Everyone knows Studio Ghibli. If you haven’t at least heard the name, you have probably been living under a rock, sans Internet and a DVD player, for a good long while. Ghibli films, Ghibli directors, and Studio Ghibli itself comprise some of the biggest names in the worlds of both Japanese and international animation. Pixar loves ‘em. The Oscars… well, kind of love ‘em. They’re about as mainstream as anime gets.
And yet, at Anime Expo I heard someone who actually works in the industry say “Studio Gibli,” all mispronounced and everything, and I realized that maybe “everyone” doesn’t know as much about my favorite animation studio as I thought. I personally had seen five or six Ghibli films before I saw a minute of any other anime, but I think that if you’re coming from the other direction, Ghibli may be a little confusing.
After all, Studio Ghibli’s production pattern isn’t entirely typical of the anime industry. Original storylines, standalone films, universal appeal, and lavish animation… that sounds more like Pixar than anime. If you’re coming from a world of shonen action series, Studio Ghibli may be a bit of a puzzle. Also, while some Ghibli films are insanely well known, others are almost forgotten, which is a real shame. Thus, in the name of the holy Totoro, I give you this guide, which will hopefully help to spread the light of Ghibli throughout the world.
What You Need To Know
Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 by the publishing company Tokuma Shoten in the wake of the success of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Miyazaki, fellow director Isao Takahata, and producer Toshio Suzuki headed the newborn animation studio, which gradually grew into one of Japan’s biggest names in entertainment. Starting with Castle in the Sky, released in 1986, Studio Ghibli has produced seventeen feature-length films:
1. Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
2. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
3. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
4. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
5. Only Yesterday (1991)
6. Porco Rosso (1992)
7. Ocean Waves (1993)
8. Pom Poko (1994)
9. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
10. Princess Mononoke (1997)
11. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
12. Spirited Away (2001)
13. The Cat Returns (2002)
14. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
15. Tales from Earthsea (2006)
16. Ponyo (2008)
17. The Borrower Arrietty (2010)
Along with these movies, Studio Ghibli has produced a number of shorts and music videos and has collaborated with other groups on several projects. However, the main canon of feature films is generally what comes to mind when someone mentions Studio Ghibli, so that will be the focus of this article.
Oh, by now you’re probably wondering what’s up with the name. “Studio Ghibli” (written in katakana: スタジオジブリ ) is pronounced with a soft g, sort of like giblets, as in the stuff that goes in gravy. It apparently comes from an Italian word for a hot desert wind, and Miyazaki liked the idea of the studio being a fresh breeze in the world of Japanese animation. So now you know.
Names You Should Know
1. Hayao Miyazaki- Oh, you’ve heard of him? Well darn. Anyways, he directed Nausicaa, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away (no, really?), Howl’s Moving Castle, and most recently, Ponyo.
2. Isao Takahata- Although not as well known in the US as Miyazaki, Takahata was also a founding member of Studio Ghibli and has directed some of the studio’s strongest movies. His Ghibli credits include directing Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, and My Neighbors the Yamadas.
3. Toshio Suzuki- A founding member of Studio Ghibli and the producer of many of its films. Miyazaki has said, “If it were not for Mr. Suzuki, there wouldn’t have been Studio Ghibli.” I’m so glad this guy exists.
4. Yoshifumi Kondo- A homegrown Ghibli animator who was expected to head up a new generation of Ghibli when Miyazaki and Tahakata retire. He directed Whisper of the Heart but unfortunately passed away in 1998.
5. Goro Miyazaki- The senior Miyazaki’s son, Goro has had dramatic disagreements with his father. Also, he directed Tales from Earthsea.
6. Joe Hisaishi- While not really affiliated with Studio Ghibli, Hisaishi has composed the musical score for every Ghibli-produced Miyazaki film.
What to Expect
Each Ghibli film is different—I’ll get to that next. However, to generalize a little, there are a few things you can expect in any Ghibli movie. One is fantastically beautiful and smooth animation, since Ghibli films have big budgets (and generally make a lot of money back). Another is a standalone original storyline rather than basis in an established franchise (although some do adapt books); you can fully experience a Ghibli movie without any background knowledge. As to what these stories are…
The Five Ghibli Movies You MUST See Right Now as if Your Life (or Your Figure Collection) Depended on It
So you call yourself an anime fan? Have you seen these five movies? These are not necessarily my favorites, but rather the five Ghibli films that seem to have cast the biggest shadows in anime fandom or the larger world of film.
1. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind- I’m cheating a little on this one, since it was technically released pre-Ghibli, but Nausicaa was really the one that started it all and is generally considered to be the first Ghibli movie. In this post-apocalyptic epic, the world has largely been taken over by a “toxic jungle.” Nausicaa, the princess of one of the few human nations left, must figure out how to protect her people from both conniving human enemies and the jungle’s poisons. This movie is known for its strangely beautiful landscapes, elegant flight scenes, and environmental message.
2. My Neighbor Totoro- This is a children’s movie, completely free of sex and violence, so I have no idea why it has been so popular for so long. Totoro is probably the one Ghibli character seen most at conventions and on merchandise, and he’s also part of the Studio Ghibli Logo. The story of My Neighbor Totoro is simple: a father and his two young daughters, Satsuki and Mei, move to the countryside and adjust to their new home. Totoro is a forest spirit who lives near their new house; only children can see him, and Mei and Satsuki befriend him. Various adventures ensue. Share this one with your baby cousins, siblings, children, nephews and nieces… they’ll enjoy it, and so will you.
3. Grave of the Fireflies- This movie was released on a double bill with My Neighbor Totoro, but the two could not be more different. Grave of the Fireflies is the single most depressing piece of entertainment I have ever seen. It’s a very somber film about the effects of war. Grave of the Fireflies follows a boy named Seita who, in the aftermath of the bombing of his town in World War II, must somehow take care of himself and his little sister Setsuko. Do not under any circumstances bring this to a party or anime club or anywhere you want to have fun, because the entire audience will be in tears by the end.
4. Princess Mononoke- This was often considered Miyazaki’s greatest masterpiece before Spirited Away was released. One of Miyazaki’s most mature films, Princess Mononoke follows Ashitaka, a tribal prince who is cursed by a boar god and must leave his home in an attempt to lift the poisonous curse. He gets sucked into a battle between nature, represented by giant animal gods and their forest, and humans, who want to destroy the forest. Yes, I know the environmental message is a little obvious, but Princess Mononoke also features not one but two of Miyazaki’s best female characters, Lady Eboshi and San, and is an all-around great movie.
5. Spirited Away- The only anime to win an Oscar. It overtook Titanic as the highest-grossing film in Japan. It’s often described as Miyazaki’s great masterpiece. I could tell you that Spirited Away is about a young girl who accidentally ends up working in a bathhouse for the spirits, but that doesn’t do it justice. Just go watch it. And if you’ve seen it, go watch it again. I’ve seen Spirited Away at least twenty times and I notice something new each time I watch it.
Ten More Studio Ghibli Movies You Should See
1. Castle in the Sky- The first official Ghibli film, this is a family-friendly fantasy adventure story in which a pair of kids try to find Laputa, a floating castle, before the military can get its hands on the castle’s powers.
2. Howl’s Moving Castle- One of Miyazaki’s more recent movies, in which a young lady named Sophie is turned into an old woman by a curse and moves into a magical castle owned by a handsome but heartless sorcerer.
3. Whisper of the Heart- This Ghibli film plays out like a shojo school drama without the usual faults of that particular genre. It’s heartwarming, thoughtful, and sweet.
4. Only Yesterday- Only Yesterday has not been released in the US, but if you can get your hands on it, watch it. It tells the story of a female office worker named Taeko who goes to the countryside to visit a farm; along the way, she deals with her past and how her childhood dreams relate to her current life. This is one of Studio Ghibli’s forgotten gems.
5. Kiki’s Delivery Service- Okay, this movie was created with preteen girls in mind, but it is both lovely and funny no matter what age or gender you happen to be.
6. Pom Poko- One of the stranger Ghibli films, Pom Poko tells the story of a group of tanuki (translated as raccoons in the dub) who fight to protect their home forest from human destruction. A sillier version of Princess Mononoke.
