Imagination and Individuality: Youth in the Films of Studio Ghibli


It’s common to call Hayao Miyazaki the “Walt Disney of Japan.” His animation company, Studio Ghibli, which he founded alongside director Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, has affected children in much the same way as the classic animated films of Walt Disney. Like Disney classics Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the films of Studio Ghibli are simply magical.

However, that glorified description doesn’t capture the profundity of the films of Studio Ghibli. Unlike Disney, Studio Ghibli does not have capitalist domination on its mind. For Disney, films, toys, and theme parks are avenues through which to shape American culture and create an ideal corporate juggernaut. Although Studio Ghibli has benefited monetarily from merchandising, toys are only meant to prop up the cost of film production. Toys are a means to an end, which is making more movies. For Disney, the money and cultural influence is the end.

As well, Studio Ghibli’s interest in children is deeper than using them as a captive audience through which to shape culture. The films of Studio Ghibli seek to capture the profound experiences of being young. Golden Age Disney films are great movies, but they deliberately lack some of the thematic complexity to be found in the work of Studio Ghibli. They’re fairy tales, which have great mythological and emotional power but lack nuance.

Studio Ghibli understands that youth is about transition. Stuck between childhood and adulthood, adolescents struggle with defining themselves amid the tensions between social expectation and individual determination. As they’re not fully developed, physically or cognitively, they experience this tension in amplified ways. Few films capture this tension better than those of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.

However, both directors approach this tension differently. Hayao Miyazaki depicts youth as a state existing between the real and the fantastic. Unlike adults, adolescents can experience both the mundane and magical realities of the world. While Isao Takahata’s films often deal with fantasy, he focuses more on young people’s relationship to society. In his films adolescence is defined by the tension between what young people want for their lives and what their parents, or society in general, deems appropriate for them. When taken together, these directors capture the balancing act that is youth.

Magic defines the films of Hayao Miyazaki. Whether it’s a fantastic bathhouse where spirits seek rest and relaxation or a floating castle that ruled the world in eons past, magical concepts and characters abound in his films. In Miyazaki’s films, youth can comprehend this magic amidst everyday reality. In the first Studio Ghibli picture, Castle in the Sky (also known as Laputa: Castle in the Sky), the miner Patsu fervently believes in the existence of the floating castle, Laputa. The castle is magic-embodied while Patsu’s life as a miner is humdrum reality. Patsu comes by his belief in the castle’s existence through his father, who glimpsed the castle once while he was still alive. For Patsu, Laputa is a talisman that links him to his dead father and could potentially unlock a future outside of poverty.

As the film progresses, the characters learn that Laputa does in fact exist and that its magical power is capable of both great beauty and great destruction. When the film’s villain gains control of Laputa and aims to use to take control of the world, most of the film’s characters despair. However, Patsu persists in believing that hope remains. His youthful belief in the fantastic allows him to transcend cynicism, for not only does he believe that the fantastic can coexist with the mundane, but he also believes in the possibility of an ideal reality. So not only does Patsu’s adolescence allow him to believe in the reality of something as fantastical as a floating castle, but it also allows him to pursue a cause that others believe is hopeless. For Miyazaki, youth allows people to see the wider realities of the world. It also gives people the courage to confront the challenges of the unknown.

This youthful optimism is also present in Miyazaki’s most iconic film, My Neighbor Totoro. Even more than Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro depicts youth as existing between reality and fantasy. In fact, the films shows that youth is the only time that reality and fantasy are held in perfect balance. The film follows sisters Satsuki and Mei, who move to the countryside with their father after their mother falls ill with tuberculosis (much like Miyazaki’s own mother did in the years following World War Two.) Shortly after settling in, Satsuki and Mei befriend a large, furry forest spirit known as Totoro, who distracts them from the depressing realities of their everyday.

Satsuki and Mei are the only characters in the film that can see Totoro and his magical companions (including the fantastic Catbus, which is just what it sounds like it is). Although their father never dismisses the existence of Totoro and actively encourages their engagement with him, he never sees Totoro. None of the adults see Totoro. This causes an ambiguity as to whether Totoro exists or not—whether he’s merely the result of their childhood imagination or a literal spirit living in the forest. 

Miyazaki never clarifies the issue one way or the other. By the film’s conclusion, Totoro’s literal existence doesn’t matter. His presence embodies the girl’s optimism and ability to embrace the world’s disparate realities. It’s only because Satsuki and Mei are young that they can comprehend the world as it actually is, understanding both the gravity of their mother’s illness but also the existence of a world that is larger than them, or humanity.

The ability of youth to comprehend humanity’s place in the universe is central to Spirited Away, Miyazaki’s most extensive examination of youth. It’s also his best film and the greatest animated film ever made. It follows the young girl, Chihiro, who becomes stranded in the spirit world after her parents are cursed when they visit an abandoned amusement park. In order to stay alive and hopefully save her parents, Chihiro agrees to work for the witch Yubaba in her bathhouse. However, part of Yubaba’s terms is that Chihiro relinquish her real name and adopt the name Sen. Chihiro agrees and soon enough, she cannot remember her former name. She is only Sen.

The disparity between Chihiro and Sen captures the way that children exist between the real and the fantastic. Although they are one and the same, Chihiro refers to the girl’s existence in the real world while Sen refers to her existence in the spiritual world. When we meet her as Chihiro at the beginning of the film, she’s a brat. She complains about moving to a new school and is scared of the world she finds in Yubaba’s bathhouse. She’s lazy and spoiled and unappreciative of life. When she becomes Sen, she learns to work. She becomes dedicated to the friends she makes in the spirit world, such as the dragon boy, Haku, whom she risks her life to save after he swallows a poisoned charm. She even learns charity towards those who might not deserve it, best exemplified by her sympathy towards the monster, No Face, and forgiveness of Yubaba.

