If, like me, you’re rather a big fan of Disney, then you are sure to enjoy the anime offerings of Japan’s most famous animation studio, Studio Ghibli (perhaps more so if you’re over the age of twelve). Founded in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki, Isao Takahata and Yasuyoshi Tokuma, many of the studio’s feature films have been picked up and distributed by other companies in different territories across the world, being dubbed into many different languages. Their stories tip more on the fantastical side than that of the likes of Disney or Dreamworks, and yet often put more focus on realistic themes simultaneously, all the while retaining that all important sense of entertainment. The studio’s animators have also made a name for themselves through their beautiful artistry: their attention to detail, use of vivid colours and depictions of landscapes are often noticeable almost as characters in their own right. In this Film Club, I’ve taken the top five highest-grossing Ghibli animations (as it would take far too long and probably be far more boring a read to do ALL of them) and given them a quick review, plus an extra one that I couldn’t resist telling you about.
N.B: Where possible I’ve stated both the Japanese and English voice actors for mentioned characters. Where there are three names, that’ll be because there is an original Japanese dub, an American-made dub and an English-made dub. The film titles are also the titles used in western releases.
Spirited Away (2001)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Ghibli’s most popular and critically praised animation, Spirited Away is the story of ten-year-old girl Chihiro Ogino (Rumi Hiiragi/Daveigh Chase) as she inadvertently finds herself trapped in the spirit world. In order to rescue her parents who have been turned into pigs, she gets herself a job working for the witch Yubaba (Mari Natsuki/Suzanne Pleshette) in her bathhouse for spirits, and with the help of her new friend Haku (Miyu Irino/Jason Marsden) she has to find a way out for herself and her parents. As is pretty standard of Ghibli, the animation and faultless attention to detail is outstanding and has something for anyone of any age to enjoy, from the fantasy and adventure to its subtext and themes. If you’re not going to watch Ghibli movies chronologically, then Spirited Away is the perfect place to start and a great introduction for anyone new to the studio.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Howl’s Moving Castle was my first introduction to Studio Ghibli, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Loosely based on a 1986 book by British author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl (Takuya Kimura/Christian Bale) is a young wizard, known throughout the fictional kingdom in which he resides. Sophie (Chieko Baisho/Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons), a young, fairly well-to-do lady, is cursed by the evil Witch of the Waste (Akihiro Miwa/Lauren Bacall). The curse transforms Sophie into a ninety-year-old lady and renders her unable to tell anyone about the curse. Sophie leaves home to try to find a cure, and on her travels she encounters a moving castle. When Howl returns to his castle, Sophie tells him she’s his new cleaning lady, and thus their friendship begins. The story is quite the winding tale, with all sorts happening and different twists and turns, which is rather a classic sign of a Ghibli-made, or rather a Miyazaki-made, animation. The characters are strong and likable, for the most part, and the fantasy aspects make for great entertainment, especially if some escapism is what you’re after, all whilst carrying some heavy themes, particularly surrounding the subject of war.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
In his take on The Little Mermaid, Miyazaki gives Ponyo more of a fable-esque spin on the Hans Christian Andersen tale. Ponyo (Yuria Nara/Noah Cyrus) is a goldfish originally named Brunhilde, the daughter of a human wizard, Fujimoto (George Tokoro/Liam Neeson). He now resides under the sea with his many goldfish children. One day, Brunhilde sneaks off and finds herself collected in a jar by young human boy Sōsuke (Hiroki Doi/Frankie Jonas), who names her Ponyo. Due to Sōsuke cutting his finger and Ponyo licking it in order to heal it, she ingests human blood and starts to become human herself. Once this happens, she is taken in by Sōsuke and his mother, Lisa (Tomoko Yamaguchi/Tina Fey). Fujimoto is not pleased with this, and attempts to get his daughter back. This Ghibli take on the classic fairy-tale is quite different to the 1989 Disney version. It doesn’t get quite as dark, as there really are no villains in this, and would probably appeal mostly to much younger children. However there is something for people of all ages to enjoy in this animation, from Ghibli’s signature beautiful animation to its standout soundtrack and enjoyable story.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
If Princess Mononoke could relate to a western animation, it would probably be 1992’s FernGully: The Last Rainforest, both being based around the way humans treat nature and their environment, particularly with ever-evolving technology. Prince Ashitaka (Yôji Matsuda/Billy Crudup) is cursed by a demon when defending his village. The curse manifests itself physically on his body, turning his skin a dark purple where it lies. Ashitaka goes on a quest to find the Forest Spirit, a supernatural entity that may be his only salvation. Along the way he meets Lady Eboshi (Yûko Tanaka/Minnie Driver), the leader of Irontown, a place made up of social outcasts. Ashitaka discovers that the town was built at the expense of the forest around it. As a result, the town is often attacked by wolves and a human girl who resides with the wolves named San (Yuriko Ishida/Claire Danes). Ashitaka must find a way to not only cure himself, but bring peace to the land. It’s a great tale that doesn’t make everything as clear cut as one side being right and the other being wrong. Although Lady Eboshi is destroying the land, she’s providing a home for those who wouldn’t normally have one, and would probably be dead without her. As well as raising awareness about how we treat the environment and other creatures, it comments on how people of a certain disability or livelihood are treated in society. Its entertainment value probably isn’t on quite the same level as most other Ghibli productions, but that makes way for an important message or two instead.
