Often heralded as the Japanese version of Disney, Studio Ghibli’s fame has risen remarkably since its establishment in 1985. Yet the “Disney” label masks the studio’s unique qualities: the animations created by the now-retired Hayao Miyazaki and his team are breathtaking and the films’ themes and characters are complex. Here are 10 of the best.
‘Ponyo’ | ©LorenJavier/Flickr
Bizarre at some points, yet entertaining and uplifting throughout, Ponyo is Ghibli’s version of The Little Mermaid. Fascinating in its imaginative plot and animation, Ponyo combines a strange fantasy with a charming reality. Venturing from her underwater home, Ponyo (a fish princess) befriends a boy on the surface and consequently disturbs the balance of nature. Despite incorporating some complex meditations, Ponyo is not classified as one of Ghibli’s epics, yet it is still a thoroughly enjoyable film.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
Released at the same time as Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbour Totoro was a lighthearted alternative. The character of Totoro, a huge friendly bear, has now become the mascot of the company. With a whimsical sense of fun, the film is bound to ignite nostalgia in all of its viewers. Depicting the adventures of two little girls who befriend spirits, the film enchants its audience in the simple pleasure of childhood.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Based on the novel of the same name, Howl’s Moving Castle tells the story of Sophie, a young hatter, who meets the mysterious wizard Howl. After a jealous witch turns her into an old woman, Sophie is flung into a sequence of adventures with Howl and the occupants of his magical castle. The animations adds to the wonder of the story — in particular, the castle itself. Viewers will find themselves immersed in the fortunes of the well-developed characters and the relationships between them.
The Wind Rises (2013)
Miyazaki’s final film, a poignant historical biopic, was a grand farewell. The Wind Rises is loosely based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, a Japanese aircraft designer. Like his protagonist, Miyazaki made something remarkable, a film entwining dreams with reality, love with war, and grief with hope. It’s too weighty for the very young, but older children and adults will appreciate the film’s humor and romance. The depiction of Horikoshi’s ambition and imagination, which he sustained through the years of national suffering, is remarkable.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
Exquisitely animated, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is based on a well-known Japanese folktale. It’s the story of a Princess’s troublesome life in the capital and her longing for her carefree childhood. The pale watercolor style gives the film a softness, especially suitable for its depictions of childhood. This focus on the use of color for expression is most prominent in Princess Kaguya, giving her depth and drawing the audience into her emotions. A thought-provoking tale and one that may leave you in tears, this is one of Studio Ghibli’s finest films.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Grave of the Fireflies depicts the struggles of a brother and sister in the aftermath of World War II. Unlike the majority of Studio Ghibli’s work, it is realistic — there are no fantastical elements swooping in to help the orphans (or very few caring humans). Despite the melancholic theme, the film isn’t all doom and gloom. The children care for one another and the scenes with the fireflies are enchanting. Haunting in its depiction of post-war society, Grave of the Fireflies is eye-opening on the subjects it addresses.
Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
Studio Ghibli’s first film, Laputa: Castle in the Sky is an endearing aerial adventure with captivating characters. Examining serious themes and creating complicated conflicts, the film has a moral message yet still does not forget to entertain. Pirates offer comedic relief and the protagonists Pazo and Sheeta are a lovable pair. Miyazaki’s passion for aircraft comes to the fore in the variety of gliders and zeppelins seen zooming across the screen.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Princess Mononoke stormed into Japanese cinemas in 1997, quickly becoming the then-highest-grossing film. Frequently described as an anime epic, the film teems with monsters and warriors, though not at the cost of wit or romance. The main characters are San, the princess, who protects the forest and its gods, and Ashitaki, a cursed warrior trying to free himself while keeping the peace. Some scenes are too graphic and frightening for younger viewers, which emphasizes that Studio Ghibli films are not necessarily for children. Overall, Princess Mononoke encompasses all that Studio Ghibli is about: the fight between industrialization and the preservation of nature, strong heroes and heroines, Japanese legends, and beautiful animation.
Spirited Away (2001)
Spirited Away, Studio Ghibli’s most famous film, won an Academy Award and international acclaim and became the highest-grossing film in Japanese history. It follows young Chihiro as she and her family get trapped in a dangerous spirit world. Miyazaki’s phenomenal animation draws upon Japanese culture, refuting the oft-made and simplistic suggestion that the film is a Japanese Alice in Wonderland. Chihiro is introduced to a series of fantastical characters, including Haku, a young boy-cum-dragon, the witch Yubaba, and the silent spirit No-Face. The film is dazzling in its characterisation, setting, and plot.
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