For over three decades, Studio Ghibli has delighted, wowed and awed audiences the world over with its charming animation, wonderful characters and excellent narratives. Across its more than thirty-year history, it has dealt with themes such as friendship, nature, war, love and growing up. It has a variety of different settings, from the colourful Adriatic Sea setting in Porco Rosso to the breath-taking world of Kami in Spirited Away. The studio has adapted Western and Asian literature and folklore and blended it wonderfully with its unique Studio Ghibli style. While many of the films are colourful adventures, filled with whimsical characters, the studio has not been afraid to tackle the horrors of war in Grave of the Fireflies, a true masterpiece of cinema. At the helm of many of these wonderful stories is the ingenious Hayao Miyazaki, who’s directorial work includes Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle among many others.
The fantastic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, released in 1984, is often considered the first Studio Ghibli release. However, it was released before the studio was formed in 1985. Instead, it was produced by Topcraft and distributed by Toei Company. Despite this, it is often included in many Studio Ghibli collections, including the one I own (where it is marked as No.1). The story follows Nausicaä as she explores a post-apocalyptic world, filled with a toxic jungle, giant insects and a powerful military state. The visuals are often bright and colourful and the characters charming, something that would become a mainstay of Studio Ghibli’s productions. It would eventually receive an English dub, staring Patrick Stewart and Uma Thurman. It is currently available to stream on Netflix, where I’d recommend you watch it if you haven’t already seen it.
Studio Ghibli’s next film (and technically their first film) is the amazing Castle in the Sky (sometimes referred to as Laputa: Castle in the Sky). This is my personal favourite film in the Studio Ghibli collection. It features a zany cast of sky pirates, led by Captain Dola, an inventive young orphan, Pazu, who seeks to solve the mystery of Laptua, Sheeta, who holds a mysterious amulet, and Muska, voiced to perfection by Mark Hamill in the English dub. It is a wonderful adventure, filled with mystery, deceit and friendship. The Welsh inspired mining town contrasts well with the overgrown Laputa. The visual imagery is a sight to behold.
Of course, not all of Studio Ghibli’s adventures take place in distant worlds. As mentioned above, Grave of the Fireflies, examines the relationship between orphaned siblings during the events of World War II. Released in 1988 and directed by Isao Takahata, it is a grim look at the troubles young children had to face during the war. It is a powerful story that, while occasionally looking at the bright side of life during the war, does not hide from the grim reality of it. Seita’s determination to be independent from his aunt and look after his little sister, Setsuko, shows that sometimes you can’t make it on your own. Sadly, it is not available as part of the Ghibli collection on Netflix but I would urge anyone to track it down as it is a masterclass in story-telling.
Studio Ghibli has also released several “coming of age” films, such as Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves, From Up On Poppy Hill and the amazing Kiki’s Delivery Service. Kiki’s Delivery Service follows the exploits of a young witch (Kiki) as she attempts to make a name for herself and find her place in the world. Kiki leaves her home with her black cat Jiji (voiced by the hilarious Phil Hartman) in order to continue her training. In her new town, she’ll discover her ability to fly useful and will make friends along the way. It’s a wonderful story that doesn’t need an antagonist or large set piece (even though there technically is one) to get its message across. It’s a delightful film to watch with the family.
Speaking of watching films with the family, how could I miss out on the charming My Neighbor Totoro. A truly wonderful film that was released alongside the contrasting Grave of the Fireflies. Even if you aren’t familiar with Studio Ghibli, you will no doubt have seen the film’s mascot, Totoro, at some stage. Totoro seems to be everywhere, from the Studio Ghibli logo to stuffed toys and even in Toy Story 3. My Neighbor Totoro tells the story of two young girls who move to the countryside with their father to be closer to their mother while she recuperates in hospital. There, they discover cat-like creatures called susuwatari. It is a wonderfully inventive tale that should please the whole family, from its amazing cast of creatures, to its colourful setting and its lovely story about family.
The first two Studio Ghibli films I bought were the amazing Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. As a result, they hold a special place in my heart for being what kicked off my Studio Ghibli collection. Spirited Away truly is a fantastical film. Set in the unique world of Kami, it follows Chihiro as she works in a bathhouse in order to rescue her parents. Its magical tale is filled with all sorts of creatures, from a giant baby to the enigmatic No-Face. Its musical score is fantastic and accompanies the wonderful tale well. It would receive several awards as well as being nominated for an Academy Award. This was when I first heard of it and what eventually drew me to these wonderful set of films. Howl’s Moving Castle is Sharon’s favourite film. As the name suggests, its set primarily in Howl’s moving castle. Young Sophie has had a spell placed on her by a jealous witch. As she attempts to leave her town behind, she stumbles across Howl’s castle. There she meets the powerful Calcifer, the apprentice Markle, and is reacquainted with Howl, a powerful sorcerer. The film explores many themes, such as love, compassion, sacrifice, self-confidence and war. Its anti-war sentiment is felt throughout the film as two powerful nations wage war on each other.
While I haven’t covered every film in this, such as the wacky My Neighbours the Yamadas (there, squeezed it in), I think it’s important to cover one of the most well received and beloved films of all-time, Princess Mononoke. Originally released in 1997 and directed by Hayao Miyazaki himself, it explores the relationship between mankind and nature. The story follows a young prince named Ashitaka, who is inflicted with a curse after battling a demon war boar god. Ashitaka sets out to find a cure and to understand what is happening in the world. The film explores the industrialisation of the world by humans and the cost it places on nature. Its fantastical elements help to elevate the story, from the visually stunning Great Forest Spirit, to the powerful wolf-goddess Moro. It is a powerful film with an enchanting score, astounding visual style and deep cast of characters. It is a must-see masterpiece.
What is your favourite Studio Ghibli film? Do you prefer the traditional animation style of the older films or the new look they’ve gone for in Earwig and the Witch? Are you a fan of the more fantastical worlds or do you prefer the stories rooted in reality? Let me know.