Although designed for children, Studio Ghibli films have always appealed to both the young and young at heart for their unique storytelling and magical feel-good factor -- not to mention the fact that some of the characters are just really damn cute (who doesn't heart Totoro?)
But what makes the creations of Studio Ghibli, particularly the work of writer and director Hayao Miyazaki, truly stand out in the world of animation is their complex narratives. From trainee witches to forest spirits, the characters have depth and complexity few can match, whether targeted at kids or adults. You can watch a Ghibi film time and time again and still not fully get it, and of course, fans love to make up their own stories to fill the gaps (sometimes going really, really dark). Every now and then, they even turn out to be right.
Whether you're a long-time viewer or a new fan, here are 13 Studio Ghibli fan theories that will blow your mind. We're sorry in advance if you can never look at these movies the same way again.
13 Totoro is the God of Death
This is the one fan theory that everybody knows, but that doesn’t make it any less intriguing. Set in 1950s Japan, My Neighbour Totoro is the story of young sisters Satsuki and Mei, whose father moves them to an old house to be closer to the hospital where their mother is recovering from a long-term illness. The girls quickly discover that their new residence and the surrounding area is also home to friendly forest spirits, particularly a large rabbit-like creature that Mei names Totoro. Towards the end of the movie, Mei goes missing, but is rescued with the help of Totoro and pals.
Anyway, some fans believe the movie is a reference to the Sayama incident – the rape and murder of a Japanese school girl in the '60s, whose devastated older sister later killed herself. Supposed links include the fact that the movie is set in Sayama, that the murder took place in the month of May (Mei/May, get it?) and that one of the stops on the CatBus translates to “Grave Road.” So to summarise the fan version, Mei was murdered, and the reason that Satsuki and Totoro can find her is because Satsuki killed herself after discovering her sister’s fate. The CatBus is taking them to the underworld, and Totoro is the grim reaper. Fortunately, Studio Ghibli has debunked this theory, because it’s seriously depressing…
12 Yubaba’s Bathhouse is a Brothel
Another fan theory we can guarantee ALL Studio Ghibli fans have heard at one time or another is that the Bathhouse in Spirited Away is actually a brothel. Some take the theory even further and suggest that the whole movie is a metaphor for prostitution (in this case, unfortunately, child prostitution).
In Edo period Japan, bathhouses were basically a cover for brothels, and guess what the madams of said establishments were called – Yubaba – the same name as the evil old woman that runs the bathhouse Chihiro discovers in the spirit world. Yubaba gets Chihiro to sign over her name and become “Sen.” In these real-life bathhouses, it was common for “loose women” to sign over their identities to their madams. When looking at it from this perspective, Chihiro’s interactions with No Face suddenly become a lot creepier. Remember how he keeps giving her tokens? He’s literally trying to buy her. Even more disturbing, Miyazaki has admitted all of this was intentional. In an interview, the director said: “I think the most appropriate way to symbolize the modern world is the sex industry. Hasn’t Japanese society become like the sex industry?” So, in other words, the conspiracy theorists were right – Spirited Away IS a metaphor for prostitution. Yeash.
11 Leprosy in Princess Mononoke
Like the bathhouse theory from Spirited Away, this theory has been confirmed by Miyazaki himself. Since the film’s release in 2001, a common fan theory has circulated that says the “gyobyo” (incurable disease) the Irontown residents are suffering from is in fact leprosy (also known as Hansen’s Disease). The Irontown settlement, set up by Lady Eboshi, is a haven for those suffering from the disease after their illness caused them to become social outcasts. Interestingly, gyobyo also translates to “suffering the consequences,” which could relate to the old belief that leprosy was the result of bad karma.
While speaking at Tokyo’s Leprosy/Hansen's Disease History Symposium, Miyazaki confirmed that Princess Mononoke does indeed depict leprosy. In fact, Irontown is based on his own visit to a sanatorium in western Tokyo, which the director described as a location "where deep suffering has accumulated.” Speaking of his bandaged characters, he said: “I wanted to portray people who were living with what was said to be an incurable disease caused by bad karma.” Japan has a long history of stigma towards the disease, and until 1996, sufferers were still segregated from society.
10 Dola is an Elderly Pippi Long Stocking
Dola is the pirate queen from Castle in the Sky, the first movie released under Studio Ghibli in 1986. For those not in the know, Pippi Longstocking is a renowned fictional character originally from Sweden whose popularity has spread throughout Europe and beyond (although she's somewhat lesser-known in the USA). The characters are from two very different worlds, but there is an obvious superficial element tying them together in the classic, sticky-up red pigtails. However, the core of this theory comes from the fact that Miyazaki actually pitched a feature-length anime based on the books called Pippi Longstocking: The Strongest Girl in the World, but was denied permission by author Astrid Lindgren. Some stunning concept art from the project, drawn by Miyazaki himself, remains, and it is suggested that Lindgren regretted saying no further down the line (we certainly would have).
