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Why There’d Be No Toy Story Without Totoro

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Photo Credit: Studio Ghibli

You don’t need to have actually seen a Studio Ghibli film to understand the studio’s influence on animation.

Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio behind the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, the delightfully innocent My Neighbor Totoro and the emotionally harrowing Grave of the Fireflies, is often described as Japan’s answer to Disney. But Ghibli films often subvert those classic Disney tropes in favor of something more visceral. Known for its lush hand-drawn, 2-D animation, Ghibli strikes a unique balance between whimsy and bittersweet reality.

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The studio’s visionary director, Hayao Miyazaki, retired last year, and shortly thereafter, Ghibli announced its indefinite break from the production of new feature films, citing high production costs. Ghibli devotees came to a harsh reality: the studio’s future is uncertain.

That makes days like today (June 15), the studio’s 30th anniversary, all the more special. Founded in 1985, the Studio Ghibli was created by Miyazaki, his friend and fellow animator Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki. If you want the complete Ghibli history, you can check out The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness on Netflix (you won’t regret your life choices), but just know this: even through the ups and downs in its 30-year history the studio has kept its integrity. There’s something undeniably pure and magical about Ghibli and its wondrous creations. (Three words: roving cat-bus.)

“They are so great at observation,” Pixar animator Peter Docter (Inside Out) told MTV News. “I look at My Neighbor Totoro, which is beautifully observed, in behavior and just the way Mei will approach things and her expressions and unexpected reactions. There’s a massive scary-looking monster and she gets all excited. It’s so truthful of kids.”

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Ghibli’s influence can be felt in many Pixar classics. John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, considers Miyazaki to be a mentor and longtime friend. “Whenever we get stuck at Pixar or Disney, I put on a Miyazaki film sequence or two, just to get us inspired again,” he recalled in his keynote speech at the 2014 Tokyo International Film Festival. An early visit to Studio Ghibli fueled his ideas for his short film, Tin Toy, which would later be the foundation of Lasseter’s first feature, Toy Story. Ghibli’s subtle touch can also be felt in Docter’s own critically acclaimed feature film “Up.”

“There are also the little details you see when they’re waiting at the bus stop in ’Totoro’ — drops of water and frogs, stuff that doesn’t really contribute to the furthering of the story, stuff that would normally be cut out of an animated movie. We tried to do that in Up,” Docter said. “We were specifically referencing that film because we were trying to take people to a different space and let them inhabit that space and feel it and smell it and taste it.”

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“You’re attracted to those films and you’re drawn in,” he added, “Not because there’s going to be some bad thing that happens, but because of the truth.”

It’s that truth that makes Ghibli’s films, and its legacy, so important to animation. In a age when sequels are unavoidable, Miyazaki played by his own rules, crafted his own unique stories and captured the child-like joy of it all in the process.

“When you love movies, specifically animated movies, I crave something that’s truthful and real,” Pixar producer Jonas Rivera told us. “You don’t feel the influence of studios or anything else — you just feel a pure movie. There are no movies that are purer than those films.”

“He doesn’t fake it, Miyazaki-san,” Rivera added. “A lot of people in animation try to be kids and try to be youthful — and you can tell when it’s legit or not. He is 100 percent the real thing. That is the whimsical mind of a child that he let’s the audience in through.”

Happy birthday, Studio Ghibli. Here’s to many more years of movie-making.

INNERSPACE CLIPS