Darius is a former high school literary and feature writer with a BS degree in Information and Communications Technology.
What is Studio Ghibli?
When we hear about animation from Japan, one of the first things that always comes to my mind is the immersive worlds seen in anime.
Anime refers to animation that originates from Japan. Anime series or films can cover a wide variety of narratives and genres. Studio Ghibli is one particular animation film studio that has created many masterpieces. A quick glimpse of their work and captivating art and animation and you'll know that these films were produced by them. Heck, even other animation studios like Disney and Pixar have been inspired by the magic, animation, and storytelling of Ghibli. It also went as far as inspiring most Western storytellers and narrators to create almost Ghibli-like stories, plot structures, complex conflicts, creative dialogues, wonderful hand-drawn style art styles, 2D CGI, rendering, and animation.
A simple watch of a Ghibli film can transport you into a distant magical world. They are masterpieces, not only because they bring out your inner child, but because they create unique and nostalgic experiences. With Hayao Miyazaki's animation, Isao Takahata's direction, Joe Hisaishi's music, and the people behind who worked to create these magnum opuses, watching any Ghibli movie will leave you wanting more and will want you to set a bar of standards higher for any future animation film you'll come across.
When Studio Ghibli Came to Netflix
In 2020, Netflix announced that 21 films from Studio Ghibli would come to their streaming service. In an official statement, producer Toshio Suzuki said, "In this day and age, there are various great ways a film can reach audiences. We’ve listened to our fans and have made the definitive decision to stream our film catalog. We hope people around the world will discover the world of Studio Ghibli through this experience."
The arrival of these films on the streaming service was huge news, especially for longtime fans. However, these movies would not be available for Netflix subscribers in the United States, Canada, and Japan.
The reason Netflix couldn't extend their agreement to these countries is because there are pre-existing rights deals in place. For those countries, Studio Ghibli films are available for streaming on HBO Max. You can also try using a VPN service to access these films on Netflix.
When these movies arrived on Netflix, I had the privilege to binge-watch them. And the first general rule of watching a Ghibli movie is trying not to overthink or overanalyze the story, but to immerse its stories and feel them through the heart. Getting hung up on intense logic will surely make you miss their points. I have to say that the magic of Studio Ghibli does not fade. If you haven't seen these films and are interested in them, below are my top six (in no particular order) Studio Ghibli films. Keep in mind that I'll be dropping some spoilers.
1. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Hayao Miyazaki is known as an anti-war advocate, and this film really depicts how wars don't have clear heroes and villains—only people and factions that are trying to protect their own. Each side has their own motives and perspectives, that all of us have our motives, desires, and morals that could either converge or diverge, therefore bringing a seemingly endless alliance or conflict. Each character's morally gray persona would resonate to its viewers in any way, no matter their cause. And that these morals and lessons are worth learning from because they are all valid.
The story begins with a young prince named Ashitaka. He comes from a hidden village during the 14th century. His tribe was forced to hide from the Emperor's wrath and the ongoing conflict during this era. The setting in this film is a world where humans, nature, animals, and gods of proportional sizes all live together. The harmony seen in the village doesn't last long when they are attacked by a god that turned into a demon. Ashitaka becomes infected with a curse while he fights off the demon. He then journeys west to find the source of the god's demise while escaping from the ongoing onslaught of the Emperor. He ventures through forests where the gods and spirits roam, arriving at a village named Iron Town, and finally meeting Mononoke, a human cursed by the gods. Ashitaka's curse will kill him whenever he feels hatred and Mononoke's curse is being an ally to the gods. She must protect nature and its inhabitants.
Look, everyone! This is what hatred looks like! This is what it does when it catches hold of you! It's eating me alive, and very soon it will kill me!
— Prince Ashitaka to the people of Iron Town
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This film's animation does a great job at giving life to this world of humans and gods living in nature. Although, there are some moments that may not be suitable for very young audiences and parental guidance is advised should they let the children watch the show. The film heavily features hard mix of Western and Eastern philosophical ideas for the viewers. This movie also has an anti-war, anti-conflict narrative that says everyone should be responsible for their own outlook on the world. Unlike most Western films, this film will not let you choose a side to root for. This is a story where black and white are intertwined in the gray area where war and conflict happen.
2. Spirited Away (2001)
If you are going to watch one Ghibli film, this movie should be one of your top picks.
