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The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

With Studio Ghibli invading Netflix, Ingar guides us through everything we need to know about the studio and its enchanting movies.

Last week film fans everywhere received some good news: Netflix and Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio behind some truly timeless classics, had entered into a distribution deal. Unless you live in Japan, USA or Canada, almost all of Ghibli's work will be made available on Netflix, starting today, Feb 1. The Japanese studio, established in 1985 by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, has created animated masterpieces for film fans of all ages across the world, which makes the news even more welcome.

Over the years since its establishment, Studio Ghibli has increased in recognition and popularity. They've won several awards from the Academy Awards to the Golden Bear of Berlin, their films are among the highest-grossing Japanese films of all time, and at present, you'll find six of the studio's films on IMDs top 250 list. The Ghibli films are clearly loved by critics and audiences alike, which makes it easy to understand their enthusiasm over the deal with Netflix, one that will make the films even more readily available (although truth be told, we're surprised that a complete Blu-ray collection isn't already present in every household around the world).

There are certain characteristics to a Ghibli film. You have clearly defined characters, charm and seriousness walking hand in hand, and strong, young and independent female characters. Hayao Miyazaki has always had a passion for aeroplanes and flying machines of all kinds, and he's always had a thing or two to say about environmentalism and our exploitation of nature. A sceptic of modernisation, urbanisation and technology, Miyazaki's own films often battle themes concerning man's relationship and struggle with and against nature. As a result, Ghibli films walk down paths and explore themes seldom found in their Disney counterparts, which might also explain the wide range of films. The most defining trait, however, is the art style and animation technique, and once you've seen a Ghibli film it's not hard to recognise one when you see it. In a business more and more defined by computer animation, Ghibli keeps it old-school, and the studio operates with strict rules on how much computer animation can be used in their productions.

As Ghibli now enters the Netflix line-up, a natural question arises: Where to begin? What films are the best of the best? Giving a truly objective answer to this question is, of course, impossible, but after watching these films for more than two decades we wanted to share our opinion on the matter.

When ranking these films, we've taking certain factors into account: animation quality, entertainment value, themes and topics, music, aesthetics and art style, story and characters. If the film's based on source material such as a book or a folktale, the adaptation process is also evaluated. The list includes two films that strictly speaking aren't Studio Ghibli films - Castle of Cagliostro (1979) and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) - since they were released prior to the studio's establishment. Even so, these films are usually considered de facto Ghibli films, as they are directed by Hayao Miyazaki and fall under most of the same principles as the rest of the films. The Red Turtle (2016), however, is omitted, as this is primarily considered a French film where Ghibli talents contributed in the process.

23. Ocean Waves (1993) - Ocean Waves was the last Ghibli film to receive a Western Blu-ray release, and once you've seen the film it's easy to understand why this one was last on the priority list. The fact that this is a straight-to-TV film is itself a warning sign. It lacks that Ghibli quality we've come to cherish, presenting a teen drama that hasn't aged well at all. The animation quality is also lacking, making it clear that this film never was Ghibli's highest priority at the time. If you try to start someone's Ghibli relationship with this one, they might jump ship (trust us, we speak from experience here). Fortunately, Ghibli has several pictures that make amends for this one, but it might be a good idea to save this for when you've ploughed through the rest of the library.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli
Photo: IMDb

22. Tales from Earthsea (2006) - One of the great headaches of Ghibli has always been appointing the new natural leader of the studio once Hayao Miyazaki retires (this might also explain why he's returned from retirement three times to take charge again). During the 2000s, many eyes turned towards Hayao Miyazaki's son, Goro. Goro, however, almost messed up the whole thing with this directorial debut, Tales from Earthsea. Based on the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin, this film is part compilation of elements from several of the books and part elements from a manga created by his dad. The result is a film with some beautiful visuals, but at the cost of an incoherent story, uninteresting characters and sloppy dialogue.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

21. The Cat Returns (2002) - No Ghibli film is terrible per se (not even the two previous ones) and placing a nice and pleasant film like The Cat Returns so far down on this list is almost painful. This is a lovely tale about a young girl ending up in the world of cats, and the story serves as a nice entry point to the Ghibli-verse, especially for younger audiences. The film is in truth a spiritual successor to Whisper of the Hearth, and some details in the film will make even more sense if you've seen that film first, but The Cat Returns stands firmly on its own four legs as well. Still, this is far from the best Ghibli film, and just like Ocean Waves, you can see the lacking artwork quality compared to other films on the list. The latter part of the story is also somewhat forgettable, but the film's still quite enjoyable.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

20. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) - This is definitely not the film to start your Ghibli relationship with, considering its very Japanese in tone and theme. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but this one requires a certain knowledge of Japanese culture and family life before jumping in. The film portraits a family of five (two parents, two kids and a grandmother) in more or less everyday situations, with a touch of creative imagination mixed in with reality. The artwork may look simple but is actually quite well executed. The score on the other hand is somewhat forgettable. Some of the cultural elements in this film might make it difficult to approach for newcomers, but if you have some knowledge of Japanese culture you might appreciate the warm tale of this loving yet quirky family.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

19. The Wind Rises (2013) - At present, this is the latest film from Hayao Miyazaki himself. Since it was intended to be his last, Miyazaki decided to create a semi-biographical film to portrait the life of one of his own inspirations. The result was The Wind Rises, a tale of Jiro Horikoshi, the main engineer behind Japan's Zero aeroplane which became one of the country's engineering marvels during WWII. Miyazaki's love for aeroplanes shines brightly in this film, while it also doesn't shy away from some of the sensitive issues on the relationship between a weapons engineer and the use of his creations. The film sparked some controversy both in Japan and East Asia, where issues concerning Japan's involvement in the war have never truly been put to rest, but Miyazaki's still able to walk the line between respect for the man and the seriousness of the issue. The main drawbacks here are the film's duration and the somewhat boring personality of the main character, but it's a fascinating study of one great mind's tribute to another.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

18. Pom Poko (1994) - Did you think My Neighbors the Yamadas was the only weird film on this list? Think again! Pom Poko's got more than its share of weirdness, but this film's advantage is the main cast of raccoons. In Japanese folklore, raccoons are usually portrayed as shapeshifting rascals, and this film combines these tropes with a tale of raccoons forced from their environment due to ever expanding cities. The Ghibli theme of environmentalism and balance between man and nature is quite evident here, with strange and weird humor to boot. After all, this is the film where a squad of paradropping raccoons use their scrotums as parachutes before clubbing down humans with the same, eh, equipment. If you haven't seen that before, you've yet to see everything.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

17. Ponyo (2008) - Are you in the mood for a heartwarming tale for the whole family, an anime adaptation of The Little Mermaid, a little girl who loves ham, or all of the above? Then Ponyo is the film you're looking for! The story here is somewhat simple, but no one can question the art and animation quality. Besides, all the characters in Ponyo are quite endearing and lovable, including the clumsy bad guy who only wants what's best for the titular character. The environmental perspective, though present, isn't quite as strong here as in some of the other films directed by Miyazaki, and the ending doesn't quite stick. On the other hand, the score here is quite charming, and the ending theme will have you sing along whether you know Japanese or not.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

16. Arrietty (2010) - This adaptation of The Borrowers by Mary Norton is Hiromasa Yonebayashi's debut as a Studio Ghibli director, a job he handled quite nicely at Ghibli before going solo and creating Mary and the Witch's Flower in 2017. This is perhaps the most beautiful Ghibli film when it comes to natural scenes and environments, with impressive drawings of garden shrubs, insects and a picturesque old house on the city-outskirts. The main character Arrietty and her family are no larger than your fingers, and most borrow (or, more accurately, steal) the daily necessities from the humans in the house in order to survive. This is a film with great characters, an exciting story, and a mood and pacing that fits the whole family. It also boasts one of the best Ghibli soundtracks not composed by studio veteran Joe Hisaishi (Arrietty's soundtrack is composed by Cécile Corbel). Fun fact: Tom Holland, the actor best known for portraying Spider-Man in Marvel films the last few years, debuted in the English dub of this film.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

15. When Marnie Was There (2014) - Yonebayashi's first film is surpassed by his second, where we follow Anna during her somewhat unusual summer with her relatives. As an introvert, twelve-year-old foster child, Anna's days are far from carefree, but during her stay in the countryside, she is acquainted with a mysterious girl called Marnie from the village mansion. The relationship that grows between Marnie and Anna is a beautiful tale of identity, self-image and the value of friendship and family. This is also the newest Ghibli film to date, as the studio required time to reorganise and plan ahead after Hayao Miyazaki's retirement (the solution being Miyazaki coming back from retirement once again, which might only be postponing the problem the studio one day must solve).

