Studio Ghibli Finds the True, the Good and the Beautiful

COMMENTARY: These films are heartfelt reminders to look for truth, goodness and beauty in the ordinary and the extraordinary, the mundane and the magical.

Clockwise from top left: ‘Castle in the Sky,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’
Clockwise from top left: ‘Castle in the Sky,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ (photo: Ghibli via IMDB)

Japanese filmmaker Studio Ghibli has amassed a captivated audience around the world with some of the most enchanting and mesmerizingly beautiful films I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing. They’re filled with intricate mythology, soul-touching friendships, gorgeous illustrations and emotional music. Most importantly, they are heartfelt reminders to look for truth, goodness and beauty in the ordinary and the extraordinary, the mundane and the magical.

What is the significance of truth, goodness  and beauty, aspects also known as the transcendentals in the Catholic tradition? As Catholics, we know that God is truth, goodness and beauty. It is not merely that he possesses them as qualities, but that he is them. 

We were made for God, and as humans, we want to participate and search for truth, goodness and beauty, even unintentionally. When we find things in our world that show us these properties, we should let them guide us closer to God.

Although not Christian, Studio Ghibli’s movies have elements of truth, goodness and beauty that are inspiring and enriching, and they have the opportunity to push us past the artistry of the movies themselves toward something even greater — God.

 

Truth

Although director Hayou Miyazaki’s goal was not necessarily to connect viewers to the Christian God, his movies carry themes that are so deeply true that the meanings behind the stories serve as microcosms for the whole of human experience. The films are brimming with good morals, important concepts and deep meanings that teach about diving deeper into our connections with the divine, with ourselves  and with each other.

One of the best examples of this is the ever-present experience of wonder. The media we consume impart their ideas to us, whether we know it or not. This is why, as Catholics, we should avoid films with excessive gore, sensuality or vulgarity. To have media that is filled with  wonder is a wonderful way to imbue our own souls with it.

A healthy sense of awe and wonder only improves our relationship with Christ. These films are filled with fantastic places right next door to everyday locations:  on the other side of an abandoned building  in Spirited Away;  magical castles of great technology and power in the clouds of Castle in the Sky. 

These movies invoke the idea that the world is bigger than you think and that there’s more than meets the eye. They inspire a curiosity about the unseen and an understanding that you can’t know everything. Although we can’t grasp it all, we can know that our visible world is not all there is .

So go watch Ghibli movies to internalize important human truths that  relate to Christian truth. Such films can prompt us to look at the world around us with more wonder and awe, from the architecture of your local parish to connection with God through prayer and your own everyday existence.


Goodness

These films are “good.”  But, more importantly, they inspire us to see goodness in the world around us. 

As discussed within truth, these films have intensely wonderful themes that  permeate how the viewer sees the world. These movies are idealized and fantastic in some ways, yet utterly normal and realistic in others. Miyazaki purposely puts in awkward moments of silence. For example, Miyazaki chose to animate every part of Chihiro slipping on her shoes in Spirited Away, including a second of her tapping her toes on the ground to adjust them.

The end result of this is that one learns how to see goodness within the ordinary. As a child, I remember finding great joy in the small things because Miyazaki had animated them to be beautiful, and that has stuck with me into adulthood. There’s not a day that putting on my shoes doesn’t make me smile, if only to myself.

Goodness abounds, and what a way to think about life! But it isn’t particularly difficult to find goodness in the good and even the neutral  if one has worked to develop a mindset for doing so. These movies go even further and make it a point to show the goodness in everyone, even the antagonists.

Instead of “bad guys,” we often see difficult circumstances or misguided characters whose goals happen to oppose those of the protagonists. We see people who have given into vices but who deserve sympathy even still. Even better, we often see protagonists actually forgive them. Progress does not emerge from triumph over the bad guy, but from reconciling with enemies.

In Nausicaa, the main villain is a princess of a neighboring kingdom named Kushana who has taken over Nausicaa’s land and whose men have killed Nausicaa’s own father. Through the story, we see that she has been deeply hurt by the real threat all of the people face — the toxins of a poisoned land — and therefore acts out. She has lost much, and she believes she must be assertive to keep what is important to her. Despite Kushana’s transgressions, the main character, Nausicaa, is kind to her, and it is through that self-sacrificing gentleness and bravery that the two princesses are able to work together. 

In Howl’s Moving Castle, the initial antagonist is a jealous witch who curses the main character, Sophie, to transform into an elderly woman. By the end of the movie, Sophie has forgiven the witch, saving both of them in the process.

These movies showcase examples of kindness, altruistic friendships  and self-sacrifice — virtues and attributes that  we are called by Christ to live well. The friendship between Patsu and Sheeta in Castle in the Sky is my absolute favorite media depiction of friendship because of  their devotion to each other, their joy  and their gentleness. We see Patsu not only work to protect Sheeta, but also empower her to accomplish what is important to her. They consistently put each other before themselves. Their friendship is comfortable enough to trust in each other and share openly their thoughts and feelings. In its goodness, their example demands that we be better friends to those around us, more forgiving  and more selfless. These movies inspire me to be better and to work to see the good in others.


Beauty

These movies are filled with beauty. There’s beauty in the way light, the color pallets and the music are all used. In addition,  there’s incredible beauty in the character development and in the different interpersonal relationships. For example, in Howl’s Moving Castle, we watch Sophie grow from a shy, overly modest girl into someone who is confident in herself and her worth. We watch her grow as an individual and as a friend. She learns how to love people well and to even understand her importance in the lives of others, thus allowing her to better serve in her role as friend, caretaker and sister. It is no wonder that the studio has won well over 100 awards across the world and been nominated for many more.

One of the most important things to note while contemplating the beauty of these films is the critical difference between an icon and an idol. According to French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, an icon leads one beyond the obvious and toward God. An idol stops the gaze upon itself. 

Whether a beautiful thing functions as an icon or an idol is up to us. If we just look at Ghibli movies for their beauty, we have made them into an idol. Instead, we should gaze upon their beauty and keep going. We should use them to contemplate the beauty of God, which is so beyond anything seen in these movies.

We should allow them to inspire us to find beauty in others, our brothers and sisters in Christ, through the characters and their relationships. We should be renewed in our love for the beauty of the Earth through Miyazaki’s phenomenal drawings of plants and trees.

As gorgeous as they are, these films are useless if we don’t allow them to take us somewhere bigger and deeper, using them to inspire us to grow toward God, the true desire of our hearts. 

 

VIEWER CAVEAT

Although the movies geared to children are family-friendly, there may be certain themes present within these movies that do not represent Western Christianity. If you have young children, you may wish to watch these movies with them so that you may better explain them within a Christian lens. 

Michelle McDaniel studied philosophy and journalism at the University of Dallas. Her writing has appeared at Catholic News Agency, The Pillar, Catholic World Report, North Texas Catholic and more.

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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