A household name in entertainment worldwide, it’s hard to think of an anime studio that can come close to the prestige and fame of Studio Ghibli. With a legacy of over 35 years of creating some of the most iconic animated films and memorable character designs of all time, choosing a clear entry point to jump into anime’s most celebrated studio can be a bit overwhelming.
Taking a look at the designs, tones, and story behind some of his most famous animated features, Ghibli’s broad and story-rich output of nearly two dozen feature films can best be seen. addressed for newcomers of all ages.
Classic Miyazaki Films: The Heart of Studio Ghibli
When most people think of Studio Ghibli, director Hayao Miyazaki immediately comes to mind as the creative soul of the studio, and for good reason. One of three co-founders of Studio Ghibli in 1985 along with fellow director Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, Miyazaki’s aesthetic style of coupling realistic, atmospheric animation with earthy color palettes and fantastical creature designs and machinery has become by far the brand that Ghibli is known for. As the director of by far the most Ghibli feature films besides his pre-Ghibli work, navigating Miyazaki’s work is perhaps as difficult as stepping into the entire studio.
The first two Studio Ghibli films were directed by Miyazaki: Castle in THE sky (1986) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Castle in THE sky centers on a boy and a girl as they travel to a lost floating fortress powered by machines in the sky, and it foreshadows many Moebius-like technological motifs found in later Ghibli films. My Neighbor Totoro centers on two young girls who encounter Japanese forest spirits while navigating their family’s move to a new home. TotoroThe forest spirit designs of are among the studio’s most recognizable images, and the eponymous Totoro has since served as the studio’s logo on every feature.
With these auteur marks established in Ghibli’s first two feature films, Miyazaki’s work would continue to develop on similar aesthetics and themes. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and Porco Rosso (1992) expand on the motif of air travel, focusing on a young witch with a broomstick navigating a new city and a First World War fighter pilot who finds himself in the form of an anthropomorphic pig. By the mid-1990s, Miyazaki’s work would return to a deeper exploration of the Japanese youkai first highlighted in Totorowith Princess Mononoke (1997) and Taken away as if by magic (2001). These two feature films are among the longest and most epic of all of Miyazaki and Ghibli’s filmographies, with highly detailed examinations of Japanese folklore filtered through the lenses of a late medieval Japanese epic and a modern-day girl who finds herself forced to work in a spa for Japanese spirits. The more intense visuals and concentrated Japanese folklore in these two films make them a little less likely to appeal to young children, but their quality of animation and subtle depth make them highlights of Miyazaki’s entire filmography.
Heading into the 21st century after Spirited Away, Miyazaki’s current filmography is rounded out with three more films. Howl’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) is a story about the clash between magic and technology in a war between two fantasy kingdoms, Ponyo (2008) is a modern fantasy comedy borrowing elements from the classic fairy tale The Little Mermaid, and The wind picks up (2013), a period piece about a Japanese aeronautical engineer in the years before World War II. While The wind picks up was originally intended as Miyazaki’s final feature film, it has since come out of retirement for another feature film, How do you live?scheduled for release in 2023.
Isao Takahata Films: eclectic price for a large audience
While Hayao Miyazaki had an invaluable impact on Studio Ghibli’s oeuvre, he is far from the only director of the studio’s legendary films. During his decades-long tenure at Ghibli, anime legend Isao Takahata (1935-2018) oversaw many of the studio’s biggest and most ambitious projects.
Takahata’s feature debut for the studio was his third feature film overall, the Grave of the Fireflies (1988). A tragic and grounded story of Japanese civilian life during the final days of World War II, the Grave of the Fireflies is a film of unwavering power, even if it shouldn’t be shown to young audiences. Takahata’s more grounded tension continues with his second Ghibli feature, Only yesterday (1991), which is based on an introspective view of Japanese life in the 1980s.
For his third film at Ghibli, Takahata turned to a more comedic and fantastical direction with pompoko (1994), which chronicles the multigenerational escapades of shape-shifting Japanese tanuki as they observe and fight against the industrial encroachment of a modernizing Japan. While it relishes Takahata’s more idiosyncratic sensibilities, the film builds on the theme of Japanese folklore first explored in My Neighbor Totoro, eventually setting the stage for that theme’s climax in Spirited Away.
For his last two films, Takahata leaned into stylistic innovations resulting in two of Ghibli’s most visually unique offerings. In the comedy movie My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), Takahata employs a unique sketchbook style to comically relay stories from the daily life of a Japanese family. For his latest film The Story of Princess Kaguya (2013), Takahata draws inspiration from traditional Japanese art for a fairy tale like the story of Kaguya-hime, a medieval legend about a woman born from the carving of a bamboo shoot. The Story of Princess Kaguya is the most immediate departure from traditional anime aesthetics in Ghibli’s oeuvre, but it’s also one of the studio’s most subtly moving films. While Isao Takahata’s multifaceted fare leans a little more arcane and mature than Miyazaki’s works, his films are the epitome of Studio Ghibli history, legacy and style.
Ghibli Mainstays from other directors
Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki are Ghibli’s two most famous directors, but the studio has welcomed a number of other great offers beyond the duo. Three of Ghibli’s 21st century feature films were directed by Hayao’s son, Goro Miyazaki: Tales from Earthsea (2006), From the top of Poppy Hill (2011) and Earwig and the Witch (2020). Tales from Earthsea is a visually stunning yet finely plotted adaptation of the earthsea series of novels by Ursula K. LeGuin, From the top of Poppy Hill is a more grounded drama set in Japan in the 1960s, and Earwig and the Witch is a fantasy novel adaptation with the distinction of being Ghibli’s somewhat ambivalent first foray into CGI animated features. (CGI had already been used in the animated series Ronja, the thief’s daughter (2014), which was a Ghibli co-production also directed by Goro.)
Another major Ghibli director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, is known for his work on Arrietty’s Secret World (2010) and When Marnie Was Here (2015). Arrietty is a fairy tale story where tiny people live and rummage between the walls of a country mansion, and When Marnie Was Here is a PG drama based on a 1960s British novel. Finally, two accompanying photos for the whole family can be found in Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the heart (1995) and Hiroyuki Morita The cat returns (2002). Based on the manga by Japanese artist Aoi Hiiragi, these two films focus on the intersections between the human world and a fantasy world rich in imaginative visuals. Although the two films are not explicit sequels, a minor character named Baron in whisper of hearts is actually the eponymous feline of The cat returns.
Altogether, Studio Ghibli’s feature film production is as broad as it is captivating. Home cooking like Kiki’s Delivery Service and Ponyoto epic adventures like Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Howl’s Moving Castleto entrenched and often inflexible dramas like the Grave of the Fireflies and Only yesterdayStudio Ghibli has movies to impress and engage movie and animation fans of all ages.
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