Disney is one of life’s great pleasures, but many would argue that it’s movies haven’t always carried the best morals. People who grew up on Disney learned that it was okay to fall in love with strangers, ignore your parents advice and rely on wishes and dreams over patience and hard work. When Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli, he brought a whole new audience to anime cinema and introduced a wide variety of complex themes that taught more valuable life lessons than Walt Disney ever dreamed of.
1. The significance of being true to yourself.
In 2002, The Cat Returns taught us one of the simplest and most important life messages in the most creative way. Shy teenage girl, Haru, went on a whirlwind of an adventure when she got whisked away to a kingdom of talking cats and was asked for the prince’s hand in marriage. At first she is too timid to reject his offer outright, but she gradually learns how necessary it is to stand up for yourself and be true to your own heart.
2. The power of believing.
The story of My Neighbor Totoro couldn’t have been dreamt up by just anybody. Miyazaki has a true gift for tapping into the imagination of a child and bringing it to life in visually stunning ways. It is known that children often refer to their fantasies when going through a difficult time in life. In Satsuki and Mei’s case, they were dealing with the emotional trauma of having a very sick mother, but managed to find solace in a large and heavy-eyed forest spirit who taught them to believe in the power of magic.
3. The meaning of true friendship.
Like The Little Mermaid, Ponyo is the story of a fish that wants to become a human. Unlike the Disney movie, the Studio Ghibli production focuses on friendship, specifically the one between the title character and a little boy, Sōsuke. Sōsuke rescues Ponyo and invites her into his home, promising to protect her forever. This movie teaches us that love has no bounds and that we should look out for each other no matter how different we are.
4. The importance of hard work.
In Kiki’s Delivery Service, we see that it pays to be a helpful member of society, but also that you should not neglect your other needs. Finding the right balance between work, family and friendship is key to living a happy and healthy life. This movie teaches us to always make sure you’re living with purpose and not just going through the motions. If your job doesn’t bring you satisfaction, then maybe it’s time to find a new direction.
5. The illusion of fear.
Spirited Away is Studio Ghibli’s most popular movie, and with good reason. Filled with strange spirits, both good and evil, it ventures into a dark and challenging place that Disney never dared to go. While little Chihiro was initially afraid of the monsters, she learns to stand up to them after realising that there are more important things than being afraid, such as family and kindness.
6. The beauty of nature.
Princess Mononoke is one of Miyazaki’s more mature films. It has many complex themes, but one that stands out is environmental message. It shows us what can happen if we continue to destroy the environment in favour of our material possessions. It links to pollution, global warming and animal cruelty, and manages to create a sense of empathy for creatures and plants with it’s multidimensional characters and gripping story-line.
7. The motto, ‘appearances can be deceiving’.
Howl’s Moving Castle is an unconventional love story that manages to explore serious themes while keeping a lightheartedness and charm. The lead character Sophie doesn’t have very much confidence, especially regarding her looks, but when a curse transforms her into an old woman, she learns that appearances aren’t everything. The movie also delves into the subject of war and how it destroys more than it creates, so there’s certainly a lot for children to learn from this story.
8. The pain of losing a loved one.
Don’t watch Grave of the Fireflies if you’re easily upset! This is without doubt the darkest of the Studio Ghibli films. It follows the journey of a teenage boy and his four-year-old sister as they struggle to survive during World War II. It is a heart-ripping tale, but one that is necessary to educate children of the suffering that people experience during times of conflict and hardship.
9. The saying ‘even the smallest can stand tall’.
One of Studio Ghibli’s more recent film tells the tale of Arrietty, a character from the children’s fantasy novel The Borrowers. It has a simple moral that teaches kids they are valuable and loved no matter their size, their background or their possessions; but it is the way that it is told that makes all the difference. The beautiful visuals and realistic, likeable characters are what sets this movie apart.