Image: Collection of Miyazaki films / Dani Oliver / Flickr
We all know and love Disney films. No one can ever take away the hours of watching and re-watching our favourite animated movies. Since the age of three, I too have been captured by the magic of these films, and if I’m honest, just maybe I’ve kept up to date with new releases… But one thing has always been clear to me: Disney doesn’t come close to a Hayao Miyazaki film.
Disney has its place in my heart, but I have to be realistic. Disney can’t compare to Japanese animation connoisseurs Studio Ghibli, and I’ll tell you why.
The fundamentals of a Disney film can be summed up by the phrase ‘good versus evil’. Good is a beautiful person, living a life of innocence and purity. Maybe they’re a little snobbish or a little ignorant, but essentially, they are kind. They are kind despite their damaging upbringing, or their abandonment. Kindness is seemingly in their DNA.
Evil is an ugly person, living a life of hatred and wickedness. Maybe they’re clumsy or humorous, but essentially, they are mean. They’re mean despite their chances to change; they are mean because they seem to like it.
And in the end, generally speaking, the forces of good defeat the forces of evil. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Let me give you an alternative: A real human being.
Revolutionary, isn’t it? I don’t mean the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, I’m talking about character realism. Because out of Miyazaki’s 11 films and roughly 73 key characters, I have only ever found two which could be classed as ‘evil’. So, what does Miyazaki do differently?
For those of you who don’t know, Studio Ghibli is a Japanese film studio created by Hayao Miyazaki, an animator and director of numerous films for children and adults. Every one of his films is drawn frame-by-frame by him and his animators. So let’s take a look at one…
His film Spirited Away was released in 2001. The film follows Chihiro, a young girl, as she moves to a new neighbourhood. She and her parents take a wrong turn and wind up in an abandoned theme park. After her parent’s get transformed into pigs, Chihiro finds herself trapped in the spirit world. She must undertake hard work in a bathhouse for gods run by a character called Yubaba in order to return to the human world and save her parents.
Not exactly a storyline Disney would come up with.
Spirited Away has roughly eight key characters who drive the plot. Any one of these characters could fit into a stereotypical ‘fairy tale’ role. Yubaba, the ruler of the bathhouse, could be the witch. No-Face, the all-consuming monster. Haku, the mentor. Chihiro, the heroine. But it’s an imperfect fit.
Yubaba is an overbearing matriarch, controlling the lives of her trapped workers. But she runs a successful business, rewards and praises hard work in her employees, and provides an important service to the spirit world. She is not altogether bad, or good. She has her weaknesses, like her baby, who she spoils with affection.
No-Face is an example of what would happen if an impressionable and identity-less being found himself in a position of power. He is only a monster when he’s transformed by gluttony, which is fuelled by the bathhouse staff. No-Face isn’t a monster who is waiting to be defeated by a hero, he’s misunderstood and damaged, and waiting for compassion and guidance.
Chihiro, our protagonist, is trapped in the spirit world, where she is forced to work for a giant-headed witch, whose other employees are mostly frog-men and their guests are Radish Spirits or River Gods. Yet… she is not navigating an unrealistic world. Because the conflict is between people. People who are greedy, snobbish, insecure, entitled, vein, oblivious… but also victims of their surroundings.
This story could have been Chihiro’s fight against the Witch who trapped innocent people to work in service to rich and powerful gods. It could have ended dramatically with Yubaba defeated and the rejoicing of the workers who are liberated at last. And the handsome once-henchman of the Witch, now free from a curse, would fall in love and live happily ever after with Chihiro in a world where Spirits and humans could live together.
But that story has been told. Well, not exactly like that, but near enough. And let’s be real, if that was the plot, Chihiro would probably be a boy.
What really happens is more captivating, because Chihiro is still a ten-year-old at the end, not a world-saver. There is no romance because it’s not relevant to a ten-year-old’s reality. And to all of us at home watching, her journey could be ours. The problem with Disney is we can’t relate to these princes, princesses, knights, wizards or witches, but it’s not because they belong to a fantasy world. It’s because they aren’t true representations of people.
A ‘good vs evil’ narrative shows us one monster is to blame for the despair in the world. Spirited Away shows that every individual contains a monster… as well as a hero. We shouldn’t stop watching the films we love, but we should start taking a good, hard look at them. Disney films are fun, but they don’t portray believable, realistic characters. Ghibli films may not have a blaringly obvious moral message, but they are beautifully real.
Disney creates films to entertain, while Miyazaki has a different philosophy. “I would like to make a film to tell children ‘it's good to be alive’.”Support Villainesse