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Based on The Borrowers by British author Mary Norton, Arrietty is the story of the young Borrower (a very tiny race of people) Arrietty Clock (Mirai Shida/Saoirse Ronan/Bridgit Mendler) and her family as they go about their lives, residing in the woodwork of a house belonging to humans. They get their name through the fact they ‘borrow’ things from humans, but only things they need to survive. One day, a young sick boy, Shō (Ryunosuke Kamiki/Tom Holland/David Henrie), arrives at the house to rest, as it belongs to his great aunt Sadako (Keiko Takeshita/Phyllida Law/Gracie Poletti). On staying there, he discovers the existence of the Borrowers, an existence that’s always been a myth in the household. Shō becomes a friend to Arrietty, and helps protect her family. As classic as The Borrowers is, particularly in British culture, this Ghibli interpretation isn’t the strongest. The story doesn’t really go anywhere, and there’s no real sense of plot. It seems that it was played rather safe; the fantastical elements aren’t quite on the same level we might be used to of a Ghibli animation, and it’s not quite as entertaining either. It’s still lovely to watch for the animation itself, but as stories and characters go, it’s not one of the studio’s better creations.
And, as a bonus, one of my personal favourites:
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Director: Isao Takahata
As devastating in its story as it is beautiful, Grave of the Fireflies takes a different turn for the studio. Based on a semi-autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, the film is set during and at the end of WWII. It follows Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi), a teenager, and Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi), his very young sister, as they fight to survive in war-torn Japan, Seita fighting to keep his sister alive and safe. The animation is, as always, gorgeously created, despite its context. Unlike the very Disney-esque stories that Ghibli usually puts out, Grave of the Fireflies presents something more adult and grounded, reminding us of the effects of war rather than focusing on the reasons for war. Sometimes a reminder that life isn’t all about fairy-tales and happy endings is what’s needed in order to appreciate said fairy-tales and happy endings that much more. Definitely worth a watch, but I recommend watching something more light-hearted to lift the spirits afterwards (GotF was originally released as a double-bill with My Neighbour Totoro, so maybe go for that one after).
Studio Ghibli is easily comparable to Disney: they produce popular and successful animations that entertain children as much as they do adults. But Ghibli, in my opinion, outdoes Disney when it comes to the look of their animations and the way they tackle their themes: they’re not shy when it comes to commenting on social issues or anything that might cause western financiers to balk at backing anything too similar in their region. Ghibli’s animations can be as entertaining as they are informative, and the way they often imbue their own culture, myths and legends into their stories is second to none, with Japan having much more of a rich and lengthy history than anywhere further west. A new Ghibli release is always something to look forward to, and as the studio continues, here’s hoping they don’t lose their sense of both fantasy and realism.
Other feature films by Studio Ghibli:
Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Only Yesterday (1991)
Porco Rosso (1992)
Ocean Waves (1993)
Pom Poko (1994)
Whisper of the Heart (1994)
My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)
The Cat Returns (2002)
Tales from Earthsea (2006)
From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
The Wind Rises (2013)
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
When Marnie Was There (2014)