Spirited Away is the Oscar-winning masterpiece by director and animator Hayao Miyazaki; it was the first anime to win an Oscar. This film follows a girl named Chihiro as her family moves to a new town. When they stumble upon a cave-like tunnel, the family goes inside and finds themselves in what looks to be another part of the town. Chihiro's parents suddenly turn into pigs after eating some food they found. It turns out that this setting is a place where spirits, gods, and magic exists. Chihiro then ventures into the mysterious land in search of a way to turn her parents back into humans. Of course, she meets a few other characters that help her out along the way.
“Once you've met someone you never really forget them. It just takes a while for your memories to return.”
— Zeniba to Chihiro
While adults can enjoy this film, I feel like this movie is more appropriate and appreciable for kids (and kids-at-heart) since the director made Chihiro a relatable child-like character. I believe that the film's animation, as well as the accompanying score and story, is what helped it win the Oscar. Its plot is almost nonlinear and unexpected that a few minutes in and you'll find yourself asking what's going to happen next, how will the character solve the problems, and how will the story end. It has these highs where there are actions and amazement for you and lows for you to relax and take a deep breath. This is one of those films where tragedy and comedy meet in the middle, offering a seemingly bittersweet ending.
3. When Marnie Was There (2014)
When Marnie Was There is based on a 1967 novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson. Anna is an introverted and shy young girl with both asthmatic and emotional problems. When a doctor recommends that Anna should go to a place where the air is clean, both of Anna's loving foster parents decide to have her spend the summer break with her late mom's relatives in a rural seaside town. She initially finds the town to be boring, but her opinion changes when she sees an abandoned mansion beyond a salt marsh. She investigates the house but only finds belongings of the previous inhabitants. A local fisherman tells her that it was once a fancy vacation home for wealthy foreigners. That same night, she dreams of an unknown girl with blonde hair. She spends the next few days going to the abandoned mansion to meet the girl every night.
“When you grow as old as I am you can’t any longer say this was someone’s fault, and that was someone else’s. It isn’t so clear when you take a long view. Blame seems to lie everywhere. Or nowhere. Who can say where unhappiness begins?”
— Joan G. Robinson, When Marnie Was There
Studio Ghibli loves to tease their audience with progressive views of same-sex romance. This movie is essentially a love story between two young girls, but their love is much deeper than the kind of intimacy we're groomed to expect by our hypersexual culture. Of course, Ghibli films won't just show you a singular form of romance. They will show you that there are more variations of love and that love can be eternal. This film will also teach you how the healing process takes time, and that healing can begin with forgiveness. It's better to have a box of tissue near you after you've finished watching this because it'll surely make you cry buckets of tears.
4. The Secret World of Arriety (2010)
The Secret World of Arriety is based on the 1952 novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton.
A boy named Sho (Shawn in the English versions) recounts the week during a summer he spent at his mother's childhood home with his maternal great aunt and a housemaid. Sho was diagnosed with heart complications, so he can't be very active until his operation. When Sho arrives at the house on the first day, he sees a cat trying to attack something in the bushes, but it gives up after it is attacked by a crow. Sho gets a small glimpse of Arrietty, a young Borrower girl, returning to her home through an underground air vent. Arriety lives with her family under the floorboards of the house above them. The Borrowers are tiny people who live secretly in the walls and under the floors of homes, borrowing items from humans to survive. They do their best to avoid being noticed. They are the last of their kind that lives under house. The plot thickens when Sho and Arriety form a friendly bond as Sho believes that his family had seen the little people living under their house. He tries to protect them as well as provide for them.
It's funny how each day you wake up and never really know if it will be one that will change your life forever.
This film was Japan's highest-grossing film in 2010. It deservedly gained a strong positive reception from film critics. The film has smooth and almost life-like animation. It also has catchy, fantastic, and melodic music and scoring; the theme song was scored by French composer Cécile Corbel. The narrative covers the relationship between nature, humans, and the environment. The movie offers insight into environmentalism and preserving natural resources. The ending may be bittersweet, but it shows the true meaning of perseverance, friendship, and hope.
5. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a 10th-century Japanese literary tale.
