“Just follow your heart and keep smiling.” – Kiki’s Delivery Service
This unofficial motto from the iconic Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli speaks of the company’s genuine purity and enthusiasm to create colourful, imaginative stories. Its name, ‘Ghibli’, was chosen by co-creator of the studio Hayao Miyazaki, with its origins referring to the Libyan Arabic name for ‘hot desert wind’, with the idea behind the name referring to Miyazaki’s ambition to “blow a new wind through the anime industry”. With an impact more like a gale-force wind, Studio Ghibli has since created 23 feature films, with each one challenging the very nature of the animation genre, elevating it beyond cliches of being mere ‘children’s films’.
Often imbuing each of their works with a strong environmental, fantasy subtext, Studio Ghibli’s preoccupations are honest and pure, expanding the very limits of animation itself by exploring various topics from the fantasy magic of the spirit world, to the dark realities of World War II Japan. Nearing 40 years of creative production, the studio continues to invigorate and inspire, releasing their first fully computer-animated feature film, Earwig and the Witch, in 2021, which could prove to be the turning point in the company’s fortunes.
Studio Ghibli’s ingenuity for imaginative tales of wonder and beauty is truly unmatched in the current landscape of animation, or even fantasy cinema for that matter.
Let’s take a look at their top 10 films to date…
The top 10 Studio Ghibli films:
10. Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2005)
Reportedly influenced by the director’s own opposition to the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, Miyazaki stated that he “had a great deal of rage” about the war, explaining many of the darker elements of the Ghibli classic.
Exploring themes of war, madness and ageing, the story follows a young girl who, when attacked by a dark witch, is stripped of her youth, so embarks on an adventure to reverse the spell, seeking out Howl, a magician and his moving castle in order to do so. Warm and colourful, yet contrastingly dirty and steampunk, the world of Howl’s Moving Castle casts light on the evils of reality whilst showing how they can be tackled too.
In 2013, Miyazaki named the film as his favourite creation, noting: “I wanted to convey the message that life is worth living, and I don’t think that’s changed”.
9. Kiki’s Delivery Service (Hayao Miyazaki, 1989)
Only the fifth film to come out of the now celebrated animation studio, Kiki’s Delivery Service was the first of the studio’s major commercial successes, seeing considerable critical success throughout Japan.
A film about the development of maturity through adolescence, the story follows a young witch, Kiki, who runs an air courier service in a new community, seeking the help of newfound friends to help her struggling business. Whilst fantasy stories of people with magical powers were commonplace in Japanese media, Miyazaki noted, “The witchcraft has always merely been the means to fulfil the dreams of young girls. They have always become idols with no difficulties”.
Kiki, on the other hand, cannot use her powers, making the film one about persistence, maturity and coming-of-age.
8. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, 2013)
Mature and artistically experimental, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is one of the animation studio’s most recent films, released in 2013 to great critical acclaim.
Brought to life in beautiful watercolours and animated sketches, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is likely the most visually impressive works of the studio’s filmography, telling the heartbreaking story of sorrow and parenthood. The tale itself tracks the life of a tiny girl found within the stalk of a bamboo plant who grows rapidly and turns into a young princess only to find herself at the mercy of a prince after she disobeys his law.
Based on the well-known Japanese fable of Princess Kaguya, the film is striking for its eccentric art style, crafted so that viewers were able to “imagine or recall the reality deep within the drawings”, rather than be distracted by flashy visuals as Takahata recalls.
7. Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Hayao Miyazaki, 1986)
The second of Studio Ghibli’s films, Laputa: Castle in the Sky is a tale of robots, magic crystals and ancient airships, an archetypical fantasy in the incredible fantasy filmography of the company.
Following a young boy and girl who are desperately searching for Laputa, a floating castle, whilst being tailed by evil space pirates, Laputa: Castle in the Sky was fascinatingly inspired by Miyazaki’s visit to Wales in 1984. “I was in Wales just after the miners’ strike. I really admired the way the miners’ unions fought to the very end for their jobs and communities, and I wanted to reflect the strength of those communities in my film,” the director reported in an interview with The Guardian.
Laden with themes of industry greed and personal courage, the film is fueled by one of the studio’s finest scores as well as a rich, mature context, as the director states, “Many people of my generation see the miners as a symbol; a dying breed of fighting men. Now they are gone”.
6. Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)
The most spectacular epic in the studio’s filmography, Princess Mononoke’s sprawling narrative is nothing short of extraordinary, particularly as the animation used to carry the story is so rich in detail and pure imagination.
Inspired by the westerns of John Ford, Miyazaki brought together “characters from outcast groups and oppressed minorities who rarely, if ever, appear in Japanese films,” to form the town at the centre of this grand tale. It’s a complex one too, packing layers and layers of detail into a compact film that follows young Ashitaka, seeking a cure for a savage animal attack that sparks their travels across a land ravaged by humans.
