The nature of animation
What's going on in the background of animated films from Disney and Ghibli
It’s odd, the things in a film that stick in your mind. One, for me, is an astonishing moment in the 1995 Studio Ghibli film A Whisper of the Heart. Astonishing in its mundanity. Seiya Tsukishima, the father of the heroine Shizuku, politely passes a neighbour on the stairs of their apartment block. He stands aside, the neighbour comes down, meaningless pleasantries are murmured. Nothing else. What astonishes me is the thought of the work that must go into such a minor moment: the planning, storyboarding, dialogue recording, translationed, rerecording, the endless drawing of frames, all to make such an insignificant event so visible and vivid.
Studio Ghibli films are full of these quiet moments, but they are more usually moments of natural tranquillity. In Ponyo, prehistoric fish swim lazily through a flooded town; workers stoop in the fields in Only Yesterday; a biplane putters between mountainous massed clouds in Porco Rosso.
But it is the character of the natural world in Ghibli films that is notable, especially compared to the Disney films I grew up with. It plays a very different role in the films. This is not immediately apparent because they can look very similar, not least because Ghibli has always been influenced by classic Disney, and also because they use the same animation techniques.
Hand-drawn multiplane animation – as brought to an artform by Disney and showcased in Snow White - works by stacking up layers of illustrations on transparent surfaces. This enables different characters to move in different planes of the image, giving the effect of a three-dimensional world. These transparent layers are laid over a full illustration that gives the background to the image. Because that background doesn’t have to be redrawn for every frame it can be far more detailed and more intricately illustrated than the animated characters, so Snow White can run through a tangled, terrifying forest, or tidy up a dwarf’s house where every surface is covered in carvings. Studio Ghibli films have much the same look because they use much the same technique - beautifully rendered backgrounds behind simpler animated characters.
What’s different about Ghibli’s depiction of nature is not the rendering but the character given to it. Disney tends towards the anthropomorphic, or at least the pathetic fallacy. When Snow White bites into the poisoned apple given to her by the witch, all nature weeps. And then throws a positive hissy fit in which the witch is killed. The natural world actively mirrors Snow White’s own feelings as she runs from the hunter sent to kill her - logs in a swamp appear to be alligators, storm-tossed branches turn into snatchy claws. And then it rushes to help her in her distress, every animal naturally following her every whim and need.
These animals are different from the painted backgrounds, of course. They are animated elements on cells, but they are animated in a distinct way. All the humans in Snow White are animated through rotoscoping - reference film was taken of actual actors that the animators then used to base their drawings on - but the animals are fully animated with all the rubbery vitality that entails.1 This means they move much more comedically and look much more cartoony than the formal, lifelike humans: less real but more present.
The relationship between Snow White and nature is positively Fisher King in its mystic unity. As she blossoms, all is right with the world; as she ails, the world sickens. Nature responds to her because she is naturally sweet and good, and that nature responds that way is, of course, all the proof we could need that she is sweet and good.
Even in Bambi, this sense of a divine order of nature persists, even if it features no humans.2 It is Bambi himself who is ‘prince of the forest’, welcomed at birth by all other animals gathering around him like a seventeenth-century royal levée and thereafter serving as his retinue and chorus.3
In Bambi, the backgrounds become stylised in the manner of a mid-century middle-brow post-impressionism, the kind of painting you might find on the boardroom wall of an anonymous multi-national. Colour is used as emotional signalling, flashing red for danger as humans approach. Weather, personified by an ethereal choir, concedes to its fallacious role: Bambi’s childhood tribulations are set to a spring thunderstorm;4 the death of his mother is accompanied by a sombre monochrome snowfall.5 The world still turns on the royal axis.
Unlike Snow White or Bambi, Chihiro, the heroine of Ghibli’s Spirited Away, is not sweet and good. She certainly isn’t a princess. She is a fussy, spoiled little middle-class brat. On the surface, Spirited Away has a very similar form to Snow White: persecuted by a wicked witch, a girl seeks sanctuary among supernatural creatures until she can escape the curse laid on her. But the substance of the films couldn’t be more different.
In Snow White nature is a supportive friend to humans, but in Spirited Away, it is now their victim. Chihiro has to hide in a bathhouse for nature spirits, all of whom hate people and are suspicious of them (and think that they smell funny). She earns their respect only after cleaning a river spirit of the foul human waste and pollution that have turned it into a disgusting creature of muck. In fact, the prince charming who helps her escape turns out to be a river spirit himself, unmoored from the world after his waters were concreted over to make a road.
