The Immersive Realism of Studio Ghibli
The following is a transcript of the video essay.
In order to tell a compelling and effective story, storytellers must construct an immersive world in which the story takes place; a process known as worldbuilding. Some stories require more detailed worldbuilding than others, but in the end the point is the same: suspend our disbelief, draw us in, make us buy into the world you’ve created.
I’d like to explore the films of Studio Ghibli through the lens of worldbuilding, and how they use worldbuilding to achieve a sense of immersive realism, a quality I’ve long admired in all of Ghibli’s films. Through masterful animation and attention to detail, Studio Ghibli consistently crafts immersive, unique films that strike a difficult balance between fantasy and reality.
Worldbuilding is a daunting task for animators because every visual element must be created from scratch. There’s nothing there until it’s drawn. This is where Ghibli excels — their animators demonstrate a mastery of technique and a strict attention to detail with every scene. No matter how farfetched and imaginary, the worlds of Ghibli films consistently feel tactile and realistic.
To quote Miyazaki:
“Anime may depict fictional worlds, but I nonetheless believe that at its core it must have a certain realism. Even if the world depicted is a lie, the trick is to make it seem as real as possible. Stated another way, the animator must fabricate a lie that seems so real viewers will think the world depicted might possibly exist.”
— Starting Point, p. 21
Consider Ghibli’s approach to animating movement. Watch how their characters run and interact with their environment, how their clothes and hair move — the illusion of physics. Animators must construct a sense of scale, gravity, weight, and momentum from frame to frame, to emulate the semblance of a physical world where there isn’t one. This trait isn’t unique to Ghibli’s films, but they consistently achieve a realistic, tactile, effortless sense of realism through their approach to movement. This helps ground us within the reality of the film world, even if that world is far removed from our own.
Think about the word animate — “to bring to life.” This is acting. Miyazaki argues that animators are themselves actors; they must understand and empathize with their characters. They share in part of the actor’s process; they must consider; what is their character’s motivation? How do they feel? Are they suppressing something? Are they cocky? Sheepish? Terrified? Embarrassed? Determined?
In the words of Hayao Miyazaki,
“Their emotions will become yours. And, as is often said, you will become both an animator and an actor.”
— Starting Point, p. 35
Of course voice actors do a lot of the acting, but voice acting is disembodied until it’s attached to a drawn character. A character’s unspoken mannerisms and facial expressions are equally important in establishing a character as what they say. So an animator’s mastery of technique must be tempered by an empathy for the character being animated.
To get a better sense, let’s look at running. To convey the illusion of running, animators use a run cycle — an animated sequence that depicts running strides. Over time, animators have developed a reliable, standardized approach to the run cycle — a sequence of four steps per second, six frames per stride. This is just a guideline, of course there are many different ways of running, and every character runs a little bit differently, depending on the circumstances and their reason for running. Are they scared? Playful? Determined? Running almost always has a clear motivation, and is an opportunity for an animator to communicate something about that character. It’s a chance to act.
It takes finesse to construct a truly believable and compelling run cycle, one that is appropriate to the character, their emotion, and their intention. It’s incredibly precise — an extra frame here or there can destroy the rhythm and lead to a stilted, awkward looking sequence. Whenever you see a character running in a Ghibli film, the animator has considered the character’s motivation for running, and imparted that motivation into the way the character moves.
Sidenote: achieving realistic movement is so notoriously difficult to accomplish that many filmmakers have used the technique of tracing live-action footage as an easier shortcut to accomplish a realistic result, a process known as rotoscoping — thing is, this usually ends up looking creepy. But that’s a topic for another video.
Author’s note: I’ve since changed my point of view on this, and I think this aside was a bit naïve. I think the point still stands that despite tracing reality, rotoscoping doesn’t achieve a convincing other reality as well as hand-drawn animation, but that isn’t always the point and I no longer think rotoscoping is inherently “creepy”; it can certainly be an effective creative tool for a filmmaker.
