(Illustration by Michelle Jin)
Westview High School

Review: Immersive realism within Studio Ghibli films

Studio Ghibli is a Japanese animation film studio based in Tokyo, Japan, and Hayao Miyazaki is the imaginative and visionary director behind many of the studio’s iconic films. Studio Ghibli films are beloved for many reasons, from strange fantastical creatures to fully developed animated worlds, it captures the mix of reality and animation perfectly.

The films touch upon real-life topics that are relevant and emotional. Throughout the 22 films that the studio has made, Miyazaki was able to present whimsical characters, amazing storylines, and define the importance of friendship.

My favorite thing about the films is that they never conceal the difficulties of life and always include characters with relatable struggles and adversities. But the real question is, what makes Studio Ghibli movies so magical and unique, so enjoyable across all age ranges? 

One of the main reasons is how Studio Ghibli incorporates immersive realism in their films. Immersive realism is characterized by deep absorption or immersion in something such as an activity or a real/artificial environment while including realism. Techniques like world-building, movement in animation, and character design all contribute to the idea of immersive realism. 

 

Worldbuilding

In all of the Ghibli films, Miyazaki brings the viewers into the world that he’s created. Worldbuilding is used to achieve a strong sense of immersive realism in animation films.

Through masterful animation and attention to detail, Studio Ghibli crafts immersive and unique stories that strike a balance between reality and fantasy. Worldbuilding is a daunting task for animators because every visual element in a film must be created from scratch. This is where Studio Ghibli excels.

No matter how far fetched or imaginary the story is, the world of a Ghibli film constantly feels tangible and realistic. Studio Ghibli often includes ordinary and seemingly unimportant actions and elements, such as a meal or household chore, but they actually play an important role in being relatable to the audience and bringing them into the world where the movie takes place.

As Miyazaki says: “Anime may depict fictional worlds, but I nonetheless believe that at its core it must have a certain realism.” 

In other words, the animators must fabricate a lie that seems so real to the point where viewers will think the world depicted might exist. 

To achieve a level of immersive realism, there must be an underlying familiarity with the character and the world within the film. For example, in “Spirited Away,” the bathhouse feels alive and real. While it’s unbelievable in the real world, we believe it exists in the context of the film because it’s so well established.

The bathhouse is the main setting where most of the important events happened, but the viewers know that there’s a world outside of just the bathhouse. Like at the beginning of the movie and throughout the film, we can indicate that the bathhouse and areas around it are surrounded by the ocean.

It lets the audience get a sense of the world inside the film and how it works. It’s important since it affects not only worldbuilding but also the characters and events that happen.

Worldbuilding shouldn’t feel like a cheap facade of the story being told, but instead, there should be depth and richness. Studio Ghibli movies create worlds that feel like they extend beyond the frames. 

 

Movement 

Studio Ghibli constructs the illusion of physics in their film by allowing audiences to interact vicariously with the environment with such details as to how the character’s clothes and hair move. It’s not an easy job since the animators have to try to create a realistic world through an unrealistic medium.

The word animate means to bring to life; it’s in a way like acting. Animators must understand and empathize with their characters; they must consider, what is the character’s purpose or motivation in the scene in which they are trying to animate. In animation, the movement must be used to convey a sense of scale and weight.

One film that reminded me of the mastery of animated movements is “The Cat Returns.” This film follows a female protagonist named Haru through her adventure of being forcefully taken to the Cat Kingdom.

In the Cat Kingdom, there are obviously a lot of cats, and what makes this special is that all the cats there can talk and stand on their hind legs and walk like people, giving them human characteristics. To be able to make the cats seem realistic but at the same time characterized as a real human, the animators had to observe and study their movements, features and their interaction with their surroundings.

The world within this film is also incredible and filled with interesting architectures and buildings for the cats. Overall the film was really well done, and Studio Ghibli was able to create a magical film full of fantastical cat creatures. 

 

Character design 

The characters in the Studio Ghibli movies are all really well developed and show strong character development by the end of each film. The emotions and traits of the characters are conveyed very well through attention to even the tiniest of details.

Even the background characters are full of details and seem like they are not there just to fill up the background; instead, it seems that they each lead their separate lives as well. It’s a way of letting the viewers into the world where the film takes place, making it relatable and intriguing.

One film that exemplifies astonishing character design is “Howl’s Moving Castle.” This movie deals a lot with war, responsibility and identity. Character design here becomes particularly important, not only to help initial impression but also to help viewers understand a character’s growth.

Howl, the male protagonist in the movie, has an extreme character development not only physically but also internally. At the beginning of the movie, Howl is shown as a flamboyant, confident and mysterious character. He didn’t seem to care a lot about others besides himself. He stayed that way until he met the female protagonist of the film.

Throughout the film, Howl is struggling to keep his humanity and risking his freedom to protect the ones he cares for. At the end of the film, he seemed more compassionate and truly freed. 

Studio Ghibli successfully embodies the rich tradition of animated storytelling by telling stories that are once understated, mature, magical, nostalgic and emotional.

By using immersive realism, Studio Ghibli has been able to create masterful films that stand the test of time.

As Miyazaki says“The creation of a single world comes from a huge number of fragments and chaos.”

Studio Ghibli leaves us vulnerable and nostalgic to their magical worlds and the realistic soul of their characters.