A Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

I'm a huge fan of the works of Studio Ghibli, the legendary Japanse animation house founded in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki, and Isao Takahata. So I was of course overjoyed when Netflix announced recently they had acquired the global streaming rights for the studio's entire library, with the notable exception of Grave of the Fireflies. However, this does not include Japan and North America, where it will eventually be available on HBOMax. Fortunately, I live in Britain. Being stuck on this dumpster fire of an island is finally starting to pay off. So if you're a global Netflix customer and are interested in getting into Ghibli but don't know where to start, I've put together this handy little guide to the studio's entire output.

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)


So this isn't a Studio Ghibli film, but it wouldn't feel right to leave out Miyazaki's first film, especially since it is also available on Netflix. Plus, it's really good. Based on the Lupin III animated series (where Miyazaki had previously worked as a director), the film follows gentleman thief Arsène Lupin III, known as Wolf, who heads to the tiny country of Cagliostro to track down the source of some counterfeit money he has just stolen.

Available: Now

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)


Like Cagliostro, this isn't actually a Studio Ghibli film as it was produced and released a full year before the studio's official founding. But Nausicaä is where Ghibli first came together and it sets the tone not just for Miyazaki's own later work, but the studio as a whole. Based on Miyazaki's own manga, the film is set thousands of years in the future where much of Earth has been consumed by Toxic Jungle and follows Nausicaä, the princess of the Valley of the Wind, as she battles to protect her people and stop two warring kingdoms from awakening a monster from the old world. This is a sublime piece of post-apocalyptic sci-fi and one of my top five Studio Ghibli films. The film was famously hacked to pieces by its original U.S. distributor who renamed it Warriors of the Wind and even released a poster full of He-Man style male characters who don't even appear in the film, including someone riding a fucking Pegasus, of all things. This would lead Ghibli to enact a strict "no cuts" policy for all future film releases outside Japan.

Available: 1st March

Castle in the Sky (1986)


The first official Ghibli film is a lively piece of steampunk fantasy that follows a young boy and girl who come up against sky pirates and government agents in their search for the legendary flying island of Laputa (inspired by the island of the same name from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels). While Castle in the Sky lacks the complexity and thematic resonance of Nausicaä, this is still a great showcase for Miyazaki's skill and imagination as a filmmaker.

Available: Now

Grave of the Fireflies (1988) 


This heartbreaking film was the first from Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata. It's an adaptation of Akiyuki Nosaka's 1967 semi-autobiographical short story of the same name about two siblings who struggle to survive during the final months of World War II. Alas, due to rights issues this is currently the only Ghibli film that will not be available on Netflix.

My Neighbour Totoro (1988)


Miyazaki's magical ode to childhood follows two young girls, Satsuki and Mei, who move into an old house in the country with their father so they can be closer to the hospital where their sick mother is staying. Not long after moving in they meet and befriend Totoro, a cuddly wood spirit who lives nearby. My Neighbour Totoro is one of Ghibli's best known and beloved films. The title character has since become the face of the company and, thanks to merchandising, a major source of revenue.

Available Now

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)


Like much of Miyazaki's oeuvre, Kiki's Delivery Service is a coming of age tale with a fantastical bent. It's a sweet and simple tale about Kiki, a 13-year-old witch who leaves home and moves to the big city where she sets up a delivery service using her flying broomstick. This is an absolute joy from beginning to end and another of my favourite Ghibli movies.

Available: Now

Only Yesterday (1991)


One of the underrated gems in the Ghibli canon, Takahata's second film is a rich and understated character drama that follows Taeko, a twentysomething who takes time out from her 9-5 life in Tokyo to work on a farm in the countryside while reflecting on her childhood in the 1960s.

Available: Now

Porco Rosso (1992)


Whether it's Nausicaä on her glider or Kiki on her broomstick, flight has been one of the most notable recurring themes in Miyazaki's work and Porco Rosso is his love letter to the early days of aviation. The film takes place in the Adriatic Sea not long after the First World War and follows a former Italian fighter ace turned bounty hunter as he battles air pirates and the cocky American pilot they've hired to take him down. Oh, and for some reason that is never really fully explained he has been cursed with the face of a pig. Why is he cursed with the face of a pig? That's not really important, this film is all about the flying sequences, which are typically stunning, even if the story and characters are weak by Miyazaki's usual standard.

Available: Now

Ocean Waves (1993)


Based on the 1990 novel of the same name by Saeko Himuro, this TV movie was the first Ghibli project not directed by either Miyazaki or Takahata. It was a low budget work given to some of the studio's junior animators. Set in the city of Kōchi, it centres around a love triangle that develops between two friends, Taku and Yutaka, and Rikako, a new girl at their school.

Available: Now

Pom Poko (1994)


When their forest home is threatened by human developers, a group of shape-shifting raccoons try do everything they can to scare humans away. Drawing on Japanese myths and legends, Takahata's third film is a satirical oddity. Still, there's plenty to enjoy here, just try not to get too distracted by the raccoons, ahem, noticeable assets.

Available: 1st April

Whisper of the Heart (1995)


During her last summer of junior high, Shizuku, a voracious reader and aspiring writer, meets a trainee violin-make named Seiji, who challenges her to stop reading and start writing. Written by Miyazaki and based on Aoi Hiiragi's 1989 manga, Whisper of the Heart is the only film directed by regular Ghibli animator Yoshifumi Kondō, who was seen by the studio's founders as their natural successor. Sadly, Kondō passed away suddenly in 1998 at the age of 47. His death would lead to Miyazaki's decision to (briefly) retire following the release of Princess Mononoke.

