Revisiting Studio Ghibli

Seita and Setsuko in Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies

Often, even with new films in its roster, a cinematic retrospective does not necessarily make new claims. However, though I’ve seen most of them before, I never pass on a chance to watch Studio Ghibli’s works again. Its animated films of frighteningly detailed worlds are so immersive that, watching an establishing shot in the middle of a film one feels as though he is watching an actual video footage of a city; and revisiting a film feels like revisiting an old playground. Be it fantasy — Tales from Earthsea, Princess Mononoke, etc. — or drama — Graves of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, etc. ̛— the drawn in pen realities of Studio Ghibli’s and their semblance of the physical world render the viewer helplessly captivated, a convert to the many possibilities of animation as a medium.
And in the hands of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, the possibilities include clear messages about the environment, war, and humanism. Their films have clear morals but are not didactic. The two, seventy-nine and eighty-one respectively, are by no means pedagogic. They speak, instead, as though they have secretly acquired a direct line to the audience’s innate capacity for empathy, kindness, and humility.

Over the course of a few weeks that spanned Spirited Away: the Films of Studio Ghibli at TIFF Bell Lightbox, I watched a dozen animated feature length films. It was an exciting opportunity to revisit childhood favorites like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and to be introduced to the studio’s newer talent, Goro Miyazaki. In its third year, the retrospective coincided with the Holidays and the more acutely distressing dredges of 2016’s and the foul beginnings 2017’s political landscapes and certain incontinence of powerful men. Perhaps this is why Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Miyazaki’s latest The Wind Rises (2013), two war films, stood out.


The plot of Grave of the Fireflies is simple: Seita, a young teenager, and his little sister, Setsuko, try to survive in the last months of World War II when U.S. firebombs devastated Japanese cities across the islands. Early in the film, their mother dies of serious burns. After being maltreated at their aunt’s, who is cruel with the need to feed them, the brother and sister move out to an abandoned bomb shelter by the waters. The animation reaches an emotional level seldom reached in live action war films. It focuses almost entirely on the love and connection between Seita and Setsuko. The nondescript bombers flying overhead are less representations of a particular nation or even of a particular war so much as they are forces beyond the siblings’ control that shape their lives. Around Seita and Setsuko are townspeople who become increasingly cruel as the bombing continues.

There is a scene in the movie where Seita is caught stealing food. The farmer not only beats him, but also drags him down to the abandoned bomb shelter to confiscate previously stolen goods. A few scenes later, Seita steals from evacuated houses as firebombs fall from the sky. On his way back to Setsuko, he cheers on the bombers. Cruelty begets cruelty in Grave of the Fireflies; everyone becomes both victim and perpetrator. When the war ends, people who have evacuated to safer cities return to Kobe on a sunny day. Four young, well-dressed women enter a three-storied mansion. One of them says, “I missed the beautiful views!” as she looks out to the bucolic landscape with the abandoned bomb shelter barely visible beyond the shimmering water. And beyond the trees, on top of a hill, Seita prepares to cremate Setsuko who’s died of starvation.

Jiro from Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises

Miyazaki’s last film, The Wind Rises, is a fictionalized story of Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautic engineer behind many of Japan’s warplanes used during World War II. The film is intersected with beautifully drawn and colored dream sequences in which Jiro speaks with Giovanni Caproni, the famed Italian engineer, who mentors the ‘Japanese boy’. And parallel to his pursuit of building ‘beautiful planes,’ the movie tells of Jiro and Naoko who meet during the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923.

The film presents Jiro as an artist in a floating world — Japan in the tail end of the turbulent Taishō era, reshaping its cultural and national identity in the face of a visibly more powerful and modern Europe and the U.S. Jiro and his friend, Kiro Honjo — of Mitsubishi G3M bomber —, repeatedly lament the ‘backwardness’ of his country. Case in point, Japanese planes are transported by oxen for testing on fields. Part of the drama of the film therefore lies in pitting the difficulty of building a full metal plane in Japan that also meets certain standards of weight, speed, and safety to Jiro’s genius. A mackerel bone inspires. Naoko’s love fortifies. Jiro eventually succeeds in building what is later to be known as Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

Mitsubishi A6M Zero Fighter Planes

In many ways, the film is beautiful. But more importantly, the film evokes complicated feelings. For one, I am perplexed not by its portrayal of Jiro as a relatively powerless and apolitical agent in history — he was one and there were many others —, but for the striking absence on screen of the consequences of Jiro’s pursuits. Not only is Jiro, the artist engineer, unconcerned with the moral implications of his creative process, but the movie, too, despite its access to hindsight of almost century-aged quality, is unconcerned.

In answer to continued outcry from both South Korean media outlets and Japanese nationalists — for lionizing Jiro and for unpatriotic intentions, respectively —, according to Mainichi Shimbun, Miyazaki stated: “I wonder if [Horikoshi] should be liable for anything just because he lived in that period.” The director’s previous works have been so consistently concerned with the moral implications of daily behaviors that this response is confusing. His heroes — Ashitaka and Sen in Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and Sheeta and Pazu of Castle in the Sky — choose the world over solipsism, action over passive consent. They are not only self-aware but aware also of their surroundings. The looming disaster of war and environmental crises in these movies are avoided precisely because the heroes choose to act. (That no film dealing with Kurt Tank or the humanity of a Nazi or Vichy collaborator is likely to have tiptoed its way into the Academy on the shoulders of Disney raises questions on the way Japanese movies are received in North America. Whether they are seen through the extended lens of exoticism as proposed in Madame Butterfly is a question for another review. For now, recourse to mutterings for appeasement.)

The Wind Rises takes its title from a line in Paul Valéry’s poem, the Graveyard by the Sea: “The wind rises…we must try to live!” Jiro certainly cannot be faulted for having been born in that period. Neither can Miyazaki be faulted for wanting to portray his subjects in a light he saw fit. The movie certainly has much more to offer than politically charged queries. But one wonders if trying to live in turbulent times isn’t more synonymous with trying to understand how one should live when ordinary laws and moral rules become inadequate.

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