By Andie Vasquez

An unpleasant funk is where my mind has been. It’s an odd longing for something more, but a lack of motivation to do it. I knew I needed to fight out of this funk before it grew into something worse, but almost felt helpless to do it. How much does it cost and can it fit into the budget? I thought. I’d be drawn to movies and just not move for hours. The cleanliness of the house declined. I stopped looking for a job. One day, I put in a Studio Ghibli movie and it sparked a curiosity within me.

For those who are unfamiliar, Studio Ghibli is a Japanese animation company that was founded in 1985. They are known for their animated feature films, short films and a few television commercials. Disney partnered with Ghibli to release their films internationally and translate them into other languages. Though the films are not owned by Disney, they were distributed by Disney. The English versions feature the voice talents of a myriad of high level actors including Sir Patrick Stewart, Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Billy Crystal and Liam Neeson. Even Amy Poehler had a role in one of the films.

If you have never seen a Studio Ghibli film, I encourage you to pause and look them up. They are incredible. I would suggest Howl’s Moving Castle (it’s the first one I saw) or Kiki’s Delivery Service (my favorite), though any one you choose will be excellent.

I love the magical worlds of Studio Ghibli films, and often long to live inside of them. The bright animation and, oh my goodness, the food! What captures my attention right now are the films set in our modern non magical world. They exist in our world, and somehow the characters lives are still fulfilling and enchanting. The most defining feature of Ghibli protagonists is their strong character development. It is why I love the stories so much. But what details encompass their lives and the worlds they live in? How do they build such lovable yet complex and growing characters? Could I also live as magical a life as they even without talking cats or fire demons? I’d like to find out.

Something I have to remind myself about television is they aren’t going to show you every minute of every day. You don’t watch the slow days. You don’t watch them watching TV, cleaning the toilet, sitting in traffic, zoned out petting the cat, reading a book, etc. A movie would probably just, skip over that to the more exciting bits. We can’t just skip over the mundane parts of our lives and I have to keep reminding myself of that. My life isn’t boring because I don’t have it filled to the brim, with over the top excitment every single day.

I wanted to pinpoint what it was about the characters that was so captivating. What did they do that made them so lovable? The major tenants of Ghibli characters and if they could be applied to normal life. Particularly the characters from films such as Whisper of the Heart and Up on Poppy Hill, because they do not have magic in them and they operate within our real universe.

So first we have to define what makes these characters unique. One of things that all protagonists share is some kind of personal development. It may be gaining self confidence, finding your passion, being content in who you are, but there is always personal growth. Another is the characters are always moving. This is something I find more difficult not living somewhere like Tokyo or London where people walk everywhere and ride the train. I don’t walk to work, or even to the store, I drive to these places. Something a little specific to Haru in The Cat Returns, is waking up and getting up when the alarm goes off and starting the day invigorated. Haru changes this behaviour throughout the film and it is used to display her change in attitude. Another detail I notice that may or may not be intentional is that the characters all have unique quirks about them, specific things they love and for the most part, these interests are not disparaged and often they are even encouraged. Kiki likes the sea, Sophie likes flowers and hats, Shizuku likes to write.

So I complied a collection of attributes that I thought I could easily integrate into my life, and just chose one day to start living life like a Studio Ghibli character. I chose to make this is a challenge for myself. I set the challenge at 30 days, but it may take longer than a literal 30 days. I do not intend to count the days I don’t feel like I met these goals for that day, so that day would be skipped on the 30 day challenge.

1. Go outside

Since as I said, we don’t have the close train system where I live like they would have in a large bustling city and people don’t walk here like is common in Japan, I chose to make this task just simply to go outside. Breath in the fresh air. Stand in the sunlight.

2. Build my Self Confidence

This is definitely something I have and do struggle with. I really had a horrific self image when I was younger and even though I’ve come a long way, I still have work to do.

3. Be Proud of what you Love

I’m not going to hide my elephant figurines or not share something I find incredible because it may be corny or silly. If I find joy in it, I’m not ashamed of that. If you love reading, then get a book and read. Don’t be ashamed that you left the load of laundry in the dryer, you can take a few moments to yourself to do something you love.