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

14. Howl's Moving Castle (2004) - Howl's Moving Castle was the first film directed by Hayao Miyazaki after Spirited Away had received international acclaim. The bar was set high, so it might not be a surprise that Howl's Moving Castle didn't quite match those expectations. This being said, it is far from a terrible film, even though the ending is somewhat rushed and confusing. The art style's as Ghibliesque as can be, and the characters are both varied and complex. The titular moving castle is a fabulous creative construction, and the areas visited in the film are both beautiful and full of detail.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

13. Porco Rosso (1992) - "A pig that doesn't fly is only a pig," is a quote that pretty much sums up the theme and characters in Porco Rosso, the movie about an ace-pilot pig in Italy around the 1930s. Here you'll find a film that blends the spirit of adventure and lovable characters with Miyazaki's aeroplane fascination. The real-world setting of Italy in the 1930s is exquisite, and the characters are just full of fun and charm. At the same time, the film's setting in our own history opens for an interesting take on historical events and ideologies. The quote "I'd much rather be a pig than a fascist," illustrates this clearly. Fun fact: Akio Ótsuka, the Japanese voice actor for Metal Gear Solid's Snake, voices the role of Porco Rosso's rival, Donald Curtis.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

12. From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) - Goro Miyazaki didn't exactly succeed with his first film, but he still got the opportunity to try again, which resulted in From Up on Poppy Hill. This time the result was undoubtedly better, and this teen tale set in the harbour city of Yokohama in the '60s is a fascinating portrait of post-war Japan. It's a beautiful and sweet tale with both humour and seriousness, with great characters and themes of friendship and camaraderie, but the film's greatest feature is its portrayal of the era. Older viewers who've experienced Japan's harbours in the '50s and '60s have called this an accurate portrayal, which of course makes this an interesting window into the past for the rest of us.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

11. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) - Kiki's a young witch coming of age, and to show that she's ready for the adult life of freedom and responsibility she must travel from home and take care of herself for a time. This is a warm tale about the transition from childhood to adulthood, with a touch of magic throw in as a bonus. We'll explore such themes as finding one's place in society, getting to know yourself better, and becoming confident in your own talents, all of which is explored with charm and joy. The hand-drawn images radiate high production values, and Joe Hisaishi's music fits the mood of the film like a glove. On top of that, the film features Jiji, the best talking cat since Cheshire.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

10. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) - This is the proto Studio Ghibli film, considering it was released a year before the studio's establishment, and yet it has all of the studio's characteristics. You have Miyazaki's passion for the environmentalism and aeroplanes, a strong female lead, beautiful artwork with a distinct style, Joe Hisaishi's excellent music, and some great storytelling. We are presented to a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world, where Miyazaki's scepticism of technological progress at the cost of nature is clearly evident. At the same time, the film contains themes of struggle and hope for a better future.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

9. Only Yesterday (1991) - This hidden gem, directed by Isao Takahata, was quite hard to get your hands on here in the West for a long while, which also explains why it's been a hidden gem in the first place. It's a shame because this is a Ghibli film that deserves more attention. It's a lovely story about how our past affects our present, shaping our adult lives and our choices for the future. The film's story changes between past and present, giving us and the main character perspective on the important things in life. Plus, all the main characters get chubby cheeks every time they smile, which turns out to be adorable. Fun fact: Daisy Ridley, known for her role as Rey in Star Wars, voices the main character in the English dub.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

8. Whisper of the Heart (1995) - During the '90s, Ghibli started to think about the future and who would take up the mantle after Miyazaki and Takahata. One name that stuck out was Yoshifumi Kondo. Unfortunately, Kondo would only direct one film before suddenly passing away in 1998. Considering the one film he had time to direct, Whisper of the Heart, one can only imagine what other tales this wonderful mind had in store for us. This tale of a bookish girl and her unexpected friendship with a young violin maker is a wonderful story where friendship, music, the transition to adulthood, and the power of storytelling are the centrepieces. A great film, and it's perfect for audiences of all ages.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

7. Castle of Cagliostro (1979) - This film doesn't always feature on Ghibli lists like this one. Though directed by Miyazaki, it was directed several years before Ghibli was founded, and it features characters from the already established manga and anime of the king of thieves, Lupin the 3rd. Despite all of this and the film's age, it deserves a place on the top half of this list. The soundtrack is amazing, the setting is captivating, the characters are extremely likeable even though they're crooks (it helps if you're a fan of Lupin the 3rd in the first place, but it's not a requirement), and the thrill of adventure is always present. The story of Lupin, Jigen and the rest of the gang travelling to the dutchy of Cagliostro in search of the source of legendary counterfeits is a diamond in the rough, waiting to be discovered. Already available on Netflix, this is a film that has stood the test of time.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

6. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) - The story is based on one of the most famous folktales from Japan, where a bamboo cutter finds a baby and raises her to be the most beautiful lady in all the land. Though it may sound wonderful, it's a sad and tragic tale, but one that's seldom explored from the main character's point of view. This makes The Tale of Princess Kaguya even more interesting, as Isao Takahata specifically wanted to explore Kaguya's perspective on the whole story. With a unique and captivating art style, a strong sense of melancholy throughout the whole film, and a marvellous soundtrack, this final film from Takahata before his death in 2018 should be near the top of your list.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

5. Spirited Away (2001) - There is a clearly defined before and after when it comes to Spirited Away. Before launching this film overseas, Ghibli and anime was generally something for a smaller audience. This film, however, changed the landscape forever. Spirited Away was the entry point to Ghibli and anime for lots of moviegoers across the globe, receiving universal acclaim that secured the film several awards. The story of ten-year-old Chihiro who takes on employment in the spirit spa run by the witch Yubaba to save her parents' lives, is one of Miyazaki's finest, and it comes with fantastic art, a setting you can actually begin to believe in, and tons of lovable characters. It also features one of the best soundtracks from Joe Hisaishi, and the first few notes on the piano at the beginning is enough to give you chills.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

4. My Neighbor Totoro (1988) - Ghibli's most iconic film is without a doubt My Neighbor Totoro. After all, Totoro himself has become the Ghibli mascot and is featured in the studio's logo - practically everybody in Japan knows who he is, even if they've never seen a Ghibli film. The movie is set in rural Japan around the '50s, and stars the sisters Satsuki and Mei as they're getting familiar with their new life in the countryside. During these summer days, they come to know the guardian spirit of the forest, Totoro. It also boasts some amazing and believable characters, a perfect blend of the fantastic and the mundane, and an atmosphere that makes it one of the most lovable films of all time. The art is incredible, the music is timeless, and the themes are easy to grasp for both young and old. It's hard to find anyone who doesn't like it, and if you're looking for the best film to introduce your friends to the works of Ghibli, you can't really miss with Totoro on your side.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli

3. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) - Interestingly, this film is the only one not featured in Netflix's release schedule. This is a crying shame! Not only is this the greatest film by Isao Takahata, co-creator of Studio Ghibli, it may also be the best war film ever created. When an animated film starts with the words "September 21, 1945... That was the night I died," you kind of know where the film's heading. Still, nothing can prepare you for just how sad this war story of two siblings in the city of Kobe during WWII will turn out to be. It's a terrible tale and the saddest of all Ghibli films - yet at the same time, it's a captivating and important story about the horrors of war. Takahata himself experienced bomb raids during WWII, giving this film an experience of war from one who stood in the middle of it himself.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli
Photo: IMDb

2. Castle in the Sky (1986) - One of Ghibli's first films might also be one of their best, and this film is also the first one to launch under the Studio Ghibli name. Castle in the Sky is a top-notch adventure film about the young girl Sheeta and her acquaintance with the young miner Pazu, whose roads cross thanks to Sheeta's mysterious medallion, which has piqued the interest of both sky pirates and government agents alike. The common denominator here is Laputa, the legendary airborne castle mentioned in Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. This film presents a wonderful mix of adventure, memorable characters, landscapes inspired by a variety of real-world locations, and flying contraptions that only the mind of Miyazaki could've possibly conceived. Add Joe Hisaishi's music, and you get a film that'll stay with you for a long time. If the film isn't enough for you it might be an idea to check out the old '70s anime Future Boy Conan, created by several future Ghibli members with many similarities to this film.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli
Photo: IMDb

1. Princess Mononoke (1997) - In many ways, this film is the greatest testament to Hayao Miyazaki as a person, director and visionary. You'll find his extreme attention to detail, a focus on solid female characters, a story where the divide between good and bad isn't all black and white, and most of all, there's the tension and everlasting struggle between man and nature. The last bit is strengthened by the fact that Princess Mononoke leans strongly on the world view of Shinto, Japan's belief in spirits and gods in all of nature, yet knowledge of Shinto isn't required to appreciate or understand this film. The story takes place in old Japan, where gods and spirits still walk the great forests of the world, making for an epic that mixes history and fantasy as nature's forces clash with man for survival and growth. This was the first Ghibli film to use digital colouring and computer graphics, but only to emphasise the sharp, gorgeous and hand-drawn quality animation. If that's not enough for you, it also features Joe Hisaishi's greatest compositions. This is not only the magnum opus of the great Miyazaki himself, it's also undoubtedly the greatest Ghibli film.

The Beginner's Guide to Studio Ghibli
Photo: IMDb


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