Studio Ghibli films have defined anime for many people, particularly those in the West, where these films are easy to find because of their relationship with Disney. The films are unique in their approach to animation as well as the themes that they tackle, which are thoughtful and sometimes darker than many of their animated counterparts.
Because of their quality, Ghibli films are generally able to take risks with storytelling that other animated films might not have the same freedom or skill to try. Here are 10 things in Studio Ghibli films that only their studio can get away with.
10 Being Self-Referential
At this point, Studio Ghibli films are kind of a genre all of their own. While their films are wildly different in tone and can range from a childhood fairy tale to a harrowing story of war, they all have similarities, from the cutesy creatures that often appear in the backgrounds to the iconic way hair is animated as if it’s a character in its own right.
Ghibli movies often reference each other, in such ways as having soot sprites appear in Spirited Away after being introduced in My Neighbor Totoro, or a cat statue appearing in Whisper of the Heart, then literally returning in The Cat Returns.
9 No Real Plots
This isn’t the case for every Ghibli film, but a lot of them are pretty quiet, even when they’re fantasies.
Films like Kiki’s Delivery Service or My Neighbor Totoro especially have this vibe where viewers follow the main characters around as they interact with their world and the magical things in it, slowly coming to learn things about themselves and their world in the process. Not every film would be able to take this slice of life approach to their films and be successful at them.
8 John Denver
The film Whisper of the Heart uses the John Denver song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” as a plot point, with the two children who are the leads in the film learning to play it, though it has different lyrics to reflect the fact that they live in the middle of Tokyo.
This would likely be cheesy and weird for most films, especially since it’s a song specifically about the state of West Virginia, but it’s very charming as used in Whisper.
7 Friendships Between Boys And Girls
Somehow, Studio Ghibli has done something that seems fairly impossible in most films about teenagers of different genders who have relationships. They have successfully created friendships between boys and girls, without necessarily creating romance between them.
Chihiro and Haku in Spirited Away, Kiki and Tombo in Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Ponyo and Sosuke in Ponyo are all relationships that are great shows of how two characters can have a close relationship without romance.
6 A Literal Sexist Pig
Porco Rosso is one of the lesser known Ghibli films, despite being as whimsical and fun to watch as any of them. It stars a man who is cursed to be a pig, his name translating from Italian as “Red Pig” and clearly meaning to be a reference to the Red Baron, as they’re both pilots who fought in WWI.
Porco has weird and bad views of women; despite being a pig, he’s something of a womanizer, and he does his best to avoid letting a talented mechanic help him with his plane because she’s a woman. But the movie is so endearing and Porco himself such a heroic figure that it’s hard to hold it against him.
Not all of Studio Ghibli’s films are made for children, but many of them are. In the West, they’re even distributed to Disney, the leader in children’s animation, regardless of their content.
Ghibli films don’t shy away from representing violence on screen, especially in films like Princess Mononoke, since it’s important to the themes of the work. Most animated films aren’t quite so overt with the bloodshed.
4 Melancholy Endings
Ghibli films are generally fairy tales at heart, like Ponyo or Spirited Away, but not all of them have happy endings. In fact, many of them are downright melancholy.
Films like The Wind Rises or even Spirited Away don’t have completely happy endings, and Grave of the Fireflies ends in actual tragedy. These films, known for being extraordinarily cute, tackle heavy themes, and that sometimes means things don’t turn out so happily in the end.
3 Environmental Themes
Hayao Miyazaki is very interested in issues concerning the environment. This preoccupation is clear in pretty much all of Ghibli’s films, many of which at least tangentially deal with the issues of the environment.
Princess Mononoke is overtly about a war over control of the land and what it means for the wildlife that lives on it; Spirited Away considers the way industrialization affects nature. These issues would feel preachy coming from most other storytellers, but Ghibli wraps up the message with an air of whimsy that makes it more palatable.
2 Anti-War Messages
Similarly to environmental issues, Ghibli makes no qualms about showcasing its view on war and what it does to both the planet and the people living on it.
Even sillier films like Porco Rosso deal explicitly with the fact that war changes people. By rarely making warfare the main element of a story, Ghibli movies create really beautiful messages about what war does to people in a way that doesn’t desensitize the viewer.
1 Being Meta
The Wind Rises was the last film Miyazaki made before going into retirement (though there are always rumors of him coming out of retirement). The film is about a young plane designer who has just been interested in making beautiful planes that will fly and how he’s devastated by their use in war once he completes them.
The film is pretty clearly a metaphor for Miyazaki’s own career and how he feels about the ways people use his work for capitalist gain. His casting of Hideaki Anno, creator of Evangelion, as the main character seems to especially drive this point home. Most films about art can come across as pretentious, but the craft and care with which Miyazaki tells this story of being disappointed over a successful career is deeply relatable and gorgeously told.
Studio Ghibli films have defined anime for many people, particularly those in the West. Here are the things only they can do!