Point is, there are subtleties to a character’s behaviour which are lost or don’t translate properly through rotoscoping. It was never animation’s task to emulate real life. It’s to create an analog, so to speak; some imaginary world adjacent to and reminiscent of our own, but not necessarily identical.
Animators can take the rules of our world and bend or break them however they wish. That’s part of the magic of animation. But to achieve a level of immersive realism, there must exist an underlying familiarity with the characters and the world where the story takes place. That familiarity comes from the details.
All of this comes back to depicting movement. In animation, movement must be used to convey a sense of relative scale and weight. Ghibli not only accomplishes this with grace, but also conveys the emotions and traits of their characters through attention to minute details of behaviour. It’s these subtle elements of their behaviour that make Ghibli’s characters feel so real.
In Spirited Away, the bath house feels alive and real. While it’s inherently unbelievable, we believe it exists in the context of the world of Spirited Away because it’s so well established: there are employees with jobs to do, sleeping quarters, a coal-powered furnace that heats the baths, different kinds of soap for different clients, even a process by which to call certain kinds of soap for different kinds of baths. If you followed another employee, what would their day be like? With all of these details, it feels like there are untold stories unfolding in the background.
This is the importance of proper worldbuilding; it doesn’t feel like a cheap facade put up for the convenience of the story we’re being told. Instead, there is depth and richness to the world; it feels like it extends beyond the edges of the frame.
Case in point: Princess Mononoke is set in a medieval world inspired by Japanese folklore. Despite the fantasy elements, Princess Mononoke is not an overtly outrageous film — it feels grounded by its realistic, nuanced characters and attention to detail. The film exhibits Ghibli’s signature style of animated movement, complimented by an established society and even infrastructure.
Look at Iron Town as an example: the society and culture is established to the point where we can infer clear gender roles — the women work the bellows while the men venture out with Lady Eboshi to collect resources. These details aren’t the focus of the film, but they build a periphery which strengthens the main story. All of these details in setting and space create a world believable to the audience.
Their attention to detail is best exemplified whenever Ghibli uses wide establishing shots, especially in towns and cities with lots of people. This illustrates the immensity of the animator’s task; to create every single element of a world from scratch. Notice how every background character is placed, the actions they’re given, the intentions they may have. In animation, everything is on screen on purpose. Watch the background — see what the animators put there for you to find, consciously or not, to help create a sense of realism and a well-rounded world that extends beyond the screen. Pay attention to the the ordinary, the inconsequential, the seemingly unimportant actions and elements of the background — every single one was a conscious choice.
Another unique quality you’ll notice of Ghibli’s filmography is the range of stories they tell. Studio Ghibli is often referred to synonymously with Hayao Miyazaki, their famous, imaginative and visionary director of fantasy stories. There are a few other Studio Ghibli films, though, that favour subtle, subdued storylines. In contrast to the overt fantasy of Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle, films like Ocean Waves, From Up on Poppy Hill, and Only Yesterday tell minimal, understated stories with a strong yet subtle emotional core. These stories would be difficult to pull off with a lesser mastery of animation.
On their surface, these are hardly films you’d expect of animation. For the most part, they very well could have been live-action, but they weren’t. Animation seems to suit these stories perfectly well, and through another medium they’d be inherently different. Only Yesterday would be a different film if it were live-action — maybe not better or worse, just different. If the live-action remake of Kiki’s Delivery Service serves any example, it might be best to just leave them as they are — animated masterpieces.
It’s by telling stories like these — at once understated, extravagant, mature, magical, nostalgic, and emotional — that Ghibli films epitomize the coming of age of a medium. After all, as Ghibli has so eloquently proven, animation is a medium, not a novelty — valuable not only for its vivid expression of fantastical worlds and magic, but for communicating universal ideas and pure emotions in a way that only animation can. The films of Studio Ghibli circumvent our expectations of what animation can be, leaving us vulnerable to their magic.
While not necessarily the duty or place of animation as a whole, I believe it is the immersive realism of Studio Ghibli’s films that makes them so lasting, timeless, emotional, and impactful. I know that, at least for me, Studio Ghibli set the standard for what animation can be at its best.