So, theme-wise there are four major themes that most Studio Ghibli movies adhere to: strong female leads, naturalistic animation, a connection to nature, and complex characters with simple stories. Major box office hits like Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Ponyo all adhere to these themes I’ve stated just now.
Strong female leads is a major theme in Miyazaki’s films. There’s Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service, San from Princess Mononoke, Chihiro from Spirited Away, Sheeta from Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Fio and Gina from Porco Rosso, Satsuki and Mei from Totoro, and Ponyo from Ponyo. These ladies represent independence and strength, they aren’t backseat characters. In fact, the females tend to drive the plot, without them there is no story. These women are capable of doing anything, for example in Porco Rosso Fio was the flight engineer and designs Porco’s aircraft, the sky’s the limit for the females in Miyazaki’s animations.
The animations are not realistic, far from it, but they are very naturalistic. In that I mean that they refer to a natural style of animation. I think of it as the A-B-C of Studio Ghibli, animation, background, and character. The animations are soft when it needs to be, like when it’s nature and fabrics, and they can replicate sturdy structures too, like buildings and machines. Backgrounds in the Ghibli films tend to be naturalistic the trees move and flow with the wind, all natural elements are present in the movies like rain, sun, and wind. The characters are naturalistic in the sense that they aren’t all “cookie cutter” characters. The characters are personalized and have different body-types. Even make-up is apparent in the animations.
Miyazaki has a philosophy that refers to nature as being the most important aspect in life. I’ve read that Miyazaki opposes using nature that are against the “flourishing of nature” (http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2014/11/conservative-vision-hayao-miyazaki.html). The common theme is that when you’re in an industrial city or just a city in general you are “trapped”, and the countryside is synonymous with rebirth and freedom. Nature is magical and the characters are constantly compared to the entirety of the world with the long shots of them as a small piece in the “big picture”. The characters live with nature, not against it.
Lastly, when I say complex characters with simple stories, I mean that these characters are human. They have emotions and thoughts that are similar to our own. Studio Ghibli do not have “villains” or “evil”, reality isn’t black and white and neither are the films. There are protagonists and antagonists, but no one is truly evil, if you think about it everyone just has their own goal in the plot. The characters have contradictions and inner conflict, they aren’t 100% “good” either. As we have already touched on, Studio Ghibli is a Japanese powerhouse that inevitably comes into contrast with the American animation studio- Disney. There are many differences between the products produced by each studio and it is completely opinion on which is better. I can tell you that after seeing the first ghibli movie that my brother brought home from college years ago… that I prefer Ghibli, and here are the many reasons why:
My favorite topic to discuss is the actual art style that differs between the two studios. Film after film, I am always amazed at the world Miyazaki creates and excited to see what he does next. The studio has the ability to catch the tiniest details of a real life countryside or city, as well as creating or blending in the more magical aspects of his stories. To me, Disney typically has large areas of solid flat colors with little detail.
Along with the scenery, Studio Ghibli also challenges the typical characters that you might find in a Disney branded movie. A major difference in Ghibli films is that the stories tend to center on young (usually female) lead characters. This is a very bold direction to take, even if discussing live-action movies. The women are strong and independent. They also don’t follow the typical love themes that seem to pollute almost all live-action and animated films. While love is a strong theme in many Ghibli films, it is not usually the main focus of the film and are typically deeper and more complex dealing with family, nature, or age.
These relationships are further examined in Ghibli films. In Ghibli films there are rarely “good guys” and “bad guys”. Instead, there are usually blurred lines that define good and evil leaving characters that ultimately just have opposing interests. Some of his films are near completely absent of fighting and focus on complexities of life. Complexities like growing old, losing a loved one, or destroying our environment. Subjects that are usually not the major message of Disney films. Another thing to note is that these films tackle these complicated subjects and relationships in kid centered movies. The studio recognizes that young children are smart enough to dissect the various messages in his films and decide for themselves how to feel. They recognize that kids can take in more than a basic prince and princess love story with a bad guy.
Speaking of plots, Ghibli films, like the relationships within them, also have much more going on. They are very creative compared to other animation studios and tackle themes/lessons that range from the importance of family, man living alongside nature, death, sickness, growing old, aren’t hidden but presented as a part of life… you can save yourself without help, believing in yourself, sometimes people leave but it’s ok, fight for what you love, war, the environment, human value, understanding other people’s culture/values, patience, young are capable, life has a lot of work, travel meet new places/things, women are more than their looks,
In the end Ghibli to me is a risk-taking studio. The fact that it is animation and maybe more so that their characters and scenery can be a bit wild or abstract at times seems to turn people off to great stories and characters that would much rather see a cookie cutter hero vs. villain movie with the gender restrictive roles that people are trying to get away from so much nowadays. It’s a studio that still painstakingly draws out most all of their animation for the art and discipline behind it. It’s amazing what the animators end up doing. I feel there is more sweat and work put into their films so they create art, especially in the physical form while Disney always comes off as being driven by profit margins, consumer driven messages, and safe characters and stories with no real surprises or stories that require further dissection or interpretation.