I remember 2001 like a dream. Among the events that I don’t recall: 9/11, the ensuing chaos in all dimensions of American society, the first movie in the “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” series, and absolutely none of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan or anything else political. What I remember most is walking into a theater to see Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away.” I remember none of the movie, just that moment of walking down the cold September street, holding my mom’s hand and going into the indie theater which probably ran reruns of “The Breakfast Club” on Sundays.
I guess that was an overture into anime, and ever since then, or since becoming an adult capable of cultivating my own interests, I’ve thought of the role of Japanese culture in our country.
After going into that theater, my parents bought the movie. It was played at least three times per year at our house — the old comparison being that for a child, Studio Ghibli is like Disney, full of wonder, amazement, possibilities and pure fantasy realms.
Studio Ghibli differs in some ways, though. Anime like Spirited Away is far more steeped in an aura of Japanese tradition than our American Disney movies are in U.S. patriotism. This is a generalization that doesn’t apply across the board. But in the realm of children’s movies, our studios seem to try veering away from depicting a culture that is overly American.
Almost the entire breadth of Disney’s production list — from “The Lion King” to “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” — aims to depict a world that is far beyond the comforts of America. Anime from the Japanese equivalent — like “Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Princess Mononoke” — all remain distinctly Japanese.
I remember one scene in “Spirited Away” where the main character enters the spirit world, and on the banks of a great river, she sees the peaking hidden roofs and paper lanterns of a village in ceremony. The realm of spirits and style of the movie was so foreign and distinctly Japanese to me. This is a reflection of culture, I thought, not a divergence from it.
Of course, the general industries of animation extend beyond any two companies. But as the mascots for two nations’ rich animation cultures, Studio Ghibli and Disney have some important lessons to teach about the countries they come from. Their duty is to the audience, children mostly, to whom they deliver a message that they consider developmentally important. When considering the role of these two companies, we can look at the track records of content: one more outward-facing, depicting real and foreign cultures; the other introspective, considering the histories, traditions and values of Japanese society. In a meta way, these reflections of culture — whether it is one’s own or another — are representative of the values of two different societies.
I imagine that somewhere in 2001, in another part of the world, a little boy went into a movie theater to watch “Shrek.”