More noticeably, the visuals here aren’t all sunny flowers and cosy forests. All is immense and impassive. The bathhouse is surrounded by endless vistas of sea and sky. Clouds float by, birds dip and whirl, a breeze troubles the waves. There is no pathetic fallacy here. The great outdoors cares not one whit for the small indoors. Nature carries on despite humans, not for them. This is a world outside the characters, a world that does not serve them, but which they inhabit.
A Whisper of the Heart, in turn, takes this backdrop and makes it urban.6 Indeed, it opens with a joke about this setting, as the heroine Shizuku rewrites the lyrics of John Denver’s Country Roads to make it about the concrete roads she lives among.7
Blimps float by, cars pass on the road, a breeze troubles the still water of a canal. Here there are also big skies and sweeping vistas. But the skies are full of power lines and the vistas are of skyscrapers. The city is just as alive as the sea and the forest, just as endless, and just as full of spiritual and aesthetic enlightenment, found in the sunrise over the roofs or in the tiny moments of urban life.
This is not an environment of trees and flowers and wood sprites, but of people. And cats. Shizuku yearns for the kind of adventure that happens in Disney - or even other Ghibli - films, but the closest she gets is seeing a cat riding the subway. She follows it to an old antique shop, where she meets the owner and his grandson, an aspiring violin-maker called Seiji. Inspired by Seiji’s ambition, Shizuku finally finds her adventure, not deep in a forest, but deep in herself; an inward, personal adventure of creativity.
What she sets out to do, in fact, is to write a fairy story of the kind that might be a Disney film like Snow White, inspired by a tale of the King of the Dwarfs, as depicted in clockwork on the face of a clock Nishi is repairing.8
In fact we can hear Snow White’s dwarfs dig, dig, digging down in their jewel-encrusted mine all through Whisper of the Heart, particularly in the perfect metaphor for creative work that Nishi gives to Shizuku. He shows her a lump of rock that contains a crystal, shining a light through it to make the jewel inside sparkle. The idea for a creative work, he says, is like that precious stone. It will take work to dig it out, polish it and make something of it. Only then will you find out whether it’s worth anything.
Despite this, Shizuku is determined to follow her dream and try to write her fairy tale. Unlike Snow White, she does not just have to sing about her Prince Charming to have him appear, nor do the woodland creatures gather round to do all her chores for her. She has to sit at her desk and work,9 surviving on biscuits, and, when she finally finishes, she bursts into tears with nervous exhaustion, believing her work to be terrible.10 Her final rendezvous with Seiji isn’t surrounded by frolicking fauna; they break into a piece of municipal landscaping to watch the sun rise, gloriously, over Tokyo.
Where Disney builds a world that is bent around and given meaning by the protagonist - where one only has to wish upon a star to have one’s dreams come true - Ghibli’s world neither needs us nor heeds us. It is a world in which we have to labour if we want to establish and define ourselves. A world that we will have to learn and come to terms with.
And this is what, I think, astonishes me about that tiny moment when Shizuku’s father stands aside on the stairs. It is not just that the city is shown as being as rich and rewarding as any landscape, the passage of pavements and passers-by as inspirational and enchanting as Snow White’s magical forest . Rather, the act and effort of that depiction reinforces the message of Ghibli’s landscapes. These small urban moments are not meaningless. Like the narrative pause occasioned by the staircase interaction, these understated moments are important. The effort of making, the labour of neighbourly courtesy and connection; like Shizuku with her book, these things are hard won but worthwhile. The work is the reward, which is just as well, as it never stops.
Next week: We feel the need, the need… for speed
Exhaustively researched and studied, of course, but not rotoscoped.
Only off-stage as unseen and terrible threats
Herbivorous, not counting the owl and some omnivores like raccoons. There are no complicated carnivores who might muddy the clear distinction between peaceful nature and bloodthirsty humans.
To the accompaniment of the terrific ‘April Showers’.
Spoilers, I guess.
This departure from the rural is perhaps because it is the only film directed by Yoshifumi Kondō, the relatively young animator who was expected to become one of the leading lights of the studio before his untimely death; although the script was written by the studio’s presiding genius Hayao Miyazaki (the ‘Walt Disney of Japan’).
Although the soundtrack, very sensibly, uses the Olivia Newton-John version.
In fact it ended up being a (minor) Studio Ghibli film, 2002’s The Cat Returns.
Ironically, the image of Shizuku working at her desk was repurposed for a popular YouTube channel: ‘Lo Fi Hip Hop Beats To Study To’ - the irony being that the one thing she isn’t doing there is ‘studying’. In fact, she gets in trouble for neglecting her homework in order to write.
Tragically, director Yoshifumi Kondō's early death at 47 was attributed to overwork