The age of cartoons, at least when it comes to movies, seems to be over. To be fair, it’s probably been over for a while, with CGI Pixar-esque films the only real non-live action movies being made. While some of these movies are fantastic (Up and Wall-e great examples), modern animated films are being made to looker realer and realer. The big advantage that animated films have over live action is the ability to do whatever the filmmakers want to do, be it magic, robots, or any sort of physics-defying premises. That’s all well and good, but they still seem so fake (as might not be unexpected). While these movies continue their march towards reality, Studio Ghibli’s vast portfolio has already been there for decades.
Even though most are doused with all sorts of magic and fantasy, all portrayed by 2-dimensional characters in 2-dimensional worlds, Ghibli films are realer than most live action movies out there. So much of modern movies are full of action, adventure, and never-ending suspense, and while Ghibli incorporates these themes from time to time, their best moments are when they slow down and look at the various caveats of life. Live action films can do this quite well at times, but the incredible consistency across the Ghibli canon in exploring these facets is remarkable, and is what makes them so special.
Ghibli’s usage of cartoons (of course called anime in Japan) is what allows its films, the wonderful storytelling abilities of Miyazaki et al aside, to investigate those themes so wonderfully. Each Ghibli film is a work of art in itself, with gorgeous drawings and animations creating an eye-catching spectacle. This artistic nature is what allows the films to explore reality so well, in that they provide a way to view life with the weight, separation, fantasy, and importance that we give it. Everyone views things differently, and our minds elaborate on what we experience, because we live in our mind, not outside it.
Ghibli’s ability to take one step out of reality is its greatest asset. The scenes in the heartbreaking Grave of the Fireflies would be too gut-wrenching to see in live action, yet that film explores the life in war-torn Japan expertly. Throughout films like My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Whisper of the Heart, the filmmakers paint a picture of the magical nature of everyday life, something that would seem mundane if a camera was simply pointed at some people. In Spirited Away, the indomitable bath house and the various spirits within are surely closer to representing the challenges a child faces growing up than simply portraying those ideas with images we see every day. Princess Mononoke, a film set around battle between humans and gods, illustrates the very real environmental situation we find ourselves in better than most. The list can go on and on.
To anyone who hasn’t seen Ghibli movies, to anyone who is hesitant to see Ghibli movies, and to anyone who doesn’t think cartoons can make a great movie, highly highly highly encourage them to give Ghibli a try. Their ability to depict life’s great facets in mesmerizing fashion is unparalleled in film. Their wonderful themes and artwork are accented gloriously with beautiful scores by excellent composers like Joe Hisaishi, among others. Best of all, they paint life as we really see it: through our mind’s eye, enhanced by our thoughts and imagination.