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I can honestly say I've never been anywhere quite as magical as the Studio Ghibli museum in Tokyo. But the space isn't a shrine to the genius of animation wizard and co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. Instead, it celebrates the excitement, artistry, and radicalism of creative collaboration. Studio Ghibli's films aren't born of one man, the museum says, but from the labour and love of many.
Over the course of its 32 year history, Ghibli has produced some of the most memorable films in modern cinema, animated or otherwise. My Neighbor Totoro, Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Porco Rosso—to name but a few—showcase the filmic form in its purest state. They strike that heady balance between unknowable dreaming and unkempt imagination. And buried within the grandeur of these cartoon fables is a thrumming advocacy for kindness, understanding, and the path to both: Resistance.
Rather than offering simple escapism Ghibli reframes imagination—childlike and wild—as an essential weapon in the radical's arsenal. Fantasy becomes a way of altering what is real, a way to fight back.
Take Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies, likely Ghibli's most harrowing film and its bleakest. Set in the final moments of World War Two, Fireflies opens with a young boy, Seita, dying of starvation. The film serves a direct response to Japan's ongoing post-WW2 trauma. It begs the audience to "come and see."
In the afterlife, Seita's spirit joins the spirit of his dead baby sister in a cloud of fireflies in an open field. The starving siblings move with the same animated fluidity of Totoro's carefree child protagonists Mei and Satsuki—the only thing linking these seemingly polar universes.
In Ghibli's universe, slaying the dragon or melting the witch is never offered as the path of resistance. Where Disney pitches its villains as the crux of a problem—removable and fixable—Ghibli makes it clear they are the result of a system. Ultimately, the villain itself is interchangeable: Meet the new Scar, same as the old Scar. The "Big Bad" is never a camp lion or lisping advisor in these films, but rather the social and political structures that allow such characters to thrive. Ghibli's villains are rarely straightforward in their villainy.
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Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke is a good example. Her "badness" stems not only from greed, but also fragility. She's insecure in her position as leader. And her violent actions come from internal conflict: the desire to protect clashing with the desire to destroy. She is a product of capitalist vanity. "Now watch closely everyone," she says. "I'm going to show you how to kill a god. A god of life and death. The trick is not to fear him."
In Mononoke, capitalism is the degradation of imagination, wonder, and awe in relation to "otherness." The film's central conflicts are clashes of ideas: between modernity and the sacred; nature and industry; contentment and desire; Eboshi and our hero, the wild wolf girl. Living in a world of dress up in play, the wolf girl's entire character is a denial of industry's dogged stoicism and, as such, she must be destroyed.
Ghibli's criticism of fascism is far more direct in 1992's Porco Rosso. The film's protagonist, Porco Rosso/Marco Pagot, is an ace Italian pilot deformed by a curse during World War One, which turned him into a pig man. When we first meet Porco, he's spending his days chasing the Sky Pirates, the film's early villains. But what quickly becomes clear is these pirates are ultimately harmless—their slapstick banditry places them on the opposing side of a much more frightening system. Where the pirates come around to Porco and his friends, the fascists do not.
On the surface, Porco Rosso's "beauty is on the inside" message may seem simple. But it's deeply effective. What the film says is that courage and goodness cannot be separated from one another. And that fighting for a system with cruelty as its foundation—such as fascism—cannot be courageous or good. No longer a soldier, Porco may wear a mask of deformity but, as he so eloquently puts it, "I'd much rather be a pig than a fascist."
In Spirited Away, Chihiro can see past the mythic presence of the spirits around her and focus on their very human—very adult—gluttony. Her parents are transformed into pigs at a trough, Yubaba is vain and hysterical, Kamaji is single-minded past the point of listening. Chichiro navigates her world with maturity not because it is thrust upon her but because her childhood lends her a matter of factness her seniors can't afford, for fear of losing their status.
Kiki's Delivery Service is essentially a coming of age story, where the hero must balance the excitement of being a young witch with the banality of nine-to-five drudgery. Kiki is 13, and the film is essentially about her transition into adult independence. It's a fun acknowledgement of the same system that was so fiery and frightening in Mononoke: You can't exist outside this system, but you can strive for balance.
Critics of Ghibli say its films are "too escapist" or dangerously nostalgic (see: The Wind Rises). What they are missing though is that these movies aren't about a regressive yearning for our past, but a polemical request to bring a child's perspective into the present.
Like all fables, Ghibli's films carry a message. It's a simple one: Resist. Fantasy, dream, immaturity—these are vital tools. Pirates, bandits, fat-bellied wood spirits: these are acceptable allies. Wonderment isn't opting out, it's a path to empathy and self that a system that derides imaginations wants to deny you. Be a witch, be a wolf, be a pig. In the end, it's always better than being a fascist.
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