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In Studio Ghibli’s movies, magic almost always comes with a heavy price

Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Pom Poko and others all explore the cost of power

May 25-30 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.

Studio Ghibli’s animated films are known for their worlds of magic: witches and wizards and spirits (oh my), not to mention transformations and mystical tokens galore. But just as in the Grimms’ fairy tales, magic in Ghibli features isn’t always what it seems. Ghibli’s writers and directors marvel at magic, but aren’t wholly taken in by it. They present it in most instances as a system of commerce: you may use magic, but there will inevitably be a price.

One of Ghibli’s most popular films (and its most critically and financially successful), Spirited Away, is concerned with the complications and cost of magic. When a young girl, Chihiro, and her parents happen across a seemingly abandoned amusement park, her parents eat food that seems to have been left behind. Chihiro quickly learns that they’re in a land of spirits, and her parents have gorged themselves without realizing the price. Instead of regular currency, they lose their human forms and become pigs. Chihiro is stuck in the spirit world, trying to find a way to save her parents. First, she has to find employment, but she also faces a cost — she has to sacrifice her name and her human identity, which can be quickly forgotten in the spirit realm.

As Chihiro works in the spirit bathhouse, she encounters many forms of commerce. When she cleans a particularly disgusting spirit, she’s paid with a magic dumpling that she aims to use to save her parents. (Ironically, her parents curse themselves with food, and the currency she gains to redeem them is also food.) The dumpling’s healing property is emetic — it seems that because they ate food that wasn’t theirs, they have to forfeit it to be saved. Chihiro winds up using the dumpling on two other cursed creatures, who similarly vomit forth the things they’ve unfairly eaten — a grotesque, unpleasant price to pay for their own safety.

Chihiro confronts her parents, now turned into grotesque pigs, in Spirited Away
Spirited Away
Image: Studio Ghibli

The audience quickly learns that the spirit world’s main mechanism is also commerce, even though it’s disconnected from any human economy. Spirits work and pay for services. Theft is a grave offense that damages the thief’s body. Many of the big conflicts in Spirited Away are related to actions of greed and excess. It’s a harshly punitive capitalistic society, where wanting too much, too loudly, draws various magical punishments.

In Howl’s Moving Castle, the wizard Howl has his life defined by a magical contract before he meets the protagonist, Sophie. The fire demon Calcifer owns Howl’s heart, which keeps Calcifer alive and gives Howl access to his powers. But Howl’s facility with magic costs him his freedom and his humanity. He isn’t just tied to Calcifer — as a magician, he’s expected to serve as a soldier in his country’s meaningless war. His power has cost him his freedom. When Howl interferes with the war instead, on principle, he sacrifices even more of his humanity, even losing track of his human form. In the end, his magic doesn’t set things straight — Sophie’s love and persistence save him.

Though Princess Mononoke lacks the wizards and witches of Howl’s Moving Castle, it similarly examines the meeting of magic and war, though in a much more graphic, urgent way. The story opens with the protagonist, Ashitaka, killing a demon and gaining superhuman strength in one arm, which helps him throughout the movie. But the cost seems to be his life. The demon has given him a disease that will spread and eventually kill him.

The warrior Ashitaka walks forward, his right arm writhing with the semi-translucent purple tentacles of his spirit-curse, in Princess Mononoke
Princess Mononoke
Image: Studio Ghibli

As he searches for a cure, he encounters characters racing to hunt down a forest spirit whose head is supposed to grant immortality. When the spirit is decapitated, however, the result is devastating. The entire area becomes an offering in exchange for the spirit’s head, with humans and animals alike being destroyed. But here, the commerce of magic seems to be based more on an economy of nature than an economy of bargains, favors, or gold. The forest spirit brings death and life, with plants dying or blooming around it.

The spirit of the forest embodies the duality of nature, manifesting as a deer-like creature in the day, and a colossal, intimidating nightwalker after sunset. The magic of Princess Mononoke isn’t styled as deceitful or punishing, it’s representative of a principle of balance. In nature, there are exchanges: one animal dies to feed another. One plant rots to help birth a new one. Destruction and creation work together. When the humans upset that balance by taking something from the forest, not expecting to pay anything in return, of course the result is a greater devastation.

But it may be the bizarre, fanciful narrative of Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko that most earnestly and solemnly reckons with the price of magic. In the 1994 Ghibli film, a gang of tanuki are threatened by humans developing their homeland. They try various plots to stop the humans, using their power to magically transform their bodies into any creature or object. Though their plots bear some small fruit, they’re all ultimately thwarted.

So in desperation, they plan a mass illusion that takes all of their combined energy and ability: a giant parade of shape-shifting specters that promenades through the town and haunts its residents. The transformations are taxing, however, and one of the clan’s wise elders dies from his exertions. The transformation magic is described as a vital weapon and survival skill, a secret of the species. But the price of this magic is high. In the past, one of the elder tanuki explains to the others, their species was more conspicuous about transforming. When humans found out, they grew jealous and hunted the tanuki as punishment.

An illusory Chinese dragon, wreathed in pink smoke, rises up from a gathering of tanuki in Pom Poko
Pom Poko
Image: Studio Ghibli

Even that isn’t the greatest tragedy this seemingly cute, innocent animated film has to offer its protagonists. In the end, having lost to the humans, the ultimate cost the tanuki have to pay for their shape-changing ability is deciding between two equally disadvantaged ways of life. They can choose to live short, dangerous lives as animals, avoiding cars and traps and scrounging for scraps of food. Or they can choose to transform into humans, like their magical peers, the foxes, and assimilate into society.

But the latter is tiring and unfulfilling for the tanuki. Takahata follows one, in human form, squeezed onto a train and wearied after a long day at his desk job. But the only option for a satisfying life as a human is to fall into the trap of capitalism; in a particularly depressing note, the film tells us that some tanuki who transform into humans go into real estate, selling land like the home they themselves lost, because it’s lucrative.

Magic in Ghibli films comes with a great deal of surprise and wonder, but it can’t really be trusted. There’s no easy fix to the compromises of existing in the world and facing its pollution, war, and various other human vices. Magic, the films tell us, is simply a shortcut. Trusting in some mystical panacea only gives characters the illusion of power and control, and it usually strips them of something vital in return.

In the world of Studio Ghibli, that may mean losing their freedom or humanity, or their previous way of life. But in a more realistic sense, it may simply mean characters have to sacrifice their conception of their existence in the world, and lose their sense of personal responsibility. Like in fairy tales, the touch of magic may provide some glamour and awe, but magic beans and magic lamps come with a cost. They never ultimately solve the problems, they just change them. Unfortunately, the actual work of fixing the world will always fall on us.

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