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Studio Ghibli and the Eco-Fantasy

Updated: Mar 4

Dear Asian Youth,

The first time I saw a Studio Ghibli movie was during my primary school’s film club. I was eight years old at the time and had no idea what to expect when a teacher began to play Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” (2001). I was instantly captivated by the beauty of the animation and felt a connection with the protagonist, Chihiro. An inquisitive and whiny child? She and I were one and the same! But then, around twelve minutes in, Chihiro’s parents turned into massive pigs, and I -- along with a few of the other younger children in the film club -- screamed. That night, I made sure to be on my best behaviour around my mum, praying that she wouldn’t encounter the same fate and that I wouldn’t need to rescue her from the spirit world.

Until I was about eleven, I avoided Studio Ghibli films, but one day my sister showed me “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988) and I adored it. Were all the Studio Ghibli films about multifaceted young girls who come into contact with powerful spirits? My sister soon convinced me to watch “Spirited Away” in its entirety, and I was hooked. Since then, my comfort movies have been Studio Ghibli films. Whether it was an epic adventure like “Castle in the Sky” (1986) or something a little more domestic but equally magical like “Ponyo” (2008), Studio Ghibli’s signature animation and musical scores are enchanting, the plots enthralling, and the characters believable in their unbelievable settings. I especially loved “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004). A tax-evading, anti-war, androgynous wizard? Did I want to date Howl or be Howl? The jury’s still out on that one.

At eighteen, I love these films even more than I did when I was younger. It’s partly because I’m no longer afraid of the more scary concepts in these films, but mostly because of nostalgia. It’s being whisked back to that same feeling I had when I was eleven, absorbed in different magical worlds which felt so much larger than my own. To quote Sophie in “Howl’s Moving Castle”, “It all seems so familiar yet I know I’ve never been here before. I feel so at home.”

During exam season this year, I repeatedly watched “Arrietty” (2010) in the evenings to relax. The film follows Arrietty, a borrower who lives with her parents beneath a large house in the countryside. Monika Gobaira, in her analysis of Studio Ghibli’s allure, notes that the films “make magic out of the most ordinary moments,” and this is certainly true of “Arrietty”.[1] It’s calming to watch Arrietty simply wander through a garden or hang her washing. Around day five of the exam week, I started wondering what it was about this film that made me come back to it every night, rather than any of the other films I loved. Perhaps the stakes in “Howl’s Moving Castle” were too high for my brain to process at that time, and slice-of-life films like “Ocean Waves” (1993) were not fantastical enough. I realised that I was so fixated on “Arrietty” because it is a continuously optimistic ecological fantasy. In “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Princess Mononoke” (1997), we see nature under fire and must wait for its magical resolution once human wars have ended. In “Arrietty”, however, nature is unthreatened as far as we can tell. Indeed, Sho, a young boy who befriends Arrietty, travels to his grandmother’s house, with its magnificent, dream-like garden, for rest and tranquility.

It’s no wonder that Studio Ghibli films have a renewed appeal to young people when our generation is growing up during the new wave of global climate activism. More and more young people are raising awareness about the climate crisis, speaking about how it has affected them and their families, donating to environmental causes around the world, and demanding that their representatives combat these issues with more than empty promises. Corporations put much of the onus