A Beginner’s Guide to Studio Ghibli

Japan's answer to Disney/Pixar? There's much more to Studio Ghibli than anthropomorphised toys; as Sarah Slade discovers.

Studio Ghibli logo and title card

Sarah Slade

Sarah Slade

Friday 17 March

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I came late to the Studio Ghibli. A brush with a really badly-dubbed version of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, (called Battle of the Planets – 70s kids) put me right off anime, mainly because the US version of the Japanese space kids series seemed even more lazily put together than Scrappy-Doo era Scooby Doo. Then in the 90s we had Pokemon, of which the less is said about it, the better.

So when my filmbuff mates started raving about these ravishingly beautiful, hand-drawn full-length movies featuring intricately plotted stories of mythical beasts intruding into the everyday world, I thought, “meh”. Then we saw Spirited Away, and my heart was lost to Ghibli.

Ghibli ain’t Pixar. While Pixar movies are technically brilliant, they don’t really break the standard Hollywood template. Ghibli movies, on the other hand, are a bit mad. Clashes between the spirit world and the human world are common, and not always unpleasant. The stories, often adapted from classic novels like The Borrowers or Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series, are complex, often sad, and almost always with bittersweet endings. Others are allegorical commentaries on Japanese society and consumerism, environmental issues or family values, wrapped in a gorgeously coloured, intricate web of mythical characters battling with kick-ass kids, monstrous baddies and amazing flying machines in the most beautiful settings imaginable.

The central character in nearly every Ghibli film is the Brave Girl. She may not always be beautiful or clever or cute, but she will always be loyal and courageous and will do the right thing in the end. Sometimes she will be helped by a boy, but she’s often left to make her own way. She may have crises of confidence, or be led astray, but she will prevail against the odds, and by the end of the film she will be loved by everyone, and gained a grudging respect from the baddies. My (usually) Brave Girl, surrounded by conformity and already tired of being constantly tested and measured and found wanting, finds a voice that she can’t find anywhere else  in the awkward, nerdy, relentless Ghibli heroine.

I consulted with my Brave Girl to discuss the best Ghibli movies to start with. This led to a week-long argument, intensive viewing sessions of her nearly-complete Ghibli collection, and lots of drawing up and rubbing out of lists. Finally, we agreed on a top ten, then a top five, and then we changed our minds again…

We ended up WhatsApping suggestions from separate rooms, because things were getting heated in the kitchen and we upset the cat. And we came up with this.

Spirited Away (2001)

This is The Oscar Winner, and rightly so. It’s a gorgeously rendered clash of the human world with the world of the spirits, or of traditional and modern Japan.

Chihiro is a ten-year-old girl on her way to a life in a new town with her parents. They get lost and end up in a holiday park for spirits. In this alternate universe Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs and Chihiro must save her family before they all lose their souls forever and become trapped.

She finds work in a bath house owned by Yubaba, the spirit that transformed her parents. But soon she’s drawn into a war between Yubaba and her sister.

This was the first Ghibli movie that I saw in full. The holiday park is a gloriously coloured, tempting carnival where spirits transform from semi-transparent wisps into flesh-and-blood monsters within the bathhouse. Humans are disdained, but in many ways the spirit world is not that dissimilar from the human one: there are hierarchies and jobsworths and spirits can be just as greedy as Chihiro’s parents. And there’s a train that takes Chihiro and her new friends on a journey through a flooded landscape that is both magical and strangely familiar.

My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

This one comes with a warning. You and your offspring will be singing the theme song for at least three days afterwards. Mine taught it to the friends she made on holiday in Turkey. We may never be allowed near Cirali again.

More spirits in this one. The thing about Japanese spirits is that they’re not necessarily good or evil or even fairy-shaped like, say, Tinkerbell or Caspar. Totoro, the main dude in this one, is a woodland spirit shaped like a giant furry egg with a sort-of cat’s face, rabbit ears and the tail and paws of a beaver.

He’s the good guy. Well, everybody in My Neighbour Totoro is good. There is no epic journey or quest to be fulfilled, just a summer in the Japanese countryside. The film follows two young girls, Satsuki and Mei, as they move from the city to the country to be closer to their mother, who is in hospital. Mei follows a rabbit-like creature into the forest and discovers a Totoro asleep in a clearing. Satsuki remains unconvinced until they meet Totoro by accident in a rainstorm while waiting for their father to come home from work. Satsuki lends him her umbrella and they become friends.

Yet despite the plethora of cute woodland creatures, My Neighbour Totoro is a film of about sadness, about making the best of a bad situation. The girls’ feelings of loss and dislocation brought on by their mother’s illness and moving house can only be faced with bravery and laughter. And a bus shaped like a giant ginger cat.

