Studio Ghibli and Faith in Japan

History of the studio

Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 by animators and directors  Hayao Miyazaki and Takahata Isao  and producer Suzuki Toshio, in Tokyo, Japan (Bauer, n.d.). To date the studio has produced over 20 films, starting with its first official release Castle in the sky (1986). Since then, the studio has become beloved across the world through its production of its most popular films like, Spirited Away (2001), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). Spirited Away (2001) went onto be the second film ever (after Shrek) to win in the category of best animated feature (Bauer, n.d.).

Popularity across the world

While the studio isn’t too widely known in the west, it has a lot people, especially in the film industry who deeply admire Miyazaki and his work. Former Chief Creative Offer of Pixar Studio’s and director of many of their films has stated “Hayao Miyazaki is the greatest animation director living today” (Bather, 2020) and Pete Docter, the current Pixar Chief Creative Offer and director of films such as Inside Out and Monster’s Inc., has said “He captures these real truths to life … he takes the time and allows you to live in this world that is so rich and wonderful.” (Spiegel, 2020).

Satsuski, Mei, and Totoro from My Neighbour Totoro


Part of the reason this studio isn’t quite as popular out of Japan (Spirited Away is the country’s highest grossing film even 20 years after release) could be because the films weren’t available for release until 1996 when the studio reached a deal with Walt Disney Studios with the stipulation that the films would not be edited (Spiegel, 2020). The studio did find push back to this however, when then producer Harvey Weinstein wanted to edit down Princess Mononoke, he was presented with a samurai sword and a note saying ‘No cuts’ from producer Toshio Suzuki, and the film was then released in full (Spiegel, 2020).  

In 2019, Studio Ghibli decided to shift their thoughts on digitally distributing their films and released a handful of their more popular films on Netflix across the world (Spiegel, 2020).

Chihiro from Spirited Away

Personal Experience

I set out to complete an auto ethnographic study of my experiences with the films and how they compare to my expectations and already existing knowledge of the films and how they fit into Japanese culture. According to Ellis, Adams and Bochner an auto-ethnographic approach is research and writing that ‘seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience to understand cultural experience’ (Ellis, Adams and Bochner, 2011).

The main purpose of this kind of study is to ‘make the personal experience meaningful and cultural experience engaging, but also, by producing accessible texts, she or he may be able to reach wider and more diverse mass audiences that traditional research usually disregards, a move that can make personal and social change possible for more people’ (Ellis, Adams and Bochner, 2011). During this writing there is a documentation of ‘epiphanies’, which are remembered moments that have a significant impact on the person’s life or experiences being documented, and can assist in reaching this audience (Ellis, Adams and Bochner, 2011).

Satsuski and Mei with their Father

The release of the films onto Netflix is where my experience with the films, and my auto ethnographic study began. To better understand the films, I set out to watch the most popular films available on Australian Netflix.  The films that I watched and documented my thoughts on where My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001).

My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

My Neighbour Totoro follows two young sisters, Satsuski and Mei, as they and their father move to a house in Rural Japan to be closer to the hospital that their mother is in, recovering from a long-term illness. In their new home, they encounter many spirits of the forest. Having their mother be in hospital was a nod to director Miyazaki’s childhood as his mother was frequently hospitalized in his youth.

Satsuski, Mei, and Totoro with other Spirits of the Forest

The film has a large focus on the theme of family, childhood and spirituality, and these themes are deeply shown using the Japanese lens the film was created with. While at first while watching the film I was slightly confused as to why the title character of Totoro was barley in the film itself, further research into the film told me that Totoro was a forest spirit who wasn’t there to be a friend or foe to the girls, but rather a guide and companion through the difficult time they were going through (Dang, 2020). The film even shows the sisters visiting shrines to forest spirts like Totoro, highlighting the unique faith native to Japan. This faith is known as Shinto and it is deeply rooted in the Japanese people and traditions (Shinto, 2020). Shinto and its practices are also deeply rooted in nature. This connection with nature and faith can also be seen in another Ghibli film, Spirited Away.