Anyway, in the original stories, Pippi’s dad was a sea captain, and she was known for going on crazy adventures, so imagining her spending her golden years as a pirate queen isn’t too hard to imagine. Not to mention the fact that Dola has a painting of her younger self in her room that looks a hell of a lot like the Miyazaki’s Pippi concept art…
9 Whisper of the Heart Made People Want to Commit Suicide
This one is more of an urban myth than a fan theory – like Bloody Mary or the idea that leaving a tooth in a cup of cola overnight will dissolve it. Leading up to the release of The Wind Rises back in 2013, TV stations in Japan started re-airing Studio Ghibli movies, including Whisper of the Heart. The 1995 film is the love story of Shizuku and Seiji, two passionate, creative-minded teenagers with bright futures, and it's based on the manga of the same name.
Supposedly, after the film was re-broadcast, thirty-somethings who had been teens at the time of the movie’s release became depressed, lamenting their wasted youth. They took to message boards to discuss their feelings, with one of the threads labeled “Whisper of the Heart Suicide Center.” It contained messages along of the lines of “see ya all in the afterlife” and “give me back my youth!” Yikes. Of course, it has never been confirmed that anyone actually killed themselves – the thread was probably just filled with people who hate the world, and Whisper of the Heart reminded them of that fact.
8 My Neighbor Totoro is a subtle retelling of Alice in Wonderland
In a less effed-up Totoro fan theory, some have suggested that My Neighbour Totoro is another, unofficial retelling of Lewis Caroll’s classic tale Alice in Wonderland. Examples include the shapeshifting cat (CatBus), a rabbit (Totoro), anamorphic plants and animals that vanish in a puff of smoke, lots of scurrying down small passageways, and a spunky female protagonist.
However, other fans have pointed out that the story trope of children using the world of fantasy to escape their problems is pretty common (in this case, Mei and Satsuki are dealing with their mother’s illness, as well as moving to a new house in an unknown area), and that Ghibli has explored this concept in several of its films, including Spirited Away and Ni No Kuni. So, Miyazaki was most likely influenced by Alice in Wonderland rather than directly paying homage to the book. Still, it’s an interesting perspective, and one that doesn't include anybody dying, so there's that.
7 Ponyo is an Angel
What is it with Ghibli fans and death? In the 2008 Ghibli retelling of The Little Mermaid, a goldfish named Ponyo -- who dreams of becoming a human -- befriends five-year-old Sosuke after he saves her from being stuck in a glass jar. That seems innocent enough on the surface, but a lot of Japanese viewers are said to have found the movie a bit creepy. Well, this fan theory does nothing to help dispel that.
As the theory goes, everyone in Sosuke’s seaside village died in the flood. The boats seen carrying residents after the water levels rise all go in one direction, which some fans believe could be a reference to the Sanzu River -- the Buddhist equivalent of the River Styx. So basically, they’re all being carried off into the afterlife. Tunnels are also a common theme in Ghibli movies, and they often take characters from one world to another. Fans may also have noticed that they also come back through this same tunnel when the journey is over. Well, Ponyo and Sosuke go through a tunnel, but they are never seen going back through it, suggesting they went to the afterlife and never came home.
There are also many instances of the number 333 throughout the film, which is said to be a sign of angels. So Ponyo could be an angel, guiding Sosuke to the afterlife. Or, it could just be a story about a fish falling in love with a five-year-old – take your pick.
6 No Face is Another Human Trapped in the Spirit World
No Face is the most mysterious character in Spirited Away, and considering that during his first appearance, he is semi-transparent and exhibits plenty of ghost-like abilities (visible organs, the ability to ingest others and steal their emotions, just to name a few examples), it is understandable we’d all think he’s a spirit. However, Redditor Zyllber has a different theory. He believes the reason that No Face is so enamoured with Chihiro is because he’s a human trapped in the spirit world, just like she is. His theory centers around the idea that if a living being spends too long in the spirit world, without undergoing some kind of epiphany, they become a vessel for negativity. He’s attracted to Chihiro not only because of her comparatively innocent nature, but because she’s the only other of his kind he can find.
Although No Face can perform magic and Chihiro can’t (supposedly because she’s human), Zyllber points out that the spirit world doesn’t appear to have any fixed rules, and that No Face’s magic appears to be weaker than other beings' (such as when the gold he magics up turns out to be fake.) However, another user pointed out that perhaps No Face was acting this way because he was absorbing Chihiro’s unhappy emotions, rather than a lost soul himself. We may never know for sure.
