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An excursion into the magical world of Japanese animation studio, Studio Ghibli.

It’s Sunday evening and you’re cosying up to watch a good movie or TV show. Deciding what to watch can be surprisingly daunting, but you can’t go far wrong with something from the Studio Ghibli oeuvre. If you’re not sure who they are, then they are the people behind movies Spirited Away, Ponyo and My Neighbour Totoro. They’re often referred to as the Pixar or Disney of Japan, and in some ways that’s true.

Like their American counterparts, Ghibli are master storytellers and animators, favouring gorgeous hand drawings over CGI. Their movies are for children, but also deal with adult themes and philosophical concepts and, like a lot of good art, a subtly suffused with strong moral messages and warnings. They can have you laughing one minute and dabbing your eyes with a tissue the next. 

Hayao Miyazaki and Shinto

The studio was founded in 1985 by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki. A creative genius, he wrote and directed nearly all of their most popular movies. His storytelling takes a lot from the indigenous Japanese religion, Shinto. In Shinto, nature takes the form of gods or spirits.

Hayao Miyazaki

Miyazaki at Comic-Con by Natasha Baucas

Through mutual respect and understanding, the aim is to ensure a harmonious relationship between humans and these spirits and thus with the natural world. There are two of Miyazaki’s films, in particular, that bring to life the environmentalism within Shinto.

shinto shrine

A Shinto shrine, a common site in Japan

Princess Mononoke

Apparently, this is one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s favourite movies and, given the actor’s environmental activism, it’s easy to understand why. A warning if you have kids: it is one of the most grown-up and unsettling of Studio Ghibli’s stories.

Prince Ashitaka is wounded protecting his village from a spirit that has been turned evil as a result of a conflict with man. In an attempt to heal himself before it’s too late, he goes on a quest to a faraway land where he gets caught up in a war between forest spirits and the humans of Iron Town, who are destroying the forest to fuel their growing industry.

princess mononoke and prince ashitaka

Princess Mononoke and Prince Ashitaka

Rather than environmentalists, the mayor of Iron Town—the talented Lady Eboshi—has to fight wolves, wild boars and monkeys, as well as the wild Princess Mononoke herself (there’s a greedy local warlord too, but we’ll not go into that). It’s up to the Prince Ashitaka to try and broker peace between the two factions and demonstrate that they can coexist peacefully. We don’t want to spoil the ending, but it’s quite spectacular!

Spirited Away

The most famous of Ghibli’s films, Spirited Away was picked up by Disney in the US and won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature (beating Ice Age!). In this case, a young, slightly spoilt girl called Chihiro has to take a job working in a bathhouse for spirits—a quite marvellous place full of interesting characters: frogs, birds, strange little coal creatures, the odd radish. Also, shout out to No-Face as one of the most lovable movie characters of all time. 

Whilst she’s there, a bothersome “stink spirit” makes an appearance and causes minor chaos. When finally calmed down and cleaned, it turns out to be a river spirit that has been polluted by people’s careless actions. As with Prince Ashitaka, Chihiro becomes a bridge between the human and spirit world, tasked with creating balance and harmony between the two. 

stink spirit spirited away

Stink Spirit. Smell level: unbearable.

river spirit

Clean, happy River Spirit

Even if environmentalism is not part of the plot, the beautiful animated worlds and creatures lovingly created by Miyazaki and Ghibli signify a respect and appreciation for the natural world and a childlike wonder for it.

Who are our Ashitakas and Chichiros?

Unlike in Ghibli’s movies, the natural world can’t stand up for itself in the sense that it will send out troops to protect itself or come marauding through a spa. But we are beginning to feel its balance being disturbed in other ways. The Anthropocene, or age in which our actions are altering nature’s systems, is upon us.

We need leaders to be strong and there are some obvious champions in the environmental movement: the Greta Thunbergs, John Kerrys and Satish Kumars. But, corny as it sounds, we all need to be Ashitakas and Chichiros if we want to save the planet for future generations. 

Here are our top 10 ways you can do your bit to live more sustainably. Also, hands up if you think we should make some special Ghibli character mobile cases! 


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