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Studio Ghibli: where art, dreams and meaning converge

For more than 35 years, Studio Ghibli’s films have offered spectacular visions without parallel, but perhaps their most remarkable achievement is that they make us look at the world around us with a newfound sense of hope.


For quite some time, philosophers, scholars and artists have been trying to fathom the purpose and meaning of art. In spite of all the abstraction that goes into the serpentine affair, empiricism recognises that artistic expression is both influenced by and a response to all the tragedies, triumphs, beauty and chaos that texturise the human experience — a word-transcending language of the soul that permeates and echoes all that is human.

After all, if WWI had not forever shattered the idea of innocence, would surrealists ever have been led to escape the gloom of the zeitgeist and explore the realm of the unconscious, dreams, and fantasy? In a world so tainted by the powers of evil, where truth is veiled from our eyes and impermanence seems to be the only rule, art seems to be the only shelter from the unrest of the world — a cathartic ritual by which humans can purge their traumas and retrieve a lost sense of peace, purity and hope, while coming to terms with the fact that, if they are not to live forever, they may at least find solace in creating something that will.

In that spirit, not many creative mediums have bridged the distance between artistic expression and the search for what it means to be human so brilliantly and memorably like Studio Ghibli films. For decades, the Japanese animation powerhouse founded by Hayao Miyazaki, his long-time collaborator Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki has produced an otherworldly oeuvre of fantasy worlds and heartwarming narratives that, despite the current times of ongoing wars, democracies on the verge of collapse and a climate crisis looming large, remind us of the ever lingering magic of being alive even when the world feels all devoid of it.

Soul-searching in lost worlds

In interviews collected in “Starting Point: 1979-1996”, Miyazaki mentions a universal “yearning for a lost world”, which he refuses to call nostalgia, since it is intrinsic to children, too. In his eyes, people long not for what they remember, but what they’ve only sensed beneath reality’s skin. In dreams, desires are cut loose, and Miyazaki’s films capture that tantalising freedom in ways that vanquish all shadows of ethereal unease from the real world.

Universally recognised for their spellbinding worlds, many influenced by Japanese mysticism and folklore, their symbolically-charged narratives are, in contrast, grounded in a rather dim view of the world and experiences that are umbilically inherent to the human experience. Characters are often found fleeing war-torn villages, haunted by trauma, grieving the loss of loved ones, yearning for freedom, love and identity, ever longing for an adventure in a strange land where possibilities are as vast as the boundless dreamscapes of Miyazaki’s imagination.

Whereas Ghibli’s fantasy factory is unique at fabricating worlds where spirit gods roam amongst ancient trees and shimmering light, where ancestral spirits inhabit contemporary bathhouses, castles wander across the heavens, and flying aces are turned into lonesome pigs, an underlying existential bitterness infuses many of these characters’ motivations and backgrounds, even though without ever allowing them to fall into obscurity. Instead, that shroud of simmering darkness is only a pathway leading towards a reencounter with hope and a new sense of purpose for their lives.

When young Chihiro traverses into the mesmerising spirit realm of “Spirited Away”, she gradually sheds her inhibitions and overcomes her fear of the unknown, morphing into a poised, fearless teenager ready to face the challenges of adulthood. Porco Rosso, a war-tormented character turned into a world-weary pig, is searching for something more than just material rewards or adrenaline-fueled pursuits; rather, he’s looking for some kind of redemption, a way to reconnect with what is left of his humanity. And while purging his characters’ demons, Miyazaki, the solitary artist standing behind these tales of internal quest, fulfils the purifying purpose of artistic creation — making peace with his own.

In 1944, Miyazaki-san was only three years old when his family fled the menace of war over Tokyo for the countryside. Some of his earliest memories, he’s recalled in interviews, involved being confronted by the tragic consequences of WWII in Japan. If art is indeed the imitation of life, certainly beneath the surface of his timeless, soul-searching narratives echoes a deeper conversation of a man with his past, attempting perhaps to reconcile himself with the ugliness of the world through the rapturous beauty of his art.

The mundane and the magic

In Ghibli’s oneiric realms, especially Miyazaki’s, the familiar fuses with the mystical time and time again, resulting in an ever present sensation that even the most mundane of all things and minimal daily rituals hold a magnetic potential to spark childlike wonderment. These cinematic mosaics excel at making fantasy and the plausible coexist in a surreal realism that leaves one’s heart and soul utterly spellbound. But this sense of enchantment transcends far beyond the epic adventures and enthralling landscapes they portray.

