Visual Culture

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