4. Stay Occupied/Leave the TV off

This was more specific for me personally. It was a goal to leave the TV turned off as long as possible. It sometimes turns into a default to just turn it on every day because that’s easy. It fills in the gaps of time when you aren’t sure what to do. But it doesnt need to become our go to. I determined to find something else to fill the empty gaps and avoid having the TV on for hours every day.

Reminder to myself: it’s ok to let there be silence. I know the need to fill all the empty gaps with something is in part a result of my having anxiety, so its personal to myself, but I need reminded. I will often have some kind of noise to fill any empty space. If I remove one noise, I’ll fill it with another. I turn the TV off and turn on loud music, turn the music off and speak my thoughts verbally, etc. Its ok to just be in the silence. It’s ok to have a quiet moment between friends, it’s ok to not watch a show while I rock the baby, its ok to put the dishes away without music on. Enjoy the silence.

5. Have Tea Parties

Many times we see the characters enjoying a cup of tea. It is very commonplace in these movies, but not as commonplace in the world I live in. Sitting down for a calming cup of tea and regrouping for the afternoon/evening could be helpful and rejuvenating. So I decided an afternoon cup of tea was a good idea.

6. When you wake up, wake up!

This actually reminded me more of Maria in The Sound of Music when she leaves the abbey and is heading to the Von Trapp home for the first time. She sings a song called, I Have Confidence and the entire song she’s pumping herself up for the daunting task before her. One stanza sings

“Strength doesn’t lie in numbers

Strength doesn’t lie in wealth

Strength lies in nights of peaceful slumber

When you wake, wake up!

It’s healthy!”

And then few lines later she declares.

“And besides what you see, I have confidence in ME!”

7. Don’t lose your Curiosity

What each of the Studio Ghibli characters hold onto is their curiosity, they don’t stop looking for answers, they don’t give up. Find new places to explore. Find a new hobby to try. Find a new style of cooking you’ve never cooked before. Don’t let someone come along and squash your spirit, keep ahold of that magic and let that shine. Be Curious.

8. Challenge Yourself

As I’ve said, what all the characters share is a strong character development. Nobody is ever perfect, we can always be better. Set a challenge before you to achieve and go for it. A goal to knit a sweater. A goal to write a book. A goal to to learn how to tango. A goal to see a doctor about your mental health. A goal to get a pet. A goal to buy a new car. Whatever it is, challenge yourself to do and be better.

*February 2020

At day 15 now, and I’ve noticed a couple things already. Tea, is fantastic! But, I’ve always thought that. Some days, I’ll get some of these in, but not all of them. I’ll miss a stretch in the morning or my afternoon cup of tea. I think that’s ok. It takes time to build habits.

Something I added around day 4 was that in each journal entry, I’d write down something I loved about that day. Usually something simple, like I loved the way my son so intently focused on his painting. I loved the way my husband played on the playground equipment like he was still a kid. I loved the smell of fresh ground coffee. Anything at all, that I loved about that day. It has added an extra element to my challenge to even on the slower days or the days I feel in a funk to notice something good.

From a journal entry I made Day 10:

“Something I’ve noticed that’s a little annoying to me. In my quest to leave the TV off, the kids have been making more frequent messes. I cannot keep stuff off the floor. I get it picked up and they dump the bin of toys over immediately. This doesn’t usually happen, but I’ve noticed it more lately, since I stopped turning the TV on every day.”

This has been a reminder to myself, and my brain, that the mess is ok. The kids are playing together. They are exploring and imagining. It is better that they be creating their own worlds than dead pan in front of the TV. But it also meant I reinstituted an evening routine I had abandoned, to tidy up before bed.

