Japanese folklore, the secret ingredient amplifying the magical appeal in Studio Ghibli films

Piyush Singh
New Update

Studio Ghibli films grab the audiences' attention with their references to Japanese folklore. But to what extent do these elements add to their enduring magical appeal? We discuss.

It's fascinating to enjoy diversity in great stories since artists weave reflections of the culture they come from into their work. Studio Ghibli is one of the studios renowned for incorporating rich folklore references by seamlessly integrating them for character development and worldbuilding. It is one of the elements that make their films as culturally resonant as they are imaginative. 

The studio's recent release "The Boy and the Heron" is a great example of Japanese folklore's influence on their stories. In Japanese culture, herons have significance and are seen as divine birds capable of traversing the three elements of land, water, and sky, thereby symbolizing their mystical and otherworldly nature. However, the cultural conversation surrounding herons goes beyond this, as various stories and legends have their mention. Japanese folklore, for instance, adds an intriguing dimension to these birds with the tale of the gray heron and the phenomenon known as "aosagibi" or gray heron fire. According to legend, as gray herons age, their feathers take on an iridescent hue, giving them the extraordinary ability to breathe fireballs. Although aosagibi might initially seem menacing, the flames are considered benign, unable to burn anything they touch. In the context of the film, the heron's presence may carry symbolic weight that matches its cultural significance in Japanese folklore. Much like in traditional stories, the heron in the film possesses mystical qualities and represents a connection between the earthly realm and the spiritual world. This, however, is not the first instance of Studio Ghibli drawing inspiration from folk tales. Although the use of folklore references in anime is widespread, Ghibli's approach stands out for its exceptional ability to create a sense of magic and wonder. 

Also Read: Tracing the legacy of Hayao Miyazaki through the themes of The Boy and the Heron

There are other examples of how the makers masterfully included cultural references to have additional depth and authenticity to the narratives. Like, in "Princess Mononoke," the introduction of Nago, a boar god transformed into a tatarigami (curse god), exemplifies this. Tatarigami in Japanese legend can be destructive entities or wronged spirits seeking vengeance and Nago, consumed by revenge after humans destroyed his forest, spreads a curse of hatred that underscores the film’s theme of cyclical destruction. Many folklore references as such have been used throughout the movie making the story compelling and familiar for the people. Similarly, "The Cat Returns" echoes the story of “Tsuru no Ongaeshi'  where a crane repays a man's kindness. The Cat Returns reinterprets this tale of gratitude and obligation for modern audiences. 

In "Pom Poko," the protagonists are tanuki, or raccoon dogs, which are steeped in folklore for their shape-shifting abilities. These mischievous characters use their powers to resist habitat destruction, blending cultural myth with environmental messages. "Spirited Away" also has its share of folklore-inspired characters that take the story ahead. What personally stood out for me was No Face, inspired by the Gaki of Japanese mythology—ghosts of people who died of starvation and now are condemned to eternal, insatiable hunger. No Face’s transformation into a greedy, consuming entity reflects this mythological concept adding to make the film more meaningful.

"The Tale of Princess Kaguya" is another famous folk tale of Japan although my memory of coming across the story is blurry. It's also because the anime shows that aired in India often referred to Princess Kaguya, and such shows were like a bridge to a completely new culture for me. As a child, I loved and have seen people love folk tales, no matter which culture these stories come from. At some point, I must have questioned why these particular stories were passed down through generations when many of them seemed unbelievable. Perhaps that's when I lost interest in understanding the charm of folklore, but I never lost my fascination with listening to them. Recently, I stumbled upon a meme emphasizing how society places too much importance on films and writers, claiming these professions are dispensable. While someone argued otherwise, citing "Star Wars" as an example of inspiring numerous technological advancements. It's all because, somewhere, someone imagined the concept, wrote about it, and shared it with the world. And it reminds us of the importance of imagination, reflection, and, once in a while, thinking beyond what's conventional. 

Reflecting on the significance of folklore references, witnessing artists depict a deep attachment to culture helps these stories detach themselves from the ordinary. It could be a reason why some people are drawn towards animated stories where characters and world-building can be anything you imagine. Tales that sound unbelievable also make us embrace the understanding that not everything requires explanation, some stories are simply meant to be enjoyed. Perhaps that's why many of us are drawn to Studio Ghibli's stories for their unique approach to staying connected to culture and magic while remaining relevant in contemporary times.

What are your thoughts on culture playing an important role in stories? Let us know in the comments below.

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