Depicting stunning landscapes, along with one of Studio Ghibli’s most cinematic stories imbued with the grandeur of Japanese mythos, Miyazaki comments that his aim with the film was to “portray the very beginnings of the seemingly insoluble conflict between the natural world and modern industrial civilisation”.
5. Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)
Mimicking the fleeting beauty of a firefly’s short lifespan, Grave of the Fireflies shines bright as a compact film and is significant in that it is more preoccupied with the realm of reality, as opposed to the fantasy world that Ghibli often likes to explore.
Possibly Studio Ghibli’s most important viewing experience, the film follows a young boy and his little sister who struggle to survive in Japan during World War II. Repeatedly denying that Grave of the Fireflies wasn’t an anti-war film, director Takahata bluntly states that it “is not at all an anti-war anime and contains absolutely no such message,” with the story instead intended to convey the discrimination of two siblings isolated from society.
A universal tale of the horrors of war and the undying bond between close family, Grave of the Fireflies is brutal yet heartfelt, rightfully tugging on the heartstrings of a universal audience.
4. My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
Released the same year as the aforementioned Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbour Totoro showed the opposite side of the coin for the studio, presenting not a story of emotional sincerity, but instead one rich in colour that embraced the simple, quiet and magical wonders of young life.
Representing the harmony between humans and nature, the story follows two girls who move to the country with their ill mother where they enjoy adventures with the magical spirits of the forest who live just outside their doorstep. Studio Ghibli’s most iconic tale is so for good reason, illustrating everything that the company strives for, as whilst My Neighbour Totoro is brightly coloured with endearing characters, it is also layered with genuine depth, suggesting toward larger themes of animism and the struggle of the adolescent transition.
Totoro has since become an icon of animated cinema.
3. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
There is so much in the very fabric of Spirited Away that make it such a magical, and existential piece of cinema, let alone animation, challenging the young minds of its audience perhaps more than any other film intended for ‘children’.
Too imbued with a message of environmentalism and staying ‘at one’ with nature and each other, Spirited Away follows a young girl who moves to the suburbs with her family, only to wander into a world of witches and spirits just outside her door. As Miyazaki recalls, “In my grandparents’ time, it was believed that kami existed everywhere – in trees, rivers, insects, wells, anything. My generation does not believe this, but I like the idea that we should all treasure everything because spirits might exist there, and we should treasure everything because there is a kind of life to everything”.
Fueled by an incredible visual and psychological world of pure wonder, Miyazaki creates a tangible space in which spirits live and interact, in turn making the film the only non-English language movie to win the Oscar for Best Animation Feature.
2. Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994)
A lesser-known production outside of the strong community of Studio Ghibli superfans, Pom Poko is Isao Takahata’s very best film, strengthened by a pertinent subtext that explores the sorrow of urbanisation.
It’s a subtext that appears on the surface, nonexistent, due to the cute tanuki characters rightfully softening the film’s hard-hitting blow, maintaining the perfect balancing act between children’s fantasy and intelligent social commentary. These characters are in actuality shape-shifting animals, whose home is quickly being destroyed due to deforestation and urban development, so in retaliation change into humans to try and make them change their ways.
Ingeniously paced and structured, Pom Poko puts us in the perspective of not one singular tanuki, but a whole community, allowing us to easily sympathise with their turmoil when their home is taken away from them, nature loses and human ignorance thrives.
1. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1984)
Studio Ghibli’s first and very best feature film is Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, not the production companies most creatively dense or thematically imbued film, but the one which most perfectly draws each of its elements together to create a truly compelling whole.
Whilst titles such as Princess Mononoke, or even Howl’s Moving Castle may present an epic world of complicated spells, characters and creatures, they are each overwrought with ideas and cannot seem to stay calm in all their frenetic excitement. On the other hand, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a simple tale, following a warrior and a pacifist, Princess Nausicaä, who desperately struggle to keep two warring natures from destroying each other along with their dying planet.
Totally fantastical, Nausicaä is a fairy-tale come to life, colourful and fun, led by eccentric caricatures of conventional story archetypes. As Miyazaki notes, Nausicaä is a “fleet-footed, fanciful, beautiful girl. She loves her harp and singing more than any suitor or ordinary happiness, and her extraordinary sensitivity leads her to delight in playing amid nature”.
Considered a predecessor to Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was an early indicator of the flourishing future success of Studio Ghibli and Japanese animation as a whole. Merging a delightfully fun, thrilling animated tale with an environmental subtext of genuine importance, the influence of Nausicaä can be seen throughout modern cinema, no less than in the blockbuster giant that is the contemporary Star Wars trilogy.
The film would spark to life one of cinema’s most imaginative and ingenious production houses, all with a “la la la la la la”.