7. Porco Rosso- An oft-overlooked but extremely interesting Miyazaki film about a seaplane pilot with the face of a pig.
8. Ponyo- Miyazaki’s most recent film, which tells the story of a goldfish who wants to become human and the human boy who befriends her.
9. Ocean Waves- Another Ghibli film without a US release, this was a TV film created by the younger generation at Studio Ghibli. I know that doesn’t sound promising, but Ocean Waves is a quietly beautiful character drama.
10. The Cat Returns- A rather tangential follow-up to Whisper of the Heart, this quirky movie is about a girl who saves a cat from traffic and gets tangled up in the affairs of the Cat Kingdom.
How to Get your Ghibli Fix
The big-name Ghibli films are possibly the easiest anime to find in the US, and every movie I mentioned above can be found on Amazon—except two. Good luck finding Ocean Waves or Only Yesterday; my local DVD rental store happened to have both, which obviously means that I am the luckiest person in the world, but I think that you would generally have to import them.
This guide ended up a lot longer than I meant it to, but that’s because I love Studio Ghibli’s wonderful films so freaking much. So, have you seen a few Ghibli films? Then use this guide to explore more. Seen all of them? Several times? Please tell me what I got wrong. Constructive criticism makes the world go round. Haven’t seen a single one? Then why are you still reading this? Start watching, for Totoro’s sake!
I’m really loving the new “Beginner’s Guide” feature on AnimeVice. Seriously, Gundam is effing confusing, and some sort of guide is very much called for. However, if you look at the genres represented in the Beginner’s Guides, it goes something like this: shonen, shonen, shonen, shonen, shonen… mecha. Anyways, I think there are quite a few franchises in other genres that also deserve Beginner’s Guides. The first one that came to mind is the uber-popular Vampire Knight.
Anyone who went to Anime Expo knows that Viz is pushing Vampire Knight really hard. There was a manga sampler in the grab bag, and they handed out flyers for the anime at the Viz panel. Even before all this aggressive marketing, however, Vampire Knight has achieved tremendous popularity, as evidenced by its consistently high ranking on the New York Times bestselling manga lists. The most recent volume has been on the list for 5 weeks and is currently sitting at number three, and every volume released for the past year or so has consistently topped the charts.
Still, the response to the words “Vampire Knight” among most (male) anime/manga fans is generally “Wha?” or a flippant dismissal. Vampire Knight often gets compared to that other uber-popular vampire phenomenon in America, which is really unfair. Yes, it involves vampires, and yes, its popularity is largely fueled by squealing teenage girls. However, Vampire Knight has something that Twilight does not: actual entertainment value. You know, biting, blood, guns, battles, and a healthy serving of teenage angst to wash it all down. So, if you’ve been wondering what the heck it means to be Team Kaname or Team Zero, or why so many people wander around at cons dressed as Yuki Cross, then read on…
What You Need to Know
The original incarnation of Vampire Knight is the manga, which is written and drawn by Matsuri Hino, who was previously well-known for a shojo comedy called Merupuri. Vampire Knight is currently running in LaLa in Japan and was featured in the now-defunct Shojo Beat. The first ten volumes are currently available from Viz under their Shojo Beat imprint. The anime was adapted from the manga and includes two seasons, Vampire Knight and its sequel, Vampire Knight: Guilty. Viz currently releasing the first season dubbed on DVD and on iTunes, but it is also available online (subbed) for free at vizanime.com, Hulu, and Anime News Network.
What To Expect
This is shojo. Expect romance, melodrama, and angst. However, also expect lots of blood, some explosive battle scenes, and enough political machinations and plot twists to make your head spin. No pastel colors or pretty flowers here; this series is all red, black, and goth.
Cross Academy has two groups of students: the ordinary Day Class (black uniform... seriously, this matters) and the mysterious Night Class (white uniform). Other than the headmaster, the Disciplinary Committee, and the students of the Night Class itself, no one knows that the beautiful, brilliant Night Class students are actually vampires. Since drinking human blood on campus is taboo, the Night Class vampires subsist on blood tablets and are carefully watched by both their leader, the pureblood Kaname Kuran, and the members of the Disciplinary Committee, Yuki Cross and Zero Kiryu.