It’s only because Chihiro is able to live in the spiritual world that she learns to be a better person. Her youth gives her access to the fantastic and the fantastic helps her grow. Thus, her ability to comprehend both the real and the magical is central to her becoming an admirable human being. Spirited Away culminates Miyazaki’s belief that youth exist within the real and the fantastic, and that that balance is essential to their goodness.

While Miyazaki focuses on how youth is balanced between the real and the fantastic, Isao Takahata focuses more strictly on youth existing in an existential limbo. His protagonists are often bullheaded individuals who come into opposition to social structures or mores. They want to be one thing but are pressured to be something else. This pressure often destroys them.

Takahata’s greatest film is his World War Two drama, Grave of the Fireflies. The film is one of the most uncompromising war dramas of the twentieth century. It’s also arguably the darkest animated film ever made. It follows siblings Seita and Setsuko as they try to survive in the aftermath of the Allied firebombings of Tokyo at the tail end of World War Two. The film’s power lies in its matter-of-fact look at humanity’s evil, but it also offers Takahata a chance to explore youth’s opposition to social expectation. 

Early in the film, Seita and Setsuko’s parents die and they go to live with their aunt. However, Seita soon discovers his aunt to be an uncaring, resentful woman. She treats Seita as little more than a servant, doles out miserly portions of food, and ignores Setsuko’s childly needs. Social custom insists that Seita respect his aunt and do as she wishes, but he’s a willful young man. He refuses to kowtow to her and abandons her, taking Setsuko with him. The decision proves to be his undoing. Eventually he runs out of food while trying to live in the wilderness. This leads to starvation, which first kill Setsuko and then Seita. While Grave of the Fireflies is most interested in the brutality of warfare, it also captures some essential qualities of youth. It’s a depressing look at the determination of the young to form their own destiny.

Takahata’s final film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, also defines youth by its quest for individuality. Like Grave of the Fireflies, it’s also pessimistic about youth’s ability to accomplish that quest. The film adapts the oldest written Japanese fairy tale, about a bamboo cutter who discovers a baby girl inside a bamboo shoot and raises her as a princess. The baby quickly grows into a free-spirited girl who basks in the glories of the simple forest life. However, the bamboo cutter soon discovers gold and fine silk in the bamboo forest and takes it as a sign that the gods want him to raise the girl as a princess. He uses the gold to build a castle, purchase a lordship, and goes about raising the girl as befits a princess. The decision robs the girl of her youthful joy.

The Princess Kaguya wants nothing more than to live in the woods and play with her friends. She loves the quiet of the trees and the open-ended opportunity over each hill. However, society deems that wrong for a princess. Her parents only want to do what society says is right, so they force her to wear elaborate gowns, play instruments, and quietly act the part of a lady in search of a rich husband. 

However, Kaguya does not succumb quietly. In the film’s best scene, she overhears a group of suitors talking about her like they would livestock and she flees the castle for the forest village. As she runs, the animation simplifies until it consists of furious charcoal lines of her trying to flee her life—and society’s expectations of her. Kaguya eventually goes back to her life as a princess and that life robs her of her identity and earthly existence. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya shows that youth’s essence lies in its desire for individuality. And that adulthood is often born out of killing that individuality.

Takahata’s 1991 film, Only Yesterday (which only got released in North America this past February), is less dour than Grave of the Fireflies or The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, although no less profound. It follows Taeko, a salarywoman in her late 20s, who spends a week in the country working on a farm for some distant family members. Takahata splits the narrative between Taeko’s experience on the farm and her childhood growing up in the mid-1960s. Taeko even encounters her childhood self on a few occasions, offering Takahata a chance to reflect on memory and perceptions of self. 

Like The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Only Yesterday defines youth as a battle between the individual and the world around him or her. For instance, in the flashbacks, we see Taeko gain a passion for acting after stealing the show during a school play. Always lacklustre academically, Taeko sees acting as a chance to be a star—and the world around her sees it too. Students from a nearby college beg her parents to let her star in their upcoming stage show. However, Taeko’s father quickly disabuses her of the notion. He finds acting unbecoming of a good woman and forbids to her pursue it. Taeko acquiesces to his wishes, but the wound left by her submission never heals.

Taeko’s inability to determine the course of her own life essentially prolongs her youth. Although she’s in her 20s during the present-day scenes, she’s emotionally an adolescent. She hates her job in the city and bristles at society’s obsession with the fact that she’s single, but she’s scared to pursue something different. As her week in the country progresses, she finds that she’d be happier working on a farm than being in an office in the city. However, she doesn’t come to an easy solution to her existential woes. It’s only by coming face-to-face with the person she was as a girl that she comes to a decision about her own destiny. In Only Yesterday, Takahata shows that youth is not always limited to adolescence. He also shows that youth doesn’t turn into adulthood until the battle between social expectation and personal agency has been definitively won by one side or the other.

The films of Studio Ghibli profoundly understand the experience of youth. Both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata are master filmmakers and their abilities to capture the balancing act of youth are unparalleled. Miyazaki shows youth’s ability to transcend the mundane and accept the fantastical, while Takahata demonstrates youth as a quest for self-actualization. Miyazaki generally portrays youth more optimistically while Takahata counterbalances him with a more pessimistic bent. Together, their films offer a unified vision of adolescent experience. 

While both Miyazaki and Takahata are retired, Studio Ghibli’s exploration of youth has not ended with their careers. Hiromasha Yonebayashi’s The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There both explore youth in much the same ways as Miyazaki and Takahata. And even if Studio Ghibli never makes another film, its legacy will not die. Its films will remain perceptive explorations of youth’s many beauties and travails—and sterling testaments to the experiences of being young.

This article was originally published on the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.