How to get into... Studio Ghibli movies
The esteemed Japanese animation house has dozens of films in their back catalogue, many of them masterpieces. So where should a wannabe fan begin?
At the start of 2020, Netflix announced that (almost) the entire catalogue of Studio Ghibli -- arguably the most respected animation company on the planet -- would be arriving on their platform throughout the year. For fans who’d maybe had their first encounter with a Studio Ghibli film on late night cable television, or through DVDs they’d watched at a friends house when they were younger, these celebrated, but understandably less ‘available’ films when compared to the likes of Disney’s, suddenly became far more accessible.
Not only that, for a younger generation whose first taste of animation may have been soured by lacklustre kids television and vapid blockbuster movies, Studio Ghibli’s hand drawn films have an irrevocable heart. They might be experimenting with 3D software now, but their legendary founder, Hayao Miyazaki, has been adamant that the traditional, more time consuming methods of storytelling are what make their work so special.
It might seem like a strange thing to suggest to you, the good reader of i-D, how to ‘get into’ the films of a studio we’ve dedicated so many articles to. But for those of you who see those familiar drawings -- of kids and monsters sat on a branch over a stream; of a feline-faced bus; of a young girl surrounded by creatures in an ancient bath house -- but have never actually taken the plunge, these are the films that will school you on their source.
The entry point is… My Neighbour Totoro
Arguably the most beloved entry in the Studio Ghibli catalogue is their 1988 classic My Neighbour Totoro, admired not only for its pristine animation and score, but for the way it transforms the story of two children’s wild imagination into a greater parable about growing up, facing grief and the power of fantasy. Set in the rural farmlands of Japan, Satsuki and Mei are two sisters who’ve moved from their home into more tranquil surroundings as their mother tries to recover from an unknown illness. There, with fewer friends to play with, the girls soon discover monsters in the woods. But these monsters aren’t dangerous. Instead, they help the sisters find solace in a world that’s compromised their childhood innocence, and helps them make sense of life’s beauty even when they experience pain. It might look like a kids movie, but this remains one of the most moving and special animated films of all time.
Necessary viewing? Princess Mononoke
An ecological parable for the ages, Princess Mononoke is widely cited as the most important film in Ghibli’s roster. Though not the most accessible -- it’s slow at times, and runs for nearly 2 hours and 15 minutes -- it’s arguably one of the most rewarding. Set in a fantastical version of the late Muromachi period (around 1336 to 1573) the film follows a young tribal prince and his elk companion as they try to solve a longstanding conflict between the gods of the forest he’s been surrounded by since birth, and the humans recklessly pillaging it. Inspired by American westerns, and referenced since by filmmakers like James Cameron in Avatar, this 1997 film became the highest grossing domestic movie of all time in Japan (later beaten by the film below), but was considered a flop in Western countries.
The one everyone’s seen is… Spirited Away
It has become customary for a Disney-Pixar entity to take home the Best Animated Feature prize at the Oscars. But in 2002, with the award still in its infancy, Spirited Away set the benchmark for the decade of cinema to come by taking home said prize. Chihiro is a 10-year-old girl who, while on a car trip with her parents, enters a parallel universe that transforms her parents into pigs. Hugely imaginative, and influential to just about every working animator today, the film was a critical and box office smash: it raked in over $350 million worldwide and was, in 2017, rated the second best film of the century so far by The New York Times.
The underappreciated gem is… Ponyo
When Ponyo was first released in 2008, the eighth film Hayao Miyazaki had produced for his studio, fans of Studio Ghibli’s elaborate films were split on this simple story of a goldfish befriending a boy on a small island. Inspired by The Little Mermaid, the story takes some of the recognisable features of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable and transforms them into something altogether more inventive and colourful. It’s the kind of film that, like Totoro, would be a great first entry point for younger kids to the Ghibli world, but it merits a more beloved spot in the fandom than it has so far been awarded. Sure, Totoro and Spirited Away are impressive in their own right, but here’s Miyazaki making hugely enjoyable high art from a fairy tale that’s been told a thousand times before. Through his lens, it’s more magical than you could imagine.
The deep cut is… Grave of the Fireflies
This film can only really be considered a deep cut because it’s the one Studio Ghibli film that isn’t available on Netflix. Still, you should seek out this hugely important, if bleak animation. Set in Kobe, Japan towards the end of World War II, this film follows two siblings, an older brother and his young sister, as they try to survive following the death of their mother while their father is fighting abroad. It’s not all despondent: it’s a masterful portrait of two kids, polar opposites in personality, relying on each other to get through hardship. Still, this is not one for young kids. Originally released as a double bill alongside Totoro, it mirrored many aspects of its far lighter counterpart. Watch this, but be prepared for a rare Ghibli film free of fantasy, but brimming with power and humanism instead.