The Healing Powers of Studio Ghibli

Graphic by Jia Chen

If you are anything like me and the millions of people across the world who have been testing different means of escapism during these past couple of years, you may agree that hobbies and alternate fantasy universes can be quite beneficial. Playing video games, watching television or movies, learning a new instrument, knitting/crocheting, reading, cooking, taking care of houseplants, watching the birds — the list of hobbies people have picked up throughout the pandemic to bring some entertainment and peace of mind into their lives continues. I even attempted to learn embroidery at one point. However, another interest of mine became especially relevant over the course of the pandemic — films by Studio Ghibli.

If you have never heard of Studio Ghibli, I definitely encourage you to keep reading. Studio Ghibli is an animation film studio headquartered in Koganei, Tokyo, Japan. It was founded in 1986 by Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata. The animation studio has been making visually stunning and narratively rich films for nearly 40 years and has created a total of 21 feature films, as well as a myriad of short films, commercials and other works. Some of their most popular works include Spirited Away (2001), My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Princess Mononoke (1997) and Ponyo (2008). 

Across all 21 films, Studio Ghibli touches on a wide range of subjects and themes. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is a harrowing tale that follows two children trying to survive World War II after they become separated from their parents, while Howl’s Moving Castle also weaves an anti-war message into a fantastical love story full of wizardry and magic. Magic is a recurring theme in a number of Studio Ghibli’s works, which often draw on Japanese mythology and Shinto. 

If you prefer a story with themes of environmentalism, perhaps you would enjoy Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) or Princess Mononoke. Or, if you want a beautiful story that includes love, friendship and longing, you need not look very hard, as these themes are present across many of Studio Ghibli’s works.

Speaking of love, Studio Ghibli’s stories do not limit themselves to romance. Instead, they portray a range of intimate relationships. Sometimes there is romance by the end of the story, but oftentimes the main characters simply become close companions who mutually inspire each other to grow, learn and thrive. Full disclosure: I enjoy stories that involve romance between characters, and anyone who knows me personally would call me a liar if I said otherwise. However, it is refreshing and realistic to watch a film where the two main characters share an enchanting bond that is platonic or familial in nature. That bond is just as inspiring to the viewer as a romantic one may be. 

But how does Studio Ghibli relate to the pandemic? Quite frankly, because Studio Ghibli films inspire the viewer to keep fighting. In one of my favourite Studio Ghibli films, Howl’s Moving Castle, the protagonist, Sophie, says, “They say that the best blaze burns brightest when circumstances are at their worst.” The films place our protagonist against these immense struggles — war, selfish authority figures, environmental destruction, personal mental health struggles, a vain wizard who cares a little bit too much about maintaining his alluring appearance — and often the protagonists are children or adolescents. 

Yet our young protagonists persevere, and certainly not alone either. They face their circumstances with a companion or a community at their side. I don’t even think it needs to be stated that the pandemic has been isolating for many of us, so to see our protagonist become swept up in a chaotic world of magic, war and injustice, and yet manage to fall in love (platonically or romantically) and persevere is inspiring. 

Additionally, I think it is healthy to tap into the childlike wonder Studio Ghibli films provide. Entertaining and empowering our inner child is, truly, self-care. It’s part of the reason why I, as a young adult, continue to watch these films and enjoy them. Some films do delve into heavier themes (for instance, I would not recommend Grave of the Fireflies to a small child), but the films are generally suitable for both children and adults. They remind us that there still is beauty in this world, which is something everyone — regardless of age — needs to hear during these times. Although there are many outside forces we cannot alter, we possess the power to change our individual circumstances. Hayao Miyazaki himself has stated, “Yet, even amidst the hatred and carnage, life is still worth living. It is possible for wonderful encounters and beautiful things to exist.”

If that hasn’t convinced you yet, Studio Ghibli films are visually stunning. Every little detail of each film is treated with tender, loving care. The art is incredibly colourful and detailed, with even the most mundane of scenes oozing with meaning. If you have seen Spirited Away, there is a moment towards the latter half of the film where the protagonist Chihiro is taking a train with the character No Face. It is a calm moment — much-needed after a film that has been full of adventure so far — and, in my opinion, it ends up becoming one of the most beautiful scenes in the film. The train ride scene becomes this deep breath for both Chihiro and the viewer; a moment of stillness. In Spirited Away, something as mundane as riding a train is romanticised, and I think it’s important to take those little moments and implement them into our everyday life. Even when we are limited to the indoors, overwrought by online school, co-op jobs or other commitments, we can find tiny, yet powerful reasons to keep breathing.

If you’re looking for something new to take your mind away from the hardships generated by the pandemic — or perhaps you are already a Studio Ghibli fan and you’re looking for an excuse to rewatch your favourites — I highly recommend giving Studio Ghibli a try, even just to get the gist of what I am talking about. The films are available on Netflix. Sweet Dreams Teashop here in Waterloo also carries Studio Ghibli merchandise, if that tickles your fancy. Maybe don’t watch Grave of the Fireflies though, unless you are prepared to feel depressed afterwards.