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If you are a person who keenly watches films then you’ve probably heard the words “Studio Ghibli” a couple of times in your life. It’s probably been pronounced a couple of different ways too. You might have investigated further and found an entire series of whimsical animated worlds to fall in love with, or you might have just ignored it. Now, years later a bunch of your friends keep talking about dressing up as some guy called No Face for Halloween and you have no idea what’s going on.

Maybe once after a date, you’ve gone back to the other’s apartment and noticed a little, cute, grey plush toy sitting on their bed. Maybe you said something like “Hey, cute bear” only to be met with a hideous scowl and the words “Actually, that’s Totoro” followed by something about not letting you near their Catbus now. Well if only you’d known what the hell that Studio Ghibli thing actually was. Worry not, we’re here to help.

What’s a Studio Ghibli anyway?

So before we get into exactly where to start, let’s get some context. After all, there are plenty more reasons to get to know Ghibli other than your crippling social anxiety and fear of missing out.

Studio Ghibli is a Japanese studio responsible for some of the finest feature-length animation films ever produced, inspiring countless artists and filmmakers including John Lasseter (you might know him from all those Pixar films that made you cry) who once said that Ghibli founder “Hayao Miyazaki is the greatest animation director living today.” High praise indeed.

After working together on various animation projects since the ’60s, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata eventually founded Studio Ghibli in 1985 on the back of the film Nausicaä: Valley of the Wind which had come out the year before. They were determined to foster a creative environment where originality and artistic vision took precedence over commercial success – never once taking the easy route and making a sequel to any of the past successes.

Common themes and artistic styles show up throughout the Ghibli universes; environmentalism, flight, childhood, metamorphosis, weather, worlds within worlds, community and mythology from both Japan and Europe. Whilst every story takes places in seemingly different worlds, these common thematic threads often tie them together into something unmistakable.

So 31 years from its inception, Ghibli has produced 20 features, a TV movie, numerous short films and commercials and amassed a dedicated worldwide fandom. So where the hell do you start? Abandon any lingering notion that cartoons are strictly for kids – sure these stories are universal and sympathetic to all ages but you’re not made of stone, right? Didn’t think so – now let’s jump in.

Oh, and one more thing before we start – these are Japanese films. In Japanese, with subtitles. They’re also widely available dubbed in English with equally talented voice actors, and it honestly doesn’t matter if you watch them dubbed or with subtitles. There are purists in the world who think the only way to watch them is in Japanese with subtitles, but these people are pretentious and should be ignored at all costs. Enjoy these films in a way that feels comfortable for you.

Start Here

Spirited Away (2001)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Widely regarded as Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Spirited Away is an incredible achievement in animated cinema. A coming-of-age story with hints of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz thrown in with the trademark of Ghibli whimsy, wisdom and imagination. It tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl moving house with her parents. They get lost and stumble upon what they believe to be an abandoned theme park that turns out to be a realm where the spirits dwell.

With her parents cursed and Chihiro trapped in this mysterious place, she has no choice but to take a job at a mysterious bathhouse where the clientele is predominantly made up of wandering benevolent spirits and humans are persona non grata.

For over two hours we watch a young girl grapple with the responsibilities of maturing in a world that operates secretly within her own – the animation is incredible, the vast array of characters simply awe-inspiring, and each thread of the story builds to something much larger than the sum of its parts.

Spirited Away is the only foreign language film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, and to this day is the highest grossing film in Japan – the first film to knock Titanic off its pedestal. Truly essential viewing.

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My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

One of the earliest Ghibli films, and featuring a titular character that would go on to be the company’s mascot, My Neighbor Totoro is a thematically similar film to Spirited Away, but with an entirely different outlook.

Like its distant cousin Spirited Away, it focuses on young girls (this time sisters Mei and Satsuki) moving to a new home and discovering a secret world within it. This time though, there’s no supernatural curse or fantastical prison-like work conditions. The film explores the two young girls and their father as they adjust to life in the countryside. Their mother is seriously ill in a nearby hospital and the sweet, subtle movements of the film’s narrative are a celebration of the imagination of children, as well as a supportive father. Where Spirited Away curses parents’ greed, My Neighbor Totoro rewards the perseverance of a close-knit family. Oh, there’s also a group of adorable monsters named Totoro who help the girls to cope and familiarize themselves with the incredible enchanted environment that surrounds their new home.

Based partially on Miyazaki’s own childhood (his mother was frequently hospitalized in his youth), it’s a deeply personal but ultimately optimistic piece of animated cinema.

Further Viewing

From here you have several worlds at your fingertips, each one as intricate and varied as the last. You can really go anywhere within Studio Ghibli’s vast repertoire after this, but here’s a couple more recommendations just to pique your interest.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

A harrowing epic of war and environmentalism. Deeply spiritual and steeped in mythology, but with an ultimately human message of preservation and conservation. It’s violent and hypnotic – Miyazaki is rumored to have sent Disney a samurai sword with a note attached reading simply “no cuts” after they censored earlier works, meaning Mononoke was given a theatrical release in the West at its full duration of 2-hours, 14-minutes.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

A tale of growing up and wrestling with the transition between modern and traditional cultures, told through the eyes of a young girl going out in the world for the first time. It’s one of Ghibli’s first really commercial successes that allowed audiences to re-evaluate earlier works. The recurring motif of flying really establishes itself in this film, as does Miyazaki’s trademark sense of childlike wonder.

The Wind Rises (2013)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

The Wind Rises was alleged to be Miyazaki’s final film (although he’d threatened that before), until it was announced yesterday that the director will be back to bring Boro the Caterpiller from a CG short to a full length feature. What would have been a gorgeous swansong for a director of the highest caliber, this grounded and ultimately human film about Jiro Horikoshi – the man who designed fighter planes for Japan in World War II – is a departure from Miyazaki’s fantastical nature of creatures and enchanted worlds.

It’s a romantic drama and artful biopic that manages to balance sentiment and nostalgia perfectly. While it features an unusual set of subtle themes and narrative arcs for a director coming off the back of Ponyo, it’s a move that rewards the viewer with one of Miyazaki’s most emotionally potent works to date.

Maybe Don’t Start Here

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Director: Isao Takahata

Before any curious Ghibli fans reading this go nuts in the comments, we are not saying that this is a bad film. This is an incredibly moving piece of work that deserves its place as one of Ghibli’s finest works, but it is devastating. I mean, look at that trailer. If that doesn’t spell melancholy to you then you’re dead inside. Set towards the end of the Second World War, it follows the story of a brother and sister whose mother was killed and home destroyed in a firebombing raid.

With post-raid black rain enveloping a town littered with charred corpses, you as an audience are left to watch two innocent young people whose lives have been torn apart by a conflict they had no part in. It’s not all doom and gloom, as the bonds of family still hold the key to lighter moments in the narrative, but it’s certainly not a casual afternoon flick.

There’s a reason the phrase isn’t “vital anti-war statement that pushed the boundaries of animated cinema’s capabilities & chill.”

At the time of release, though, this was a double-bill with My Neighbor Totoro. Grave of the Fireflies played first, followed by Totoro to lighten the mood (which, my god, is 100% necessary). So if you’re feeling brave, you could try that, but don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Brush up on your history with our breakdown of adult animation through the years.

  • Images: Studio Ghibli
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