Why this might not seem so easy
A body of work celebrated just as much worldwide as in its native Japan, the films of Studio Ghibli are among the most influential of all animated movies. Founded in 1985 by frequent collaborators and friends Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki and Yasuyoshi Tokuma, the company formed following the four working together on Miyazaki’s manga Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and its subsequent film adaptation. Named by Miyazaki after a Saharan wind (as well as part of the name of an Italian aircraft), Ghibli is best known for the various films by Miyazaki and Takahata themselves, and the environmentalist and anti-war themes running through each of their works.
It’s a vast canon (the bulk of which is now being made available on Netflix), encompassing a multitude of genres and animation styles. While it would be easy to fall into the trap of considering animated works as something inherently less complex than films starring flesh-and-blood humans, the films of Studio Ghibli are there to prove this fallacy resoundingly wrong. Their character work is sophisticated and even groundbreaking, with complex women often in the spotlight, and a frequent resistance to outright villains. Antagonists are often portrayed with equal empathy as the lead.
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The best place to start – Spirited Away
As the greatest synthesis of the common themes of Miyazaki’s work as director, as well as simply being one of the best animated films ever made, Spirited Away (2001) would make a good entry point. A coming-of-age fantasy film, which won the 2003 Academy Award for animated feature, it’s the story of Chihiro, a young girl whose parents meet a bizarre and ghastly punishment. Stumbling into a world of spirits beyond our own, she takes up work in a bathhouse in order to free her family. With detailed, breathtaking animation and a rousing score from Ghibli mainstay Joe Hisaishi, this is a narratively and thematically rich rites-of-passage tale, imbued with a Shinto perspective reflecting responsibility, the value of good work and our relationship with the natural world. It’s a masterpiece, but a very approachable one.
An alternative starter film would be the magical but naturalistic My Neighbour Totoro (1988), both Miyazaki’s most serene and meandering film as well as the source of the studio’s mascot, the gigantic, friendly forest spirit Totoro. It might be Miyazaki’s most soothing work, driven entirely by the whims of the two sisters that lead it, free from narrative or threat. It’s a work that’s happy to sit back and observe, with fun flights of fancy (who could forget the Catbus?) that make for infinite repeat viewings.
What to watch next
Miyazaki’s subsequent film, Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), would be good to seek out next, a bildungsroman tinged with melancholy that explores loneliness and womanhood as it follows the eponymous Kiki, a young witch in training who heads to the big city and finds herself overwhelmed. After that, Princess Mononoke (1997) works for people looking for something with a little more edge. An epic fantasy about a conflict between nature and industrialisation – as the young Emishi prince Ashitaka, seeking to cure his cursed arm, is drawn into a conflict between the gods of the forest and humans clearcutting it for resources – it’s a work of moral complexity, great violence, beauty and empathy. There are no villains in the traditional sense, only the corrupting influence of our own ambitions.
For a deeper dive, look to Castle in the Sky (1986), a foundational film for Miyazaki and the world of animation in general, as well as a place-setter for Mononoke in which man’s ravaging of the natural world points to apocalypse.
After that, it’s time to start moving towards some of the studio’s oddities, and what better place to start than to fly with Porco Rosso (1992), a weird film about a cool, surly pilot and First World War vet who also happens to be a pig-man. A more straightforward good time, it was an early meeting of two of Miyazaki’s key obsessions – Italy and the contradictory beauty of fighter planes – but with ominous implications, particularly with its depiction of the slow creep of Mussolini’s fascism in the background.
All that said, some of the studio’s finest gems don’t belong to Miyazaki. Isao Takahata, Miyazaki’s one-time mentor, provided several strong counter-balances to the latter’s more fantastical worlds. One of these is Only Yesterday (1991), a story in a lower-key than most Ghibli films, with a woman reflecting on her childhood memories. Its observation of the generational gap, social class, urbanisation and rural living recalls the quiet, domestic films of Yasujiro Ozu, and it’s an atypically grounded piece of work for the studio.
This makes a good route in for one of the few other contemporary dramas, Whisper of the Heart (1995), which centres a story of teenage self-actualisation around John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. The film is sadly the first and only made by Yoshifumi Kondo, who died a few years after its release.
One of the few Ghibli films not making it to Netflix is Takahata’s devastating anti-war film Grave of the Fireflies (1988). It’s the studio’s most difficult watch, a gruelling depiction of squalor and loss in the final months of the Second World War.
Although they may also take some emotional fortitude, the final films of Miyazaki and Takahata, The Wind Rises (2013) and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) respectively, are among their most vital. They are both existential and elegiac works reflecting on what makes a life well spent. Takahata a few years after his film’s release, in 2018, while Miyazaki announced his retirement. That retirement was short lived, however, as Miyazaki is set to make one last film, How Do You Live? (supposedly coming out later in 2020).
Where not to start
While there are few bad routes into Ghibli, there are still some films that newcomers would likely bounce off from. The films of Hayao Miyazaki’s son, director Goro Miyazaki, are among these. His Ursula K. Le Guin adaptation Tales from Earthsea (2006), which his father famously walked out of, and the (questionable) romance From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), while fairly pleasant watches, are far more slight than the rest of the studio’s oeuvre. The TV movie Ocean Waves (1993) is another rare contemporary film for the studio, but feels watered-down compared to something like Only Yesterday. This isn’t to say these are never worth visiting, however – just best reserved for later, as even a lesser work by Studio Ghibli contains artistry worth witnessing.