Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Quick vibe test: which Studio Ghibli film is your favorite? If you said “My Neighbor Totoro” or “Ponyo,” you probably love the warm-hearted tone, nostalgic, rural Japan; “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Castle in the Sky,” or “Porco Rosso,” you’re a Europhile by way of Japan and have an itch to plot out an adventure through Europe – or visit European-inspired café in Japan. And if you said “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and “Princess Mononoke,” you likely love to travel and either grew up with the films or discovered Studio Ghibli as a teen or an adult.
For the record, I love them all but the ones I can watch again and again are “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.”
For the uninitiated, Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki. Takahata has made his mark with films such as “Graves of the Fireflies,” (traumatic to watch, but also important) and “Pomo Poko,” (long but entertaining), but I’ve always been a Miyazaki devotée.
I was raised on a carefully curated diet of Studio Ghibli, lovingly recorded on VHS tapes and sent from Japan for my brother and me to watch. The curator was my mother’s best friend, Hiroyo, before she eventually moved to Hawai‘i, started working with my mom, and had a kid along the way. Hiroyo herself was an avid fan of Miyazaki and she had her own copies of tapes and DVDs of the latest releases that we’d watch at her home or at the office after school.
What makes Studio Ghibli a juggernaut in the anime and film industry is the way in which they took anime from great to spectacular with an unabashed message of compassion for all living beings and a respect for nature. Miyazaki is known for his near dogmatic nature-centric themes in all of his work and the villains are usually humans with a god-complex and penchants for over exerting control. The films are often made in a way that speaks to both children and adults with subjects that are as evergreen and relevant as ever, no matter the setting, the time period, or the cast of characters.
I’m convinced that we are in an era of anime going mainstream in large part because Studio Ghibli showed the world that anime can be more than teen spirit-driven action adventure sagas; it can be beautiful, eerie, complex, whimsical and uplifting in the same way as Mother Nature herself.
In 2013, my Aunt Hiroyo suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. Her only child, my hanai cousin Leo, was about to graduate high school, and I was barely two weeks into working with her and my mother at my mother’s marketing agency when it happened. That summer, we took a rare family trip to Japan – my cousin, my mother, my sister and me. While the Memorial Day Lantern Floating ceremony was the perfect setting to cry it all out, as a family we knew we needed another outlet, and I hadn’t been back to Japan for nearly ten years at that point. The pilgrimage felt necessary.
Leo naturally grew up on the same steady diet of Studio Ghibli creations and referencing the films to my teen cousin and my nine-year-old sister didn’t feel awkward, it felt like a moment to bond. We were all raised by the same woman who instilled that appreciation in us. During our time in Japan, we visited family and took a few roadtrips with more cousins and aunts, and we couldn’t help but feel caught up in Miyazaki’s world throughout our stay.
Long called “The Disney of Japan,” fans have ceaselessly begged for an amusement park – one that they finally opened in November 2022. But during my visit, we had the life-size, walkable, explorable replica of “Satsuki and Mei’s house,” inspired by the house from “My Neighbor Totoro.”
Our first stop, a visit to Satsuki and Mei’s house. Placed in a shabby forest in the middle of nowhere is an abandoned site of the 2005 World Fair in the outskirts of Nagoya. Like the opening scenes from “Spirited Away,” this is intentional. Goro Miyazaki, the architect of the project and Hayao Miyazaki’s son, was setting the scene in the most Studio Ghibli-esque way possible and it worked. Every detail, the slope of the roof, the stairs to the attic, Mei’s drawings and the stacks of books that cluttered her father’s study, the round bathtub, the tatami room, and even the rusted bucket through which Mei first spots a small totoro. It was all there. Even the nature walk leading to the attraction felt like we were about to enter a different world. We felt the presence of these imagined characters, but were left slightly disappointed that we didn’t actually spot any of them.
We also took a family road trip to Hiroyo’s favorite Shinto shrine, Izumo Taishakyo in Shimane, a six and a half hour drive south by way of toll roads and highways through Kyoto, Osaka and Okayama. Our journey felt similar to Chihiro’s car ride en route to a new home in “Spirited Away.” The rest stops and visits to attractions near the ocean felt similar to scenes from “Ponyo.” We spent the night in a hotel in the mountains, a ski resort in the winter in its off season, a vague sense of Europe as though we had wandered through the magical door in “Howl’s Moving Castle.”
When we finally got to the shrine, it was a sweltering hot morning and we discovered that we were visiting during a Sengü year, a practice in which the main shrine is rebuilt every 20 years to maintain the kami’s powers and pass on the knowledge of building the structures through generations of craftspeople. The buildings are placed imposingly at the top of a hill, a humbling sweat-dripping climb in a forest of very tall and ancient trees that really lend to the experience of bathing in the forest’s power in the hum of the quiet summer. I sweat off all of my makeup and drenched my tee shirt in this holy climb. But we observed the proper protocols of visitation, paying our respects to the kami in both the old house and watching the construction of the new and shuffling our way through the pristine white sand of the shrine’s grounds. We were overwhelmed by it all – and by the feeling of jumping through the Miyazaki multiverse, Totoro’s tree here, Princess Mononoke’s village there, the artisan village where we were sure we’d spot Haku and Chihiro hiding from Yubaba from “Spirited Away.”
Giddy with exhaustion and delirious from our dehydrating trek, it was therapeutic for us to laugh a little too loud, whisper conspiratorially about if “No Face” would show up with us on the drive back and wish that Hiroyo could have been there to experience it all with us even while knowing that this trip — and the shared experiences we had referencing various scenes from a handful of Studio Ghibli films — was because of her. It made it all bittersweet, and all the more special to us.
Our final stop was a visit to an official Studio Ghibli shop: a small tenant at the Nagoya Station, underground in an unassuming part of the station. Very on brand. It didn’t stop us from wanting to buy all the paraphernalia: Totoro ear cleaner, special-edition DVDs, a backpack. It felt right to end the trip with the ultimate Hiroyo-esque activity of stocking up on our Ghibli goods.
Similar to the ending scenes in Miyazaki’s films, I emerged from this adventure a changed person. Emmersing in nature, bonding with family and taking a step away from my day to day life in Hawai‘i was what I needed at that time. I came back from that trip feeling refreshed and ready to face a new chapter in my life: one in which Hiroyo’s presence is felt all around, like the promise of spotting Miyazaki’s magical creatures.
Join me on my journey to self care and happiness along and see how I do with the rest of my goals. You can find me at @saschakoki on Instagram for more.
Sascha Koki is the vice president of Media Etc., a PR & Marketing company based in Honolulu. As a Japanese and Black hapa bilingual woman who grew up in Hawai‘i and Japan, Sascha has a unique perspective on growing up with three rich cultures; she sees herself as a bridge that connects these worlds through her career and in life. Happily married and a mother of two humans and one pup, she strives to raise her pack of wild cubs into compassionate beings that wield their powers for good while enjoying all that life has to offer. Passionate about fashion, beauty, wellness and good (okay, and bad) TV in near equal measures, this former Miss Waikiki and UH Rainbow dancer is a true Aquarius.
In her column, she plans to write about “lifestyle” which really means anything and everything, all at once. Her wish is to inspire and shed light on everything from cultural issues to hilarious culture shock moments through personal stories.