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Evaluating Ethics with Studio Ghibli

Nostalgia fills our hearts at the sight of Totoro, iconic image for Studio Ghibli. These children's films not only dazzle watchers with whimsical creatures, but tell a story revolving around ethics and morality. As protagonists face their demons, we are forced to evaluate our own personal values.


Artist: Theduc Simple

Director Hayao Miyazaki highlights the importance of family, hard work, nature, and spirituality in Japanese culture through endearing child characters we can all relate to. I often find myself falling into an individualistic state of mind having grown up in the United States, and he provided my first glimpse into Eastern viewpoints on life and morals.

Chihiro of Spirited Away taught us how to value family above ourselves. Spoiled and lashing out about having to move away from her friends, she finds herself trapped at a magical bathhouse with her parents transformed into pigs after gluttonously feasting on the village’s food. Though clearly a story of fantasy, truths are woven throughout the plot. Had her parents not been gluttons and over-eaten their share, then the evil witch would not have turned them into pigs. In order to escape the magic bathhouse and return to the human world, Chihiro must identify her pig parents, who she develops a new appreciation for and must learn the value of hard work to find. In the end, she is no longer acting like a spoiled brat, but respecting her parents for who they are. Chihiro’s relationship with Haku, a river spirit trapped in a dragon body, is also notable as she frees him from the bath house by remembering his name, which the evil witch takes from each employee to keep them their forever. Your name represents where you came from and who your family is, which no one can ever change that about you. Spirited Away highlights the importance of family above individual desires, the value of hard work, and anti-gluttony messages that we inadvertently absorb throughout the fantastic film.

Nausicaa of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind most deeply delves into our view of nature. She resides in the last clean valley within the post-apocalyptic, toxic jungle filled with ohm, or giant, dangerous insects. Nausicaa creates a secret garden below ground to experiment with “toxic” plants only to discover they are cleaning the air, and with the help of the ohm, she fights back against the human wars. She believes that if humans take care of nature, nature will take care of them in return. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind reminds us that we are destroying and depleting our planet, and if we took the time to maintain it, our relationship with nature could be beautiful and plentiful. Nausicaa makes us more environmentally conscious and understand our role within nature as caretakers as opposed to just takers.

Mei of My Neighbor Totoro teaches us the value of family and spirituality. Though cuddly Totoro is the adorable figurehead for Studio Ghibli, this film covers some dark topics. Mei’s mother is battling illness, so her family moves into an old house to be closer to the hospital. Mei and her younger sister Satsuki explore the old home and the surrounding forest and find, much to their surprise, spirits. Totoro and his spirit friends appear when the girls most need distraction or assistance. When life gets too tough, they’re home alone, or they miss their mother, Totoro materializes. Most notably, when Mei and Satsuki get into an argument and Satsuki runs away in tears, Totoro is there to help Mei find her young sister. My Neighbor Totoro affected me personally in that it reminded me to maintain the strength of my relationship with my sister. This is true even as I have left for college, because the distance between us makes it hard to share all those little details about life each day.

Sometimes, I wish I had a Totoro spirit to take me to her on a magical cat-bus ride through the night, as Mei did. There are many ways to get in touch with one’s spiritual side during times of hardship, and Totoro embodies all religions, meditations, and prayers with playfulness.

The morals learned through these three films, and there are many more Studio Ghibli productions if you are interested, may seem familiar to you. The importance of family, nature, hard work, and spirituality is intrinsic in humans. However, our Americanized view of the world can sometimes leave out the interconnectedness of it all. We tend to think of things as “I” instead of “we,” and that’s okay- sometimes it takes a Spirited Away situation of extremes for us to shed our materialistic wants and remember what our core values are. But Hayao Miyazaki is here to let us live these plots alongside innocent child protagonists in a forgiving, safe environment. Take advantage of his fantasy worlds and learn more about yourself.

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