Porco Rosso (1992)

You want epic adventure with no giant furry animals or mechanomorphic modes of transport? What is wrong with you? OK, try Porco Rosso, or its literal translation, Crimson Pig.

Miyazaki ventures out of Japan to mythical Adriatic Sea, set in the 1930s. Porco Rosso is a former World War One flying ace who has been transformed by a curse into a kind of pig that walks on two legs and talks like a tough guy. He lives in splendid isolation on a tiny island, only venturing out to work as a bounty hunter, defending local ferries from attacks by airborne pirates who look like Dr Robotnik from the 1990s version of Sonic the Hedgehog. The pirates band together to wipe Porco out, but he survives, only to run into the Italian Fascists, who would like a quiet word…

Porco Rosso’s Brave Girl is Fio, a young aircraft engineer who designs his new plane, stops fights and keeps the faith when Rosso has lost all hope. I’d say she was my daughter’s favourite until she saw no. 4 in our list.

Again, the backdrops and animations are beautiful, the story about love and loyalty is complex and a bit mad, the airborne sequences and dogfights are hair-raising…just sit back and enjoy it.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

This is an adaptation of a children’s book by Eiko Kadono. Kiki is an apprentice witch who leaves home to make her way in the world. She goes to a curious hybrid of Stockholm and a northern Japanese town, where she finds lodgings and work with a kindly baker. The film is a series of scenes from Kiki’s life as she becomes used to life as an independent young woman. She makes friends, deals with mean girls and eventually finds happiness through being brave, kind and resourceful.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Isao Takahata’s fifth Studio Ghibli film is based on a Japanese folk tale about a poor bamboo cutter who finds a tiny girl inside a glowing bamboo shoot, as you do. The bamboo cutter, whose name is Sanuki, and his wife adopt the child and marvel as she grows into a young woman almost as quickly as a bamboo shoot. Sanuki is convinced that the child is some kind of royal divinity after he finds a treasure trove in the same bamboo grove, and calls her Princess.

The family moves to the city to live in an appropriately aristocratic manner but the Princess is unhappy. She wanted to stay with her childhood friends in the countryside and chafes at the restraints of noble life.

The animation style of Princess Kaguya  is markedly different from the signature Studio Ghibli look – less cartoonish, more self-consciously artistic. Takahata abandons the lush visuals in favour of impressionistic charcoal and watercolour shades. Kaguya’s dream of escaping the sneering guests at her naming ceremony becomes an increasingly sketchy set of marks that slowly transform into her countryside home as she speeds away from her prison. Kaguya herself becomes an angry, almost monstrous presence for a few short seconds.

While the Brave Girls in other Ghibli movies can overcome obstacles and force back limitations with the force of their bravery and good humour, the Princess Kaguya doesn’t have that option. She is trapped between two worlds, and can only escape by hurting the people she loves the most. The gentle, elegiac sadness of the earlier films is turned up to 11 here, so have a box of tissues ready when you watch.

We missed a whole bunch off the list because the next five caused the most arguments. I’m writing this article, so here are my recommendations for ones to watch after you’ve seen the others.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

It’s a dimension-hopping house on legs. There’s a lovestruck scarecrow, a narcissistic wizard, a wise-cracking kitchen fire, an enormous bad witch with dementia, an evil empire and an army of scary blobby things in hats. What’s not to love?

The Wind Rises (2013)

Miyazaki’s last film before he went into retirement (except that he’s now out of retirement and making films again in 2017). A fictionalised biography of aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi. It’s the nearest thing Ghibli comes to a straight historical film, but nonetheless is still strange and beautiful and an interesting alternative viewpoint of the Second World War.

Ponyo (2008)

A tiny carp escapes from her over-protective father and befriends a lonely boy living on in a clifftop house. Start there. Enjoy the ride.

When Marnie Was There (2014)

This was Studio Ghibli’s last film before the animated feature film division announced a short hiatus in production. Written and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who had previously worked on Arriety (also very good), the film is an adaptation of a Joan G Robinson novel about a friendship between a lonely girl and a mysterious inhabitant of an abandoned mansion by the sea. Less ‘magical’ and more of a straightforward storytelling, it’s nevertheless beautiful and charged with emotion.

Nausicää of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Not strictly a Studio Ghibli film but this is, effectively, where it all started. Nausicää is a princess, an expert flier and scientist who becomes embroiled in a struggle with the Tolmekian kingdom, who want to destroy a jungle of mutant giant insects. Although not as visually polished as later Studio Ghibli efforts, it’s still cracking.

Pronunciation note: “Ghibli” is an Italian word for the hot wind that blows through Libya. In Italian it’s pronounced with a hard g, as in “gobble”: the Japanese pronunciation softens the g so that it sounds more like “giblets”. Take your pick.

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