If you’re anything like me, you didn’t really grow up watching Disney classics like Beauty and the Beast or Bambi. You grew up with Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away. In lieu of Mickey Mouse, you had Totoro. The highly prolific and quality movie machine that is Studio Ghibli is legendary, just as legendary as its ramen-making co-founder Hayao Miyazaki (who will likely die before he ever actually retires). To me, Ghibli films symbolize simplicity, maturity, complexity. There is an infinite range of themes, including feminism and environmentalism, explored in all of the films and shorts that people of all ages can relate to - and they don’t shy away from difficult themes like death and war. Studio Ghibli films aren’t just a part of my childhood but are embedded in my identity - just like Sailor Moon and Avatar: The Last Airbender are. With that being said, I love me a good movie list so I ranked my top five!
(#6) Grave of the Fireflies (1988, dir. Isao Takahata) & My Neighbor Totoro (1988, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
So before I actually start with my top five, I feel like I absolutely have to mention my love for both Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro, which were released together on a double bill in 1988. And what an astounding pair these two films make. They’re so opposite in tone and subject matter, but way more similar than you think; they work perfectly to complement each other while both centering the massive impact that things like war and death has on children. Both these films are ones I haven’t revisited much because they’re difficult to watch. Grave of the Fireflies, which Roger Ebert has described as “one of the greatest war films ever made”, is set in World War II Japan. It follows Seita (a young teen) and Setsuko (5) as they try to survive desperately on their own after their town and mother are ravished by napalm and fire bombs. Takahata’s story is perfectly constructed with scenes of quiet contemplation, the most depressing of which comes at the beginning and at the end when Setsuko’s malnourished hallucinations lead her to offer Seita mud balls as rice. My Neighbor Totoro, on the other hand, follows two sisters who move to a new town for their hospitalized mother and adventures with fantastical creatures, but creeping on the inside is a looming sense of oncoming grief and death. There is a somberness mixed in with the generally happy and cheerful tone of the film that you can’t help but notice (especially when considering the fan theory of Totoro being the God of Death), not just in this film but in all of Miyazaki’s features.
In both these films, Takahata and Miyazaki’s personal styles (thematically and visually) shine through and work well together. Takahata, like Miyazaki, is a creative genius whose films are deeply personal and inflected with themes of modern humanity, and the negative consequences of an industrialized society (his film Pom Poko is also great). And in Grave of the Fireflies, he deliberately focuses on the personal tragedies that occur in a society torn by war. Miyazaki, who the world has rightly embraced as a master filmmaker, is a household name whose combination of charming characters and seemingly innocent story works well to deliver a soft perspective of children and grief in My Neighbor Totoro.
Pro Tip: Do not watch Grave without a box of tissues ready. It took me at least three different tries to just get past the first five minutes of this without slobbering over my tears and snot.
#5 Howl’s Moving Castle (2004, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
Based off of Diana Wyne Jones’ novel of the same name, Howl’s Moving Castle is a really beautiful movie. I believe it to have less dense complexity in comparison to the above films, but it’s a fantastical movie that draws you in with its unique characters and charming story. She has run-ins with a Turnip Head (who’s like, in love with her), a cute fire and boy duo by the name of Calcifer and Markl, and of course, Howl, the drama queen himself. And each of these characters are iconic in their own right, making this an even more lovable story.
I had read the novel after watching and falling in love with the movie, and there are elements that I wish were included in the film. Howl’s Moving Castle is about a mousy young woman named Sophie who, after a bad encounter with the Witch of the Waste, turns into a 90 year old and must help Howl & Co. to break her spell. Something you realize is that Sophie has powers of her own, and her realization of her own sense of self is what breaks her spell. Ultimately, what captures me the most about this film is that it’s super #extra. The visuals are stunning, the score is stunning, and everything about this movie is stunning.
#4 Whisper of the Heart (1995, Dir. Yoshifumi Kondo)
I have a soft spot for this one. Similar to mumblecore, something about capturing the daily struggle of just living as a person in this world is so very enchanting to me. And in the case of Whisper of the Heart, it literally is enchanting. The film, which was Kondo’s first and only feature film as a director, is about a bookish girl, Shizuku, who has creative ambition but no inspiration from her mundane middle school life. Her encounters with a magical cat and an interesting boy inspire her to pursue writing, just as she inspires them to pursue their endeavors. It’s a simple film with a simple charm, and I love it with all my heart, likely because I see a lot of myself in Shizuku. The film includes a cute love story but it’s mostly secondary to the real story of Shizuku working hard on her creative goals despite being backed by a rigid education-based society.
