Studio Ghibli: five essential films

As the great Japanese animation studio nears its 30th anniversary and BFI Southbank mounts a full feature retrospective, we pick out five must-see titles from the fantastic Studio Ghibli.

Jasper Sharp
Updated:

My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

Credit: © 1988 Nibariki - G

Studio Ghibli was established after the success of Nausicaä: Valley of the Wind (1984) specifically for the production of Hayao Miyazaki’s follow-up, the Swiftian tale of airborne adventure, Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986). However, it was the double-billing of his next title with Isao Takahata’s tonally quite different Grave of the Fireflies that really cemented the position of Japan’s best-loved animation house on its home turf.

Ironically, at the time, Totoro was seen as the lesser of the pair. Nevertheless, this touching tale of two sisters who move with their father to a rickety wooden house in the country to be closer to their mother convalescing in a nearby hospital has gone on to achieve classic status. A celebration of the childhood imagination, it retains a freshness and originality that appears almost naive to modern viewers, and can be described (alongside 1992’s Porco Rosso) as the most personal and heartfelt of Miyazaki’s creations, with its setup stemming from an episode from his own youth when his mother was bed-bound with spinal tuberculosis.

A rich fantasy world beneath the ordinary is unveiled before our eyes as the girls explore their new environment, full of tiny spider-like creatures scuttling through the rafters and other strange supernatural beings invisible to adults. These include the huge woolly beastie of the title, hidden deep within the nearby forest, who would become the most iconic of Ghibli’s creations.

Watch it for… The fantastical ride in a giant, 12-legged cat bus.

What the critics say

“Its gorgeously painterly visual details and deliberate pace perfectly recreate a child’s endless fascination with nature, or a new house.” Kate Stables, Total Film

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Credit: © Akiyuki Nosaka / Shinchosha, 1988

Set in the dying days of the Second World War, Isao Takahata’s heart-rending portrayal of a brother and sister struggling for survival after their home is destroyed and their mother killed in a firebombing raid was adapted from the novel of the same name written by Akiyuki Nosaka (published in 1967 and well-known to Japanese schoolchildren), based on his experiences growing up in wartime Kobe.

Seeking neither to condemn or condone Japan’s involvement in the war, the film instead paints a portrait of two young innocents caught up in forces far beyond their comprehension and control, as they escape from a ravaged cityscape of flaming buildings and falling fire and are increasingly driven to the margins of society in their attempts to find a safe haven.

The more macabre details, such as the black rain that falls after the bombing or the pathetic figure spotted running through streets laden with charred corpses screaming “Long live the Emperor!” as death rains down from above, are leavened by the film’s many lighter moments. Nevertheless, this is not a film of tidy resolutions, and the end result is undoubtedly one of the most forceful anti-war statements in the history of cinema.

Watch it for… The nuances of detail among the devastation.

What the critics say

“… an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.” Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com

Only Yesterday (1991)

Credit: © 1991 Hotaru Okamoto - Yuko Tone - GNH

Takahata once more pushes the envelope within the animated medium in this tender slice of nostalgia for the 1960s as filtered through the memories of a 27-year-old OL (‘office lady’) pondering a life-changing decision.

When Taeko decides to spend her 10-day summer break away from the big city working on a farm owned by relatives in rural Yamagata prefecture, she finds herself spontaneously recalling incidents from her childhood. Depicted in blanched-out sepia and misted oval frames, her reminiscences gain momentum as she spends more time with her second cousin by marriage, the unsophisticated yet gentle Toshio. Increasingly, it seems that the perky fifth-grader of her past is signalling her towards a new and more fulfilled life.

One of Ghibli’s lesser-known works, Only Yesterday is also among its most poignant, filled with nostalgic tidbits from a bygone era that are sure to resonate with viewers of a certain age, such as the Beatles’ legendary 1966 visit to Tokyo, through to more universal rite-of-passage skits such as her family’s first sampling of a pineapple and an early playground romance. These add considerable emotional weight to the modern-day narrative, portrayed with an almost documentary-level of realistic detail, with the cumulative effect a heartwarming insight into family life in Japan.

Watch it for… A chance to revel in the nostalgia of 1960s Japan.

What the critics say

“Lingering, light-dappled pastoral shots give us plenty of time to take in the delicately-rendered Japanese landscapes, while intimate domestic scenes are captured with carefully-constructed, Yasujiro Ozu-like framing.” Rebecca Davies, film4.com

Whisper of the Heart (1995)

Credit: © 1995 Aoi Hiiragi / Shueisha - Nibariki - GNH

This touching coming-of-age tale of a bookish yet imaginative 14-year-old who develops a crush on a formerly unnoticed classmate after she is inadvertently led to his house by his cat, is pure Ghibli magic. It maintains the double feat of keeping its soles grounded in a (quite literally) concrete reality and its head in the clouds, as her unrequited romance spurs her on in her creative aspirations to become a writer.

The film was the studio’s first theatrical feature by a director other than Miyazaki or Takahata (though Miyazaki adapted the script from Aoi Hiiragi’s manga), and trivia fans might like to note that it was also the first ever Japanese release in Dolby Stereo. As in Tomomi Mochizuki’s made-for-TV special Ocean Waves (1993), the bulk of Whisper of the Heart unfolds in recognisable real-life locales (its painstakingly recreated backdrop is the suburban sleeper town of Tama), while its dreamy teen protagonist’s creative flights of fancy as she pours her heart into writing her literary chef d’oeuvre are heavily redolent of Miyazaki.

Sadly it would be a one-off for director Yoshifumi Kondo, who died of an aneurysm in 1998 at the young age of 47, although its feline McGuffin led to a sequel of sorts in The Cat Returns (2001) which, directed by Hiroyuki Morita, became the first non-Miyazaki Ghibli production to gain widespread distribution outside of Japan.

Watch it for… The lively rendition of John Denver’s ‘Country Road’ with its lyrics reworked to fit our protagonist’s anodyne suburban environment.

What the critics say

“Studio Ghibli productions have always been adept at making the fantastic seem real, but with Whisper of the Heart, Kondo and Miyazaki focus so intensely on the everyday that they make the real seem fantastic.” Noel Murray, AVclub.com

Spirited Away (2001)

Credit: © 2001 Nibariki - GNDDTM

Miyazaki’s masterpiece harks back to the cosy surrealism of children’s classics such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, with its baroque visuals and freewheeling dream-logic narrative as much gushing from its creator’s unfettered imagination as drawn from traditional Japanese iconographies.

The story centres on the adventures of 10-year-old Chihiro as, to remove a curse placed upon her parents, she is put to work in an traditional bathhouse populated by a panoply of colourfully-drawn ancient deities. Here she is stripped of her identity and assigned the name ‘Sen’, an alternative reading of the first character in her name.

The top-grossing domestic production of all time in Japan, Spirited Away’s best animated feature win at the 2004 Academy Awards marked a watershed moment in the global mainstreaming of Japanese animation and put Studio Ghibli firmly on the map of international critics. The crossover success is hardly surprising considering how vividly Miyazaki riffs on both European and local sources, creating a dreamlike fairytale that appears both exotic and yet strangely familiar, and whose surface eccentricities can’t conceal its very human soul.

Watch it for… The ghostly parade of spirits, gods and demons that herald Chihiro’s entry into the netherworld.

What the critics say

“Mind-bogglingly superb animation that, for me, had a human and psychologically acute element to add to the expected dimension of hallucinatory fantasy.”  Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

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