Spirited Away (2001)

Young Chihiro and her parents think they stumble upon an abandoned amusement park, but after losing her parents the young girl finds that it is really a resort for supernatural beings and that she must work there and enlist the help of local Haku to free herself and her parents. “Spirited Away is the only foreign language film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, and to this day is the highest grossing film in Japan – the first film to knock Titanic off its pedestal” (Bather, 2020)

Chihiro and Haku in his dragon form

Like My Neighbour Totoro, this film also gave me many questions about the Shinto faith and its relationship with nature. This relationship is shown during the film when Haku is revealed to be a river spirit who Chihiro has met before as she went to the same river he was a spirt of when she was younger. When doing further research into the film I found that Haku’s dragon form reminded me a lot of the Yokai, Mizuchi, a water dragon that some have thought to be a water god (Greve, 2015). Haku isn’t the only reference to actual folklore however, what is called the ‘radish spirit’ in the film turns out to be a spirit called an Oshirasama (Rayne, 2019). This spirit is viewed as the guardian or agriculture and silkworm production (Hiroshi, 2005).

Miyazaki himself acknowledges his “very warm appreciation for the various, very humble rural Shinto rituals that continue to this day throughout rural Japan” (Boyd and Nishimura, 2004) and even talked about how the traditional bathhouse and the rituals surrounding them serve as inspiration for the bathhouse the Chihrio ends up working in during the film. (Boyd and Nishimura, 2004)

Chihiro and the ‘Radish Spirit’

The association of Asian studies states that Miyazaki uses these movies to explore Shinto, its idea of purity, humanity’s relationship with the spirit world, and modern Japan’s environmental concerns (Newell, 2013). And it also states that these films are a great way to introduce the concept of Shinto to a western audience, and can be a great way to introduce students to Japanese culture and religion (Newell, 2013). This was certainly my experience with the films, and I found myself wanting to explore more of the faith and its history after experiencing My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001) for the first time this year.


Bather, L., 2020. Studio Ghibli Introduction: Everything You Need To Know. [online] Highsnobiety. Available at: <,from%20both%20Japan%20and%20Europe&gt; [Accessed 12 November 2020].

Bauer, P., n.d. Studio Ghibli. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: <; [Accessed 12 November 2020].

Boyd, James W. and Nishimura, Tetsuya (2004) “Shinto Perspectives in Miyazaki’s Anime Film “Spirited
Away”,” Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 8 : Iss. 3 , Article 4.
Available at: [Accessed 12 November 2020].

Dang, N., 2020. Totoro, Spirit Of The Forest. [online] Fictspedia Wiki. Available at: <,_Spirit_of_the_Forest#:~:text=Totoro%20is%20thought%20to%20be,a%20spirit%20of%20the%20forest.&gt; [Accessed 12 November 2020].

Ellis, C., Adams, T. and Bochner, A., 2011. Autoethnography: An Overview. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 12 November 2020].

Greve, G., 2015. Mizuchi Medochi Yokai. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 12 November 2020].

Hiroshi, I., 2005. Kami In Folk Religion : Oshirasama. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 12 November 2020].

Newell, C., 2013. The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki: Shinto, Nature, And The Environment – Association For Asian Studies. [online] Association for Asian Studies. Available at: <; [Accessed 12 November 2020].

Polo, S., 2020. Did Hayao Miyazaki Really Send A Katana To Harvey Weinstein As A Threat?. [online] Polygon. Available at: <; [Accessed 12 November 2020].

Rayne, E., 2019. 9 Fantastical Studio Ghibli Characters Conjured From Japanese Folklore. [online] SYFY WIRE. Available at: <; [Accessed 12 November 2020]. 2020. Shinto. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 12 November 2020].

Spiegel, J., 2020. The Long, Ugly History Between Disney And Studio Ghibli. [online] Polygon. Available at: <; [Accessed 12 November 2020].

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