Studio Ghibli and Moments of Reflection

[Written by Robert Salusbury]

Many people talk about their childhood experiences with the animated works of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s studio, of watching My Neighbour Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service for the first time and instantly falling in love with them but I’ll be honest, up until a few weeks ago, my knowledge of Studio Ghibli’s films was weak. I’d seen Spirited Away for a film history class at uni and had caught The Red Turtle (their 2016 collaboration with French animator Michaël Dudok de Wit) in the cinema, but that was about it. Woeful I know. 

I’m happy to report though that I’ve recently been correcting the mistakes of my upbringing thanks to Netflix’s recent deal with the Japanese animation powerhouse that has added almost every one of their films to the streaming giant’s library. This has been a huge boost to Netflix’s rather patchy film catalogue and a much needed antidote to the launch of Disney’s streaming platform which promises to try and obliterate all other streaming services and attempts at creativity.

For many people, the collaboration has allowed them to reconnect with the films they had grown up with, but for others like me, it has unlocked a whole world of new experiences and delights, and I’m happy to say that watching these films for the past couple of months has been every bit as charming and magical as I’d hoped. 

I could ramble on for far too long about the beauty of these films and say a million things you’ve probably heard before, but one thing that repeatedly struck me while making my way through their back catalogue was the unique rhythm of Ghibli’s films. In every single Ghibli feature, there are pauses, moments that take a step away from the action and let the characters and the audience, take a breath. 

To understand these moments of peace, it’s important to understand the Japanese concept of “Ma.” Put simply, “Ma” is the space between actions, the pauses in life that give us time for contemplation and allow us to think through our decisions. Miyazaki himself demonstrated the concept to Roger Ebert in 2002, shortly after the release of Spirited Away, by clapping his hands several times and explaining “The time in between my clapping is ‘ma.’ If you just have nonstop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness.” 

This emphasis on the importance of space and emptiness is something that’s deeply entwined within Japanese life. It is demonstrated in the traditional bow greeting with a deliberate pause taken before the end of the bow to ensure that, as Donna Canning writes, “there is enough ‘Ma’ to convey feeling.” Canning also talks about the role of “Ma” in Japanese conversations, which are “full of emptiness,” as pauses are considered more sophisticated than unnecessary words used to fill the silence like “um” and “er” (typical of Western conversations).

“Ma” is also deeply embedded within every Ghibli film. It flows through every conversation, every character, and can even be felt in the worlds their stories take place in. It is all part of the studio’s long-standing aim, as Miyazaki told Ebert, “to try and quiet things down a bit; don’t just bombard them with noise and distraction.” 

In most Western animation, every scene is designed to advance the story, particularly in Pixar’s films. This is not necessarily a point of criticism, but you don’t feel the same love for the characters and the world of the film as you do in Ghibli’s work. It’s no wonder that so many people are so fond of Chihiro, Totoro, Kiki or any number of Ghibli’s characters, as we are given more time to bond with them, to feel their emotions and live in their world. 

Many of the most well-loved scenes in Ghibli films, and some of my personal favourite moments, occur in these moments of stasis. In Spirited Away, a film packed with all sorts of unearthly creatures and wild adventures, these moments of “ma” are all the more powerful and a welcome time for reflection. 

In an early scene, after seeing her parents in their pigpen (transformed into pigs as a punishment for their gluttony), Chihiro slumps to the ground, exhausted. Haku, seeing her weariness, gives her a rice ball to eat, telling her it’ll restore her strength. Chihiro slowly eats the rice in silence, with just the sound of Joe Hisaishi’s beautiful piano score rising and falling in the distance, and as she eats, tears begin to fall down her face and she collapses in a flood of tears. 

Though many would view this scene as narratively insignificant, it is in fact hugely important in turning Chihiro into a three-dimensional, well rounded character who we now feel a great bond with. Most importantly of all though, Chihiro leaves Haku with a new sense of purpose and energy, telling him that she’ll “work very hard.” Here we see the positive benefits of observing “Ma,” Chihiro returning to the bathhouse refreshed and determined. It is small scenes like this, where we see Chihiro reflecting on her journey, that are the backbone of what makes Spirited Away such a beloved, well-remembered and influential film for so many people. 

Some of Ghibli’s films incorporate the concept of “Ma” even deeper into their structure. My Neighbour Totoro, for example, appears to be built almost entirely around these moments of serenity and reflection, immersing Satsuki and Mei in the magical world that they find peace in. It is a film with very little story, and barely a trace of danger, but it is, for me, one of the best films ever made, every hand-crafted frame glimmering with sheer love and unburdened sentimentality.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an article about Ghibli without mentioning the stunning bus-stop sequence, but it really is the perfect example of what makes their animation so lovingly crafted and so poignant. Miyazaki turns one of life’s most mundane moments, the long wait for a bus, into an imaginative display of child-like wonder that is almost completely devoid of dialogue or action. To describe this one would be to sap it of its beauty (just like explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog; “you understand it better but the frog dies in the process”), but I’ll just say that the sound of the falling rain is a lovely backdrop to the scene and that this is the moment that Miyazaki truly places us in Satsuki and Mei’s world. By slowing the film down and giving the sisters time to reflect on their journey, Miyazaki allows us this vital moment to think back to the joys of childhood and the limitless imaginations we all once possessed.

There are plenty of other similar moments in Ghibli’s filmography that show why their characters and stories have stuck with people for so long (a husband and wife sitting peacefully round the table in My Neighbors the Yamadas, flying through the sky in Porco Rosso, washed up on the island in The Red Turtle, and smoking on the balcony in The Wind Rises are a few more prominent examples). By no means am I trying to criticize the pacing of Western animation (simmer down Pixar), but by allowing characters to reflect on their adventures and take in their surroundings, to, as Ebert describes, “give the sense of time and place and who they are,” Ghibli’s films have come to hold a special place in many people’s hearts, and I’m sure will for me too in years to come. 

I’ll leave the last word to Miyazaki, who told Ebert “animation has become a word that encompasses so much, and my animation is just a little tiny dot over in the corner. It’s plenty for me.” 

We love a modest king. 

Essays

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