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Art and Soul – How Studio Ghibli Challenges the Notion of the Tortured Artist

28 July 2020

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Art and Soul – How Studio Ghibli Challenges the Notion of the Tortured Artist

There’s many lenses through which we can read Studio Ghibli films, like self-discovery, friendship and man’s relationship with nature. These are just some of the motifs they explore, and everyone can pretty much have their own interpretations depending on their individual personalities and circumstances. That’s the magic of Studio Ghibli, in my opinion. The films manage to touch the hearts of everyone in their own unique ways. 

Having recently rewatched Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and Whisper of the Heart (1995), I’ve come to discover their new personal significance. The two films in particular have much to be said about creativity and being an artist. 

Shizuku and Baron Humbert from ‘Whispers of the Heart’ (Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

Let me be clear that I don’t think of myself an artist by any means (I don’t know what I consider myself to be at all, actually, and we’ll talk about this later). I just tend to lean more towards the creative field. I think we can all agree that the tortured genius is a very compelling notion. The idea that great art comes from great pain resonates with me more than it should, even with my psychology degree. 

But after having discovered different forms of art, learning about artists, and knowing what I know about mental health, this tortured artist trope doesn’t sit quite right with me anymore. 


The Curse of Creativity?

As captivating as the notion of the “tortured” artist is, there’s something off about it. Thinking that pain or suffering is a necessary condition for art to be considered great is enticing because of the sensationalization of the artistic process and product, but it’s also harmful in many ways. We think that if someone who has experienced some kind of psychological ordeal creates something, it must be a product of struggle, and therefore great. 

True, there’s a correlation between artists and some forms of mental illness. But the “curse of creativity” trope simply misrepresents mental health and the reality of artists. In fact, research that shows association between creativity and mental illnesses are insubstantial.

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent Van Gogh (1889)

Such a mentality not only romanticizes mental disorders, but also neglects the true effort that goes into art. Profound, genuine art is seen as a manifestation of one’s deeply tortured, yet beautiful soul. There’s many artists we can think of, like Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath and Robin Williams. Many of us aren’t as in touch with our emotional side, much less be able to grapple with it. So for such artists to articulate their feelings and psychological state into a work of art is undoubtedly impressive.

Celebrated artists such as Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain are deemed exceptional, and rightfully so. The late Winehouse was diagnosed with manic depressive disorder, and has said herself that she channeled her sensibilities into her music. Their greatest works are considered to be products of their most difficult times. It’s as if one has to sacrifice a part of themselves to be a meaningful artist.

Let’s look at something more topical, like Kanye West, as an example. He’s diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and has made claims several times about how he doesn’t need (or want) treatment because it interferes with his creative process. 

This is a common perspective for people with bipolar disorder – manic episodes tend to be categorised by bursts of energy, ideal for making art. Since treatments for this tend to temper manic behaviour, which can ‘impede’ the artist, why would anyone want to be restrained, right? After all, the rawest form of art is seen as the greatest. Well, this kind of mindset is distorted. While mood disorders give artists creative insight, they’re more often debilitating than not. 

What Or Who is an Artist?

Seiji and Shizuki from ‘Whispers of the Heart’ (Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

To me, Whisper of the Heart reveals what being an artist truly is, acknowledging the emotional and psychological labour that’s involved while emphasising the actual effort that goes behind the artistic process. It dispels the myth of the tortured artist, showing that art isn’t just an emotional calling, but that it also involves a lot of practical aspects such as education and training. 

Shizuki impresses her peers with her translation of John Denver’s song, ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’, revealing her knack for poetry. Seiji is an aspiring violin-maker, passionate and dedicated to his craft. He’s constantly working on improving himself, setting realistic goals that can bring him one step closer to his dreams. Shizuki, on the other hand, is unsure of herself. She doesn’t know what her purpose or dream is, saying “I’ve got no idea at all. I just go from one day to the next.” 

Shizuki’s love for writing is there, but fear and self-doubt holds her back. She shows Seiji’s grandfather some of her writing, which he remarked to be good, but requires more work. Thus, she realises that her artistic desire and sentiments aren’t enough. She makes practical choices to improve her skills, like getting into a university to get the literacy needed for her work and continuously revising her writings. 

Still from ‘Whisper of the Heart’ (Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

Realistically, this is what’s going to help her be a good writer. Not everyone is born a genius, after all. Works like that of Van Gogh’s are considered to be so legendary that we’re inclined to assume that the artist is inherently brilliant. And maybe that’s the case for some people. Nevertheless, every artist has had to educate themselves in some way and put in effort to improve their crafts.

