HORRORS OF… is a biweekly series exploring the overlooked darker elements of well known media. SPOILER WARNING for some plot details below, as well as CONTENT WARNING for body horror, death, and mention of worms.
Almost everyone grew up watching the films of Studio Ghibli, myself included. I fondly remember going to Blockbuster and sitting in the kid’s corner glued to a TV playing My Neighbour Totoro. As the years went on they became something to look forward to, as they released on a fairly regular basis every few years. One of the things I find so appealing about them as an adult is that they don’t shy away from darker themes and having the main characters deal with some pretty intense issues. Besides films like The Wind Rises that deal with real events and illnesses like tuberculosis, the more fantastical in the Ghibli catalogue have ageism, clinging to the past, greed, and nature VS technology. It’s coming out the other side despite your hardships, dealing with loss, trauma, family difficulties and everything else that life throws at you.
A quick note: I will not be going over Grave of the Fireflies in this list even though it is quite horrific because it deals with actual war and the tragedy that comes with it and therefore does not feel appropriate. These are in no particular order, just moments that have stuck with me.
NAUSICAA AND THE VALLEY OF THE WIND
Technically not a Ghibli film, since it was released before the formation of the company, I count it anyway since it was headed by Hayao Miyazaki and animators who would soon become his team. 1000 years have passed since the devastating Seven Days of Fire and civilization only remains in small pockets. Nausicaa and her village live in the valley of the wind, using giant fans to blow away the noxious gases released from the Toxic Jungle. They are a peaceful, farming clan that sticks to themselves. One day a plane from another nation crashes into the valley, causing massive damage and ruining the crops. Here we meet Kushana.
Princess Kushana wants to revive the last remaining Giant Warrior, the bioweapons used in the aforementioned war. An interesting aspect is that the Princess herself is noticeably disabled, having lost one of her arms in an attack by the giant pillbug-like insects known as the Ohmu. Her desire for revenge—to burn down the Toxic Jungle where the Ohmu live—has consumed her almost completely. The plane that crashed was carrying the strange embryo that was the linchpin of her plan.
The conflict comes to a head when the Warrior is awakened before it’s ready, and we watch in horror as it climbs up a hill, its body boiling and melting even as it tries to fire off an energy beam. Clouds of steam billow around it. The flesh sloughs off—-all that’s left is a giant skeleton. The way it melts looks so natural, bubbling and slipping off the Giant. It’s probably my favourite on this list, as I have an unhealthy obsession with the body horror genre. This scene was animated by Hideaki Anno, who famously went on to create Neon Genesis Evangelion. (If I made a list about NGE, it would just be me going “the whole series is messed up.”)
A massive critical and commercial success when it was released in 1997, Mononoke was many people’s first introduction to Studio Ghibli. I remember watching it with my parents, who exclaimed “this is PG-13??” due to the intense violence and, most likely, the rampaging pig demon covered in writhing worms in the first 5 minutes of the film. (An early and impressive use of CGI in an animated film!)
I could mention Prince Ashitaka being infected and slowly succumbing to the same worms. Or when he fires an arrow that severs a man’s arms clean off, pinning them to a tree. Or even the wolves grabbing his head in their mouths and shaking it violently. The one I want to point out, the one that stays with me, is also the saddest. The boar clan attacks Irontown to protect the forest, led by a blind boar, his eyes glazed and distant and crawling with maggots. Like the pig from the beginning of the film, he becomes corrupted and our old friends the worms return to freely crawl into his flesh. His hatred has completely taken over. It feels like an endless cycle as humans continue to destroy the habitats of animals both in film and real life.
CASTLE IN THE SKY
After reaching Laputa (the titular castle in the sky) Muska, who is wonderfully voiced by Mark Hamill, activates the magic crystal in the centre of the city and gives it a test run…by blowing up his ship, the crew still inside. The way he nonchalantly uses this new power is terrifying! They went with him for the glory and treasure of this myth that turned out to be real and Muska tosses them aside like trash.
While this is happening Sheeta secretly tells Pazu the incantation for the “Spell of Destruction”, which they then recite together. The ground beneath them crumbles, and Muska falls to his death–yes, he was the villain and probably going to destroy the world–but it’s still an awful way to go. Considering how high in the atmosphere they are, he’d have time to think before he turned into mush upon reaching the ground.
The structure of Laputa breaks away, the giant tree remains and floats upwards toward space. Which makes me wonder: what about the animals that lived there? Surely they can’t survive on this tree…in low to no atmosphere. Hopefully the magic of Laputa has some benefits here because I don’t like to think about a bunch of small critters perishing like that.
TALES FROM EARTHSEA
Certainly, the most divisive Ghibli film, Tales from Earthsea is based on a series of novels by celebrated author Ursula K. Le Guin and the first to be directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro. I admit I have not read Earthsea, so I can’t say one way or another the accuracy of the books, but Guin herself said “It is not my book. It is your movie. It is a good movie”. It’s a fantasy epic involving wizards, dragons and all sorts of creatures.
Prince Arren has a dramatic confrontation with the dark wizard Cob. After a struggle, Arren manages to unsheath his sword and cut off Cob’s arm, making his staff clatter to the ground. Unable to cast magic Cob rapidly begins to age, going from a middle-aged man to an emaciated grandpa and eventually a walking corpse with huge empty eye sockets. I’m beginning to sense a theme here–why do so many of these films have eye trauma?!
Not to be outdone, Cob uses the last of his strength to strangle Arren’s companion Therru, to death. But before you can think on this too long she turns into a dragon–so I guess it’s okay.
HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE
Also based on a novel, Howl’s Moving Castle features both a positive and negative curse that ages the victim–Sophie becomes an old woman (and slowly returns to her age throughout the film) and the extravagant Witch of the Waste–in a scene that’s both comical and unsettling–go from being carried by her familiars to wheezing and sweating heavily, to crawling on the ground. She’s then wheeled into the building on a tiny cart and seems to not be…all there anymore. She doesn’t speak much for the rest of the film and when she does it’s with a childlike curiosity and simplicity. So she went from being one of the most powerful Sorceresses in the land to a fragment of her past self.
Later, Howl becomes depressed and this manifests physically: he becomes covered in a thick layer of green slime and is catatonic. I suppose being a sorcerer, your emotions and magic can interact in unique ways. Sophie tries to wake him but he just sits there…oozing. She soon gets frustrated and pushes him, and his chair to the stairs where she then helps him into the bathroom and orders him to take a bath and scrub up. Which seems to be all it takes to alleviate his condition. (If only it was that easy.) The slime remains and poor Sophie has to clean up his mess!
It’s really interesting to me to look back on films we consider “kids movies” that have dark and disturbing moments. I feel like a lot of the time these scenes just sail past kids (my nephews don’t seem too bothered by death in Jurassic World because dinosaurs are pretty cool) or become myths in our own minds. Did that really happen? Whether exaggerated by memory or not, horror creeps its way into other genres.