For many fans, Studio Ghibli represents the pinnacle of Japanese anime, creating some of the finest animated films ever produced. The studio wowed audiences with last year's When Marnie Was There, its first release following the departure of founding fathers Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, but that's no shock. After all, Ghibli's been making incredible movies for years — and I think they'll have even more hits in the future.
But before we can look forward, it's important to look at the past. I could easily turn this into a longer list with just how much great material they have produced over the years. But we'll keep it at a simple top five for now. These five movies best encapsulate the full spectrum of Ghibli, and are perfect introductory films for newcomers.
5. Spirited Away
Spirited Away is probably Ghibli's most famous work to date. And there's a reason for that — it's probably their most accessible film to date. Regardless of your age, gender or creed it's always surprising if you don't find at least something magical or spellbinding about its content. With vivid colors, original and imaginative characters, an adventure filled story and some great morals and ethics to boot, this epic tale places Japanese mythology in a contemporary context. It also helps that the soundtrack is sublime and the animation faultless.
If you have never watched a Ghibli film in your life this one is perfect for introducing you to everything that makes the studio so beloved. A thrill ride from start to end, you'll leave scratching your head over the fact that writer/director Hayo Miyazaki was literally making the whole thing up as he went along. With such intricately weaved and overlapping plot points this is a beautiful tale you'll want to watch over and over again.
4. The Tale of Princess Kaguya
This is clearly a much less obvious choice than the first one. In fact it's probably my least obvious choice in the list, but it is here for a reason. It's here to show the diversity in Studio Ghibli's films. Princess Kaguya is beautiful in so many ways that Spirited Away is not, and visa versa. Not only is its animation absolutely sublime, and in a completely different style to most other Ghibli releases, but it's tone, pacing, story and characters are completely different as well. The genius in this film however is how much it retains its Ghibli essence in spite of all these changes.
However I would personally argue that Princess Kaguya is Ghibli's most successful attempt at explaining and solving the dilemmas of life without resorting to preachy or overly excessive tactics. Rather than bashing you over the head with its morals, it subtly sweeps them into the movie from under your nose. I genuinely love Princess Kaguya and truly believe that if you give it your patience and attention, you will be richly rewarded for it.
3. My Neighbor Totoro
My Neighbor Totoro was Ghibli's most famous release for over a decade before Spirited Away came out. Capturing a smaller, more localized tale however means that Totoro still retains a charm that few other animated films can claim. Set in the country, it harkens back to typical Ghibli messages with its focus on nature, community, family and their importance.
Its upbeat humor, innocent tone and off-kilter characters cover-up a much darker story that becomes more apparent on second viewing. Yet this heartfelt element to the narrative is a big part of what has garnered the film classic status, and in no way dampens it's positive energy. Some viewers may find it a little too sweet to swallow, so cynics's be warned: you will either be swept away by it's genuine charm, or cringed out by it's overly sentimental content. I for one was the prior!
2. Grave of the Fireflies
Released as a companion piece to My Neighbor Totoro, this one will really, really zip up the mouths of any cynic out there that finds Ghibli to be too "cutesy." This film is dark. Like, really dark. In fact, probably one of the darkest and saddest films I have ever seen in my life. Every time I have ever recommended this film to anyone I've always added a forewarning of it's melancholic tone, and nobody ever listens! They always return saying, "I saw Grave of the Fireflies. Man you weren't kiddin'! That was some dark stuff! It was amazing but boy, I really didn't believe you when you told me it would be this sad!" So dark in fact that I was hesitant to put it on this list.
But it is an absolute classic. When I first heard about Studio Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies was one of the first films I heard about, even before Spirited Away. It's also pretty much compulsory viewing for any anime fanatics out there and proves once and for all that anime isn't just for kids. Beautifully told, writer and director Isao Takahata keeps you mesmerized with glorious imagery and too-cute-to-handle lead characters dealing with a heartbreaking story. It's like a beautiful car crash — you want to look away, but just can't. And that's why it's still a great introductory film to the studio, even if it is hard viewing.
1. Howl's Moving Castle
There are a lot of movies that could've made this place. Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, and Castle in the Sky, to name but a few. I gave the edge to Howl's Moving Castle however just for how popular it is. It's cited by many as their favorite Studio Ghibli film of all time, other than the sickos that name Grave of the Firefly as their favorite! It's also got the best of both worlds. It has the sweeping, epic fantasy element that we see in Spirited Away, as well as the smaller, more localized charm of My Neighbor Totoro.
A ever-so slightly lackluster ending stops it from being an absolutely perfect movie, but it cuts so close and charms so well that you'll be more than forgiving of this when the final credits roll. It's animation is poetic (in fact it might be the most beautifully drawn film I've ever seen), it's pacing precise, and, once again, it's characters as original and imaginative as any of the best characters Ghibli has ever conjured up. Howl's Moving Castle has grown on me more and more as the years have rolled on and is definitely worth checking out for any new fans to the studio.
Well that's 5 Studio Ghibli classics you definitely should consider viewing if your new to the production house! Part of why it has become so successful over the decades is simply because of how diverse their content is. However despite this Ghibli always appears to resort back to consistent themes of empathy, compassion and sustainability — and therefore they're not only beautiful pieces of art and entertainment, but also great for teaching kids, and reminding adults, on what's really important in life! We could all add a little more Studio Ghibli to our life, so why not give a couple of these titles a go?
What's your favorite Studio Ghibli movie? Let me know in the comments!