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Studio Ghibli: Better Love Stories than Disney?

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Written by Charissa Roberson

Disney films boast some of the most iconic romances of all time: take Belle and the Beast, Cinderella and Prince Charming and Jasmine and Aladdin as just a few examples. However, the films produced by Studio Ghibli – an acclaimed Japanese animation studio headed by Hayao Miyazaki – might rival Disney in their depictions of love. Studio Ghibli tends to frame love stories within larger narratives that deal with complex issues like war, materialism, moral conflict and self-sacrifice. Instead of romance taking center stage, we see the lovers supporting each other through crisis, helping each other grow and often rescuing each other.

In “Spirited Away” (2001), one of Studio Ghibli’s most famous films, a young girl named Chihiro is sucked into the spirit world. There she must find a way to free her parents without losing her own identity. Haku, a boy who has lost his true name, protects Chihiro and helps her navigate the spirit world, despite having nothing to gain. When Haku is seriously injured, Chihiro undertakes a dangerous quest to help him. In the end, she is the one who discovers his name and gives him back his identity. The characters’ selfless love for each other causes both of their characters to grow tremendously.

“Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) is one of the most straightforwardly romantic of the Ghibli films — though even this whimsical tale takes time to explore the senseless cost of war. In this story, Sophie, a young, insecure girl, is cursed to turn into an 80-year-old woman. She takes refuge in the mobile domicile of Howl, a dashing, arrogant young wizard who is obsessed with beauty. Sophie is able to see past Howl’s vanity and cowardice, and she inspires him to take a stand for what’s right, even if it means sacrificing himself. As for Howl, he values Sophie for who she is and makes her realize her own beauty and worth for the first time. No longer insecure, Sophie ends up saving both herself and Howl from their own curses. Because of their love for each other, both Howl and Sophie become the best versions of themselves.

“Whisper of the Heart” (1995), while not as well-known as other Ghibli films, portrays an endearing and touchingly genuine story of young love. Shizuku, an avid reader, is intrigued by a mysterious name that keeps showing up in her library books. She discovers the name belongs to Seiji – a boy who has been checking out books to try to catch her attention. As the two become closer, Seiji shares his dream of traveling to Italy to make violins. His passion inspires Shizuku to discover her own talents and write her first book. In their budding relationship, Shizuku and Seiji push each other to realize their dreams, while treating each other with sincere kindness that shines on-screen.

Disney films will always be beloved, and their romantic pairings have grown much more layered over the years. However, where Disney tends to focus on the magic of romance, Studio Ghibli films explore more down-to-earth examples of love and friendship. Their love stories are portrayed with a complexity and maturity that translates well to the real world, despite the films’ often fantastical settings.