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A Prayerful Dive into Studio Ghibli Films

A Prayerful Dive into Studio Ghibli Films

For decades, Studio Ghibli films have been cornerstone classics in the anime world and beyond. Enjoyed by children and adults alike, these movies are packed with deep truths and thought-provoking questions while remaining true to their Japanese roots. They also provide plenty of food for prayer. Here is our top five list of favorites that you won’t want to miss!

#5. Ponyo

Ponyo is an absolutely delightful adventure story. When five year old Sosuke rescues a tiny red fish entangled in litter and names her Ponyo, he has no idea how his caring affection for this water creature will transform her, and they end up on a far greater adventure than he bargained for!

@ Studio Ghibli. All rights reserved. 

 

St Clare of Assisi said “We become what we love, and who we love shapes what we become.” This builds off of John’s statement: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). When we are shown love, we learn to love, and who we love shapes what we become. This is the underlying premise of Ponyo’s transformation in Ponyo. At the beginning of the story, Ponyo is just like all the other little red fish she lives with, with the exception of her exuberant spirit which gets her into trouble. When she ventures too far from home and gets stuck in litter, she is found by little Sosuke on the shoreline. In his characteristic kindness, Sosuke saves Ponyo. He cares for, protects, and plays with her.  When Ponyo is eventually reclaimed by her sea-father, she sets her heart on returning to the loving Sosuke, wanting to be like him and to be with him. Her determined affection for him begins to transform her from a little fish into a little girl, and soon she joins her friend as a human. Through all their adventures, the innocent love between them sustains them through their daily escapades, and ultimately gives Ponyo the form she needs to fully thrive as herself. She becomes truly human, like the one who taught her to reach out in love, because of her true love for him. It’s a beautiful representation of the truth of our transformation in Christ.  We love because God loves, because he is Love. And when we love him, we are gradually transformed in him, “becom[ing] the image of the beloved” (St Clare of Assisi). And as reflected in Ponyo’s pure, unadulterated delight, there is no joy greater than this!

 

Sosuke finding Ponyo. @ Studio Ghibli. All rights reserved. 

 

 

#4. My Neighbor Totoro

Totoro waits for the bus with the sisters. @ Studio Ghibli. All rights reserved.

 

When young sisters Satsuki and Mei move to the countryside with their father, they are delighted to discover the friendly, fantastical spirits that live in the area--including a large, furry spirit named Totoro. These spirits help the girls cope with their transition to a new house and their mother’s long hospitalization.

 

Famous apologist G. K. Chesteron was fond of speaking about how wonder opens us up to God’s presence in our lives perhaps more than anything else. It is this innocent sense of wonder that is perfectly captured in My Neighbor Totoro. Satsuki and Mei aren’t frightened by the strange spirits they encounter in their everyday life, but rather full of delight. They cannot predict when or where they will see these spirits, or what will happen when they do. They are simply open to whatever adventure presents itself when the spirits visit them. They let go of their own plans, allowing themselves to be seized by wonder, and this brings them joy and comfort during a very difficult time.

 

Mei and Totoro. @ Studio Ghibli. All rights reserved.

 

Our God is a God of wonder. In many places in Scripture, God is praised for the wonders he performs out of love for us. Like Satsuki and Mei, do we let wonder touch our hearts and move us? Are we willing to stop what we are doing and let a beautiful moment capture us, whether it is a sunset, a conversation with a loved one, or an hour of Eucharistic Adoration? Or are we so stuck in our routines that we cannot see the ways God is trying to break into our everyday lives? Encounters with God are often characterized by wonder, a wonder that delights even as it awes. Satsuki and Mei can be models for us in responding freely and spontaneously to the wonderful things God places in our paths. When we embrace these moments with joy and gratitude, we will surely find God there.

 

 

#3. Whisper of the Heart

@ Studio Ghibli. All rights reserved.

 

Whisper of the Heart is Studio Ghibli’s most underrated gem. The simple, ‘slice of life’ story follows the young teen Shizuku as she resolves to pursue her love for writing while navigating her last year of middle school in Tokyo.

 

Throughout Scripture, God reminds us that great meaning can lie in the smallest things. Recall the widow’s offering of her few pennies in the Temple (Mark 12:41-44)? When we give our everything, our love and sincerity can make the simplest moments the most transformative ones. This reality is the foundation of Whispers of the Heart. The most beautiful scene in the film has Shizuku in the violin workshop of her crush, Seiji. He starts to play and invites her to sing along. Unconfident in her voice, Shizuku is moved by his sincerity and begins to sing anyway. As the two bond over their mutual vulnerability, they are joined by Seiji’s grandpa and his friends who all bring instruments to add to the fun. The scene begins with Shizuku as an outsider in Seiji’s family, and ends with her as an integral part of it. The love and sincerity she put into the simple act of making music with them transforms their relationship, laying a foundation they’ll build on for the rest of their lives. This is true of our lives too. Actions as simple as singing together, figuring out a recipe together, or studying together can be transformed by the love and sincerity we put into them, fostering between us the communion for that which God made us.