The film is about a peaceful, simple family living in rural Japan during the 10th century. It starts with a bamboo cutter finding a nymph inside a bamboo stalk. The bamboo cutter and his wife decided that the nymph must have been a gift from heaven. When she suddenly grows into a baby, they decide to take the nymph as their own child. The baby grows into a walking and talking child within a short amount of time, faster than normal humans. The couple still accept her as they name her Kaguya. The bamboo cutter finds gifts while cutting bamboo stalks. He concludes that Kaguya must have been a princess in the heavens. They leave their simple rural life to live in the city where Kaguya grows into a beautiful and desirable young woman. The bamboo cutter believes that giving Kaguya a lavish lifestyle in the city would make her happy. But Kaguya is miserable in her new life and she wishes to go back to their simple life. When the word gets out about Kaguya, princes from other kingdoms try to court her and prove their love. The movie ends with her returning to the moon where the gods reside, a cold and unforgiving place, without any or little of memories of all her experiences on earth.
Just a little longer, to feel the joy of living in this place.
— Princess Kaguya
I feel that this movie is criminally underrated and underappreciated. It's a drama fantasy film where the animation is really staggering and mesmerizing. Each frame looks like a painting; the art appears beautifully and masterfully handmade and features intricate color schemes. The story tells a narrative about the meaning of happiness and purpose, and teaches an overarching lesson abut what it means to be human (given that Kaguya, herself, is a princess of the Moon). It teaches about family and being human. It conveys the experience of seeing your children grow up fast and the desire to provide the best for them. The film also covers the experience of loss and grief.
6. Howl's Moving Castle
Loosely based on the 1986 novel of the same name by British author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle begins when a young maiden named Sophie lives an uneventful life at her late father's hat shop. All that changes when she befriends the wizard Howl, who lives in a magical moving castle. However, an evil witch takes issue with their budding relationship and casts a spell on young Sophie, which ages her prematurely. Now Howl must use all his magical talents to battle the jealous hag, confront his origins and identity, and return Sophie to her former young self. This film is set in a European country, one that is at war against an unnamed enemy. Howl despises the government's strategy to use wizards and witches in the war because this changes them. Their powers will be deceitfully stripped if they do not do the government's bidding.
Sorry, I've had enough of running away, Sophie. Now I've got something to protect: it's you.
— Howl to Sophie
This film is a popular suggestion for Studio Ghibli films because:
- You need to watch it more than once to see the gems hidden in the film.
- The music and soundtrack will make you stand up and dance as if you're in a fancy ball.
- The animation will make you fall in love with the main character.
- The plot focuses on two people falling in love rather than the unnecessary details of the extensive world they live in.
Packed with a beautifully Ghibli-styled animation, quirky characters, and interesting pivotal and unexpected plots, the film will surely take you to another place of another time. Though some may think that the film itself is overrated, it is a highly recommended piece of art that deserves all the credit. The film itself takes a spotlight in becoming one of Ghibli's must-see movies and classics.
The Cat Returns
This film is about a schoolgirl who is magically transported into a kingdom of cats. The movie depicts how important it is to be true to yourself, that courage isn't the absence of fear, and learning to find courage takes time and experience.
Castle in the Sky
This story is about a girl and a boy who find a magical key that unlocks a floating castle amidst an ongoing conflict. The film conveys the message that neutrality doesn't always exist in times of chaos.
My Neighbor Totoro
This film is about a family who move to the countryside where the two sisters meet a giant, cuddly, and cheeky cat spirit. This movie conveys the message that family is the most important thing. It also shows how hope and optimism can be explored through fantasy in times of hardship.
This film is about a fish that turns into a human to befriend a young boy. This movie depicts how humans trash and destroy the oceans and bodies of water. It also depicts friendship and the innocent infatuation of children. But most importantly, it is a film about knowing who you are as well as accepting your own identity.
Kiki's Delivery Service
This movie is about a good witch that moves into a bustling city. The film shows the importance of accepting who you are and knowing your purpose in life. This story reassures children that even when the going gets tough, if you believe in yourself, treat others with respect, and have perseverance, you will see your way through.
I do believe in the power of stories. I believe that stories have an important role to play in the formation of human beings, that they can stimulate, amaze, and inspire their listeners.
— Hayao Miyazaki
Do you think that this list is short? How about recommending a Studio Ghibli film for me to watch? Why not share a few of your experiences watching Studio Ghibli films? How did they make you feel and what lessons did you learn from watching them?
© 2020 Darius Razzle Paciente