The Importance of Atmosphere: A Pixar and Studio Ghibli Storytelling Comparison

Updated: May 16, 2020

As animation has developed from its humble origins in the early 20th century in different cultures across the world, it’s changed and moulded itself around the storytelling traditions of the people whose stories it’s trying to tell. Take America, who gave us the underdog triumphs of a hard-working little mouse against all odds, and a semi-nationalist naval duck who overcomes his personal faults to self-improve. Smells distinctly red-white-and-blue, doesn't it?

Yet, consequentially, the world appearance of countries can become influenced by their animation cultures as well. Ask any random person at any location across the world, and while there’s a small chance that they haven’t heard of, say, Donald Trump or Joe Biden, they will almost definitely be familiar with the round-eared silhouette of Mickey Mouse. Perhaps the best examples of animation both communicating the culture of a nation as well as coming to represent that nation on a global stage can be found with two of the most significant studios of the last half-century: Pixar, of the USA, and Studio Ghibli, of Japan.

Founded in 1985 and 1986 respectively, Ghibli and Pixar have throughout the years succeeded in crafting some of the most brilliant and beloved stories of all time. From Toy Story and My Neighbour Totoro to The Incredibles and Spirited Away, the Tokyo and California-based studios have consistently produced works that have come to define generations, impact lives and become loved throughout the world, outgrowing their national borders to represent Japan and the United States on a global level. Although often branded as children’s films, the true genius of both companies is that they create stories which can be loved by people of all ages, and that is precisely why they have achieved such success.

Yet, although they share this quality, the two companies approach storytelling in uniquely different ways.

Let’s start with Pixar. There’s no denying that from both a technical and emotional perspective, each release from the company brings something new to the table. The family dynamic of The Incredibles, the father/son relationship set against the stunning ocean backdrop of Finding Nemo, the environmental disaster of WALL-E: Pixar is a company that continues to innovate at every tone.

But underneath this, it's clear that Pixar’s stories are direct products of the Western culture they’re appealing to. Their films, generally speaking, have similar narrative structures. Pixar’s films, for all of their obvious brilliance, follow formulae.

This is definitely not a criticism – Pixar do this really, really well. Instead, it’s more of a standpoint from which we can look at the films of Studio Ghibli. Because, Pixar films are very much archetypes of the Western way of storytelling. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that, among what he viewed as the 6 formative elements of a story, the plot was the most important. That’s something which we can see throughout (most of) Western media, including Pixar. Pixar films work by progressing from point A to point B along a narrative arc, using arcs that we’ve seen in various forms in something like 90% of every story that we’ve been told.

Japanese films don’t work like this. Instead of taking the viewer along a step-by-step story progression, their films work through atmosphere. Plot, rather than being the main force behind the storytelling, is instead less important to the film compared to how the film feels.

Ghibli’s works, for the most part, show this difference perfectly. Their features aim to wrap a viewer up in a blanket of pure tone - like a piece of ambient music, or an impressionist painting. Watching Pixar films, you’re more than likely to come away with a clear idea of exactly what happened, and a lasting memory of what the main characters did. However, you’d be harder pressed to truly define the overall atmosphere of the film. But with almost all Ghibli films, you’re left with a poignant sense of the feeling that the film has crafted over its runtime. Both studios create timeless classics (well, for the most part – Cars 2 and Tales from Earthsea, I’m looking at you), yet that timeless feeling is achieved in subtly different ways.

For example, we can look at the way in which the films build up their worlds. With Pixar films, the world in which the story takes place is clearly established within the film’s first third. By the time the plot really ramps up, the viewer is generally familiar with the main characters, the setting of the story and the driving force behind the actions of the protagonist(s). Ghibli, however, likes to drip-feed these world-building elements, gradually adding more to their continually changing settings throughout the course of the film.

Take one of the most memorable scenes from one of the studio’s most celebrated films as an example. In Spirited Away, the 2002 Best Animated Picture Oscar winner. Right as the film is beginning its final quarter, we watch a sequence in which Chihiro, our protagonist, journeys on a one-way train full of mysterious, half-human figures. At a point where most films would be ratcheting up the plot as the film begins to climax, Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary driving force behind the studio and the film’s director, instead makes us… ponder.

Who are these figures? Why are there stations in the middle of nowhere? Why does the train only run one-way?

We don’t know. But the key is, neither does Miyazaki. These aren’t questions we’re meant to know the answer to, because the answer isn’t important. What is important is the fact that we’re asking them. By manipulating us like this, Miyazaki is adding to the overall ambiguity and wonder of the world of Spirited Away. He’s adding another layer to the spell of pure atmosphere that we’re under. He’s carefully drip-feeding us another wave of emotion, so that when we’ve finished watching, even if we’re unsure over the plot elements, we know exactly how Spirited Away made us feel.

