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Miyazaki vs. Disney: Why Studio Ghibli will always have my heart


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Internationally acclaimed Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki, born in 1941, is recognised as a masterful creator of captivating and spellbinding fantasies, enchanting worlds and overtly moralising animation for both younger and older audiences. His exceptional work over the past three decades has built himself a global legendary reputation and a cult following, with his creation of award winning Spirited Away in 2001 wowing the world of animation.

Although many have regularly referred to animation legend Miyazaki to be “The Japanese Walt Disney”, one can argue that he holds completely different aesthetic and philosophical agendas, as Studio Ghibli brings animation to film in different ways.

Fantasy as a critique vs. as an escapism

Although Miyazaki’s association with realism associates more with Disney than of traditional Japanese anime, Miyazaki’s approach to animated fairy tales gives much more freedom for the imagination. Cavarallo states that Miyazaki brings to life ‘intricate fantasy realms’; he produces a world with very clear rules that is internally consistent, even if it is fantastic, with an ‘encounter with a magical Other’ at the heart of all his films.

Whilst Disney uses fantasy as escapism, Miyazaki uses the fantastic to critique many negative and unpleasant facets of civilisation: consumption, greed and corruption are all clearly echoed within Miyazaki’s films through tales of magical transformation.

In Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki uses the animated fairy tale to expose corruption and greed as an inescapable fact of modern society, which Disney fails to do. A good example being the pollution of the River Spirit. The workers’ desire to cleanse him may suggest that this dirtying of our world is only temporary and easily solvable; however, their actions are not carried out of a universal desire to help and purify the guest, but out of necessity and greed. This is evident after we see gold scattered across the Bathhouse floor which is consequently desperately sought after, and their sheer ignorance of the fact that the River Spirit is still present. It is the Bathhouse itself that represents modern society, full of human pollution, only concealed by illusion.

No-Face, a lonely wandering spirit, represents those who are easily corrupted by desire. He is essentially a blank slate who adopts the vices of whomever he consumes, so he quickly becomes corrupt and obsessed with material objects. His main purpose is to show how corrupt the power of greed can be, and how quickly someone with no personality could be turned into a monster if they were only exposed to that side of human nature, never experiencing the power of selflessness.

Yubaba is the representation of greed and selfishness; this is evident in the colossal amount of jewellery and money she owns. Miyazaki depicts her counting her bags of gold and placing them in ornate treasure chests in one scene, and inspecting her jewels with a magnifying glass in another. She criticises humans for corrupting her spirit world, yet she is even more corrupt herself. She is so concerned with the material aspects of her life that she does not realise when her own son was in fact someone (or something) else.

Realism vs Imagination

Disney’s focus was to let technique take precedence over the narrative, the story celebrating the technician and his means, resulting in his approach to the animated fairy tale becoming less imaginative and more conservative.

Studio Ghibli, in contrast, showed little interest in renewing the scene through new technology. Miyazaki prides himself in his beautifully hand-drawn, ornate, water-colour-esque landscapes. His ‘magical visions of children’ remains faithful to the two-dimensionality of the art of drawing whilst employing the use of music as a complement to the narrative, as opposed to constituting it to the core.


Both Disney and Miyazaki adopt alternative approaches to the fairy tale animation when it comes to the representation of women. Miyazaki succeeds in the creation of believable, empowered female characters who are allowed to assume and retain positions of power, whereas Disney presents women stereotypically as the damsel in distress, never entirely free from the comforting but constrictive sphere of male authority.

The female characters in Disney films rely on their sexual charm in order to attract the men around them, which is what Miyazaki disagrees upon. Miyazaki’s young females are undeniably shoujo, Chihiro being the embodiment of selfless compassion. She is a sweet young heroine not yet constrained by adulthood and, by the end of the film, she bears the characteristics of an independent, courageous and inquisitive female.

While Disney’s female characters are all presented as unachievably aesthetically pleasing to the eye, Miyazaki steers clear of conventional feminine beauty, thus preserving the innocence of his characters and highlighting the importance of inner beauty. Chihiro is often put into situations where she is unsure what to do, but due to her hard work and diligence, everything seems to work out for her. She is willing to submit to taxing challenges and humiliations in order to save her parents. Miyazaki saw this film as a message of hope for young girls, and emphasises the importance of dutifulness and respect for the world, and learning to live with a pure heart in order to be a moral individual. Miyazaki’s primary inspiration for Chihiro’s character was his own friend’s daughter, who, of a similar age, he wanted to understand these valuable principles.

Miyazaki thus uses the fantastic to portray spiritual transformation, self-betterment and utilises the environments of his fantastical films and creative ideas as a means of freely exploring topics that are grounded in reality. This enables him to convey an understanding of moral values to his audience in great depth. Disney, on the other hand uses the fantastic to create non-reflective ‘visual theatrical presentations’ that are ‘one-dimensional’ (Zipes) and created for the purpose of the viewers’ enjoyment and pleasure, without character development.

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