Studio Ghibli: A Guide to the Best Movies

Screenshot from “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988), Copyright of Studio Ghibli

Hey! Hallie here!

Studio Ghibli is responsible for some of the most popular and most masterful animated movies of all time. So when I was sitting around during quarantine trying to figure out how many of these movies I had watched, I was kind of horrified to discover that I had only seen three. Three! So I did what was only acceptable to do in such a situation and watched all 22 movies in a week. I’m not crazy I swear. With knowledge of all 22 movies now forever in my brain, I’m here to guide you through the movies I feel should go on your “To Watch” list. Warning: There’s a lot of them.

“Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”: This is considered to be Studio Ghibli’s first film although, at the time of its release, it wasn’t a Studio Ghibli film. The reason? The majority of the creative team that went on to Studio Ghibli is here and doing some amazing work. This movie follows Nausicaa, a princess from the Valley of the Wind; one of the last surviving human civilizations after war caused forests to overgrow with toxic plants. Nausicaa stands in the way of a war between humans and the Ohm, giant bugs that live in the Toxic Forest. This film is worth watching for the badass main character alone. She can often be seen rescuing the male lead and in action sequences she proves herself the most competent out of everyone present.

“Castle In The Sky”: Now we’re to Studio Ghibli’s official first movie! This movie gets ignored quite often compared to the other films, and I’m sad about it! It follows two main characters. One is Pazu, a boy who works an ordinary job in a mining town. The other is Sheeta, a princess on the run from the government for her possession of a magic necklace. Together these two attempt to discover the mysteries behind the castle Laputa, floating deep within the sky. This animation has everything you could want from a movie: Action, adventure, pirates, robots, Mark Hamill. All that plus a steam punk design that has influenced many movies since.

“My Neighbor Totoro”: On to the film that inspired Studio Ghibli’s logo! This movie is about two siblings, Satsuki and Mei, who move to the country with their father after their mother becomes ill. (I know that sounds slightly foreboding, but I swear it isn’t!) While there they meet Totoro, a forest spirit whose simultaneous laziness and adorableness invite the girls to imagine a more exciting world. Totoro is easily the most popular Studio Ghibli film, and it’s fun art style and well-written female leads make it easy to see why. Plus, Totoro is REALLY cute.

“Kiki’s Delivery Service”: This film is likely another that you’ve heard of before. It follows Kiki, a young witch who leaves home with her cat Jiji to discover what type of witch she wants to be. Along the way she deals with the responsibility of getting older, the fear of losing her passion, and the unsteady steps of first love. This is a really sweet coming of age story, and it’s one of the most honest ones I’ve seen. The movie takes the audience through Kiki’s triumphs, losses, and even the days where she just can’t get out of bed. It feels real, even with some fun magical shenanigans.

“Porco Rosso”: Don’t let the pig face frighten you off! This film is a bit sillier than the others, but with some interesting commentary about humanity behind it’s silliness. It follows Porco Rosso, an aging World War I pilot who has lost so much faith in humanity that his face is cursed to look like a pigs’. While he’s known for being a hero, he’s also known for his bad attitude. Enter Fio, a young female engineer who redefines his definition of bravery. This is a really cute story about finding the good in people even when it seems difficult. Plus there’s more pirates in this and, if you’re watching the English version, a well-cast Michael Keaton as the lead.

“Spirited Away”: Spirited Away beat out Lilo and Stitch for the Best Animated Feature Film at the 2003 Academy Awards. Surprised? Don’t be. It’s really that good. This film follows a young girl, Chihiro, who accidentally steps into the realm of the spirits. She befriends a boy named Haku who gets her work inside a bathhouse for such spirits until she can find a way to escape. This movie is yet another with a strong female lead. She’s level headed, a quick thinker, and she never feels like a damsel in distress. On top of that, this movie is gorgeous. The design of the bathhouse alone will make you wish you were right there next to Chihiro.

“Howl’s Moving Castle”: This one is my favorite of Ghibli’s films. The main character is Sophie, a young girl who works in a hat shop and considers herself very plain. That is, until she meets Howl, an attractive wizard who accidentally leads The Witch of the Waste to her door. Sophie is cursed to become a ninety year old woman, and just so happens to run into Howl’s castle while she’s fleeing her village. This MOVIE. Not only is the animation and score enough to make you want to leap into the film, but the romance is incredibly well done for the scenario it presents. It doesn’t rush the relationship, understandably considering Sophie is ninety for most of the movie. Instead it gives the characters time to be annoyed with each other, act immature, and find wisdom within chaos.

“Ponyo”: This is yet another retelling of “The Little Mermaid”. But this is nothing like the Disney movie. Ponyo is one of many fish children belonging to Liam Neeson…err…Fujimoto, a man who lives in the sea. She catches sight of Sosuke on the shore, or rather, he catches her in a bucket, and she falls in love. Determined to stay with him, she turns into a little girl and arrives on land with her father hot on her tail. This is a romance, but it isn’t a romance like “Howl’s Moving Castle”. Instead it shows the innocent love between two very lonely children. You feel for the two as they navigate their complicated family lives together. On top of that, Ponyo is probably the cutest fish you will ever see.

“The Secret World of Arrietty”: Yet another of Ghibli’s fantasy films, but this one has a bit of a twist. It follows Arrietty, a four-inch creature known as a Borrower, who uses odds and ends humans won’t miss to eat, decorate, and live a normal life. She befriends a sickly boy named Sho, or Shawn, who must hide her secret from his family. This one is incredibly interesting for it’s use of perspective. I could stare at Arrietty’s house all day appreciating the detail that goes into using small everyday items as full furniture pieces. It also has an interesting open ending. In all versions but the American dub. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you’re watching it in America, keep in mind that the ending monologue done by Shawn does not exist in any other version.

“The Wind Rises”: This one may surprise you compared to the others on this list. It is not a fantasy, or even what you would expect from an animated movie. This is about Jiro Horikoshi a man who designs Japanese fighter planes during World War II. The story isn’t as bleak as you expect it to be, especially if you know anything about “Grave of the Fireflies”, a Ghibli movie that is not on this list purely because it broke me. Instead it follows him through his life. It shows his dreams, his doubts, his friends, his wife, and his struggle using what he loves for something as disturbing as war. The movie shows you the inner workings of Jiro’s mind in a way that you rarely see in animation.

“When Marnie Was There”: This movie received mixed reviews when it came to theaters, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. It follows Anna, an asthmatic girl sent to stay with her relatives in the countryside for both her illness and her shy nature. She quickly feels isolated by the other children there, but befriends Marnie, a mysterious girl who lives in a seemingly abandoned mansion. The story has a fantastical element that I didn’t notice going into the movie. Again, no spoilers, but I had fun attempting to figure out who Marnie was, and I enjoyed how realistic Anna is as a main character.

And we’re done! This list was long, but it definitely isn’t complete. There’s movies like “Princess Mononoke” and “Whisper of the Heart” that are also magnificent and worth a watch. Hopefully this guide gave you some idea about what you’re getting into if you’re starting your Studio Ghibli journey. And if you’ve already started and are looking for some recommendations, I hope that you found something that peaked your interest among my Studio Ghibli favorites! Studio Ghibli rivals Disney in it’s creation of immersive fantasy universes, so if you haven’t done yourself the pleasure of escaping into one of them, this is your reminder. Everyone needs some Ghibli in their lives!

Don’t do anything fun until I get back!

Hallie

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