Seiji’s grandfather encapsulates what it takes to be an artist through the metaphor of the ores and crystals. When Shizuki doubts her capacity, questioning, “What if there isn’t a beautiful crystal inside me?”, he affirms that “The rough stone is inside you. You have to find it, and then polish it”. 

A tortured soul isn’t what guarantees meaningful art. Artistry and emotional sensitivity are closely connected, but there’s pragmatic work and labour that goes behind the scenes. Seiji leaves his home in order to hone his skills. Like Shizuki, we cannot be successful in our work if we just pine to create art. 

Still from ‘Whisper of the Heart’ (Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

The myth of the tortured artist is so detrimental because it can lull people into a sense of entitlement. Yes, art is sometimes the product of psychological trauma. But it’s often a result of hard work and education. If I want this so bad, and I’m suffering for it, why isn’t my work being acknowledged? This entitlement not only holds us back from taking tangible actions, but also harms psychologically with all the wallowing in self-pity. 

The Artist’s Constant Journey

We see this too in Ursula and Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service. Kiki never had to work or worry about her witch powers, they just came to her naturally. After moving to the city, though, she started losing her abilities, much to her distress. She used to enjoy flying, but now it drains her. She’s disheartened, spending much of her time alone in her room. Without her powers, Kiki believes she’s lost absolutely everything. 

I see Kiki’s situation more as a characterisation of artistic burnout. Even people who are naturally gifted can reach a stasis. It’s already difficult enough to even get the inspiration to create in the first place. Add a creative block on to that, and the tortured artist mentality can easily deceive us into thinking that we’re entitled greatness because of the suffering. In reality, and as harsh as that may be, it’s substantial effort that shapes our work. 

Still from ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ (Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

Kiki’s friend Ursula is a professional painter and she imparts Kiki with some insight – painting and magical powers have their similarities. Ursula reveals that she also has her moments, times where she feels like she cannot create work that she’s proud of and just doesn’t create at all. 

Ursula has figured out how to sustain her artist’s soul – you let yourself feel your emotions, and work with them. Take action. Don’t just sit back and wallow in them. A bit of wallowing might be useful, but not for too long.  When she feels uninspired, she allows herself to see and feel the world around her. She does the realistic thing, which is to get inspiration from the outside world. Sure, creativity comes from the mind, but it’s life experiences that inform our creations. 

Kiki and Ursula from ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ (Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

In fact, Ursula considered destroying her painting (pictured above) many times. Seeing Kiki, however, breathed new life into the artist’s creative spirit. Kiki couldn’t understand why Ursula would see a muse in someone like her, someone who she believes is ultimately worthless. But Ursula reminds Kiki: “We each need to find our own inspiration. Sometimes it’s not easy”. For most people, discovering our inspiration comes from hard work, effort, and trial and error. And in this case, Ursula found hers in Kiki.

This endeavour is trying, both physically and mentally. There’s a quote from the film that resonates with me particularly – Kiki ponders: “Maybe I need to find my own inspiration. But am I ever going to find it? Is it worth all the trouble?” Shizuki and Kiki both contend with their self-doubt and fear about their meaning as a writer and a witch. 

Art and Soul  

I think Whisper of the Heart and Kiki’s Delivery Service are wonderful reminders to take action if they want to be who they set themself out to be. It emphasises that effort and hard work is just as important as emotionality in the creative process. 

Kiki and her familiar, Jiji from Kiki’s Delivery Service (Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

To bring it back to the earlier conversation about mental health, these films uncover that great art is a result of effort, not simply suffering. Sure, there may be suffering that comes with creativity, but I truly believe that that isn’t the determining factor. Yes, artists such as Van Gogh and Amy Winehouse created such raw, intimate works because of their mental disorders to a certain extent. But their greatness isn’t determined by their ‘tortured’ psychological state.

The reason why the tortured artist trope is so well-known is because it’s inevitable for creative geniuses to be famous. When in reality, people in the creative field aren’t much more likely than those in other fields to experience mental illnesses.  It’s understandable why we’re captivated by the idea of the tortured artist – there’s a morbid fascination that comes with creating something beautiful out of something tragic. 

Yet it’s important to remember that mental illness and great art aren’t mutually exclusive. What’s a greater determining factor of meaningful work, as Studio Ghibli shows us, is the drive and determination to put in the legwork. Indeed, “illness is pervasive. Genius is much more rare.”


Read more 

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A Masterclass in Animation Storytelling, ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ Continues to Beguile Audiences 30 Years On

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