May 25 to 30 is Studio Ghibli Week at Polygon. To celebrate the arrival of the Japanese animation house’s library on digital and streaming services, we’re surveying the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. Follow along via our Ghibli Week page.
In many animated movies, the hero is the character who goes on an adventure, in a journey full of action and derring-do. Studio Ghibli’s movies have no shortage of action and adventure, but they also expand the traditional heroic narrative beyond mere acts of bravery and physical feats. Many Ghibli heroes help save the day through less showy means, like love, compassion, and care. Those acts might seem passive compared to flying or using magic, but such small, kind gestures have the power to release water spirits from their polluted prisons, and end wars between nations.
In Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 film Howl’s Moving Castle, the protagonist, Sophie, is a young hatmaker cursed by the jealous Witch of the Waste into appearing as an old woman. She finds work in a magician’s clockwork castle, and becomes an integral part of the household, tending to the needs of a magical fire demon named Calcifer and the shape-shifting magician, Howl. That would be enough for most cursed 18-year-olds in the guise of 90-year-olds, but Sophie is forced to take on one more unlikely charge. After an encounter with another warring witch, Madame Suliman, the Witch of the Waste is stripped of her powers and reduced to an amnesiac state. After Howl rescues Sophie and the Witch of the Waste, Sophie begrudgingly looks after the magical being who cursed her into her current predicament.
Soon, Sophie’s attention turns to saving Howl, after she senses that the war he’s navigating is endangering him. She fearlessly inserts herself into the complicated dynamic Howl shares with Calcifer, and figures out a way to save them both. At one point, Howl’s shape-shifting seems to have claimed his human side, leaving him in the form of a giant raven, but Sophie resolutely takes control of the situation. Her heroic strength comes from an unwavering sense of compassion, even for those who have wronged her, and those she doesn’t understand.
Chihiro, the lead character in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, begins her journey only thinking about herself, as she frets over losing her friends because her family is moving to a new home. But when her parents stop at what they believe is an abandoned amusement park, and are cursed into the form of pigs, Chihiro is forced to grow up quickly. Alone in the spirit world, she takes a job in a bathhouse for spirits, where she learns to work hard and take on customers other workers don’t want. For the opportunity to work, she sacrifices her name — her only chance to escape the spirit realm — to the witch-in-charge, Yubaba. Her first big test comes in the form of a “stink spirit,” a immense, foul creature that sends most of the bathhouse’s employees and guests running for cover. But Chihiro holds strong and helps the spirit in need, discovering that it’s actually a river spirit in crisis.
Chihiro’s kindness also comes in handy when dealing with the gluttonous No-Face, and when her ally Haku takes on a poisonous curse. As a maddened, thrashing dragon, Haku makes an intimidating patient. But Chihiro handles him with determination and a disregard for her own safety, using a gift from the healed river spirit that she meant to save for her parents’ rescue. Then she braves the witch who cursed Haku, in an attempt to heal him fully. Half of the river spirit’s gift is left, but she uses that to save the bathhouse workers consumed by a rampaging No-Face spirit. Her kindness is rewarded, as Haku strikes a deal with Yubaba to release her and her parents. But when she fights on Haku’s behalf, or confronts No-Face, she isn’t thinking about the possible benefits. She’s just trying to help other people, no matter the cost.
Even so, no Ghibli character personifies heroic caregiving as well as the young orphan Seita in Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. In the gloomy depths of World War II Japan, Seita desperately tries to give his little sister Setsuko some semblance of childhood comfort. He steps up to cook, clean, and look after his sister after their mother dies in a firebomb attack and his father’s unit in the navy is destroyed. His patience in dealing with her toddler needs, and his resourcefulness in the face of desperate times, is nothing short of heroic.
Seita tries to entertain Setsuko. He hides his tears from her. He takes her to the beach and plays games with her to distract her from looking at all the ways their world has gone to hell. No one else seems to be able to spare them any kindness for long. All they have is each other. While Seita saves Setsuko from physical danger, like firebombs and bullets, most of the horror they face is from slow starvation and dwindling resources. Seita makes every possible last-ditch effort to save her, even stealing from other families, or picking up discarded ice shavings from dirt roads, so Setsuko can have cool water.
Unfortunately, even the most valiant efforts may not be enough to save loved ones in Ghibli movies. Loss is as much a part of the Ghibli universe as healing and redemption. Grave of the Fireflies is a cautionary tale, an unblinking look at the horrors of war away from the frontlines, through the eyes of two children. It isn’t the kid-friendliest Ghibli movie, but it is one of its most honestly bleak illustrations of the period, and one of the most beautiful testimonies to love, compassion, and caretaking.
In spite of the adversity he faces, Seita never falters in his dedication to his big-brother duties. He’s patriotic, and he may have harbored some interest in serving the Emperor’s armed forces, like his father. But he doesn’t abandon his little sister for larger heroics, even when it lands him on his aunt’s bad side, for not helping the local fire brigade. Seita stays to fight for her against malnourishment, combing the lice out of her hair and pleading with doctors to do something to help her. The movie starts at the end of Seita’s brief life, casting his past actions under a doomed shadow. No matter how hard he tries, we begin the film knowing their eventual fate, and that it can’t be changed.
The call to kindness and care takes many forms in the world of Ghibli movies. It can mean forgiving enemies, caring for strangers, or sacrificing everything for someone who can’t help themselves. In some cases, it means stepping up and taking on responsibilities far beyond your years, with little to no relief in sight. The tasks may be thankless or rewarding, made up of grand gestures or tiny ones that make a world of difference. They’re just the things that need to be done, and doing them without fear and hesitation is much of what makes an authentic Ghibli hero.
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