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How Studio Ghibli’s best films help me cope with the world

May 25 to 30 is Studio Ghibli Week at Polygon. To celebrate the arrival of the Japanese animation house’s library on digital and streaming services, we’re surveying the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. Follow along via our Ghibli Week page. This essay was originally published in 2018, and has been updated for republication.

Watching the films of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved Japanese animation studio, I tend to break down emotionally. It’s not just the magic that moves me, but the honesty and displays of self-fortification. There is no tragedy or cosmic dilemma without some uncommon sweetness, some anchoring strength, that the characters must provide for themselves.

It’s in the way Satsuki of My Neighbor Totoro packs bento boxes for her young sister, Mei, when their mother is hospitalized, or when Mei later throws a tantrum, crying for her mom, the thick mucus of heartbreak distorting and dampening her face. It’s Sheeta and Pazu from Castle in the Sky, snacking on toast “and, for dessert, a green apple and candy!” that Pazu packed, because he already loves his new friend.

I live in Florida, and during the 2016 election, I watched the faces of my friends who’d rallied for Andrew Gillum turn sallow as the night grew harrowingly long. The following day, we ate together, frustrated at a world whose sharp cruelty has, for us, always existed. I thought of Chihiro, the 10-year-old protagonist of the majestic Spirited Away, crying into a rice ball. Ensnared in a bathhouse for spirits, the film’s protagonist is miserable: A witch stole her name, and cursed food has transformed her parents into pigs. Still, Haku, a trapped spirit himself, makes time to feed her, and she in turn nurtures him. The base reality of Ghibli films is usually like our own. There are no superheroes, only complex characters whose bravery contends with self-doubt, and whose doubt regularly gives way to love. Every screening teaches me something about how to live in the cold, punitive real world with trust and compassion, which is hard to do.

Spirited Away - Chihiro and Haku share rice ball

Studio Ghibli/GKids

In the Still Processing podcast episode “We’re Maxed Out, You’re Maxed Out, Everybody is Maxed Out,” New York Times critic Wesley Morris describes the “enlightening tonic” of “culture that speaks to living with all this craziness […] and trying to make your way through it, in it, without losing your mind.” There’s media out there, co-host Jenna Wortham adds, “offering us coping mechanisms. They’re not easy outs, but they’re more possibilities for moving ahead.”

Ghibli’s interstitial scenes of ritualistic mundanity — innocuous conversations, cooking, cuddling — offer no escape from the disasters rotating round them. When Satsuki and Mei pick vegetables with Granny, their neighbor, or fly to the treetops on Totoro’s soft belly, nobody has forgotten the underlying tension, the potentially imminent loss. In Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata’s adaptation of an Akiyuki Nosaka short story, which wrestles with the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a young boy named Seita ties his baby sister Setsuko to his back in preparation for an air raid. He isn’t panicked. Viewers already know how the story will end for these children, thanks to the beginning of the film. But these displays of real kindness, the sort that envelopes another body in a warm, vulnerable hug, are coping mechanisms. It’s self-preservation in the face of despair.

The word “solastalgia,” dreamt up by philosopher Glenn Albrecht and his wife Jill to describe the grief associated with the slow loss of the climate as we know it, has created a lonely contour around my recent viewings of the films. As we beat it back, we slowly acclimate to the pain; Ghibli movies are full of possibilities for moving ahead, or for still moving at all. Seita and Setsuko, their homes and parents lost, build swings and catch fireflies. Setsuko pricks her finger on a needle and licks it. Seita often sacrifices his own body, forgoing food so Setsuko can eat. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki’s 2004 film adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ novel of the same name, the world at war seems on the verge of ending in flames. But it’s preservation of the heart — Howl the wizard’s literal heart, heroine Sophie’s metaphorical one — that matters; in an unusually happy ending, their love ends the battle.

Seita in Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Studio Ghibli/GKids

In that Still Processing episode, Morris admits he’s “close to getting maxed out” — that there is simply too much life to take in — and he’s right. Laputa’s villain, Muska, is sadistic and eager for destruction. He wants to find Laputa, unlock its secrets, and unleash something punishing. Laputa, as it turns out, once dominated the world, then was subsequently abandoned. It’s presumed that the city’s population relied too heavily on their advanced technology and lost their sense of connection with the natural ecosystem.

Here on planet Earth, I don’t think the oligarchic systems in power are theoretically more awful than they’ve been before. It’s just that our current particular incarnation of the nightmare feels atemporal, not unlike Laputa’s monarchy, which has left traces of its history everywhere, and seems destined to reign again in the future. The death of our planet’s resources feels as tireless as politicians’ umbrage, and the folks in power are perhaps excited to erase history and the earth along with it, replacing it with — what? Through Miyazaki’s lens, war and environmental destruction turns men into pigs (the protagonist of Porco Rosso), pigs into embittered spirits (the wild boars of Princess Mononoke) and spirits into filthy morasses of pollution (Spirited Away’s river spirit).

In The Kingdom of Madness and Dreams, Mami Sumada’s 2013 documentary on Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki recalls Jiro Horikoshi, upon whom his film The Wind Rises is based. Horikoshi designed the Zero fighter planes used in World War II; in The Wind Rises, he is an artist dreaming of flight, or maybe of freedom. His hopes are innocent, but they’re dashed by war. “They’re cursed dreams,” Miyazaki says. “Today, all of humanity’s dreams are cursed somehow. Beautiful yet cursed dreams.”

Miyazaki has been candid and adamant about his pessimism, and equally, about not allowing emotional toxins to slowly depreciate the desire to live. Being cursed — being alive when things are awful, which is mostly always — can be tiring. Care is a crucial luxury. In Howl’s Moving Castle, understood now as Miyazaki’s protest against the Iraq War, Sophie, a young girl transformed into an old woman by a witch, moves through horrors with newfound confidence and love for the people she’s found. Underneath battleships, belonging to a side of the war that’s never defined (“What difference does it make?” the wizard Howl asks), she cradles Markl, the child-wizard, cracks eggs into a pan one by one, nestles by the warmth of a fire demon named Calcifer, and embraces Howl in a field of glimmering, yellow-pink flowers. There is plenty of necessary quiet.

Howl’s Moving Castle: Sophie and Markel see an airship

Studio Ghibli/GKids

Midway through the devastation of Grave of the Fireflies, Seita takes Setsuko’s empty fruit-drop tin and fills it with water. (Later in the story, he’ll use it to house her ashes.) Setsuko gives it a shake: a flavored drink, infused with the dregs of candy! It’s so delicious that she laughs. In a review of Grave of the Fireflies for Japanamerica, Roland Kelts wrote, “Hollywood will have you believe that heroes are needed when times are tough. Isao Takahata shows us the humble opposite, that when times are tough what you need most is humility, patience and self-restraint. That’s how one survives.”

A beloved friend of mine once suggested that Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” is a good theme song for the Anthropocene — we don’t need heroes, Turner says, just a way out, together: “Love and compassion, their day is coming / All else are castles built in the air.” (The castle might as well be Laputa.) Love and humility are survival, even if they don’t “trump hate.”

Before an air raid, Seita brings Setsuko to the sea, where the saltwater laps at a rash she’s developed from malnutrition. The memory of their mother lingers over them, like a silken cloud. Seita promises to teach Setsuko to swim. “We’ll swim, and that will make us hungry,” she says, but she still seems eager. Her brother’s care has created a kind of fortress from which to move, and move forward. It’s only sad because it’s brief.


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