Studio Ghibli versus Walt Disney

I spent my Sunday, thanks to Katie and her seemingly endless supply of movies, watching two films, both Studio Ghibli: “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle”. Katie provided me with these movies via USB the other day, upon realizing I had never heard of Studio Ghibli or seen either film. For those of you who are as naive as me, let me explain as it as explained to me: “Studio Ghibli is the Japanese version of Walt Disney“. I figured that was all I need to know, and got my Sunday started with “Howl’s Moving Castle”.

Now, I had mentioned when I first arrived in Japan that I would like to soak up some of the literature and film of the country, and by that I did not necessarily think that children’s cartoons would suffice. But I beg to differ with my old self, now. As an avid Disney fan (who isn’t?), I thought it interesting to compare the differences and similarities between my first two Studio Ghibli films with the familiar stories we all know from Walt Disney, such as “Snow White” or “Cinderella”. Although both “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Spirited Away” contain similar underlying themes to the traditional Disney stories we all love, as well as essentially similar plot lines: curses, true love, the young and innocent being swept away on an adventure they could have never imagined, I found there were underlying unique differences that make each of these studio’s films unique to their respective cultures.

“Howl’s Moving Castle” tells the story of Sophie and her run-in with witches and wizards and demons and her struggle to overcome a curse cast upon her. From my perspective, the curse cast on Sophie at the beginning of the film, which transforms her into an old woman, seems to be pure chance and bad luck. Unlike, say, “Snow White”, in which the heroine is cursed for being the “fairest of them all”, Sophie just seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Similarly, in “Spirited Away”, Chihiro/Sen gets swept up in the spirit world haphazardly through entering an abandoned amusement park at the fault of her parents. Although one could argue that in all four films (“Snow White”, “Cinderella”, “Howl’s Moving Castle”, and “Spirited Away”) each heroine’s curse and adventure happen through no fault of their own. The focus on the Studio Ghibli films seems to be less about how the curse occurs or why, and more about the story being told as a result. In fact, very little time is devoted in the film before the curse occurs or after in both films. Although the transformation of Chihiro’s parents into overeating pigs due to their inability to control themselves at the sight of delicious food was certainly a fairly straightforward metaphor, so perhaps didn’t require much more time. One cannot discuss the curse without noting who casts it, and in Studio Ghibli films the antagonist is no small character; both figuratively and literally. The characters are huge… as in fat and large. In “Howl’s Moving Castle” the witch is literally a woman without a neck but with a million chins. In “Spirited Away” the woman, although possessing a body of a somewhat normal size, has a head and nose that is larger than life and bear no resemblance to the scrawny witch antagonists seen in Disney’s films.

The male protagonist’s role in the Studio Ghibli films also bear little resemblance to their Disney counterparts. In “Howl’s Moving Castle”, Howl is a stubborn and fearful wizard, whose love of beauty blinds him to the true nature of people. In one part of the film, his hair changes colour from blonde to black and his reaction is: “If I cannot be beautiful I see no point in living anymore”, and he turns himself into a pile of sludge, placing himself and others around him in danger. He also notes that the reason the antagonist witch is pursing them is because once Howl found her to be beautiful so he “pursued her”, but upon realizing she wasn’t he simply “ran away”. His moping attitude is not at all desirable and it was hard for me as a viewer to feel sympathetic with him (perhaps I am not supposed to). He begs Sophie to go to the castle on his behalf, acting as his mother, in an attempt to get himself out of trouble he finds himself in, another example of his inability to accept responsibility. There is no “prince” set out to rescue the cursed and innocent as often found in the Disney films. However, perhaps as an interesting culture note, both male protagonists in these two films possess the ability to transform into other-than-human creatures (Howl a large bird and Haku a dragon) and thus are able to fly which saves the heroine from grim circumstances throughout both films. As dragon folklore goes far back in Japanese history, it was less surprising to see it in this film then it would have been in an American film. In “Spirited Away”, Haku is a little bit more charming and helpful to the young Chihiro/Sen in comparison to Howl. However (without giving too much away, in case you haven’t seen the film yet yourself), one learns later that Haku is much more than just a boy trapped in the spirit world Chihiro finds herself in. Also, due to Chihiro’s young age, any sort of romance would be incredibly awkward to watch, so the film sort of avoids it altogether.

This leads me to another point… the “happily ever after”. Studio Ghibli films and Walt Disney films have completely different endings, as I briefly touched on earlier. I won’t say much more about it, as I encourage you to watch these films yourself and I strongly believe in not knowing the ending to the film before you start it.

I find the cultural undertones within the film very surprising. I guess I didn’t expect the differences between Ghibli and Disney films to be so apparent. From the general storyline to the plot details (such as Howl’s so called “castle” or the bathhouse in “Spirited Away” – which I should note was apparently based off of the bathhouse found here in Matsuyama – crazy!), the whole feel of the films are different than that of our traditional Disney stories.

In observing the differences in North American and Japanese culture through these films, I am reminded of a day last week at school, where a student approached me and asked, “Rachel-sensei, do you believe in fortune telling?” I responded, “I don’t know, maybe… Do you?” And his response: “I’m Japanese! Of course I do!” This prompted me to be aware of the underlying thought processes of culture differences that perhaps are less easily observed but are glimpsed through film and literature. I hope to observe more of this by getting into some Japanese poetry. I found a book which contains a series of traditional Japanese poems alongside their English translations and I am itching to purchase it!

I will end this rambling post by simply saying that I found these two films very unique in comparison to the films I am familiar with from my youth, specifically the Walt Disney cartoons. I will leave it up to you to form your own opinions on the films, if you get around to watching them, and please let me know what you think if you do!


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