The Reflections Between Disney and Studio Ghibli

Placing the legendary Japanese studio in conversation with beloved American films reveals some fascinating parallels — but also highlights the crucial differences in their respective approaches to storytelling.
Disney Ghibli
By  · Published on April 10th, 2018

Placing the legendary Japanese studio in conversation with beloved American films reveals some fascinating parallels — but also highlights the crucial differences in their respective approaches to storytelling.

For audiences across the world, the works of Walt Disney Studios and Studio Ghibli are synonymous with heady, magical memories of childhood. If you’re a fan of both, a new video by herrozzy will double the enchantment by presenting a side-by-side comparison of the visual parallels between Disney films and earlier Ghibli ones — whether deliberate or not, the similarities suggest that certain elements of beloved stories are more universal that we realize (a concept that folklorists have perpetually wrestled with, which might help explain the cross-cultural ubiquity of tropes like orphaned protagonists and wicked witches).

The video positions Ghibli as a deliberate influence on Disney’s films, and the connections between some works seem more explicit than others — for instance, 1972’s Castle in the Sky and 2009’s Up are united by their use of fantastic floating architecture and airship battles (a similarity that Roger Ebert observed in his original review). And the vital, mythic beauty of Moana (2016)’s seascape seems at least partially informed by the art of 2009’s Ponyo, an influence that even Disney itself chose to play up in its Japanese marketing. One could even make a case for 2017’s recent Oscar winner Coco being a spiritual companion to 2001’s Spirited Away, given both films’ focus on young children who are suddenly separated from their families and trapped within lush spirit worlds populated by fearsome, fantastic creatures.

But these aesthetic parallels also provide an opportunity to explore the deeper contrasts between Disney and Ghibli’s oeuvre. One shot, for instance, links the titular heroine of 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to Rey of the Star Wars sequel trilogy. While both Nausicaä and Rey are curious, resilient young women with a knack for scavenging, the universes they inhabit are deeply different. While the post-apocalyptic world of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is clearly a dangerous one, its conflict can be traced back to the damage wrought by environmental destruction rather than any one unequivocally evil party.

In comparison, for all The Last Jedi’s gestures towards acknowledging the nuances of the Force, Star Wars is still very much a franchise that relies on clearly identifiable villains — despite the fact that Darth Vader is eventually redeemed in death, he endures in pop culture’s collective memory as a menacing emblem of evil. And one doesn’t have to look far to find truly heinous antagonists within the Disney animated canon, either — just look at lecherous archdeacon Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Lion King’s fratricidal usurper Scar, who are both punished with (admittedly ambiguous) death for their wrongdoing.

Ghibli films take place in less absolute moral universes. Studio co-founder and famed director Hayao Miyazaki once remarked in an interview, “The concept of portraying evil and then destroying it — I know this is considered mainstream, but I think it’s rotten.” The conflicts in Ghibli films are rarely characterized by categorical struggles between good vs. evil, but rather more down-to-earth efforts to live and attain self-realization in a vast, often daunting, but never markedly hostile world.

That’s not to say that Ghibli films aren’t willing to venture into darkness — films like 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies and 2014’s When Marnie Was There both openly confront trauma (in the former’s case, specifically that of World War II) and mourning in a way that Disney has yet to try. Moreover, the kind of theatrical, singalong-friendly musical numbers that characterize a Disney animated blockbuster are few and far between. But Ghibli seems more willing to come to terms with darkness rather than feeling the need to vanquish it completely. Admittedly, even here, Disney echoes its footsteps — the villain of Moana, for instance, is only transformed into a demon after her heart is stolen by the well-intentioned demigod Maui. But that trademark mix of messy, mundane, and magical worldbuilding has always set Ghibli’s artistry worlds apart.

Watch the video below to see more examples of the visual connections between Disney and Studio Ghibli films.

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Aline is a writer and student. She is very passionate about campy period dramas, female-driven horror films, and obscure Star Wars lore.