Growing up in the West, anime wasn’t something that was just there. You had to look for it. Usually, the entry point was Tumblr, with GIFs and stills that captured the animation's inherent melancholy. One single image with a singularly poignant quote attached. Most of these images came from the iconic Studio Ghibli, anime’s defining home.
Although Japanese animation had been around long before, it was mainly restricted to a Japanese audience. Ghibli managed to transcend the cultural barrier and reach a new, more global, viewership. Its messages were, in general, universal. Spirited Away, the studio’s most famous title, told the story of a child working with a supernatural entity in order to free her parents from their new animal form.
Underlining the film is the Japanese native belief system of Shintoism, whereby everything has a spirit. Spirited Away jars this faith with capitalism, showing the deterioration of faith in the face of a world awash with commercial values, manifesting as the protagonist’s father whose outlook to life is business-centric.
Despite drawing from Japan’s cultural and religious heritage, the outcome is something relatable for various cultures. There’s the idea of nature, of life lost and of spirituality’s perpetual presence, which is largely void in the West due to its increasing secularisation. Unknowingly, Spirited Away perfectly encapsulated a feeling of emptiness, blindisiding and audience with its complex themes.
One thing that defined cartoons and animations of our youth, from television through to Disney films, was the dichotomy of good and evil. The hero was clear and so was the villain. Very little shades of grey lay in between. Ghibli, and anime in general, was far more nuanced. The ‘bad’ guys weren’t all bad.
Expected of films geared towards a mature audience, this subtle - and lifelike - spectrum of characterisation is rarer amongst works geared towards a younger audience. This is largely why Ghibli's film found passionate kinship with an older audience. It's also why their anti-heroes and sad melancholy-steeped villains resonated with emo Tumblr.
The animation style isn’t necessarily for children either. Fantastical ghouls and creatures based on ancient folklore and mythology go beyond cartoons created simply for entertainment purposes. In the harrowing Grave of the Fireflies, two young characters navigate the final moments of the Second World War, encountering the cruelty and brutality it brings, whilst also finding the unity and kindness that such epic historical moments require for survival. Both a critically acclaimed and universal hit, the 1988 film is regarded as one of the most heart-wrenching ever made.
Of the 10 highest-grossing anime films, six are from Studio Ghibli. Make no mistake, regardless of their crossover appeal, the studio founded by anime giants Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki is the preeminent pioneer of Japanese animation - its tone, colours, aesthetic appeal and language are all indebted to their work.
Many may have found their introduction on online message and pictureboards well over a decade ago, with Ghibli as the gateway drug, the accessible and relatable that galvanised a more in-depth deluge into anime through more obscure - and less ‘easily translated’ titles. It is for this reason that their films, just like the songs, films and games of our childhood, hold such a dear place in many people's hearts.
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