All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Studio Ghibli

Hayao Miyazaki’s deceptively cute animated films work magic with some very adult issues.

Metaphor in movies is older than that creepy Lord Cob from Tales From Earthsea. The magic glows in the message. Hayao Miyazaki first broke the spell of the cultural taboos against exposing kids to the uncut truth about life in 1986. What followed was an unprecedented species of fantasy and sci-fi animation that exposed the difficult truths and grim realities of being human. 

The sorcery of Studio Ghibli lies in its unbreakable policy that prohibits outside editing. Its producers stand by every unfiltered word and scene of their often controversial messages. The U.S., which has traditionally preferred more sanitized animated films, once suggested cutting the bloodier scenes from Princess Monononke in order to make the violent and often disturbing film more marketable (predictably to the under-13 set). Studio Ghibli was rumored to have sent the American studio an authentic Japanese sword with the message “no cuts”.

It’s about time that iconic sign on many a kindergarten teacher’s door was replaced, because the secrets of all you need to know in life are hidden in the enchanting—and often eloquently disturbing—anime of Studio Ghibli.

Get to know your backyard.

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Frolicking with forest spirits isn’t just child’s play. The supernatural beings in My Neighbor Totoro might just (metaphorically, at least) be the antidote to the concrete and asphalt paradise most of us live in, thinking of our increasingly man-made universe as a reflection of us. Satsuki and Mei’s friendship with Totoro and his unusual (to say the least) crew of furry sprites shows the ultimate in connecting with the natural world. No scene illustrates that better than the garden scene in which the two girls and what can only be compared to fuzzy round versions of mythological dryads perform a mystical dance in the moonlight, which only seems absurd until they find that their garden has started growing the next day.

Of course this doesn’t mean you have to to go outside at midnight and dance in the dirt in your pajamas. You don’t even literally need to hug a tree or do anything that might elicit odd looks from the neighbors. You might, however, want to take a moment to breathe in the smells of fresh air and grass and dandelions and remember that, in a world of landfills and exhaust fumes, you are part of an infinite mystery called nature.

Neither good nor evil has a face.

There is no telling what an empty black robe in a Noh mask is doing floating in the night breeze. What really lies behind the invisible masks sitting next to you on the subway and surrounding you pretty much everywhere is a mystery that should be approached with caution. Chihiro is right to have some trepidation (honestly, who wouldn’t?) when she first sees the spectral figure through the bathhouse window in Spirited Away. She is also right not to let her suspicions immediately turn into the dark spell of prejudice that subconsciously plagues so many of us because we won’t look beyond the mask.

Noh Face may mirror some sort of Grim Reaper let loose from the underworld, but this undefined creature or spirit or whatever it is only seems evil because it looks spooky and vacuums food like a rug shark. When it has an inclination to help, it hands out gold or extra soap; when it’s hungry, it swallows people. That might be enough to send anyone running until you realize the phantom is more ignorant than malicious. Shockingly, it can learn what should and should not go in that gaping chasm. You’ve now unmasked an ally—one you can even call a friend. 

War accomplishes nothing.

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In a field lit by fireflies, a brother and sister seem to be happily basking in the glow of the bugs until you realize they are both ghosts of the casualties of war. The backstory illustrated in the rest of the film, which can only be described as hope with ghastly undertones, is why Grave of the Fireflies might be the most wrenching Ghibli film ever made. Unsettling scenes of death and destruction are a powerful reminder of the the lives sacrificed “over there” as most of us casually flip through the channels.

Many other Studio Ghibli films convey the harrowing reality of war in 2-D animation. The magician Howl of Howl’s Moving Castle transfigures into a warrior-bird form every night so he can combat a nightly rain of missiles. Princess Mononoke is the ruthlessly bloody tale of the strife between forest gods and resource-burning humans. Castle in the Sky, Tales From Earthsea and Porco Rosso are bombarded with scenes of swordfights and fighter pilots that refuse to romanticize the violence of the battlefield. The raw emotion in these films proves that the most effective way to broadcast the aftermath of war isn’t always the evening news.

Hard work accomplishes everything.