Whisper of the Heart isn’t as fantastical as other Ghibli movies, but its simplicity is what brings out the magic of the story. You can feel Shizuku’s struggle of wanting to do something more creative with her life, while also relating to her navigation of middle school puppy love. And who can forget the ever-so-catchy tune of ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ that recurs throughout the movie.
#3 Princess Mononoke (1997, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
This movie will change you. It didn’t change me the first couple times that I saw it, but watching this on the big screen at my local college theater was one of the best filmgoing experiences I’ve ever had. There’s something about being able to see every single detail that is put into an epic like this that leaves you kind of breathless and your mind bottled. You will be able to inhale the dusty metallic atmosphere of Irontown, soak in the awe-inspiring world of spirits and bloody boars, and witness the sheer terror and magnitude with which humans have wreaked havoc on its surrounding environment.
Much like Pom Poko (and somehow entirely different from it), Princess Mononoke is a story urging for desperate consideration of the natural world being torn apart by industrialization. It follows Ashitaka (a tourist, really) and San (the titular wolf princess) as they navigate a war of worlds between the conniving Lady Eboshi’s iron army and the Forest Spirit. All the characters are complex and well thought out - particularly in the case of Lady Eboshi, who is a raging feminist but with an extremely anti-environmentalist agenda. The iconicity of the spirits, ranging from the cute kodama to the vengeful wild boars to the elegant and terrifying wolves to the haunting Forest Spirit, is embedded into my pop culture subconscious, and there is certainly no shortage of their influence outside of Princess Mononoke. Just watch the season one finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
#2 Spirited Away (2001, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
I can’t have any list of Studio Ghibli movies without including Spirited Away, the film that launched Miyazaki into the international cinematic stage. His film was the first and only non-U.S. film to win Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, and he coolly rebuffed the award and didn’t attend the ceremony in silent protest of the United States’ militaristic invasion of Iraq. The film is complicated and fantastical, adventurous and quiet, relatable and contemplative all at once. Spirited Away starts out like Alice in Wonderland but is ten times better and a thousand times more complex. Ten-year-old Chihiro and her family are moving, much to Chihiro’s dismay, and when they encounter an abandoned “theme park”, Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs and she must delve into the spirit world and gain not only an open mind but also self-confidence to save her parents. I don’t want to say anything more because this one of those films that needs to be experienced and not just told about.
The movie has every touch that Miyazaki puts in his other films; there is enormous attention to detail, themes of childhood and female empowerment, amazingly developed characters and eerie creatures, and a powerful story to boot. I first saw this film on a VHS at my first grade hakwon with a dozen other Korean kids and it had me in its grips from the second it started. I couldn’t take my eyes away and I proceeded to annoyingly replay it on the communal TV as many times as I could. This movie is burned into my soul and Joe Hisaishi’s absolutely perfect and poignant score is seared into my DNA. And let me tell you, you are never too young to start shipping because I was a Chihiro/Haku stan from the very beginning (even though they’re like completely platonic).
#1 Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
This one may surprise you, but I am IN LOVE WITH THIS FILM. I can watch it for days and still be completely obsessed over it. The story of Kiki’s Delivery Service is relatively simple. Kiki is a young witch who must spend a year away from home in order to become That Bitch™, but in doing so, she finds herself plateauing in her new life and her skills as a witch faltering. In many ways, what I love most about Kiki’s Delivery Service are the same things I love about Whisper of the Heart. For any creative person who's dealt with a block (writer’s, artist’s, etc), you will relate to this film because that’s exactly what Kiki’s goes through, a sort of witch’s block. The usual story structure for most Miyazaki films is that the protagonist gains self-confidence, allowing her to succeed, and this happens with Kiki as well. But at the same time, I feel something more with Kiki’s character development; her self-confidence isn’t gained from making any hard decisions or dealing with more adult subject matter (like death or war), she gains self-confidence by surrounding herself with people who support her and her journey. Her friendships with Ursula and Tombo and Osono and Jiji allow her to flourish and succeed in becoming the best witch she can be.
I may not be a witch, but I am That Bitch™ who, just like Kiki, always wants to succeed and love what they do. But, just like Kiki, I frequently find myself stuck with nowhere to go. What Kiki’s Delivery Service has taught me, and continues to teach me, is that happiness and success takes time and mutual effort and times of contemplation.
Some honorable mentions go out to The Cat Returns (2002) and Pom Poko (1994). I know that I’m missing a huge chunk of the Ghibli filmography in my list, but I truly think nothing can top my love for these specific five films. Let me know which Studio Ghibli movies are your fav!