My mental health is a big factor in why I do things, and one of the reasons I started this challenge in the first place. I would say I am in a better state of mind right now than I was a few weeks ago. Luckily during this time, the weather has started to warm up as Spring draws closer. Making a point to go outside every day has been a huge aide to my mental health. The walking and fresh air I’m sure has been good for my physical health too and to the kids, but I notice my state of mind more readily. I’ve also noticed my sleep has been more restful. I’ve had a couple bad nights I was unable to sleep, but for the most part I am tired by bedtime and ready to sleep. This is an improvement over my usual restless nights and morning headaches.

*March

When this was done, it was Spring of 2020 (in case anyone reads this in the future) during the Coronavirus Outbreak and Quarantine. Starting March 26 of 2020, we were placed under an official Stay at Home order.

At first I thought to pause my challenge wondering how I could continue when I couldn’t leave the house except to get groceries. I did for a couple weeks, until I came across an analysis of Studio Ghibli and how to see magic in everyday things and why that makes the characters so incredible. It was like someone was reading my own mind and curiosities. All the tiny pieces I was trying to find but were somehow missing fell into place. The magic doesn’t just appear, it is made, by you. Upon looking further into the culture these artists live in, I discovered that because of how they view the world, they see every moment as almost sacred, at the very least each moment is special. Even the most mundane of days or the hardest of days is precious, and this thought is woven in their films.

In the state of being quarantined my mental health was in the forefront of my mind. My anxiety began to flare up due to the circumstances. I felt helpless and lost. The factors around me were overwhelming. I wasn’t as worried over bills because my husband was still working, but I worried over how to keep him and us safe with him still going out every day. I had finally found a job right before the order was issued and so my new job was immediately put on hold. How could I continue this endeavor when I had so little control over anything? But when I noticed how Studio Ghibli views life and the precious moments within it, I chose to start the challenge again, and take notice of the magical things around me everyday. Not discrediting the darker moments, because those are not only valid emotions, but those moments are precious too because you experienced them. This is why their characters often have so much depth, because they aren’t afraid to show you their angry or sad moments alongside their happy and inspiring ones.

Focusing on a challenge, filling my day with simple tasks, looking for something I loved about the day, helped me to put my mind in a state to see the magic. But I still had to create it for myself. I started sitting outside in the mornings. Our patio faces East and the warm morning sun splashes across it every morning. The cool Spring night is broken by the warm sunlight. It’s been the perfect way to start the days. It’s still quiet then, and I can just sit and notice the birds singing or the rabbits running across the grass.

It really hit me when my wildflower seeds started to sprout. I filled with happiness and pride, and it immediately reminded me of My Neighbor Totoro when their acorns sprout with help from Totoro. Magic lies in the dirt of a flower pot on my patio.

The journal entry from Studio Ghibli Life Day ?? Quarintine day 16

“After some lunch and a short calm down/nap time, I made some bread. Michael helped with the kneading. Then we made some cupcakes. Chocolate of course.

I’ve been putting off my Studio Ghibli initiative because of the quarantine. I’ve been thinking its impossible to achieve without being able to leave the house. All the characters went out to find adventure after all. But truly, I think the point of the films and the point I was trying to realize was that the magic is where you put it. You can see magic in the sunrise if you want to. But you have to want it to be there. That’s the point. That’s the point of all of it. Making the magic be there, even in the small things.

One thing I loved about today was that my wildflowers sprouted this morning.”

At first I thought the social distancing ruined my Studio Ghibli initiative, but I’ve since realized, it forced me to recognize something deeper. Its forced me to truly grasp what Studio Ghibli means. Doing things helps, and are good. It’s good to wake up, to go outside, to challenge yourself. As I noted before, they definitely aided my mental state, but I still have some bad days. I was able to get some rest. As adults we often think of small things as “bogus” wonders and that we have to travel to some magnificent new place to be caught up in the beauty or magic of a thing. That seeing magic in a flower blooming is childish and juvenile. We as adults are also often jaded and callous, and might be curious where our childlike wonder went. It didn’t go anywhere, we just stopped looking for it because it was immature.

The start of this initiative I gave myself the challenge to get out of a funk with simple actions, that helped kickstart my mind. By the end of it though, I realized they only are the doorway to actually unlocking the magic.