Available: 1st April

Princess Mononoke (1997)


Princess Mononoke follows Ashitaka, a young Emishi prince, who is cursed by a dying demon. As he searches for a cure he becomes embroiled in a struggle between the gods of a forest and the humans who consume its resources. Miyazaki's environmentalist message runs strongest in this epic, stunningly realised fantasy that, thanks to its violent content, is almost certainly not fun for all the family.

Available 1st March

My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)


Based on the yonkoma manga Nono-chan by Hisaichi Ishii, My Neighbors the Yamadas is a series of vignettes following the daily lives of the Yamada family done in the style of a daily comic strip. Takahata may never have been as prolific as Miyazaki, he only directed five films for Ghibli between 1988 and 2014, but he was certainly the most experimental of the studio's founders.

Available 1st March

Spirited Away (2001)


Miyazaki's retirement didn't last very long and he soon returned to Ghibli with the stunning Spirited Away, the first (and so far only) hand-drawn and non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The film follows 10-year-old Chihiro Ogino, who is moving to a new neighbourhood when a wrong turn sends her and her parents into the strange world of the spirits. Like many, this was the film that first pulled me into the wonderful world of Miyazaki and Ghibli.

Available 1st March

The Cat Returns (2002)


Ghibli never did sequels, but they did produce this spin-off from Whisper of the Heart, which focuses on the character of Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. When 17-year-old Haru, who has the suppressed ability to talk with cats, saves Lune, Prince of the Cat Kingdom, from being hit by a truck she suddenly finds herself engaged to the prince and whisked away to his home. With the assistance of the Baron, Haru seeks to escape the Cat Kingdom and return to her normal life.

Available 1st March

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)


After she's swept off her feet one day by the mysterious wizard Howl, shop girl Sophie is soon cursed by the jealous Witch of the Waste and turned into an old woman. Seeking to lift the curse, Sophie begins travelling with Howl aboard his magical walking castle. Based on the novel of the same name by British author Diana Wynne Jones, Miyazaki's follow up to Spirited Away is another spellbinding fantasy with a strong anti-war theme, brought on by Miyazaki's opposition to the US invasion of Iraq.

Available 1st April

Tales from Earthsea (2006)


Ghibli and Ursula K. Le Guin seems like a match made in geek heaven. Sadly, Tales of Earthsea is the closet thing the studio had to a complete dud. Directed by Miyazaki's eldest son, Gorō, it mixes together the plots of third and fourth Earthsea books, The Farthest Shore and Tehanu, with a few elements from the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, and twists them all into a rather conventional fantasy adventure that possess little of the original tales' nuance or elegance.

Available Now

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008)


Ponyo, the goldfish daughter of the King of the Ocean, upsets the musical balance of the world when she leaves home and seeks to become human after she befriends five-year-old Sosuke. Ponyo is gorgeous and imaginative with a lot of heart, but it never quite manages to reach the same dizzying heights as Miyazaki's previous films.

Available 1st April

Arrietty (2010)


This was the first film directed by long time Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who would go on to direct the studio's final film, When Marnie Was There. Based on Mary Norton's classic children's book The Borrowers (about a race of tiny people)the film tells the story of 14-year-old Arrietty whose peaceful life living under the floorboards of an old English house with her father and mother is changed forever when when she's accidentally seen by a human boy.

Available 1st March

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)


Gorō Miyazaki's second film, co-written by his father, is a typical Ghibli coming of age tale, but is still a significant step up from his previous effort. Set in Yokohama in 1963, the film centres on the budding romance that develops between teenagers Umi and Shun as they join forces to save their high school’s ramshackle clubhouse from demolition.

Available 1st April

The Wind Rises (2013)


After decades of fanatical adventure films, Miyazaki switched gears for The Wind Rises, a biographical drama about the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Mitsubishi A5M and A6M Zero fighter planes, used by the Empire of Japan during World War II. It was meant to be his final film. However, he announced in 2017 that he was coming out of retirement again and working on a new film for Ghibli, How Do You Live?, although work on it has been slowed by his advanced age. While not one of my favourite Miyazaki film, The Wind Rises is still a gorgeous work of hand drawn animation. If it does end up being his final completed work then it is a fitting swan song for one of animation's greatest filmmakers.

Available 1st April

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)


Based on a tale from Japanese folklore, about a miniature girl found in the forest by a bamboo cutter who is taken to the city and raised to be a princess, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is one of the most visually striking films Ghibli has produced, a vivid mixture of charcoal strokes and impressionistic watercolours. Sadly, this was Isao Takahata's final film before his death in 2018.

Available 1st March

When Marnie Was There (2014)


If worst does come to worst and Miyazaki is unable to complete How Do You Live? then Yonebayashi's When Marnie Was There will stand as the last official Studio Ghibli film. Based on the book by British author Joan G. Robinson, relocating the action from the Norfolk marshes to Kushiro wetlands, it follows 12-year-old introvert Anna Sasaki who comes across an abandoned mansion while on holiday with her foster family and meets Marnie, a mysterious girl who asks her to promise to keep their secrets from everyone.

Available 1st April

The Red Turtle (2016)


While When Marnie Was There is classed as the last Ghibli film, the studio did work with German company Wild Bunch to produce this film in 2016. Directed and co-written by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, The Red Turtle is a dialogue-free tale about a man who becomes shipwrecked on a deserted island and meets a giant red female turtle. Because it was a co-production with another company, The Red Turtle isn't counted as an official Ghibli film and will not be available on Netflix.


Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig

1 comment:

migmit said...

Fun fact: in Russian the name of the studio is too close to the word "гиблый" ("giblyj"), meaning "deadly", "rotten", or simply "very bad".