The Novels Behind Studio Ghibli Films

Article | Issue: May 2022


Studio Ghibli is celebrated across the world for its thoughtful and beautifully animated feature films. AKINA HANSEN looks at the lesser-known and more famous literary works that have inspired these iconic animations.

As a child I fell in love with the artistry and unique storytelling of the films produced by Studio Ghibli, an animation studio that was founded in 1985 by animators and directors Hayao Miyazaki and Takahata Isao, and producer Suzuki Toshio.

From exploring the intricacies of Shintoism and Japanese folktales and mythology through to more Western explorations of pirates, aviation and sorcery – every Studio Ghibli film has moved me and no doubt their extensive fan base, through their honest and profound examination of humanity.

Hayao Miyazaki is perhaps the most well-known creator from Studio Ghibli and is the man behind internationally celebrated films such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Kiki’s Delivery Service.

His works often explore themes surrounding technology and the environment and are set against backdrops of war and conflict – which he uses as a tool to promote pacifism.

Unbeknown to most, Studio Ghibli films have a long history of being adapted from various literary works. Importantly, the genius behind Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli is their ability to reimagine a work while simultaneously maintaining its essence and making it truly their own.

Studio Ghibli films have been adapted from lesser-known works through to more famous ones, such as Homer’s Odyssey, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Ursula Le Guin’s Tales From Earth Sea and others.

Miyazaki’s 1984 film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, draws from a variety of literary works. The film itself is a visual masterpiece and incredibly timely considering it’s set in a post-war world that is left almost completely uninhabitable – with toxic forests and giant insects overtaking the landscape.

Miyazaki is known for creating incredible female heroines who are fierce, strong and independent. The titular character in the film, Nausicaä, is loosely based on the Phaeacian princess of the same name who appears in Homer’s The Odyssey. Miyazaki initially read about her from Bernard Evslin’s book Gods, Demigods & Demons: Encyclopedia of Greek Mythology and it was this adapted version of Nausicaä that Miyazaki drew inspiration from. Additionally, the character of Nausicaä is also partly modelled on the princess of a 12th century Japanese folktale.

His 1986 film, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, is an adventurous tale that features a litany of whimsical characters, settings and objects – from a floating city to gangs of pirates and a magical stone. The film follows an orphaned girl called Sheeta as she escapes from her abductors who are after her magical amulet. When Sheeta escapes by falling from their airship, her amulet allows her to float gently down to safety. She is discovered by a boy called Pazu, who believes she is from the floating city of Laputa, and what follows is a quest to find the legendary city. This film was inspired by Part III of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which follows Gulliver as he travels to a floating as Laputa.

The 1988 film, Grave of the Fireflies, which was directed by Isao Takahata, is based on the semi-autobiographical 1967 novel of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka. It’s an incredibly tragic film that tells the harrowing story of orphaned siblings, Seita and Setsuko, as they struggle to survive on their own during World War II. The film received critical acclaim and was described by the late film critic and historian Roger Ebert as ‘one of the greatest war films ever made’.

Miyazaki’s animations often feature both Japanese and European characteristics – in his films you’ll see bustling cobbled streets and classical and cottage style buildings to mountainous landscapes, fishing villages and stretches of rice fields.

Howl’s Moving Castle is based on Diana Wynne Jones’ 1986 novel of the same name and is set in a fictional kingdom that features northern European architecture that remarkably captures the essence of 20th century Germany and France. The 2004 film follows a young hat maker called Sophie who is cursed by a witch and turned into an old woman. Set against a backdrop of war, Sophie sets off in search of Howl, a young wizard who she believes can help her.

In 2006, Goro Miyazaki, the son of Hayao Miyazaki, directed Tales from Earthsea, an adaptation of Ursula K Le Guin’s ‘Earthsea’ series. The film was inspired by all four novels; however it’s important to note that while there are some key similarities, it’s very loosely based on the books.

The film is set in the fictional world of Earthsea and follows the wizard Sparrowhawk as he goes on to battle an evil force.

The 2010 film Arietty was adapted from Mary Norton’s 1952 book The Borrowers. It follows a similar premise of tiny people surviving in a large human world by borrowing their things. The film adaptation however is set in modern Tokyo rather than 1950s England.

In 2013 Studio Ghibli released The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which is one of their more traditional adaptations. The film reimagines one of Japan’s oldest surviving fictional prose narratives called The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The story is about a bamboo-cutter and his wife who discover a baby princess being born out of a bamboo shoot.

In the same year Miyazaki announced that The Wind Rises would be his final film. The 2013 film is partly based on Paul Valery’s 1922 poem ‘Graveyard by the Sea’ and Hori Tatsuo’s 1937 novel The Wind Has Risen. While the film is a biopic about Jiro Horikoshi – a Japanese engineer who designed the Zero fighter plane – we also see the themes of Valery’s poems throughout.

Finally, When Marnie Was There is a 2014 adaption of Joan G Robinson’s novel of the same name that was originally published in 1957. The setting of the film differs from the original, moving from Norfolk to Hokkaido, Japan, but similarly deals with themes surrounding alienation and loneliness.

Every Studio Ghibli film I have seen has moved me deeply and has left me with a deluge of emotions. Not only are the illustrations mesmerising, but the characters you meet along the way leave you questioning your own morals and standards – they are brave, astute and compassionate – and they challenge you to feel and do more. While not all Studio Ghibli films come from established works (many are original screenplays) – the ones that have been adapted remind us of the multifaceted nature of stories and how their pasts can be reimagined into new and exciting beginnings.

Author: Homer Homer Homer

Category: Literature & literary studies, Myth & legend told as fiction

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Penguin

ISBN: 9780140268867

RRP: $32.99

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