Everything from a Welsh mining strike in the 80s to an apathetic ten-year-old girl helped inspire some of Studio Ghibli's most endearing films.



Here's What Inspired 5 of Studio Ghibli’s Most Beautiful Films

There are a few ways to figure out if you’ve become a cultural icon. You could have art galleries inspired by your work pop up in San Francisco, inspire VR studios to recreate famous scenes from your films, have an entire scene in an episode of The Simpsons dedicated to your work, or have a Lush bath bomb made in celebration of one of your movies. For Japan’s Studio Ghibli, it’s done all that and more since its inception in 1985, becoming the foremost animation studio in Japan and one of the most influential artistic hubs in the world.

Over three decades, founder Hayao Miyazaki directed prolific animated films, including My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and more. If you just read that and it didn’t conjure up fond memories of watching at least one of these films multiple times, stop what you’re doing and go watch one. They’re magic.

Although Miyazaki semi-retired from Studio Ghibli back in 2013, we’re still collectively hyperventilating over the trailer for Ghibli’s newest film, The Red Turtle. That may be because it feels like a really pretty and less complicated version of Castaway–if Tom Hanks had met a mysterious sea witch wife and red turtle instead of befriending a Wilson the volleyball and going for a Unabomber beard. It also might be because each animation looks like a beautiful painting–hang stills in your apartment if you have any wall space.

Unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival, the French-Japanese animated film by Studio Ghibli and Wild Bunch is the directorial debut of a Dutch animator named Michael Dudok de Wit (it’s a fantastic name, we’re very jealous). His 2000 short film Father and Daughter not only won him an Academy Award, but also got him a letter years later from Studio Ghibli asking to work with him at the request of Miyazaki himself. How? It all began when Wild Bunch CEO Vincent Maraval visited Miyazaki and had this life-altering exchange: “Around the time of Ponyo I visited Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki showed me Father and Daughter and said ‘I want you to find (Michaël Dudok de Wit) for me’. I said that would be complicated. He replied, ‘If one day Studio Ghibli decides to produce an animator from outside the studio, it will be him’.”

It’s been a decade since the letter was sent, and now, the groundbreaking new film is finally heading to theaters. It’s historic not only because it’s the first Studio Ghibli film by a non-Japanese animator, but also because it’s completely free of dialogue. To celebrate the newest foray into this enchanting world, we dove deep into the inspiration behind our favorite Studio Ghibli films.

The Science Fiction Art Behind Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

The titular moving castle–which is as beautiful as it is intricate–consists of over 80 different elements. It’s the antithesis of the tiny house movement. To craft the castle, Miyazaki looked to French illustrator Albert Robida. Robida, who lived from 1848 to 1926, took inspiration from visions of the future in his design work; he’s known as the founding father of science fiction art.

Robida’s work in science fiction art helped create the moving castle in Miyazaki’s film.

The Fairy Tales of Ponyo (2008) 

When Miyazaki dove deep under the sea for this film, he looked many places (including his subconscious), but found particular inspiration in a place deep under the sea: The Little Mermaid. Rather than using the Disney adaptation for fear of stepping on its toes, the director and animator looked to Hans Christian Anderson’s original novel to help guide the production. “I watched the video of Little Mermaid many years ago when I was first given it, but I haven’t watched it recently,” he said. “On purpose I did not watch it in my making this film.” His other inspirations included a children’s novel and his subconscious, which he said caught a goldfish in his inner soul’s fishing net.

Miyazaki had some help discovering that it's always better where it's wetter. You know, under the sea.
Miyazaki had some help discovering that it’s always better where it’s wetter. You know, under the sea.  

A Geographical Mish Mash for Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Imagine going on a field trip galavanting around Europe, taking photos. That’s what happened when Miyazaki and his senior staff went to Stockholm and the island of Gotland to find scenic inspiration for the movie’s fictional landscapes, though Stockholm wasn’t the only city he pulled from. The movie’s setting, Koriko, is “a mishmash of various locales, like Napoli, Lisbon, Stockholm, Paris, and even San Francisco,” he explained. Adding a twist to narrative, his vision for the film was that Kiki lived in an alternate 1950s Europe where both World Wars never happened.

In Miyazaki's alt-Europe WW2 city of Koriko, he brought together elements of cities that included everything from Stockholm to San Francisco.
In Miyazaki’s alt-Europe WW2 city of Koriko, he brought together elements of cities that included everything from Stockholm to San Francisco.

Historical References in Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

The first film ever released by Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki found inspiration in an unlikely source–Welch miner strikes. He was in Wales a few years before the release of the movie, and looked to the resilience of the miners’ yearlong strike. It’s a clear inspiration: the film’s story begins in a valley mining community involved in a fight against an authoritarian enemy that’s plundering their resources. “I was in Wales just after the miners’ strike. I really admired the way the miners’ unions fought to the very end for their jobs and communities, and I wanted to reflect the strength of those communities in my film,” he said upon the film’s release. Unfortunately, unlike the film, Wales does not have any sky pirates (that we know of).

A yearlong Welsh mining strike in the 80s helped inspire Studio Ghibli's first film.
A yearlong Welsh mining strike in the 80s helped inspire Studio Ghibli’s first film.

A Personal Story For Spirited Away (2001)

The Academy Award-winning film–and Japan’s highest grossing film of all time–is also the most personal of all of Miyazaki’s films. The director took inspiration from his friend’s apathetic 10-year-old daughter; he wanted to create something geared toward 10-year-old girls everywhere, and made sure the protagonist Chihero had no special powers. As Miyazaki recalled, “Every time I wrote or drew something concerning the character of Chihiro and her actions, I asked myself the question whether my friend’s daughter or her friends would be capable of doing it.” It wasn’t the only personal inspiration he brought into the film, either. He used his real-life experience of cleaning a river and finding a bike stuck in the mud to shape the scene where Chihero cleans a “stink spirit” in the bathhouse and finds out he’s the spirit of a polluted river.

For Studio Ghibli (and Japan)'s most successful film, Miyazaki wanted to create a film for his friend's apathetic ten-year-old daughter.
For Studio Ghibli (and Japan)’s most successful film, Miyazaki wanted to create a film for his friend’s apathetic ten-year-old daughter.


 Stay tuned to Milk for more Studio Ghibli nostalgia. 

Images via Studio Ghibli. 

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