A young girl, Chihiro, travels with her family to their new home in rural Japan. As they take a shortcut through a mysterious town, Chihiro finds her parents have been transformed into pigs. As she searches for answers, Chihiro is welcomed into a world of ghosts, disembodied heads, men with six arms, shapeshifters, and other assorted oddities. This is “Spirited Away.” A true enigma of an animated children’s movie, one might expect it to wallow in obscurity, or at best become a cult-classic, but “Spirited Away” and other movies animated by Studio Ghibli remain massively popular around the world. Studio Ghibli is a phenomenon in itself, with multiple of its films often cited as the greatest of this century (or any), and its popularity reaching beyond just animation fans.
Japanese animation (or anime) is no longer the underground, niche interest it was even just a decade ago. The biggest movie of 2020 was “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train”. But there is a line that divides Ghibli from other anime. Obvious from the moment you compare “Naruto” to “Ponyo” are the visual differences. Ghibli’s characters are simply lacking the spiky colored hair and enormous eyes that define the quintessential anime art style. But more than that, Ghibli films are top-tier. Each is thoughtful, relatable, and a joy to look at. This is the reason for Ghibli’s massive popularity, which even in 2022, is beyond that of other anime.
To be fair, Ghibli was not fighting the rest of its industry on fair terms. Due to their popularity in Japan and the admiration of some of the American company’s own animation talent, from 1996 to 2011, the company with distribution rights to Ghibli’s movies was Disney. They handled the home video—and sometimes theatrical—release of many movies, and attracted popular actors like Michael Keaton, Christian Bale, Kirsten Dunst, and Uma Thurman to perform in English dubs. Ghibli’s deal with Disney made sure the company’s foot was in the door before many of its competitors. At the time, TV anime were only broadcasted late at night (if at all), and it was uncommon for any anime movies to receive distribution in the US. This wider release led to critical acclaim. “Spirited Away” is the only full-length anime film to ever win an Academy Award.
The difference in popularity also comes down to target audience. Studio Ghibli movies are generally suitable for most demographics, and don’t struggle to hold the attention of the entire family. Concurrent to the thrilling action of “Howl’s Moving Castle,” for example, is a strikingly mature story about technology, war, and growing older. In contrast, the majority of non-Ghibli popular anime in the west (like “Death Note,” “Naruto,” “Demon Slayer,” or “Attack on Titan”) fall under one specific category: shounen. Shounen — which translates literally to “young boys” — is unsurprisingly aimed at adolescent boys. Outside of shounen, other genres also lack wide appeal. Shoujo anime (which consist of shows like “Sailor Moon” and “Ouran High School Host Club”) are only made with a young female audience in mind. Even beyond genre constraints, many modern anime are additionally reliant on knowledge of existing anime tropes, making them inherently unappealing to casual or first-time viewers.
Studio Ghibli’s distance from other anime is deliberate. Hayao Miyazaki, the studio’s auteur, director, and co-founder, has often criticized the rest of the anime industry for its over-reliance on tropes and consumerism. It’s because of this that Ghibli movies don’t release yearly, don’t coincide with a card game (à la “Yu-Gi-Oh!” or “Pokémon”), and are largely devoid of edgy rivals, spiky hair, and scantily-clad women. The first point is key: while other anime studios work on multiple projects every year, both for the big and small screen, Ghibli has always been a movie studio exclusively, and is more than willing to give films all the time they need in the oven. Some Ghibli movies are quite Japanese, similar to “Naruto” or “Demon Slayer”, but others like “Howl’s Moving Castle” are based on western works. Ghibli benefits from its isolation visually, as well. As the medium evolves, conventional anime art styles do in tandem. From just looking at the details in the background, or the shine on a character’s sword, it’s easy to tell when an episode of “Naruto” was made. This isn’t the case with Ghibli, whose movies retain the same picturesque fairytale magic whether they were produced in the 2010s or the 1980s.
Intentionally, Ghibli sets itself apart from other anime, accounting for the flaws that make the medium simply unappealing large demographics, and avoiding many of the industry’s clichés. But that’s ignoring the more important reason: Ghibli movies are just excellent. Put simply, the reason why anyone in the world can appreciate Studio Ghibli is that no one else in the world can match their weird and wonderful charm.