One of the biggest triumphs of Ghibli’s narratives is how candidly the mundane magic of quotidian life is revered. Ordinary moments are kinetically glorified with a delicate sense of beauty and awe, reminiscing on the idea that real magic is not always about breathtaking spirit realms or legendary beasts, but rather found in the simple joys and small gestures of kindness of everyday life — moments of extraordinary simplicity that make us believe that magic, love and optimism, like in Ghibli movies, are only ever just around the corner of our reality, waiting only for the moment to be revealed.

Reaching a balanced point of convergence between fantasy and reality is, however, something major animators aside from Ghibli struggle to succeed at. Ghibli’s unique style of animation demonstrates a mastery of technique and attention to detail with every single scene to bring the world of the storyteller’s mind to life, so that, no matter how unimaginable the story might seem on paper, it always ends up delivering a tangible sense of nostalgia, tactility, and soulfulness on screen.

More than 20 years have passed since “Spirited Away” was crowned Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. By the time it was released, a big changeover was already happening in Japanese animation, as more and more animators were starting to use computers rather than traditional two-dimensional, cel-based animation. Nowadays, many studios have gone mostly digital, leaving 2-D animation behind — but not Ghibli. In the era of CGI, the studio has remained true to its hand-drawing essence with remarkable stoicism, largely declining, by heart and tradition, to incorporate computer-generated animation into their films, except in the most minimal ways (and excluding, of course, Goro’s glitchy “Earwig and the Witch”).

While certainly hand-drawing entails a degree of patience as colossal as a Demon God, it has undeniably shaped the singular animation aesthetic of Studio Ghibli, whose defining element resides in the sensitivity and gentleness of its human touch. And nowhere is that sense of humanity more strikingly evident than in Takahata’s 8-year-in-the-making masterpiece “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”, whose traditional sumi-e watercolour aesthetic is wondrously appealing to the heart, proving yet again Miyazaki’s adage to be canonically true: ”whenever someone creates something with all of their heart, then that creation is given a soul”.

Soft world building, an everlasting spell

Unlike classical hard world building monuments like “The Lord of the Rings”, where Tolkien meticulously blueprinted every single detail about Middle Earth’s lore to make the world as immersive, detailed and believable as can be, Ghibli’s soft world building approach leaves purposeful gaps in the viewers’ knowledge, making just enough space for a sense of mystery and wonder with the story to endure way beyond the film’s screen time.

Instead of overwhelming spectators with laws by which worlds are bound, soft world building creates unknown and flexible rules, a crafted and intentional disregard for logic that allows the audience to get lost in a world apparently rid of any gravity. This philosophy sustains every single particle of Miyazaki’s presumable swan song, “The Boy and the Heron”, where the legendary filmmaker proves once again to be in a tier of his own when it comes to giving life to an ambiguous world vision that can only be interpreted through a logic of dreams.

In ancient Rome, the heron’s cry was believed to herald the arrival of times of change. In the film, the heron’s call compels Mahito, the young protagonist grieving the loss of his mother, to step into a strange domain of the supernatural. There, he must cope with his pain and make sense of the unstoppable forces of a changing world. When the boy’s naïveté eventually crosses paths with the wisdom of an old wizard, the film seems to be about Mahito’s search for revelation as much as it revolves around the idea of an artist at the twilight of his life, meditating on his own demise and still searching for the value of artistic pursuit in a world so prone to ruin.

“Build your own tower”, the perishing wizard asks of Mahito, hoping that his legacy will inspire the boy to keep searching for his own answers in a realm that’s lost any sense of balance, as much as Miyazaki hopes we will too, even if only through the everlasting beauty of his dreams.

In sum

Some people are gifted with the magical ability to inspire by creating worlds in which one can get lost, found, and lost yet again; worlds that unveil the beauty and poetry that lie in the most ordinary rituals of life, where we can find shelter and solace from the upheavals of the real world. For more than 35 years, Studio Ghibli’s films have offered spectacular visions without parallel, but perhaps their most remarkable achievement is that they make us look at the world around us with a newfound sense of hope in our eyes.

In my own, therein lies the founding principle of artistic expression — creations that are given a soul to lift the human spirit higher, showing us that there’s still plenty of magic and beauty to hold on to, even when the world keeps telling otherwise.

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Article written by André Oliveira.
Edited by Nuno Tenazinha.


  • Photography by Pedro Santos

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André Oliveira