While the Night Class at Cross Academy was established to promote peace between humans and vampires, tensions obviously arise. The Night Class students are essentially living with their food, and the larger manipulations of the Vampire Senate and ruling purebloods put strains on the privileged adolescents at the academy. The Hunter Society, a human organization that kills crazed vampires, is also working in the shadows and has connections in the academy.
On top of all of the political machinations, each of the protagonists has a dark, murky past that will eventually catch up to him or her. Yuki Cross, who is the headmaster’s adopted daughter, has no memories before a snowy day in her childhood when she was attacked by a ravenous vampire. She was saved by none other than Kaname Kuran, who would never hurt Yuki but is definitely hiding important information from her. And finally, Zero Kiryu comes from a family of vampire hunters, but a pureblood vampire killed his mother, father, and twin brother when he was a child. He now lives with Yuki and Headmaster Cross and absolutely loathes vampires… despite the fact that he’s slowly turning into one.
The Characters You Must Know
1. Yuki Cross: The adopted daughter of the headmaster of Cross Academy. She is on the Disciplinary Committee with Zero and is charged with keeping peace between the Night and Day Classes. She cannot remember anything about her childhood before a day when she was attacked by a vampire then saved by another (see #3). Despite this terrible experience with a vampire, she wholeheartedly believes that the Night Class is full of good, peaceful vampires and especially adores Kaname. While she’s not particularly bright, she’s not helpless, either; she wields a powerful anti-vampire weapon called the Artemis Rod.
2. Zero Kiryu: Zero comes from a family of well-known vampire hunters, but his entire family was murdered by a pureblood vampire when he was a child. Although not officially Headmaster Cross’s adopted son, Zero lives at the academy and is on the Disciplinary Committee with Yuki. Unlike his fellow Disciplinary Committee member, he hates vampires and believes all of them to be beasts in human form. His weapon is even more dangerous than Yuki’s: an anti-vampire gun known as the Bloody Rose. However, Zero is hiding a dark secret; during the attack on his family, he was bitten by the pureblood vampire. While a normal vampire’s bite is no big deal, when a pureblood bites you, you turn into a vampire, and then you go mad.
3. Kaname Kuran: Kaname completes the obvious love triangle that is the romantic focus of the series. He’s the Night Class president, the only pureblood at the Academy, and he has a special hold over his classmates. Kaname clearly has a strange connection to Yuki, but the reason for his interest in a normal human girl is left unexplained. All in all, Kaname’s a pretty mysterious guy.
The Characters You Should Probably Know
1. Hanabusa Aido, Akatsuki Kain, and Ruka Souen: A trio of blonde cousins who unfailingly support Kaname. Aido’s proud and obnoxious but smart, Kain is a little spacey, and Ruka is head-over-heels for Kaname.
2. Takuma Ichijo: Kaname’s vice president. He’s friendly and seems to genuinely support Kaname, but his family’s political background typically pits him against Kaname’s trusty threesome.
3. Senri Shiki and Rima Toya: Two other Night Class students who tend to fall in Ichijo’s camp.
4. Sayori Wakaba: One of the few Day Class students who actually matters. She’s Yuki’s best friend.
5. Headmaster Cross: The man in charge of the academy and Yuki’s adoptive father. He’s probably a little too idealistic and silly to be running a school where one group of students could eat the other…
Manga or Anime?
Manga manga manga manga! Hino-sensei’s artwork is gothic and detailed and gorgeous, but her unique style does not completely translate into the anime. That said, the first season of the anime does not cover much of the manga but (from what I’ve seen) seems to be faithful to the story, so you could probably watch the anime and just skip the first few volumes of the manga. Honestly, though, read the manga.
Whether Vampire Knight would be your first foray into the strange world of shojo manga/anime or whether you’ve gobbled down everything from Princess Knight to Fruits Basket, there’s probably something in Vampire Knight for you to like. So many people pan this series as fangirl fodder, but there’s obviously something about it that makes it just as popular as the latest installment of Naruto. If that appeal has been confusing you, then I hope this guide helped. If nothing else, remember that that Vampire Knight cosplayers in black Cross Academy uniforms are probably fine; they know they're human. It's the ones in white you should probably look out for.