Disney vs Ghibli: Can we have moral absolutes and nuanced characters?

I stumbled across Studio Ghibli about 10 years ago when I saw Spirited Away for the first time. Ever since, I’ve grown to love the sweet yet unsettling output of Hayao Miyazaki and his cronies. This may not sound like much of a complement, but Ghibli films are my favourite films to fall asleep to. You can turn on any Ghibli film, fall asleep for half an hour, wake up and continue watching, without really missing anything. In fact, it’s hard sometimes to know whether you’ve woken up or not such is the dream logic, winding plot development and general oddness of it all.

Odd that is compared to the expectations I, as a Westerner, have of animated, children’s feature films. And what is so refreshing about Ghibli, is exactly this- it is very different to Disney.

Disney may be prepared to bump off a few parents here and there, but they would never make something as unremittingly bleak as Grave of The Fireflies. Or a paean to lost youth such as Howl’s Moving Castle. Or have its cuddly band of raccoon heroes go on a vengeful killing spree (Pom Poko).

Different approaches to good and evil

After just a couple of Miyazaki masterpieces, I spotted an even more profound and underlying difference though. The approach to good and evil by the two studios is poles apart. For all Walt’s colourful palettes, he’s always been pretty monochrome when it comes to morality. Some characters are good, others are bad, and usually there is little nuance applied. Usually, you can simply tell who’s who by checking their rounded/angular features, colourful/watery tones, pretty/grotesque faces. The Beast may start out a hairy, ugly monstrosity, but under all that fur, he’s a muscular, blue eyed hunk. They messed around with it a bit in Frozen (although I’d always suspected that Hans’ nose was just a little too pointy) but it was 2014 after all!

Ghibli’s villains are somewhat more complex. And confusing. Watching Spirited Away, you’d surely be forgiven for thinking that the creepy masked ghost in the black cape may well be one for the young heroine to steer clear from. No, apparently he’s all right. And he likes knitting too. Or how about the greedy, spiteful Witch of the Waste in Howl’s Moving Castle? Finally a baddy to root against? Again, before you know it, she’s a cute, slightly mad old woman who helps bring about an almost Disney-like happy ending. In fact in most of the films, there are actually no antagonists in the traditional sense at all.

Disney vs Ghibli- who won?

Now, Miyazaki snr has recently retired and his studio has ceased production, while Walt’s ghost will be churning out blockbusters for decades to come, but in many ways it is the Ghibli way of approaching these themes that has taken the ascendancy. You don’t have to have a Media Studies GCSE to be able to point out the media conglomerate’s pernicious effects on everything from girls’ body confidence, racial stereotyping and an endorsement of a social hierarchy based on wealth and power. And wasn’t Walt Disney a Nazi?

On the other hand, the far more nuanced approach to goodies and baddies that Ghibli uses is now the accepted norm in Hollywood and Netflix-land. Films like Michael Mann’s Heat or the Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs (remade as The Departed) are set up on premises deliberately designed to blur the lines between protagonist and antagonist, and series such as Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones allow characters to step quite easily from light to dark and back again. There have always been baddies that have stolen the show, but increasingly films are marketed with the baddies as the central characters, such as Maleficent or more recently Suicide Squad.

And all the better for it, you may say. Finally, reality has dawned in the world of western entertainment and we can leave cinemas educated about the ambiguities of human nature, rather than splitting up the world into good and bad according to a certain squint in someone’s eyes or sharpness in their jaw.

In defence of Disney

In a sense, I’d agree. Hooray for 3 dimensional characterisation! Hooray for entertainment that educates me about the wickedness that lurks in every human heart! Hooray for the reminder that redemption is available to all!

However, in another sense, I’m very reluctant to completely reject the Disney way. You see, whatever Walt Disney’s political leanings and whatever his company has become, Disney and Ghibli have been very carefully built on specific and conflicting worldviews and I happen to endorse what lies behind Disney’s view of the world as much as I reject Studio Ghibli’s metaphysical presuppositions.

