Today in Miyazaki March we are not going to review a film, we are going to review a relationship. Studio Ghibli is not the Disney Company and Hayao Miyazaki is not Walt Disney, but there are things they have in common and there are areas where there is major difference. Let us explore alla that! But obligatory stuff first: All other Miyazaki March posts can be found HERE in THIS directory post.
With Studio Ghibli and Disney there are obvious parallels: One famous man giving face and reputation to the whole company that slowly turns into some sort of family business. The massive dominance that each company has within the respective animation markets where they dominate perception and conception of what animation in these respective markets is. And of course, both companies provide family friendly animation features for mass audiences.
Besides all those parallels, there are factual connections, the major one being their cooperation concerning the distribution of Ghibli films outside of Japan/Asia, which is the privilege/responsibility of Disney since their agreement on it in 1996 (the so called Disney-Tokuma Deal). Disney is in charge of the English dubs of Ghibli movies, but they are not allowed to make any cuts to the movies or change the content of the dialogue – ever since Miyazaki was frustrated with what happened to the US-release of Nausicaä, which is something I will touch upon in the post on it coming somewhen next week.
But what I really want to focus on in this post is the thematic differences and the differences in approach that distinguish the two companies from each other. And being upfront about it, I think that Ghibli, especially Miyazaki directed features of Ghibli, get a lot of stuff right because of approach and theme, while a lot of the Disney movies get a lot of stuff wrong, or at least just less right because of their favorite themes and their approaches to these.
While I want to focus mainly on differences in this post it should not go unmentioned that there are a lot of thematic overlaps and similarities in approaching stories. With Disney and Ghibli we usually encounter protagonists that are outsiders, but for a variety of reasons. While Disney outsiders tend to be dismissed by other characters as quirky and weird with undercurrents of bullying (and righteousness on the part of said protagonist) Ghibli outsiders are usually outsiders because of particular medical conditions or change of location. There is little to practically no bullying going on, the characters tend to be outsiders due to them really coming from outside or from living with a condition that the other characters know little about and struggle to relate to.
Both companies also often use female characters as their main protagonists in feature films – but with very different results. While Disney heroines tend to be slim, pretty and in search of love, Ghibli heroines come in all shapes and ages, pretty or not, rarely on the lookout for a boyfriend.
Which really just illustrates the first major difference between the approaches the two companies take on story-telling. While Disney seems to assume that it has to cater to a male gaze, Miyazaki movies are unafraid to take in a feminist perspective and actually question the male gaze and male dominance. Disney movies rarely do that. And rarely really just means that there might be one or two which do (Lilo&Stitch, y’all, Lilo&Stitch). At the same time there is no Miyazaki directed Ghibli feature that does not promote female agency and seldom one that does not explicitly question assumptions that men (or boys, or really just overall society) make about women (or girls). Which is one of the reasons why Miyazaki March happens on this blog: I love and admire Miyazaki features because they represent something fresh (sadly enough) in that they adhere to feminist conceptions and present strong female characters. I am just going to go there and claim that this is rare enough for the Japanese context (and if you think of Sailor Moon right now I press you HARD to question its feminist merits (which exist, admittedly)) and even less often for US-American or European contexts. There seems to be this golden rule that states that pro-feminist or rather just non-misogynist messages in movies just don’t sell and that there are just no audiences for it. Which is bullshit of course, but which does not prevent major (and minor) studios from coming up with the same male-centred, female-objectifying crap over and over again.
And objectifying female characters is easy in Disney movies because they are either pretty and thus of good character, or ugly and thus of bad character. In Ghibli movies that pattern is not duplicated. Characters can be “ugly” (yeah, whatever that means) on the outside, without it necessarily having to reflect how they really are on the inside. A woman can be old and wrinkly with a gigantic nose and a wart and still be a wonderful human being. Which fits into a larger pattern in Ghibli movies in that they usually do not have a villain, or that characters that we encounter as villains turn out not to be. In a Disney movie there is a villain, make no mistake. You can tell by his or her looks usually and if you are looking for complexity in this character or really just motivation, you are more often than not disappointed. It does not hold true for every Disney villain (at least the complexity and motivation thing), but as a general rule it is practically enshrined into their approach to constructing an animation narrative.
While Disney features have clear-cut villains, they generally shun violence. Death is rare and often only awaits the villains themselves in the end. Miyazaki’s features are ultimately also family-friendly features, but they are unafraid to present some degree of violence. What we often get is stark scenes of explosion and destruction, which fits into Miyazaki movies so well, because they provide stories that often center on larger societal problems and themes – war, destruction of nature, fascist regimes… In some cases the violence is explicitly graphic, think of Ashitaka beheading people with his arrows in Princess Mononoke, but also more integrated into the narrative in that it is not an end in itself, but an illustration of why what happens to Ashitaka by being consumed by the demon is such a horrible thing. Granted, one does not have to be a fan of violence in animation directed towards kids, given especially the tendency of so many animation series out there blowing stuff up every episode for no reason at all. However, in the case of Miyazaki movies, I’d argue, the presentation of violence is a good thing, since it serves a purpose, it illustrates the narrative’s points. Violence does not occur because it’s cool and loud and grabs your attention, but because there is an in-story reason for it and its negative aspects are actually addressed.
What we encounter in both Disney and Miyzaki features are protagonists coming from defunct or at least non-traditional families. The major difference usually lies in the depiction of the relationship between parents and children. In Disney movies we as an audience are often pressed to side with the kids who defy their parents and struggle against them. Which is weird enough, because usually these films also end with these kids coming to terms with their parents (most often fathers, because yeah, Disney is not big on mothers and their significance). Ghibli movies rarely throw us into this dilemma. Their kid heroes and heroines generally have healthy relationships with their parents. There might be disagreement and even an argument every now and then, but we practically never have to sit through some tale of “ah, I can’t stand them …. they are the best parents ever, I just didn’t know”. And realism in depiction of relationships in my movies, I appreciate.
Both studios rely heavily on adaptations, with Disney tackling especially all the well and widely known fairy tales. But both companies not just take their source material and bring it to screen, there are always adjustments. And adjustments with Disney regularly mean the insertion of a love story or exaggerating the love story to the disadvantage of other potential topics and themes inherent to the source material. Is Arielle the little Mermaid about growing up and wanting to be something else than what society thinks you should be? Yes, absolutely, but we hardly get too see that because so much of it just focuses on getting with the boy. In Howl’s Moving Castle we have young woman wanting to be with a charming magician. But the magician is vain and the young woman loses her youth. There are feelings of despair, there is coming to terms with age and different circumstances and there are new families being built through friendships and forgiveness. Point being: In Ghibli features there are larger themes at the center of the narratives, not just love stories and blowing stuff up (because in Disney if it is not a story with a female protagonist it is an action adventure where some stuff has to blow up). There are stories about the difficulties (and complexities) of growing up, stories about how perceptions of gender might be misleading, stories about the conservation of nature which is not something we’d expect from a fairly conservative company such as Disney (whose expansionist tendencies do not go well together with sustainability), dealing with loss, death and grief by actually facing it and asking oneself hard questions about it. We could say that these are more adult themes, but they are really themes that kids have to face in their lives as well – it’s just not a given that adults know how or are willing to deal with said theme and the kids at the same time. So, yay for complexity!
So far for my little excursion as to why Miyazaki features are usually so much more gratifying experiences than Disney features. Agree? Disagree? Feel free to comment below (and prove me wrong)!