It’s week three of summer vacation here in northern Japan, and my daughter decided to remedy a terrible gap in her education by renting 10 Ghibli DVDs last week. Ghibli is a world-famous animation studio, and you may know their films – Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service are just a few of the internationally released full-length features.
I’m trying to figure out what structures underlie the films. I’m not seeing a lot of 100 percent evil personified – this seems to be such a standard trope in fantasy. In Totoro, the only “evil” may be the mother’s illness, but that doesn’t drive the plot. Mei’s opinionated attitude does drive the plot, but can one really count the willfulness of a four-year-old as “evil”? LOL, it can be hard to deal with, but it’s not evil.
In Howl’s Moving Castle, the evil looks like it is anthropomorphized in the Witch of the Waste. But half-way through the film, the character makes a complete break with the character in the original Diana Wynne Jones book. Her power is drained, and she is turned into a doddering old woman – which contrasts nicely with the heroine, Sophie, who has been turned into a hale old woman by the Witch.
Without an antagonist, the conflict becomes softer and murkier. We get compelling tales, still, but they are about forming the bonds of community and society against bigger evils that individuals can’t control. Things like sickness or war or neglect.
The stories are absolutely charming. Sometimes the narrative leaves me scratching my head in confusion, but the details are often so perfect they leave me in tears of nostalgia. The Japan in a Ghibli film is a narrow slice of Japan, but it captures what was or what should have been so well. This attention to detail is most noticeable for me in the Japanese stories, but it also is apparent in realms where I don’t know what the “real thing” looks like. One feels so grounded and comfortable in a Ghibli film, and it gives a viewer a base on which to build emotions.
And let’s face it, Ghibli films are tear-jerkers. I don’t start watching one without making sure a tissue box is nearby. I learned my lesson from The Wind Rises when I ran out of tissue half way through the screening, and being in the theater meant I had no chance to pause the film and go find a box.
So, let’s turn the question over to you – what stories do you love that don’t have an obvious three-act, conflict-based structure? What makes you love them?
And as for me, I will pop a batch of popcorn and put the next DVD in the player. August is a great time for a film festival.