How Studio Ghibli Themes Appeal to Everyone, by Lauren Tolliver
If you follow my Letterboxd, you'll probably notice that my latest fixation of the last few weeks are Studio Ghibli films.
A lot of people probably saw at least one Studio Ghibli film at some point growing up. Maybe it was Spirited Away, director Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 Oscar-winning adventure fantasy film. Or perhaps you watched one in theaters with your family, like Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s The Secret World of Arrietty, which released in the United States in 2012. I, however, was not one of those people.
Despite growing up watching movies constantly, Studio Ghibli, arguably Japan’s most well-known animation studio, was never on my radar.
It wasn’t until I was stuck in bed with pneumonia two weeks ago that I went from barely knowing what Studio Ghibli was to being full-on obsessed.
It was day six of being bedridden when I decided to watch Howl’s Moving Castle after finding it on a Letterboxd list of comfort movies. I had no background for what to expect from this 2004 Miyazaki film other than it looked like a cute kids movie that my deliriously ill brain could probably handle.
Howl’s Moving Castle follows Sophie, a young woman who gets cursed by a witch to prematurely age into the body of a 90-year-old. Along the way, she finds herself in the magical moving castle of the infamous wizard Howl. As Sophie searches for a cure, she must also help Howl and his friends through their own journeys as an ongoing war looms in the background.
I was beyond amazed. Looking past the breathtaking visuals and beautiful soundtrack, I was astounded by how the film's depth.
Howl’s Moving Castle deals with some heavy topics, especially for a kids film. From war to depression to found family, there are dozens of interconnecting ideas and narratives. But what hit me the most was the theme of finding confidence within.
Before she was transformed into an elderly lady, Sophie was already insecure about her looks. We see her struggle with confidence from the start. As a 20-year-old girl in college, I immediately connected with this: It’s easy to feel self-conscious about my looks when I’m surrounded by so many other young adults to compare myself to.
As we watch Sophie help Howl (and begin to fall in love with him), we see her rapidly bouncing between young and old. While it is confusing at first, by the end, it can be interpreted that her external age reflects her internal conflicts; when she's “young looking,” she is confident in herself, and when she is “older looking,” she is more insecure. Through loving herself, and finding support from Howl, she no longer needs to find a cure for her curse. Instead, she overcomes it by learning to be confident and love herself.
It’s inspiring and something that still sits with me. The more confident we are with our inner selves, the more confident we can be with our looks. Everybody says “beauty comes from within,” but, for me at least, those words typically go in one ear and out the other, especially when I'm already feeling insecure. But the way Miyazaki created this story has stuck with me — it transformed the statement from a tired cliche to a learnable lesson.
I mean, did I cut my hair short because I was inspired by Sophie’s haircut? Maybe!
If it hasn’t been clear yet, I quickly became obsessed with Studio Ghibli and all of its magical creations. Immediately after watching Howl’s Moving Castle, I watched Spirited Away, another incredible movie.
Since then, I have rewatched Howl’s Moving Castle three more times (one of those being in theaters for Studio Ghibli Fest’s re-releases) and have watched five other films from the studio, including the lesser-known 1995 film directed by Yoshifumi Kondō, Whisper of the Heart.
Whisper of the Heart absolutely blew me away. If you only take one thing away from all of this, I hope you feel inspired to watch it. It holds such a special place in my heart and I will advocate for it till the day I die.
Whisper of the Heart is about 14-year-old Shizuku, who feels at a loss with school. She is confused about what inspires her and doesn’t know what to do with the rest of her life. One day she notices a name in every book she checks out from the library: Seiji Amazawa. This launches her on a journey of love and, more importantly, self-discovery.
What I love most about Whisper of the Heart is how the two main characters are able to inspire each other. Seiji wants to become a professional violin maker and knows exactly how to get there. Shizuku eventually learns she wants to be a writer, but she has no idea how to make that happen. She even considers dropping out of school at one point to fully pursue her dreams. As a hopeful filmmaker someday, I would be lying if I said I’ve never had the same thought.
Shizuku and Seiji end up falling in love, but they don’t let the love they have for each other get in the way of their love for their individual passions. Instead, their relationships allow them to pursue their passions with even more energy than they would have on their own.
This film is more grounded than many of the other fantasy-driven Studio Ghibli films. While it doesn’t have the same spellcasting or flying creatures, it still has the exact same heart that makes all of their movies memorable.
I can’t think of many other films that I relate to as much as Whisper of the Heart. I have two majors that really don’t go together (education and film studies), and I’m constantly in turmoil about what to do with my life, but Shizuku made me feel seen. She followed her passion, even if it went outside the normal path. And just as Seiji inspired her, Shizuku has inspired me.
Following our heart can be scary, but Whisper of the Heart teaches us that it’s worth it to take that risk, no matter what point we’re at in life.
There has been something in every single Studio Ghibli film I’ve seen so far that I have been able to connect with. I would say that I wish I watched these films when I was younger so I could have learned from them earlier, but honestly, I think I'm relating and getting more out of them as a 20-year-old than I would have at 10 years old.
Studio Ghibli films present life lessons for all ages wrapped in a warm hug of magic. So next time you need a pick-me-up, give any of the Studio Ghibli films a watch and prepare to join the obsession with me.
(Just don’t watch Grave of the Fireflies if you need something to help you feel better — unless you need a good cry.)