Japan’s animators try to out-Disney Disney: Studio Ghibli has created some of the best animation in the world

Just about now, parents are beginning to wonder how to keep the kids entertained over the summer. Well, the animation of Studio Ghibli is renowned around the world.

Founded in Tokyo in 1985, the films created by this Japanese anime company have captured the hearts and imaginations of children and adults alike.

But there’s one odd thing you’ll notice in these movies. It’s the eyes.

They’re Occidental. Not narrow, but round. And yet the films are made in Japan, in Japanese, by Japanese animators, filled with Japanese signage and books and (often) Japanese culture and folklore.


The American writer Emily Yoshida grew up vainly looking for people who looked like her in U.S. pop culture.  Alienated, she turned to Japanese animation. No luck there, either. Yoshida has written a piece exploring Asian representation in Hollywood and in Japan in the online magazine Verge. (Do a search at TheVerge.com to find the original; the Lennoxville Library has computers with Internet access for patrons; further, a partnership with Zap allows free web surfing to anyone with their own smartphone, WiFi tablet or other device.)

Yoshida begins with the end of World War II. Japan surrendered when the United States dropped two atomic bombs over heavily populated cities in Japan. More than 100,000 people died – some instantly, some slowly.

Japan began anew under the occupation of Allied troops.

Its economy had been destroyed. One of the few things littering the Japanese landscape was the occupying soldiers’ discarded food cans. Japanese entrepreneurs picked them out of the garbage and hammered them into children’s toys – “cheap tin models of American Jeeps,” Yoshida writes. They were affordable for nearly destitute Japanese parents. Kids loved to play with them, and GIs started shipping them home to their own families as souvenirs.

“Why American Jeeps?” asks Yoshida. “Why immortalize the vehicles of the country that defeated them? Well, they certainly wouldn’t be making Japanese vehicles ‑‑ there was no more army to speak of, any remnant of Japan’s recent past as a military bully was being erased with embarrassment and shame. At any rate, this is where Japan gets into the business of selling the look of America back to it, and even doing it one better….

“After the toy cars started taking off, plastic figurines and dolls also rose in popularity, and Japan’s expertise in the kind of disarming cuteness we know today really began to get honed. The toys had to be adorable enough (or flattering enough to American post-war jingoism) that American children would covet them…. Toymakers saw the popularity of Disney-style Western cartoons and started iterating on them, gradually making the heads bigger, the eyes rounder, the features softer.”

And so Japan began to out-Disney Disney: “This is not a story of a country so in love with Magic America that it abandoned its own cultural identity — this is a country that culturally appropriated from the culture that had asserted dominance over it in order to rebuild itself.”

Studio Ghibli is one of the most established of the contemporary Japanese anime creators. And all the DVDs listed have been dubbed into English. They are all available at the Lennoxville Library. (DVD rental is $1 when you have a library membership, which is free to any resident of Sherbrooke, because of the City of Sherbrooke’s sponsorship. Once you’re a member, you can also take out any of our books and audio books for free.)

Let’s start with the younger children’s movies.

>Ponyo is the best known (filed at K-199 in the Kid section; it froze and skipped quite a bit on my ancient DVD machine, but ran perfectly on my laptop DVD player). Little Ponyo is a strange human-fish hybrid, with a wacky environmentalist human dad and a strange sea goddess mother. The little critter runs away to the dirt-world, where a human boy mistakes her for a goldfish and saves her life by tossing her into a bucket of water.

The two become best pals and have a series of adventures. In the end, Ponyo must decide whether she wants to stay as she is, or become fully human.

>The Cat Returns (filed at K-193) stars a little girl who saves a cat from being smushed by a speeding truck.

It turns out kitty is a bigshot, and dad, the king of the cats, is determined to thank the girl with all sorts of gifts. Unfortunately, one of those gifts is a forced marriage to his son. Can she escape her fate?

>The Secret World Of Arriety is filed at K-177 and based on the 1952 book The Borrowers, by Mary Norton. A teeny tiny mom, dad and girl  – literally, they are only a few inches tall – live hidden away in a home built by big people. They survive by stealing what they need, and keeping out of sight. Until one day, Arriety is seen by a human boy. An unlikely friendship develops, but it may not be enough to keep the Borrowers safe.

>Castle In The Sky is filed at SF-183, but it is also a children’s film – set in a world of steam-powered blimps and other mechanical clunks.

While escaping pirates, a girl falls off a blimp… only to pass out and magically sink safely down to earth. Here she is discovered by an orphan boy. Together they seek a mythical place, a floating castle.

Studio Ghibli has also created films for slightly older viewers.

>Howl’s Moving Castle (filed at FAN-33, adapted from a book written by Diana Wynne Jones that’s available via our free interlibrary loan service) is a clunking enchanted house, constantly on the move.

The wizard Howl rescues a girl, who is later turned into a little old lady. Our heroine runs away hoping to find a counterspell. In the meantime, there’s a war going on, and Howl’s in the middle of it.

>Then there’s Spirited Away (filed at FAN-39, it also acted up in my old DVD player but was fine on a laptop). Mom, dad and kidlet get lost. Unwisely, mom and dad eat while in the land of faerie, and become trapped.

Their little girl must save them, and is helped in her quest by a boy (though he’s perhaps not a real boy).

>Princess Mononoke (at FAN-38, in DVD and Blu-ray) will give very young kids nightmares (or maybe that’s just something that happens to grown-ups). It begins with a majestic boar gone bad, a god of Japanese folklore become a monster covered in creepy, squiggly worms. It’s killed by an arrow to the eye.

The prince who saves his people is cursed by the dying creature, and as such banished from the village. He travels far, seeking a stay of execution. He walks into a vicious war between Nature and Humans.

— Eleanor Brown, June 24, 2016

About BiblioLennLibrary

The Lennoxville Library, in Quebec's Eastern Townships, offers free memberships to all residents of Sherbrooke. We have a great selection of books in French and English, plus books on tape and CD, too! Check out our large-print section, our graphic novels... La Biblio Lennoxville se situe dans les Cantons-de-l'Est du Quebec. Les residents de Sherbrooke peuvent devenir membre gratuitement. Nous avons une grande selection de livres en francais et en anglais. Venez donc nous voir! Hours/Heures d'ouverture: Mardi-Tuesday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Mercredi et Jeudi -Wednesday and Thursday, 10am to 6pm -- 10h a 18h Vendredi-Friday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Samedi-Saturday, 11am to 4pm -- 11h a 16h Pour plus d'info, vous pouvez nous trouver au http://www.bibliolennoxvillelibrary.ca/ Click on the above to get to our website!
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