Remember that this is fantasy. Nobody should be leaving home on a broomstick with little more than a cat and a portable radio at the age of thirteen. Regardless of that, Kiki’s Delivery Service delivers a grown-up message through a teenage girl who sets off to make it on her own as young witches are expected to do shortly after their thirteenth birthday. At an age when most kids’ pressing concerns are leveling up on Candy Crush Saga and staying out of detention, Kiki manages to secure a job, start her own side business, and save a friend from an airship that crashed in a freak accident. In a society that is slowly becoming one with its couch, this should be required watching for all seventh-graders. Even the lazy Tanuki of Pom Poko manage to hold off basking in the shade just long enough to pull off a massive revolt when they realize the forest they live, lounge and devour too much junk food in is at stake.

If a ragtag bunch of raccoons can devote their furry backsides to shapeshifting and martial arts training long enough to trick the developers threatening to bulldoze their home, then maybe we can unplug ourselves from our TVs and smartphones long enough to achieve something.

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Wanting it all will make you lose it all.

Whether it’s ill-gotten eternal life or supreme control over a floating island, Ghibli’s tyrants are not-so-shining examples of what happens when the thirst for power explodes into the bloodlust of self-crowned king Muska in Castle in the Sky and relentless immortality seeker Lord Cob in Tales From Earthsea. Cob, who prides himself on having transcended the ravages of time, still loses his hand, his staff, and his artificial youth. Muska is so blinded by his desire to be king of the floating island of Lapuda that his reflexes aren’t enough to stop the spell that kills him.

The cruder greed metaphor in Spirited Away involves more than just a hunger for food. Chihiro’s parents morphing into pigs after a gluttonous feast is actually a scathing commentary on the gross overconsumption plaguing Japan at he time, so of course, what better way to shake society into consciousness than to horrify people with the consequences in 2-d animation? Mikyazaki is a mastermind when it comes to shock value that opens people’s eyes to social ills so wide that their eyeballs might just drop out of their sockets. It apparently worked, because he still gets postcards about it. 

Don’t play Frankenstein.

You only need to flip the pages of a history textbook to the Dust Bowl or Hiroshima to know humans are constantly complaining about unnatural phenomena their interference with nature caused in the first place. The result of a supernatural union in Ponyo produces half-breed spawn that are a mashup of human and goldfish DNA (thank the mermaid). Ponyo might be the best example of the chaos—and the tsunami—that erupts in the wake of science experiments that should have never been. 

Sociopolitical firestorms have proven that the wrongness of Frankensteining nature is buried somewhere in the human psyche, whether the tampering is an end in itself such as GMOs or a side effect like the mutations caused by a mushroom cloud. Yet we keep producing as much paranoia as unspeakable things in test tubes. Mad scientist Fujimoto grows increasingly anxious about the flow of nature being disrupted after one of his genetically modified daughters escapes and excitement bubbles up among her quasi-fish sisters. What is so ironic is that it was his hideous experiment that led to what would become a mass exodus of mer-things.

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You need a heart.

What could be the spell to out-conjure all magic in the Ghibli-verse is the one the sorcerer Howl ends up casting on himself in Howl’s Moving Castle when he pitied a falling star that turned out to be the fire demon Calcifer. Sacrificing his own heart to keep Calcifer’s light from going out is a selfless act but also a foolish one that traps Howl in an eternal state of adolescence. For all its magical trappings and halls full of toys and enormous chicken legs, his castle is no more than the hollow shell his ribcage is.

Too many of us who don’t live in an otherworldly realm are trapped in Howl’s often dangerously impulsive state of mind when faced with the glamour of power and fame and and materialism that only glitters until it leaves us barren inside. Sometimes it isn’t outside forces (supernatural or otherwise), but our own self-doubt that wears away at our heats, which is what happens to the distraught young witch in Kiki’s Delivery Service until she realizes the power of the words she’d mumbled over tea with a local artist. Even non-witches and non-warlocks can be lifted up from despair by remembering the magic words: We fly with our spirit.

Cartoons this side of the Pacific have long been brushed off as empty mental calories for kids who aren’t yet out of junior high, sugary as the cereals and candy advertised on Saturday morning commercial breaks. Miyazaki’s mindset was clearly lost in Earthsea or Lapuda for many horrified parents who accused his brainchild studio of making movies that are “not family friendly” and “have a darker agenda”. The source of Studio Ghibli’s genius may be even more mysterious than the secret to eternal life or what makes etherium float an entire island in the clouds, but maybe those fantastical worlds are where we really need to go in order to understand—and respect—our own.