Magic in Motion: What Studio Ghibli Means to Me

In Commentary, FILM, THEATRE & TV, HOME by Melanie Christie

I am an animator, first and foremost. I draw pictures, and play them at 24 frames per second to fool the brain into seeing motion. I study movement, weight, gesture, emotion. I design the story, the camera angles, the scenery, and the characters. Every aspect is decided by me. In short, animation is the most dedicated and time consuming magic trick of all time.

I was 13 when I first saw Spirited Away. From the cover, which I thought to be juvenile, I passed the film off as a kid’s experience, something a mature teen such as myself would never enjoy. My reluctance and close mindedness almost cost me one of the most transformative film experiences I’ve ever had.

I almost never saw not only the beauty of the animation, but depth of the story, richness of mythology and the exuberance of the score. I almost didn’t spend every other Saturday till the age of 16 going into the city centre to buy (if I could afford it) a Ghibli film until I had a reasonable sized collection. I almost didn’t have to start that collection over again when I slipped on ice and crushed my DVDs when carrying them in my bag in winter – (at least it gave me a proper excuse to purchase the deluxe edition of Howl’s Moving Castle).

I think my thirteen year old illusions of maturity voice the way we all think about animation. Like a lot of magic tricks, animation is seen as childish – a piece of entertainment-lite, meant to quickly amuse the children, while the adults watch the real media.

My-Neighbor-TotoroI’ve always found Studio Ghibli to directly challenge this. From the stark and tragic tale of Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies to the utter joy and wonder of Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (which incidentally were both released side by side in cinemas, awarding them the title of most oxymoronic double billing in cinema history), it is clear that animation can employ a large range of themes and concerns, and manage not only to carry them well, but to master them.

Yet Ghibli can go even further than that. They have at their disposal a tool which many creators would sell their soul for – True Universality. The films don’t aim themselves to be for children, nor do they aim themselves to be for adults. They aim to be films in their own right, dealing in realistic ways with all the joy and adversity there is in real life, even in the most fantastical of settings. They don’t infantilise, but they don’t overcompensate on ‘mature’ themes either.

For example in Laputa: Castle in the Sky we see the joy of exploration and riding with sky pirates, but we are simultaneously confronted with the destructive nature of power. In Kiki’s Delivery Service we follow a young witch on her journey to the big city, but are also faced with her loss of identity. In Howl’s Moving Castle we encounter the joys of magic, love and family, whilst we simultaneously witness the inevitable downfall that comes with greed. Few films can be so universal, so effective in giving joy to each and every age group.

ghiblihummingbirdmeEarlier this year Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki announced the possible discontinuation of all Studio Ghibli productions, which was announced concurrently with co-founder and director Hayao Miyazaki’s decision to retire. Inevitably, this has led to great speculation about the uncertain future of the studio. I, like many others who hold the studio close to their hearts, sincerely hope that this is not the end.

Studio Ghibli taught me what film and animation could be – they showed me happiness, love and joy, but also frank depictions of destruction, power and greed. Even more significantly, this is the studio that inspired my decision to learn this glorious magic trick that takes more than a lifetime to master. Studio Ghibli’s doors may stay closed, or they may re-open. In any case I hope to see their legacy continue, and for them to be remembered. I am an animator, first and foremost, and this is what Studio Ghibli means to me.

Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan is an animation student living in Edinburgh. His hobbies include swearing and listening to video game soundtracks. His favourite Studio Ghibli film is Princess Mononoke, but it will have probably changed if you ask him in a few months’ time. He is totally open for commissions and can be contacted at

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