Ghibli and Grief – All the Anime

January 20, 2024


By Zoe Crombie.

As one of, if not the, most popular anime studio in the world, Studio Ghibli has attracted attention from academics, authors, and journalists globally – most recently, the book Now Go: Grief and Studio Ghibli explores the studio in a fresh and highly individual way. Relating much of Ghibli’s oeuvre to personal experiences of grief and loss, this book serves as a more subjective interpretation of the studio’s artistic power.

One of the reasons that Studio Ghibli’s oeuvre has become so globally popular is that its films are open and unique enough to be interpreted in a myriad of ways by viewers from all walks of life. Though some views certainly crop up more frequently – appreciations of their delicious looking food or strong female protagonists, for instance – others are less common, such as the topic addressed by journalist Karl Thomas Smith in his short, sweet, and highly personal book.

Now Go: Grief and Studio Ghibli is a new release from the indie publisher 404 Ink for their Inklings series, predicated on ‘big ideas’ in ‘pocket sized books’. These aren’t strictly texts on films or media alone – one explores queer Greek myths while another investigates the complex identities of adult adoptees, for instance – and this diversity can also be found in Smith’s own book. Part anime analysis and part personal essay, he provides an approach to the studio that emphasises the emotional connection many have to their films over a more rigorous exploration of their influences, history and techniques.

By looking at various Ghibli texts, Smith theorises a range of approaches to grief, ranging from global responses to natural devastation in environmental parables like Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind to the kinds of grief found in even more child-oriented movies like My Neighbour Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service. Primarily, this book emphasises that the concept of ‘grief’ isn’t nearly as simple as it’s often made out to be, and that films from directors like Hayao Miyazaki understand this, basing their fantastical texts in a world of complex emotional realism.

However, the central thread that ties all of these ideas together is Smith’s own experiences of grief – specifically, the death of his grandfather, his first encounter with mortality that ultimately contributed to demons he would experience later in life. Reminiscences relating to this fraught time in his life are woven throughout the majority of the book, and it’s easy to see how Ghibli viewing experiences can be tinted by this lens. In this sense, then, the book inherently encourages you to consider your own relationship with the studio, maybe more so than any other book you can find that discuss their films in a more objective sense.

There’s some great food for thought in each of the chapters of this book, and thankfully Smith never takes the easy way out in simply identifying ‘dark’ themes in Ghibli movies. For example, he doesn’t just focus on emotionally heavier texts like Grave of the Fireflies and outright rejects the played-out idea of Totoro as a Shinigami (God of death) leading the children to their doom. However, while part of the appeal of the book lays in its short length, it does feel as though certain texts or ideas could have been elaborated upon further – there is little to no mention of the life-giving and death-bringing capabilities of Princess Mononoke’s benevolent yet fundamentally unknowable forest spirit, which I found to be a missed opportunity.

Though unique for its personal approach among a sea of books on the studio that function more as guides, histories, or analyses, this is simultaneously its greatest strength and something of a weakness for the book. While it allows for beautiful musings on Smith’s own experiences and distinctive readings of characters like Kaonashi (No-Face) from Spirited Away as avatars of grief, it can also lead to sections that ramble somewhat, as though the author is himself working out these complicated feelings on the page. Minor errors in spelling and grammar at several points also contribute to this issue. Nonetheless, while this writing style may prove divisive, I imagine it will be especially poignant for those who have recently gone through anything similar.

An interesting Grave of the Fireflies-esque chaser for the other major non-academic Ghibli book released this year – Ghibliotheque’s child-friendly The World of Studio GhibliNow Go is a unique entry into the pantheon of writing on the studio. As a humble release that can be devoured by enthusiastic readers in an hour or so, this is worth picking up for any fans of Ghibli – especially as you’ll be supporting an upcoming indie publisher in the process.

Zoe Crombie is an associate lecturer and PhD candidate at Lancaster University working on Studio Ghibli. Now Go: Grief and Studio Ghibli is available now from 404 Ink.