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Where To Start: Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli mascot Totoro

Studio Ghibli is one of the world’s most beloved anime studios. It has received acclaim from audiences, critics, awards bodies and the box office. Therefore it’s easy to see why potential newcomers might be intimidated by the legendary studio and not know where they should start their Ghibli journey. 

Today we will provide a guide to ease you into the wonderful world of Ghibli. Firstly we will briefly go through the studio’s history and its founders. We will then review their film’s common styles and themes. Before finally listing the five films we think give the best introduction to the studio’s work.

Ghibli’s History

Directors, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata along with producer Toshio Suzuki founded Studio Ghibli in 1985 after Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’s success. The studio’s name came from an Italian word referring to both a hot desert wind and a WWII plane. The name symbolised the impact Miyazaki wanted to make on animation and his love of aircraft.

Ghibli’s first film, 1986’s steampunk favourite Castle in the Sky immediately caught people’s attention. In 1988 the studio produced Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbour Totoro simultaneously. Despite the trying production process for the young studio, both films became instant classics. After 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ghibli brought animators on staff permanently rather than project by project. These animators subsequently worked on Miyazaki’s and Takahata’s features and helped create projects like Ocean Waves and Whisper of the Heart.

In 1996 Ghibli’s parent company, Tokuma Shoten, partnered with Disney (which continued in Ghibli’s independent era). Several of their projects received dubs and higher-profile international distribution, bringing Ghibli’s work more attention. GKIDS acquired the theatrical rights for several Ghibli films in 2011, but Disney handled home media releases until 2017. During this partnership Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, for a time, became the highest-grossing film in Japan. Spirited Away became the first anime film to win the best-animated feature Oscar and the Ghibli Museum opened. Additionally, Hiroyuki Morita, Gorō Miyazaki, and Hiromasa Yonebayashi made their Ghibli debuts.

The studio is currently experiencing a period of change. Isao Takahata passed away in 2018. The studio also released its first entirely CG film and made its entire back catalogue available on streaming for the first time. Hayao Miyazaki is currently working on a new feature but his continual retirement announcements have made many wonder what will happen to Ghibli in the future.

Ghibli’s Style

One thing that sets Ghibli apart is that it mainly sticks to using traditional hand-drawn techniques to realise its films. It uses CG sparingly (aside from Earwig and the Witch). Even the upcoming How Do You Live? uses hand-drawn animation. Making Ghibli an outlier in the modern animation industry.

Ghibli also has many elements and themes that their films continually return to. Including the interaction between humanity and nature, children or young adults coming of age, mundane situations interacting with the fantastical or extraordinary, strong women characters, and an anti-war stance.

Ghibli’s Best

Finally, which Ghibli films provide the best entry point for audiences?

Grave of the Fireflies

Isao Takahata’s first Ghibli film is a heartbreaking story about two children attempting to survive in a world made cruel by war.

Grave of the Fireflies is often considered one of the best anti-war films ever made // Credit: Studio Ghibli
Grave of the Fireflies is often considered one of the best anti-war films ever made // Credit: Studio Ghibli

My Neighbor Totoro

When a family moves to the countryside their two children discover and begin interacting with woodland spirits. My Neighbor Totoro is the equivalent of an 86-minute warm hug.

My Neighbour Totoro really captures the innocence of childhood // Credit: Studio Ghibli
My Neighbour Totoro really captures the innocence of childhood // Credit: Studio Ghibli

Princess Mononoke

The story of a Prince caught in the middle of a war between forest-dwelling spirits, gods and warriors and the technologically advancing humans encroaching on their territory is an exhilarating epic that everyone must see.

San and her wolf family are ready to battle the humans destroying the forest // Credit: Studio Ghibli
San and her wolf family are ready to battle the humans destroying the forest // Credit: Studio Ghibli

Spirited Away

Spirited Away is about Chihiro who begins working at a bath house for spirits and gods while trying to save her parents who were transformed into pigs. A fantastic coming-of-age film and the only anime film to win the best-animated film at the Oscars.

Spirited Away is perhaps Ghibli's most acclaimed work // Credit: Studio Ghibli
Spirited Away is perhaps Ghibli’s most acclaimed work // Credit: Studio Ghibli

When Marnie Was There

This bittersweet drama is a wonderful supernatural-inflected tale about finding friends and yourself through exploring the past that hits as hard as any live-action drama.

Anna only opens to her friend Marnie // Credit: Studio Ghibli
Anna only opens to her friend Marnie // Credit: Studio Ghibli

Hopefully, this article has given you enough insight into Studio Ghibli to encourage you to start your Ghibli journey. Enjoy.

Also Read: How Anime Went International

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Posted by
Josh Greally

Writer and filmmaker. I have a masters in directing film and television and have written film reviews for several smaller sites in the past. Films are my life, but I also enjoy writing, reading, listening to music and debating.