Studio Ghibli: A First Time Viewer’s Guide

Studio Ghibli is a household name for many cinephiles, as well as storytellers of other mediums. The studio is famous for its meticulous animation style, weird and wonderful imagination, but most of all for its effortlessly universal stories. Founded in 1985 by directors Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and producers Toshio Suzuki and Yasuyoshi Tokuma, the studio has a filmography of 21 animated features, numerous short films, an official museum in Tokyo, and countless awards.

Thanks to Netflix, most of Ghibli’s catalogue is now accessible for online streaming for the first time ever (as of April 1st). And with most of us stuck inside for the foreseeable future, it’s the perfect time to escape to a magical forest of ancient gods, a town submerged after a magically induced tsunami, or a flying castle hidden in the clouds.

But the whimsical world of Miyazaki and his peers may be intimidating for first-time viewers in the West with its radish spirits, flying robots and goldfish princesses. So here are a few places to start, whether you prefer heartfelt coming-of-age adventures, historical biopics, or fantastical epics: five of the animation company’s most beloved films to open the gates into the unique storytelling of Studio Ghibli.

Studio Ghibli

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Start with this if you like: Paddington (2014), Okja (2017), The Iron Giant (1999)

What to expect: A haunted house, exchanging of umbrellas, and a giant spirit who plays the ocarina.

Some people might not know the name Studio Ghibli, but if you put the big fluffy forest spirit Totoro in front of them, they’d probably recognise him. Having become one of the iconic faces of animation, Totoro had humble beginnings. His film is sweet and gentle, following two sisters who have moved with their father to the countryside to be closer to the hospital where their mother is being treated. Upon exploring their new home, they discover soot sprites (little black fuzz balls also iconic to the studio) and a secret path into a tree where a giant fluffy spirit lives.

Totoro is a great introduction to the studio’s films for children that can make anyone feel youthful wonder again. Miyazaki’s many strengths as a storyteller include his ability to represent more mature themes and realities for a younger audience and, while Totoro is on the lighter scale of this, there are moments when the concern for a loved one’s safety or health is genuinely scary. It’s refreshing for any kid to be treated with that much emotional intelligence, and for adults too.

What to watch next:

Ponyo (2008), the story of a small boy and a fish-girl who wants to be human, or Arrietty (2010), (based on The Borrowers) following a miniature girl and the human boy in the house she borrows from.

Then… When Marnie Was There, (2014) The Cat Returns (2002), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Studio Ghibli

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Start with this if you like: Stardust (2007), The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Shape of Water (2017)

What to expect: A door to many places, catching a shooting star, and a cynical fire demon.

Howl’s Moving Castle is in some ways the most accessible for Western audiences since it’s a loose adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ British novel of the same name. Whimsical in a way we’re more familiar with over here, it’s a swashbuckling adventure full of wizards, witches, curses and kingdoms (as opposed half-naked radish spirits – though there is a scarecrow called Turnip Head). Released in 2004, it also feels more immediately contemporary than some of the studio’s other classics.

Our heroine, Sophie, works in a hat shop. That is until she’s cursed to be an old woman – and runs right into the path of a mechanical moving castle belonging to Howl, the notoriously dangerous wizard. But being cursed to be old has unexpectedly given Sophie a new lease of life now that no one pays her much mind. She makes a deal with the fire demon in the castle, befriends Howl’s young apprentice, and even stands up to the wizard himself. But board and passage aren’t the only things she gains from their company, and soon she’s weaved into a war between kingdoms, a feud between wizards, and a love she never expected to find.

What to watch next:

Castle in the Sky (1986), the tale of a young boy and mysterious girl in their quest to find a floating city, or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), amidst a dystopia of toxic jungles and giant insects, a headstrong princess strives to end a bitter war peacefully.

Then… Tales from Earthsea (2006), Spirited Away (2001), Castle of Cagliostro (1979) [directed by Miyazaki before Ghibli was founded]

Studio Ghibli

The Wind Rises (2013)

Start with this if you like: Bright Star (2009), Cold War (2018), The Imitation Game (2014)

What to expect: WWII fighter planes, star-crossed lovers, and an engineer with his head in the clouds.