Ghibli’s earliest internationally successful film, My Neighbour Totoro, does something similar. Totoro has very, very little plot. In fact, it’s one of the rare cases of a film being able to be summarised almost entirely by its description on Netflix – ‘When spending a summer in the Japanese countryside with their father, two young sisters befriend mystical creatures who live in the nearby forest’. That’s … that’s pretty much it. That’s the extent of a film considered to be one of the landmark works of animation of the 20th century.

Compare this to Pixar’s breakthrough first full-length feature, Toy Story. Running at a full 5 minutes shorter than Totoro, the difference between what the films manage to achieve plot-wise is unbelievable. After initially introducing the world of sentient toys that is Toy Story’s main narrative device, John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft’s collaborative story gets through (take a deep breath): the arrival of an inciting new character, a murder attempt, a road trip, a thrilling escape sequence, an intense fight scene involving a dog, an aerial rescue manoeuvre and a resounding denouement and conclusion to boot. In basically the same amount of time, Totoro shows us two young girls discovering a house, playing with some forest spirits, visiting their mother, and finally beginning to up the narrative stakes with a disappearing girl well after the halfway point.

This hugely different style manages to affect almost every aspect of how the studios make films. Take this next question as an example: how many Pixar characters can you name? And subsequently, how many Ghibli characters can you name?

I’m willing to guess that you felt stronger with the first answers. You might think that this is just because most of you will have seen more Pixar than Ghibli, but interestingly, there’s a bit more to it than that. Pixar characters are, for most people, a lot more memorable than their Japanese-drawn counterparts. There’s a reason Woody and Buzz Lightyear are global icons, and, say, Satsuki and Kiki… aren’t.

Essentially, Pixar’s films need strong characters to drive their heavily plot-oriented films, whereas with Ghibli features, characters just aren’t as necessary to carry the film’s tone. An abundance of plot can, in a weak script, become boring, contrived and stale. The way Pixar deals with this is by giving us strong, interesting, well-rounded characters with whom we can empathise, around whom we can quantify and understand the significance of the plot. Ghibli’s protagonists aren’t like this. Instead, they’re used more as a lens through which the viewer can experience the world of the story. They’re not less memorable because they’re weaker, but rather because they’re essentially just us, translated onto screen. The viewer is always viewing the film through their eyes, rather than viewing them as part of it.

A common praise that people talk about when discussing the best work of both companies, is that they manage to integrate mature and meaningful themes into their movies. This is completely true. But at the same time, the way in which they do so is, again, different. In a Pixar film, the key themes are usually concentrated and inherently linked to the overarching message of the piece. Each feature feels easily summed up through one or two ideas, like Finding Nemo’s concepts of parenthood and growing up, or WALL-E’s heavily environmental leaning. Through this common and easily understandable method, Pixar are able to focus in on these themes and base their entire films around them, and most of the time, this works really well.

Ghibli’s films, meanwhile, aren't quite as… centred. Yes, you can pick out clear and well-realised themes in each of their movies, but doing so isn’t quite as easy as with Pixar. Instead, they introduce their ideas at different and often random points in the narrative. It’s by doing this that their films often deal with several large, complex concepts within themselves, rather than how Pixar more fully explore one or two.

Sometimes, this doesn’t really work. Occasionally, their features feel like they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. This is true in the case of something like Tales from Earthsea, Ghibli’s adaptation of the famous comic series. Earthsea just feels like it’s trying too hard, cramming in too much content into too short a film. It asks too much of the viewer, much like what is potentially Ghibli’s most overrated work, Howl’s Moving Castle. While a better film than Earthsea, Howl’s suffers because it doesn’t follow the main things that make Ghibli so great. Themes, plot, and characters all feel somewhat rushed and erratic, and consequentially, Howl’s is perhaps one of Ghibli’s films that has the least unique atmosphere.

Pixar isn’t perfect either. But, interestingly, Pixar tends to fail for entirely different reasons. Take Cars 2, a film commonly regarded as one of Pixar’s weakest, as an example. Rather than being overblown or overweight, it’s superfluous, saccharine and simple. Cars 2 represents Pixar’s stripped-down, A-to-B method at its least unique and least compelling, and when compared to the Ghibli’s underwhelmers, showcases precisely the different styles of the two studios through showing where they fundamentally fail.

Yet for these failures, the fact of the matter is that, through their 34 and 35-year tenures, these two landmark companies have come out with significantly more hits than misses. Comparing them in this way is not a show of each side’s strengths or weaknesses; far from it. Rather, it’s an attempt to show how brilliant, profound, timeless stories can be told from such different perspectives, yet remain unchanged in their quality. With Studio Ghibli’s production line possibly beginning to draw to a close, it’s important now more than ever to reflect on some of the best animated content of all time, and to understand the company’s unique ability to craft unforgettable worlds and tell eternal stories. Likewise, it’s equally vital to appreciate what the Western world has with Pixar: an intelligent and game-changing company that, unlike many others, always strives to innovate and inspire. Experience and love both while they last. As fans of film, not just animation, we truly are blessed.

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