 

@ Studio Ghibli. All rights reserved.

 

 

 #2. Spirited Away

@ Studio Ghibli. All rights reserved.

 

When ten-year old Chihiro and her parents inadvertently trespass on the spirit world, it’s up to Chihiro to rescue her parents. With the help of a spirit called Haku (a boy who can take the form of a dragon), she gets a job at the spirits’ bathhouse until she can find a way to return to her own world.

 

God always calls us to come to him as we truly are. He respects our deepest identity and invites us by name to enter into an intimate relationship with him. Names are an important theme throughout Spirited Away. When Chihiro is bound in service to the witch who runs the bathhouse, the witch steals part of her name. Throughout the film, she fights to remember it because this is the only way she can return home. Her friend Haku has lost his true identity because he has forgotten his name. It is only when Chihiro reminds him of it that he can be free and return to himself.

 

Chihiro and Haku. @ Studio Ghibli. All rights reserved.

 

God always reaches out to us by name. He assures us, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). In his tender and personal love for each of us, God affirms us in our deepest identity and invites us to enter into union with him. Spirited Away powerfully illustrates how being called by name—especially by someone we love—sets us free and shows us that we are known in love. No one knows and loves us more completely than the God who made us and redeemed us. May we be open to listening to his voice that is always speaking our name in love.

 

 

#1: Howl’s Moving Castle

@ Studio Ghibli. All rights reserved.

 

When Sophie accidentally offends the powerful Witch of the Waste, she is cursed to become an old lady. She turns to the infamous wizard Howl for help, but soon learns that Howl might be in even more dire straits than she is.

 

On Self-Acceptance:

We were crafted, body and soul, by God. Every part of us that originates from him is beautiful. Touched by sin, we always have room for betterment, but the core of who we are is stunning. Yet we constantly believe the lie that we aren’t beautiful.

 

We see this in the main characters of Howl’s Moving Castle. Sophie is a young girl who doesn’t like how she looks and struggles to be herself around others.  But when she is forced to seek a way to break a curse, she meets the wizard Howl. Through her struggles to help Howl, she comes to see the gift of herself and the beauty of her story, finally embracing who she is, body and soul. Howl himself is quite selfish, living to protect his own ego. His behaviour stems from his own struggle to accept his natural appearance and the value of his soul. As he learns, through Sophie, to care about others, he begins to discover the value of the only gift he has to give – his true self. When he is finally willing to sacrifice himself, we see him embrace the tremendous value of who he is, body and soul. Howl and Sophie’s journeys to self-acceptance affect similar transformations in those around them. And this is true of us as well. We were made beautiful, body and soul. When we surrender our lives, attitudes, and actions to God, we embrace the beauty of who we are made to be. And, connected to one another, when we embrace the gift of who we are, we inspire in others the courage to do the same.

 

@ Studio Ghibli. All rights reserved.

On Mercy:

Even the smallest acts of mercy never go forgotten. When we reach out to others in love, this helps us discover both our true selves and God.

Throughout the film, Sophie grows in her ability to empathize with others and reach out to them in love despite rejection and difficulty. At first, she helps those she meets somewhat reluctantly, rescuing an enchanted scarecrow and agreeing to help a fire demon named Calcifer because she thinks it will benefit herself. But by the end of the film, Sophie is more proactive about selflessly helping those in need. She is even willing to take in her former enemy, the Witch of the Waste, simply because the old woman is now powerless and has nowhere else to go. In the end, it is her kindness toward the Witch that saves them all and frees Howl’s heart.

 

Sophie and the Witch of the Waste holding Howl’s heart. @ Studio Ghibli. All rights reserved.

 

God invites us to act with mercy, even toward our enemies, rather than doing things merely for our own advantage. “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36). This isn’t always easy. Sophie’s long journey is proof that it takes hard work and practice to help those who might not appreciate us or repay us. But God treated us with mercy when we did not deserve it, and he expects us to do the same for others. When we take this to heart and do our best to reach out generously to the people God places in our lives, we will truly be “children of the Most High.”

 

There are many more themes, and many more Studio Ghibli films we could have chosen to reflect on, but you don’t have to wait for us to point these out for you! Pull out your favorite Studio Ghibli movie or pick out a new one, and try watching it with an eye toward what God might be speaking to your heart. You might be surprised at all the riches Jesus has to reveal to you.

 

 

Sr. Allison Gliot & Sr. Orianne Dyck are two novices of the Daughters of St Paul, and are both long-time fans of Studio Ghibli.

 

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