Meriel Dhanowa is a current MPhil student at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in Children’s Literature. She comes from a background of French and German studies and is enjoying the opportunity to pursue a study in children’s literature.
It appears to be a common claim that audiences, especially children, won’t become invested in a story unless it contains constant action. Storytellers in the western world seem to possess an ongoing fear that children will not pay attention to their content if it doesn’t contain agency and fulfil a list of criteria. Every scene must advance the plot. Characters must be active otherwise they are deemed useless. There must be a clear conflict that the protagonists must solve. If a conflict is resolved without a battle it is accused of being “Anticlimactic.”As a result, many authors are lead to believe that their story will fail if it does not include all these factors. This begs the question – can a narrative still be engaging and invest film audiences without doing these things? Is it even possible to create such a story?
The answer is yes, not only does Studio Ghibli achieve this through many of its most famous films, it succeeds in creating a refreshing alternative to the fast-paced formula.
The last Children’s Literature Reading Group of Lent term had a screening of Spirited Away. For many, it was their first time viewing an anime film. For me, it had been a while since I had last watched it but upon viewing it again, all the appreciation for its rich storytelling and artistry that I had felt the first time I saw it, immediately resurfaced. This film will never diminish in quality no matter how many times I watch it. Many people commented that it had a dreamlike ambience, which could be partly due to it’s similarities to Alice in Wonderland. But it may also be because what the films of Studio Ghibli often do is set an atmosphere; the story’s sequences appear to transition smoothly and seamlessly, allowing its audience to absorb the experience.
The protagonists are also realistic and engaging as the films give time to let them breathe. Chihiro immediately feels relatable; while she is terrified of the strange and mystical spirit world she has been thrust into, it is completely understandable for her to feel this way as she is just an ordinary girl who has never had any previous encounters with the supernatural (*spoilers* or so she thinks). However, her progression feels natural and organic as she adapts and perseveres through hard work. The use of the film’s pacing is essential, as it gives the audience a sense of what hard work looks and feels like. A particularly poignant example is Chihiro’s acceptance of her fate, where the shot lingers on her crying while eating rice balls. This technique is similar to the use of decompression in comics, which is a way to provide important pregnant pauses that can focus on a certain emotion. These give time to emphasise a character’s feelings and reactions during pivotal scenes, allowing the audience a window into their mind. In this moment, she is allowing herself some time to release the fear and pain she is experiencing before moving on to begin her new job at the spirit bathhouse.
Many Studio Ghibli films don’t even contain an antagonist as the narrative does not require one. The narrative is simply the characters living their lives; it just so happens their lives take place in a fantastical setting. My Neighbour Totoro is a story of two sisters who move to the rural countryside and befriend the spirits that live there. Kiki’s delivery service is a coming-of-age story about a young witch who wishes to use her flying ability to earn a living. In the case of Spirited Away there is no definite villain, only people she encounters who first appear rude and uncaring but who eventually warm up to her as she repeatedly proves herself.
Most of the running time is spent following these girls as they carry out their day to day activities in a way western stories would often dismiss as “filler”. In these instances, the conflicts are usually internal and character driven. Kiki temporarily loses her ability to fly as a result of a sensation similar to artist’s block. Satsuki and Mei have an underlying fear that their mother will not recover from her illness. However, because they have been the focus of their narratives, their problems feel just as high-stakes as any other fictional conflict, if not higher since most of them come from a realistic and personal place. Many people can relate to the pain of losing a loved one or the depression of losing enjoyment in their favourite activity. The slice of life scenes have laid the foundation for this emotional payoff because it is through these simplistic moments that the audience can become truly attached to the characters as they get to witness their personalities through their actions and struggles.
This does not mean that Ghibli films are devoid of action. However even in those with an antagonist and a climax they still take time in the narrative to provide those calming scenes of stillness. A notable example is the train scene in Spirited Away, which is a much welcomed moment of reflection after the previous events that have transpired. This is in keeping with the use of still shots usually present in Japanese animation. The visual aspect, of course, is always a factor in this medium. Part of the reason Ghibli films are so successful is the beautiful hand drawn animation that immediately makes it easier to capture the audience. The worlds feel tangible and, in the case of Totoro and Kiki, often idyllic. Even with Spirited Away once Chihiro has had time to acclimatise, the beauty of the spirit world starts to shine through.
Image credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LazFbJxk0Y
When one watches an animated film that is, for example, about superheroes, the majority of viewers wish to “see the characters fight.”I suppose it makes sense that if a superhero has powers, it is understandable for the audience to express a desire to see them using their exclusive skills. Nevertheless, it is important not to forget that storytelling in film is a medium with which to tell any kind of story, meaning that films don’t all have to follow the same formula and that slice of life based narratives are just as valid.
By maintaining its integrity, Studio Ghibli has produced timeless stories which captivate audiences of all ages. Through their childlike simplicity and moments of stillness, these films remind us that there is nothing wrong in wanting a moment of tranquility amidst the frenzy of a fast-paced society.