For those who prefer films set in a more recognisable world, Ghibli still has a lot to offer. As a fictionalised biopic of flight engineer Jiro Horikoshi, designer of a WWII Japanese fighter aircraft, The Wind Rises might be the place to start. It was supposedly Miyazaki’s final film before retirement – his seventh time lying down the paintbrush (until 2017, when he changed his mind again, to the excitement of many Ghibli-lovers). As what we thought was a final bow from the director, it is a gentle masterpiece.

While his flawed eyesight prevented him from achieving his childhood dream, Jiro had become one of the best plane engineers of his time. An idealist at heart, he hopes his designs will be used for pleasure in a peaceful world. But the eruption of a second world war twists his creations into something far from that. While I would praise the accessibility of Ghibli films for all ages alike, this is one example where younger audiences will probably find the politics as dull as our hero Jiro does. But for those who like a darker drama, this is a war film focused on the people caught up in someone else’s fight.

What to watch next:

Porco Rosso (1992), the story of a WWI pilot turned bounty hunter in the Adriatic Sea cursed to be a pig, or Only Yesterday (1991), where a woman in her late twenties reflects on her childhood in Tokyo.

Then… My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Grave of the Fireflies (1988) [not on Netflix]

Studio Ghibli

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Start with this if you like: Frances Ha (2012), Brooklyn (2015), The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

What to expect: Teenage social anxiety, a talking black cat, and a painter living with crows in the woods.

When a witch turns 13, they must leave home for a year to practice their special skill. Kiki can’t wait. But it isn’t long after she lifts off on her old family broomstick, with a black cat, Jiji, making unhelpful comments, that she realises finding your place in the world can be pretty hard. The themes of moving to new towns, not knowing anyone, and honing your craft are not unique to Ghibli, but they sure have a creative way of telling this classic rite-of-passage.

In a big city, she begins to make her mark the only way she knows how: flying, with an improvised delivery service. But Kiki has been raised by tradition, and this city is full of new inventions and trends. To make matters worse, her unease begins to affect her ability to fly. While the film was a childhood favourite, I personally found it a particularly significant re-watch during university where I found myself, much like Kiki, feeling alone and uncertain of my abilities when everyone else seemed to have everything worked out. It serves as a useful reminder that if you surround yourself with good people, and push through uncertainty, you can find your feet again.

What to watch next:

Whisper of the Heart (1995), the tale of a young writer navigating high school and the boy who keeps taking out her library books, or From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), where a group of students attempt to save their clubhouse from demolition.

Then… Only Yesterday (1991), Ocean Waves (1993), Castle in the Sky (1986)

Studio Ghibli

Spirited Away (2001)

Start with this if you like: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Coraline (2009), Alice in Wonderland (1951)

What to expect: A bathhouse inhabited by spirits, a shape-shifting dragon, and a train that crosses the sea.

If you’re daring and want to jump right in at the deep end on the strange and whimsical scale then I applaud you and suggest you start with Spirited Away. While Totoro might be the most iconic character to come out of the studio, this is what brought Ghibli as a company to the mainstream attention of the West. Winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature will do that. It is perhaps most distinguishable from Western cinema in the studio’s catalogue, but it reminded many of us that the human experience and storytelling is universal, however strange the culture differences may at first seem.

Chihiro’s childhood has already been uprooted when her parents move for work. And then they wander through an abandoned train station on the way to their new house. Only to find it leads much further than some train tracks. As night falls, Chihiro finds her parents transformed into pigs in this strange spirit town, and herself trapped and indebted to a witch that runs an enormous bathhouse. Her task becomes more than rescuing her parents; she will have to protect the bathhouse, defeat the witch, and fall in love with a shape-changing dragon.

What to watch next:

Princess Mononoke (1997), where an exiled prince tries to save a magical forest and the fierce girl adopted by the gods who live there, or The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013), a folktale where a tiny girl found in a bamboo shoot is raised by a woodcutter and his wife.

Then… Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Pom Poko (1994), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Most of the Studio Ghibli catalogue is now available to stream on Netflix

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