Everyone has some sort of “list of shame.” It’s that handful of movies that almost literally everyone else has seen, but you’ve managed to find some way not to.
Studio Ghibli movies have all been on that list for me. It’s not as if I actively avoided them or anything, it was just something that I never really got around to. There was that one time in the lawless wasteland of the early 2000’s when Cartoon Network aired Spirited Away, and I have some vague memories of seeing it from my cheap little TV in my UAH dorm room. But that’s about it. I remember the early-age film geek hype over it more than the movies themselves.
Every other bit of cultural awareness I had of Ghibli movies were from cute t-shirts and memorabilia. Maybe a meme here or there shared online. So I at least had some idea of who Totoro was, if only because he was a cute and distinct looking mascot that I’d see on window decals and such.
Now that Studio Ghibli movies are all a little bit more accessible on HBO Max, it was finally time to mark a number of them off of my list of shame. After our nameless and very charitable benefactor with Geek Out Huntsville shared his account with me, I watched a few of them over the last few weeks and now understand what the very deserved hype is about.
We watched Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke over the course of a few nights, both of these were a great enough thesis statement for me to finally “get ” it.
To me, the genius of these movies is that they can exist on two entirely different planes at the same time. With the cute characters, playful scores and colorful palettes, they’re more than entertaining for the same young demographic as American animated films. But they’re also simultaneously extremely deep think-pieces with themes that resonate really well for adults too.
Pixar has always been very good at a similar trick, but Ghibli movies seem to take this to a level that Pixar can’t under American studio restraints. It’s unlikely that Disney would allow a studio under their corporate umbrella to even subtly delve into the ethics of pacifism and war to the extent that Howl’s Moving Castle does.
Ghibli movies are also very good at walking a dangerous tightrope. Deep themed movies that have something to say often can either be too ambiguous (Ridley Scott’s Prometheus) or beat you way too hard over the head with it (James Cameron’s Avatar). Ghibli manages to not only keep a balance between the two, but does some amazing tricks while it does it. I found that I had to do a deep dive into articles on both Howl and Princess Mononoke to really catch the full ideas they tried to convey. It’s not often that an animated movie with cute animals begs a second viewing for this reason.
I’ve understood that these movies previously weren’t really easy to find. But thanks to the wheeling and dealing brought on by recent streaming wars, they’re all put together in a nice little collection on HBO Max. It’s not only been great for me to finally understand what the pop culture zeitgeist is talking about when it comes to these Ghibli movies, but it’s also been great to finally see a new cultural perspective on a lot of great themes that still resonate today.