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!