When creating a fictional universe, considering coherent characteristics of people, culture, history and geography among others, become crucial. Effective world building happens when creators cogitate on even the tiniest of detail, drawing the audiences in. Studio Ghibli films are among those that have continually championed this achievement since their foundation back in 1985. A trait that remained consistent across all 20+ of their movies.
Amidst all their magic and mysticism, they have always told stories of characters who have very relatable struggles and sorrows, which make them feel very authentic and actual. A teenage witch who rides her mother's broom, but works to the point of burnout. A budding writer finds inspiration in an arty-crafty antique shop, but is riddled with self-doubt and a desire to become better. A warrior with a curse who gets besotted with a fierce wolf-child, but tries to undo human harm on nature. A city worker reminiscing her childhood growing up in 1960s Tokyo, but coming to terms with all she let go of.
The depth to which the animators, mostly Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, dive for world building is what brings these worlds to life. What they choose to communicate to the viewers, what they create – is more than a fictional world. The films allow the audience to spend a lot of time in the world of their characters. They include rather unremarkable undertakings. From cooking and cleaning to a walk around the block or a moment of admiring the environment through a character, these movies force us to let go of our disbelief and concede to the world they have created. Their incredibly appetising looking food has become a hallmark of the studio itself. Food has been central to the storyline of most films by the studio.
Even the tiniest of details is shared, giving you the sense of being present in that world. Living it with the characters. The artwork, most of which is done by hand, brings the world to life. There are simplistic scenes like walking through the market, or clouds floating in the sky, or light sparkling on the water, or air bending the leaves on a tree. The optics and intricate identities makes their films extraordinary and engaging. The entwining of fantasy with reality, of grief with hope looks effortless. The labour of love put in by the animators to make even the tiniest of details visible helps in making the world feel tangible and relatable.
Despite many of the movies being twenty years or older, they still feel relevant. As someone who grew up on a steady diet of Disney movies, my first interaction with Studio Ghibli films felt very uncanny. Curious even. These delicately artistic, hand-drawn visuals did not have a princess working for the approval of their charming prince. They did not hope for an alliance that could tag their lives as successful. Marriage was not their happily ever after. Ghibli heroines were bright and free-spirited, who explored and came to terms with their true selves and their identity. All protagonists, most of whom are females, have exceptional character design and development. Their ardour and attributes, all perfectly emoted through their facial and bodily gestures. Even the secondary characters are bestowed with a life. They aren't just random scribbles, going on in the background, rather actively adding to the story that takes place centre stage. More than family members, Ghibli movies emphasise the importance and need of accepting others and treating them with kindness and having a positive outlook towards the world.
The pandemic with the abundance of time it brought, made most of us wish we hadn't seen any movies before. Content consumption became one of the most common ways to keep us sane. Studio Ghibli has wonderfully portrayed the ordinariness and extra ordinaries of life, reminding us that excitement can be found anywhere. Casting a new outlook on the everyday and the grounded and fantastical approach presented by them grants us new insight into the human condition. Discovering (most of) and rediscovering (some of) these gems got a lot of us through the uncertainty the past two years has been, by creating worlds that felt so real, losing in them felt natural.