Studio Ghibli: The Mechanics Behind Miyazaki’s Melody of Nostalgia

StoriesMay 25, 2023

There are days when you rifle through your old pictures in search of it, and then there are those when you open that vaguely familiar dusty box that has been taking up way too much space in your attic, only for it to take you by surprise. Whether by intent or not, the moment you come across it, despite who you are, you can’t help but be engulfed with bitter-sweet reminiscence and savor its gentle stabs to your heart. That’s the overwhelming power of nostalgia, and Hayao Miyazaki has pioneered this art of reminiscence through his work at Studio Ghibli. 

A long, long time ago….

Tired of the rampant commercialization taking over the industry, the 44-year-old Miyazaki, who had already left quite an imprint on the Japanese animation industry, decided to start his own animation studio. So in 1985, Miyazaki along with Isao Takahata, and Toshio Suzuki, two other prominent figures in the Japanese animation industry, started his own venture, Studio Ghibli. The name ‘Ghibli’ stood in tandem with the ideas that laid its foundation. The word ‘Ghibli’ refers to the hot wind that blows through the desert. For Miyazaki and his team, it signified the hot winds of change that they wanted to blow over the then steadily declining Japanese animation industry. With Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki wanted to create films that weren’t just visually appealing but also had something to give. He wanted to create something that he could firmly stand behind. So in 1986 Studio Ghibli released their first film, Castle in the Sky. The film was very well received, both by the Japanese audience and the critics, making it an instant success in the country. It wasn’t long after, that Miyazaki’s work started to draw eyes on a global level. In 2002,  Spirited Away, one of Studio Ghibli’s most recognized films to this date, won an Academy Award.

The Magic Of Ghibli

Needless to say, with growing global recognition came a steadily growing and devoted fanbase. This fanbase ranged from little children to the little child inside the adults. While the children simply enjoyed the animated movies as cartoons, the adults on the other hand discovered something far more significant.  For adults, the stories of those little cartoon characters darting along the screen had somehow managed to provoke thought while simultaneously enveloping them with a deep sense of comfort. Studio Ghibli had developed its own niche fanbase. This fanbase once again started to expand when the trend of alternative aesthetics started taking over social media. A whole new and younger generation, who had barely witnessed the world of hand-drawn animation started to feel nostalgic and even reminisce about “the good old days” that Studio Ghibli depicted in their movies. So what is it about Studio Ghibli that invokes such a universally deep sense of nostalgia, regardless of generation? 

Deconstructing the Magic behind 

Over the years, people have tried to dissect Ghibli movies to find the inherent aspects which made their movies so iconically comforting. One of the most common observations was the fact that Ghibli movies, Miyazaki in particular, had quite stubbornly stuck to the old method of hand-drawn animation, instead of resorting to computer-generated or assisted animation techniques. Additionally, Miyazaki’s choice of using simple piano tracks to score his movies was attributed as another contributing factor. The music, combined with the detailed drawings of lush and colorful countryside visuals devoid of technology, was labeled as Miyazaki’s perfect formula for inducing nostalgia. 

Now, while all these points are extremely valid and to a great extent do contribute to the Ghibli experience. I personally think that there is, just like in most works of art, a little more to it than what meets the eye. Something that instantly meets the soul, something that transcends time and generation. It is the very essence of childhood itself. 

The silence between a clap 

One of the things that Miyazaki often talks about is “Ma” he calls it the silence between the clap. “Ma” is a Japanese concept that refers to the respite between activities. Miyazaki deftly integrates this respite within his work. He makes sure that there is the stillness between the chaos. A moment where you can pause and just enjoy the beautiful scenery, the vibrant colors, and the music that accompanies it all. But this idea of “Ma”, intentionally or not, leaks into almost every scene of Miyazaki’s works. You can find this stillness even within the chaos. This stillness takes the form of well-integrated tiny details that have no significance to the plot. Such as the way a character’s body rhythmically moves when they walk or just simply take a deep breath, or making a character stumble and fall while running. These details are fleshed out for each and every character, no matter the scene or the importance of the character to the plot. In a documentary, Miyazaki once mentioned how observant children can be, and so he ensures that every character in a Ghibli movie is made with the intention of having a story of their own. Miyazaki tries his best to make sure that every character’s movements and motivations aren’t just there to supplement the plot, but instead to make it richer with their own individual existence. He can often be found reminding the same to his animators - “You're drawing people, not characters”. I believe by giving screen time to these minute details and letting them purposelessly exist, he not only masterfully captures the aesthetic of childhood but also curates the experience of it. He takes you back to a time when even you were a child when even you noticed those tiny details around you. So yes, Ghibli movies are meant to entertain children, they’re also meant to serve as a gentle reminder of a lifelong overtaken by matters of consequence. This is what I believe makes Miyazaki’s movies the perfect embodiment of the spirit of childhood, and induces a universal sense of subliminal nostalgia.

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