Special Feature: Studio Ghibli – the Japanese Disney?

In 2002, the Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature with the seminal Spirited Away (2001). To this day, it has been the only Japanese anime to win this prestigious award.

Whilst Spirited Away arguably garnered the most critical acclaim and international interest, there remains an established and devoted fan-base for the films of Studio Ghibli. The film tells the touching tale of Chihiro, a 10 year old girl who is moving house. On the way, Chihiro and her parents venture into an abandoned town which so happens to be the ‘other world’ of ghosts and monsters and is ruled by a mysterious witch. Separeted from her parents, Chihiro must start working at a huge bath house to survive.

One of the key aspects that maked Spirited Away such an impressive and unique animation has to be the strength of its characterization. The film’s director (and founder of Studio Ghibli) Hayao Miyazaki has stated, ‘I created a hero who is an ordinary girl, someone with whom the audience can sympathize. It’s not a story in which the characters grow up, but a story in which they draw on something already inside them, brought out by the particular circumstances. I want my young friends to live like that, and I think they, too, have such a wish.’

Although Spirited Away may seem to simply encompass a ‘coming of age’ story, it touches on a number of different issues that were prevalent in Japanese society during the turn of the 21st century. Perhaps most prevalebt are a concern for the global environment (a key theme in Ghibli productions, including Pom Poko [1994] and Princess Mononoke [1997]), the rapid increase in modernisation and finally the growing generational gap in Japanese culture. Chihiro’s troublesome journey in Spirited Away represents that of Japan during a period of economic hardship, struggling to come to terms with its identity, values and ideology, a re-appraisal of the sense of nation established during its post-war years.

Overseas distribution rights for Ghibli productions are contracted by Disney, accounting for why Studio Ghibli has been dubbed as the ‘Japanese Disney’. The other obvious similarity is that Ghibli produce some of the most popular animations for teenagers, children and families in Japan, as do Disney in the west. But this title is ultimalty problematic and in fact misleading in many respects.

Central to this problem is the sense of the local and the global film; the Ghibli films provide a substantial and heartfelt commentary and critique on Japanese society, and in this sense are culturally specific. The company is also notorious for its conflicts and tension with Disney; specifically when Disney were concerned with the editing or manipulation of Ghibli films for distribution in the west. This was famously brought to light when one Studio Ghibli producer sent a Disney exec a Japanese samurai sword, and a note, with the words ‘no cuts’, attached.

This admirable and defiant attitude, as well as in-depth, magical and fantastic productions, is what marks Studio Ghibli as a unique and distinctly Japanese animation production company. Rather than focusing on the Disney connection, perhaps it would be more pertinent to look for the ‘American Ghibli’?

Benedict Sycamore (CUEAFS)