I am in no way suggesting that Disney is a Christian company in the sense that Jesus would align himself with the studio’s output, but it must be recognised that broadly speaking Disney has grown out of a Christian way of looking at the world. Christianity is fairly robust in its presentation of an objective morality, where good and evil actually exist not even just as concepts, but embodied in real spiritual powers.

Japanese culture has been built on very different foundations. The key religious influences on modern day Japan are Shintoism and Buddhism. These two philosophies would have a very different view of good and evil. The Buddha was notoriously hard to pin down on this issue but his main concern was with alleviating human suffering, not defeating some sort of cosmic evil and his philosophy has developed into one which denies the absolute distinction between good and evil. Similarly, Shintoism would assert that all things have good and bad aspects, including kami (sacred beings or spirits) who are neither good or bad in the Christian sense, but seek to bring harmony to the world.

Miyazaki is not a Buddhist or a follower of Shintoism, but has said of the latter: ‘I do respect it, and I feel that the animism origin of Shinto is rooted deep within me.’  (Here or for more on the religious background to Miyazaki’s work, here) As you’d suppose it would be. Our cultures have an effect on our worldview far above our levels of conscious commitment. Even if Disney had not been raised a Christian Congregationist, it’s almost certain that he would have imbibed an absolute morality as easily as Miyazaki did a fundamentally relative one.

I’m not suggesting that Miyazaki’s studio was a contributing factor in western TV and cinema’s blurring of the goody/baddy divide. However, it’s interesting that this has happened as western culture too has turned decisively away from absolute ideas about good and evil towards philosophies that have much more in common with traditionally eastern systems of thought, particularly in their treatment of morality.

This raises some pretty big questions.

What if the nuanced morality and realistic characterisation of Ghibli and much modern storytelling is actually perpetuating a view of the world that is totally at odds with how Jesus saw the world and what he taught about its foundational structure?

What if, in fact, Disney’s simplistic view of the moral foundations of the world is not naive and harmful but essential to human flourishing and in unity with the Bible’s basic ideals?

Best of both worlds

Just to clarify, I’m not proposing a boycott or anything like that. In fact, this isn’t even a criticism. I love Studio Ghibli. I also hugely appreciate the complex characterisation in modern television series and films. I do feel though that one approach is not better than the other, but that, as a Christian artist, I need to find a way to embrace this realism in my art, while communicating clearly the very real existence of absolute good and evil.

We need art that clearly maps out the cosmic state of affairs, where moral absolutes exist and make demands of us. We need art that gives us attractive, weighty portrayals of pure goodness and representations of evil that repel us. We also need art that realistically portrays human beings as broken, fallen beings with such potential for good and such a propensity for evil.

The question then for us as Christian artists is how do we do this in our art?

I’d love to hear what you think and next week, I’ll present some ideas I’ve got about how we can do this and examples of where I think it’s done well. (To check out the next post, click here)

You Might Also Like...

Re-presenting our Communities

By Luke Sewell Tue 06 Sep, 2016

Sputnik Faith and Arts Re-presenting our Communities
Solving Problems or Making Things New

By Jonny Mellor Fri 02 Sep, 2016

Sputnik Faith and Arts Solving Problems or Making Things New
Michelangelo, Character and Community

By Huw Evans Tue 23 Aug, 2016

Sputnik Faith and Arts Michelangelo, Character and Community
Mental Illness For Fun And Profit

By Ian J Fri 29 Jul, 2016

Sputnik Faith and Arts Mental Illness For Fun And Profit
Not About The Football

By Huw Evans Mon 27 Jun, 2016

Sputnik Faith and Arts Not About The Football
Family film nights that shape your children’s worldview!

By Jonny Mellor Tue 10 May, 2016

Sputnik Faith and Arts Family film nights that shape your children’s worldview!