The titular castle of Howl’s Moving Castle is an apt metaphor for the lush creativity of Ghibli studios’ output; towering and complex, yet indistinct, morphing all the time so as to leave only an impression in the mind, without the limits of definition.
The languages of Middle-Earth, in contrast, define the nature of the Lord of the Rings. Spectacularly thought-out, piecing together flawlessly, lighting the way to the storytelling, history and mythology built around them. It’s immersive. This focus on verisimilitude is very much in vogue right now, but the Ghibli method is largely accepted by audiences in their case because the studio’s output is labelled as “children’s films”.
The distinction between hard and soft sci-fi is a bit more clarified (Star Trek vs Star Wars), since we have better defined expectations for what is technologically or cosmically believable, but in fantasy, the borders of reality appear blurred from the go. Still, the hazily defined spirits and creatures that populate the films of Ghibli’s foremost director Hayao Miyazaki occupy a uniquely whimsical disregard for hard and fast rules in popular fantasy.
The lack of clarity as to the nature of his creatures and worlds prods the imagination. Just as the animation on display populates every corner of the frame with wonderfully realized… ‘things’, the undefined nature of the story’s setting leaves you picturing even more beyond the edges of the frame. It’s transportive rather than immersive. Soft worldbuilding is capable of instilling that dreamy quality best captured in your imaginings as a child (or, occasionally, the shadowy uncertainty of a nightmare), and crucially,
allows a flexibility that serves the thematic needs of a creative like Miyazaki. As he once put it:
“There are more profound things than simply logic that guide the creation of the story”, a sentiment that extends to his freewheeling approach to narrative planning, in total opposition to the militant intricacy of the animation itself.
Those profound things he speaks of are nevertheless guided by the themes of the film, and they are the reason that though things don’t make logical sense in them, tending to glide around and change all the time, nobody leaves a Miyazaki film unsure of how they were supposed to feel. The films prioritize atmosphere, tone and mood above rationalizing, or devotion to a watertight setting and plot.
Tim Hickson has been posting writing advice to channel Hello Future Me for 4 years now, averaging a new video more or less every two weeks. In this video, co-written by Ellie Gordon, Hicks runs through the points he sees as contributing to the strength of Miyazaki’s mastery of soft worldbuilding.