5 Chihiro Gained a New Power on Her Journey
Throughout Spirited Away, Chihiro is unable to use magic like the other beings in the spirit world. However, some have suggested that she wasn’t so supernaturally-challenged after all, and that she developed more than character on her journey.
Last year, Studio Ghibli responded to a fan who asked them why Chihiro’s parents turned into pigs at the beginning of the movie. In their detailed reply, Ghibli said that the transformation represented the greed of Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s (which ended in the 1991 crash), and that someone who acts like a pig eventually becomes one, “body and soul.” The letter also explained how Chihiro knew none of the pigs at the end of the movie were her mom and dad, beating Yubaba’s test: “Chihiro, as a 10-year-old girl, could understand the difference because she had overcome difficulties and had managed to acquire the ‘energy to live’ – which is something everyone can do naturally.” This puts an end to the long-running theory that Chihiro had developed some kind of new power during her time in the spirit world, rather than the metaphorical translation of youth to adulthood.
4 Ponyo and Sosuke are the Guardians in Kiki’s Delivery Service
Remember how at the end of the movie, now-human Ponyo and Sosuke sort-of end up together? (As much as five-year-olds can, anyway.) Well, some eagle-eyed fans have noticed that Mr. and Mrs. Osono, Kiki’s guardians in Kiki’s Delivery Service, look an awful lot like adult versions of Ponyo and Sosuke.
So, what they’re basically suggesting is that no-longer-a-fish-Ponyo and Sosuke remain close as they’re growing up, eventually fall into real, adult love, and get married. Further down the line, the duo open a bakery and adopt trainee witch Kiki and her cat. However, other fans have pointed out that Kiki’s Delivery Service was released in 1989, long before 2008’s Ponyo. So, for this to be true, it would take some serious foreshadowing on Miyazaki’s part -- 19 years' worth! Still, stranger things have happened in the world of Studio Ghibli (did we mention Yubaba's bathhouse IS A BROTHEL).
3 San Wears Her Sister’s Corpse in Princess Mononoke
In Princess Mononoke (which roughly translates to spirit or monster princess), San is raised by wolves after her own parents abandon her while running away from the wolf goddess Moro. At least that's what Moro says, or in her own words: "I caught her human parents defiling the forest. They threw their baby at my feet as they ran away." Sounds like San is better off without them.
On another note, it's hard to miss San's fetching coat, which she wears to blend in with her wolf-breathren. But where did she get the fur for it? Well, if this fan theory is correct, the story of San's origin is far more sinister. Rather than "defiling the forest", this theory suggests that San's parents were hunting Moro's pups, killing one of her babies. When she caught the poachers, she put an end to them, but spared San, replacing her lost pup with the human child. To help her feel more at home, Moro gave San the fur of her deceased baby. Which is part gross, part sweet. So, San is essentially wearing the corpse of her dead sibling...
2 All Studio Ghibli Films Are Connected
It's not hard to imagine that a selection of films as whimiscal as those produced by Studio Ghibli are all connected in some way. After all, if Pixar and Quentin Tarantino can do it, then Miyazaki and co. certainly can. Like Pixar, Ghibli hides plenty of Easter Eggs throughout it's movies, whether it's just a nod or a full-on link to another one of its films. Fans reckon that when put together, these Easter Eggs create a larger story, one set in the wider Ghibli universe.
One example is the Soot Sprites from My Neighbour Totoro, who also make an appearance in Spirited Away. And remember the pink shoe that Granny finds in Totoro that she mistakes for a missing Mei's? Well, it turns out that it may be Chihiro's. Characters pop up too, like a young Pazu from Castle in the Sky hiding in the background of a scene from Howl's Moving Castle, and a Totoro book on a shelf in Whisper of the Heart. Want to know more about this theory? Some genius put together this awesome supercut of all the Studio Ghibli Easter Eggs for you to enjoy!
1 The Ghibli Curse
The "Ghibli Curse" or "The Curse of Ghibli" is a theory amongst Japanese financial traders that Studio Ghibli is somehow hexed and has the potential to damage the stock and currency markets. Apparently, whenever a Ghibli movie airs on TV in the country, bad things happen, money-wise. It could be anything from a bad report to payroll dates, but investors, traders and the like all seem to be aware of the curse and pay close attention to TV schedules for this reason.
But it's not just Japan that has to worry. The effect is supposedly international, with the currencies of other countries known to drop after a Ghibli film spree. One former finance worker even ran the numbers from 2008 to 2013, and found that 28 out of the 35 times a Ghibli movie aired, the currency of either Japan or the US dropped the following day. So, it looks like Ghibli films are so magical, they not only affect the fantasy world, but the real one too. Or it's a coincidence, but we like our explanation better.
What other Studio Ghibli fan theories have you come across? Let us know in the comments!