Studio Ghibli may easily be called the Disney of Japan. An animation film studio founded in 1985 by Isao Takahta and Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli has consistently produced brilliant hand-drawn animated films, and its characters have become ubiquitous in Japanese culture. Over the last 25 years, the production studio has released 17 feature films, eight of which are among the 15 highest-grossing anime films of all time. The most recent Studio Ghibli film From Up on Poppy Hill opens on March 15th to limited release and tells the story of two boarding school teenagers protesting the demolishing of their school’s clubhouse, all against the backdrop of the 1964 Summer Olympics.
To mark the film’s release, here is my list of the top five Studio Ghibli films so far:
5. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
One of Studio Ghibli’s earliest films, Kiki’s Delivery Service is the story of a young witch who uses her magical powers to earn a living for a year in the city of Koriko. As the film explains, witches traditionally live a year alone when they reach the age of 13, and a major focus of the film is Kiki’s independence. The film goes beyond being a coming of age tale and emphasizes personal creativity and talent, as Kiki puts her abilities to the test in her delivery service. Like the later Ghibli film Whisper of the Heart, Kiki’s Delivery Service celebrates personal growth and confidence.
4. Spirited Away (2001)
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away tells the story of ten-year-old Chihiro who enters an alternate reality filled with monsters and spirits while moving into a new house. In this magical world, she must work in a bathhouse for the spirits to free her parents who have been transformed into pigs and find a way back home. Chihiro is separated from everything she has ever known and must fight to maintain her identity. It is no coincidence that the witch Yubaba takes Chihiro’s true name, renaming her Sen. A common theme in Japanese folklore, it signals the death of the child Chihiro and requires Chihiro to create a new identity, symbolizing the passage to adulthood.
3. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Totoro is the most iconic image associated with Studio Ghibli – the character is even the studio’s logo. Thoroughly adorable and loveable, Totoro is the highlight of a largely plotless film. My Neighbor Totoro follows two young girls, the daughters of a professor, as they move to a rural house and explore their new surroundings. Much of the film is devoted to the girls’ interactions and friendships with benevolent woodland creatures. Although the 86-minute running time may seem drawn out with such an absent plot, the film’s appeal lies in its depiction of the completely relatable experience of exploring and settling into new surroundings.
2. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Grave of Fireflies provides absolute proof that animated films have the capacity to resonate with the same depth of emotion as live-action films. Isao Takahta’s film is the devastating story of a young orphaned boy who must take care of his little sister during the firebombing of the city of Kobe in World War II. Suffering from starvation and with nowhere to go, the two children try to survive in an abandoned bomb shelter. The soul-wrenching story emphasizes the grave repercussions of war by focusing on what is likely the darkest time in Japan’s history. Takahta’s Grave of Fireflies is truly one of the most powerful war films ever made.
1. Princess Mononoke (1997)
This film was likely the first introduction most Americans had to the work of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli and is a personal favorite. At the time in 2001, the film was acclaimed for its success as a complex and adult animation that put the typical Disney equivalent to shame. The story of a warrior princess and the struggle between supernatural guardians of the forest and humans of the Iron Town, Princess Mononoke resonates as a moving commentary on humanity’s relationship with nature. The film’s powerful script and breathtaking animation make it a landmark in the world of anime.