Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month & The Influence of Studio Ghibli

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month when the contributions of these cultures in the United States are celebrated and recognized. I grew up on the West Coast so I had many friends who were Asian or Pacific Islander. I recall going to a friend’s house for dinner one evening, she is Filipino, and having the most delicious home-made egg rolls. Another friend who was Samoan introduced me to beautiful puletasi, the traditional two-piece dresses worn by women. She used to wear these with a big, colorful blossom in her long, curly hair. I’ll never forget it!

Samoan puletasi (from pinterest.com).

Of course, there are also contributions in music and dance. I would often go to China Town with my family for Chinese New Year to hear the music and watch the dragon dance, where dancers control a long dragon figure using poles. The dance is supposed to bring good luck throughout the year: the longer the dragon, the better the luck!

Chinese dragon (from wikipedia.com).

There are also a lot of Asian and Pacific Islander contributions to the television and film industry. Growing up in the 1970s, martial arts shows and films were a big deal thanks to the influence of Bruce Lee. You could always hear the sounds of a kung fu or karate movie coming from our house! As I got older I discovered something wonderful while channel surfing (there were a lot of channels aimed at Asian audiences in California): Japanimation. Japanimation, now known as “anime,” is the animation originating from Japan. I watched television shows like Captain Harlock: Space Pirate and my favorite animated show of all time, Robotech: The Macross Saga. Anime is distinct for its detailed art, animation that focuses less on movement, and its compelling storylines which rival any live-action film. One anime studio that has had a strong influence on art, storytelling, and movie-making is Studio Ghibli. To tell our readers more about this fascinating studio is Villa Finale Museum Attendant, Doug Daye.

Captain Harlock: Space Pirate (from toei-animation.com) and Robotech: The Macross Saga (from aminoapps.com)

Studio Ghibli Films and World War II

Doug Daye

With classics like My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Spirited Away, Studio Ghibli has produced some of the greatest whimsical Japanese animated films of all time! Started by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata in 1985, the success of Studio Ghibli has been compared to Disney (who actually became a distributor of Studio Ghibli in 1996). Though Studio Ghibli is known for its imaginative films, taking place in worlds of fantasy, there are a few select films that are centered around reality and the impact of World War II. Both Miyazaki and Takahata grew up in Japan during World War II and witnessed the effect the war had on the country firsthand. Their past experiences and the monumental events that occurred around that time influenced these films.

Graveyard of the Fireflies

Graveyard of the Fireflies (from rogerebert.com).

Originally based on the short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, this film tells the story of two orphaned siblings whose town is bombed during the war. They are left to fend for themselves in the aftermath of the destruction left from the bombing. 

The film is also influenced by director Takhata’s own traumatic experience. In 1945, when Takhata was nine years old, the United States dropped a bomb that destroyed his home town. He and his family survived by hiding in an air raid shelter in their garden. Though Graveyard of the Fireflies is Studio Ghibli’s most heart-breaking film, it has very beautiful, heartfelt scenes and received high critical acclaim. I give props to anyone who can make it through this movie without tearing up!!

The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises (Studio Ghibli/Walt Disney Pictures)

Directed by Miyazaki, The Wind Rises is a sentimental film loosely based on the real life of Jiro Horikoshi, a Japanese aircraft engineer who designed the Zero fighter plane. The film follows the life of Jiro from a young boy with a desire to design planes, to becoming a respected plane engineer, to marrying his beautiful but sickly wife, Naoko. The Japanese Navy actually did use the Zero plane during World War II. Miyazaki himself grew up with exposure to airplane engineering. His father ran an airplane company that manufactured parts for Horikoshi’s Zero planes. Miyazaki weaves historical fact and fiction together to produce a visually stunning, emotional film. 

From Up On Poppy Hill

From Up On Poppy Hill (from homemcr.org)

Scripted by Miyazaki and directed by his son Goro Myazaki, From Up on Poppy Hill is a tenderhearted coming of age film. The story focuses on Umi, a teenage girl who helps run her family’s boarding house, and Shun, an ambitious member of the school newspaper club, as they decide to clean up the old, sullied Latin Quarter Clubhouse along with their classmates. Together, they try to save the clubhouse from being demolished by the school’s chairman. The film is set in Yokohama, Japan before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The country grapples with trying to find its identity in a post World War II era. As shown throughout the movie, the youth revolts and student activism were increased at this time. The young people in the film value the country’s past and advocate to preserve it. From Up On Poppy Hill is also mentioned in “15 Awesome Preservation Themed Movies” on the National Trust for Historic Preservation website!

Porco Rosso

Porco Rosso (from nytimes.com).

Also directed by Miyazki, Porco Rosso is about a former World War I pilot for the Italian Air Force who is turned by a mysterious curse into a pig whose name is “Porco.” Now a bounty hunter preparing to battle with pirates and their American ace, Porco obtains the help of Fio, a young spirited mechanic, and his loving friend Gina. The film is set between World War I and World War II in the Italian city of Milan in the Adriatic Sea east coast. At this time, Fascism began to overtake Italy. Many citizens began to join the movement due to anger from the turmoil caused by the great economic depression in the country. Miyazaki originally was inspired to do this film because of his deep love for aircrafts and engineering. As mentioned before, his father made parts for aircrafts during World War II. Though this is the most lighthearted film on the list, Miyazaki still mixes in the reality of the time period with fantasy. 

Find out more about Studio Ghibli’s most beloved films at the Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, Japan!! Click here: Studio Ghibli Museum

To keep up to date with the annual Asian Festival held at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute of Texan Cultures, click here.

2 Responses to “Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month & The Influence of Studio Ghibli”

  1. Emily Says:

    Very well done. I totally agree with you. It’s pretty much impossible to get through Graveyard of the Fireflies without shedding at least 1 tear. As for Porco Rosso, I’ve never heard of that one but it sounds interesting, I’ll have to check it out. Thanks

  2. Bonnie Says:

    Very good and informative. Im interested in viewing the movies. Also the picture of that dress was beautiful


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