Known the world over for their heartwarming stories and breathtaking animation, Studio Ghibli’s animated feature films have been capturing the hearts and minds of movie lovers young and old for years. With Kaze Tachinu currently soaring high above our heads and Kaguya Hime no Monogatari scheduled to arrive in just a few short months, the studio is showing no signs of slowing down, with both productions sure to attract whole new legions of fans.
But did you know that Studio Ghibli’s movies are literally crawling with easter eggs, secrets and sly winks, and that many of Ghibli productions have links to popular culture the world over? Test your Ghibli knowledge and maybe even learn a thing or two with this list of 15 little-known facts about our favourite animated movies.
My Neighbor Totoro
1. Next stop, Cow Swamp!
Both the village of Matsugou 松郷 – the place where Satsuki and Mei’s new family home is situated – and the name Ushinuma 牛沼 (lit. “Cow Swamp”) that appears briefly on the Catbus’ destination plate are in fact real locations that can be found in the town of Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, which is just north of Tokyo.
2. Growing up fast
Mei’s older sister Satsuki was originally supposed to be a fourth-grade elementary school student, but after realising that both her way of speaking and assertive behaviour made her seem much developed in years, the decision was made to make her a sixth-grader instead.
3. Just stopping by
Pixar producer John Lasseter and Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki have been friends for more than 30 years, first meeting when My Neighbor Totoro was still in early stages of production. For this reason, Lasseter decided to give Totoro a cameo in Toy Story 3, having him appear in the background for a few seconds during a scene taking place in human character Bonnie’s bedroom.
4. Creepy Science
Earlier this year, scientists in Vietnam named a newly discovered species of velvet worm the Eoperipatus Totoro on account of its resemblance to the multi-legged Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro. Yet another reason why science is awesome.
Kiki’s Delivery Service
5. It’s all in the name
The bakery belonging to Osono-san and her closed-mouthed husband where Kiki finds accommodation has “Gütiokipänja” written in the window. A joke written by the writer of the original story, Eiko Kadono, the sign is read ”guu choki pan ya” in Japanese and is actually a reference to guuchokipa, an alternative name for the game jankenpon (or rock, paper, scissors in English) with the final word “pa” replaced by the Japanese word “pan“, which means bread. The name “Rock, Scissors, Bread Shop” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue in English though, so translating writers cleverly renamed the shop “Good Cooking Pan Bakery” which has a similar ring to the original moniker.
6. Kanji not your strong point?
At the close of the movie, Kiki writes a letter to her parents, mentioning her friends, or tomodachi 友達 in Japanese. Eagle-eyed viewers note, however, that Kiki has missed a stroke from the second kanji character, 達, which would result in a big fat X in kanji class at school. It’s likely that Miyazaki and his team added this mistake intentionally to show that, although Kiki has matured greatly throughout the course of the film, she is still young and has more to learn. That or she spends too much time texting friends and, like so many kids today, struggles to write kanji by hand…
7. Careful supervision
Miyazaki, who directed Kiki’s Delivery Service, makes a brief cameo during the climax of the film. When Kiki manages to rescue her friend Tombo from the sky, a street labourer proudly yells out “That’s my broom she used!” If you look carefully you’ll see an animated version of Miyazaki himself in the top-right corner of the frame.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
8. La, la, lalala la la…
Nausicaä’s Theme, the haunting song featuring a child’s voice that played throughout the movie, was actually sung by the young daughter of Joe Hisaishi (real name Mamoru Fujisawa), the man behind the musical scores of nearly every Studio Ghibli movie from My Neighbor Totoro to this year’s Kaze Tachinu. Mai Fujisawa (or simply Mai 麻衣 as she’s known to her fans) grew up to become a professional singer, and even went on to sing Kokoro no Kakera, the beautiful theme tune for the Japanese version of the Level-5 and Studio Ghibli-developed video game Ni no Kuni.
9. Monster maker turned gentleman
The fearsome God Warrior that is prematurely awakened during the course of the film was created and animated by none other than Hideaki Anno, the man who would later write and direct the anime adaptation of Neon Genesis Evangelion. More recently, Anno returned to work with Studio Ghibli, voicing the mild-mannered lead character Jiro Horikoshi, the real-life designer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane, in this year’s summer hit Kaze Tachinu.
10. Howl of the beast
The cry of the Ohmu, the giant armoured creatures that heroine Nausicaä battles to protect during the movie, is actually the sound of musical legend Tomoyasu Hotei‘s electric guitar. Guitarist for hugely popular Japanese rock band Boøwy in the 1980s, Hotei is perhaps best known in the West for his track “Battle Without Honor or Humanity“, which became the theme tune to Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 swords-and-jumpsuits smash Kill Bill.
Laputa: The Castle in the Sky
11. Nice little earner
The Castle in the Sky was actually made as a way of repaying loans taken to fund another production Studio Ghibli producer Isao Takahata was working on at the time. Little did the company know that they’d still be making money from their dramatic airborne adventure nearly 30 years later.
12. The fox returns
Towards the end of the film, kitsune risu (flying fox squirrels) the like of which Princess Nausicaä keeps as a pet in her own movie, can be seen frolicking in the lush vegetation of the floating castle’s gardens. How on earth did they get up there…?
The terrible word from the spell of destruction that brings much of the great city tumbling down at the climax of Castle in the Sky actually means “peace” and “harmony” in Turkish. Whenever the animation is aired on Japanese TV, fans all over the country are known to simultaneously tweet the word at the exact moment Sheeta and Pazu say it.
And two more just for fun
14. See, this is why I never bring friends home
Veteran Ghibli animator Katsuya Kondō used his own daughter as the model for chubby-cheeked Ponyo (in her human form, we hope!) in the 2008 movie of the same name. It has never been confirmed, but the character Chihiro from Spirited Away is also thought to be based on a member of staff’s daughter. It can’t be easy being a creative’s kid…
15. Why so serious?
There is a long-standing urban legend here in Japan that the cute and fluffy giant Totoro is actually a shinigami or “death god”, only visible to children who are close to death or have already died. Many suggest that during the movie when her sandal is found in the lake, Mei has actually drowned and that Satsuki knowingly denies that it belongs to her sister, instead going off in search of Totoro and accidentally stepping into the land of the dead herself. Finally, the only reason Satsuki and Mei’s presence was noticed by their mother at the end of the story, the po-faced pundits maintain, is because she too is close to death and will not recover from her illness. Studio Ghibli has repeatedly denied these claims and last year asked once and for all for everyone to lighten up and just enjoy the film for what it is, but still the rumours persist.
Well, we hope you enjoyed that list of trivia! Be sure to let us know if you have any other nuggets of Ghibli gold to share in the comments section below.