The Disney of the East: Where to start for a newcomer to Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli films are wonderfully Japanese. They are something that you think may be too weird, too childish or just not interesting enough to give the time of day. However, I recommend you listen to that friend that swears by them (I’m sure there is one). There are so many different titles to choose from, but I think starting in the right place makes a big difference whether you start your love affair or not.

I remember starting my anime obsession with Black Cat and it was the perfect place for me to start. On that similar thought, I want to introduce the Studio Ghibli newcomers to a few great films to get going.

Spirited Away

A critically acclaimed film, Spirited Away is the perfect place to start for those beginning to embark on this incredible journey. The film was released in 2001 and is Japan’s most successful film ever, even claiming the title of the first animated film to win an Academy Award.

The story follows ten-year-old Chihiro Ogino, who unknowingly enters a magical world with her parents. Chihiro wanders off from her parents at what they believe is an abandoned amusement park. She then meets a boy who tells her she is in danger and needs to leave immediately, frantically returning to find her parents have turned into pigs after eating the food of the gods. On from there, is a crazy, exciting story with many colourful and interesting characters.

One of the best things about this story, is no matter how many times you watch the film, there will always hidden gems that you did not notice before. Similarly, there are many Japanese customs and history that are embedded in the story that will  make you ready to jet off to Japan as soon as possible.

In 2014 I was lucky enough to visit Japan and stay with a host family for a few days. I ticked off a bucket list item I never knew I had until Spirited Away came on TV and I blissfully watched it in Japanese (despite not knowing the language).

Be on the look out for my favourite characters: Haku and Kamaji!

Howl’s Moving Castle

My absolute favourite Studio Ghibli film, I could watch this a hundred times and still feel blissfully happy at the end. Howl’s Moving Castle is a love story between Sophie, a young girl who is cursed by an evil witch, and a magician called Howl. Accepting her fate as a cursed old woman, Sophie happens upon Howl’s moving castle in which she meets Calcifer – a fire demon who has a curse of his own. They make a deal to free each other from their curses, however, Sophie gets so much more than she was expecting.

I am a sucker for a love story, but for those not so inclined, Howl’s Moving Castle provides many witty scenes to keep you entertained.

Howl: [Quietly amused] Calcifer? You’re being so obedient.

Calcifer: Not on purpose! She bullied me!

Howl: Not just anybody can do that.

[Looks at Sophie]

Howl: And you are… who?

Old Sophie: Er, You can just call me Grandma Sophie. I’m your new cleaning lady. I just started work today.

My favourite characters in Howl’s Moving Castle are Howl (duh!) and the fire demon Calcifer! And one of my favourite scenes from the film is when Sophie cleans up Howl’s bathroom causing Howl to accidentally dye his hair the wrong colour. Howl has the biggest dummy-spit!

Kiki’s delivery Service

I would definitely recommend this for younger audiences, it is a great place to start for those wanting a cute and simple story and ease into the Studio Ghibli. Kiki’s delivery service was released in 1989, a story that follows 13-year-old witch Kiki and her cat Jiji as they move to a new town a start a delivery service. That is literally the whole movie, which sounds rather boring and uninteresting, but I think it is so easy to watch and gives you happy feelings that it does not matter. Unlike many of Studio Ghibli films, the only supernatural parts of the movie are Kiki flying through the air on her broom, and talking to her cat. However, this makes it that much more relatable because it’s a story about moving away from home, making friends, fitting in and starting anew.

My favourite character is Jiji – Kiki’s cat. He makes the funniest little comments on everything

Image Credit: Jiji Wallpaper by Dekodere on Deviant Art

Kiki: You know that painter that found the stuffed cat? She wants to do a picture of me.

Jiji: Naked?

Kiki: Jiji!

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro was released in 1988 and tells the story about two young girls, Satsuki and Mei, who moves to a new house to be closer to their hospitalised mother. They soon discover that forest nearby is inhabited by magical creatures called Totoro’s and subsequently go on many adventures with their new friends. Totoro actually comes from Mei mispronouncing Tororu which means troll in Japanese and King Totoro is the mascot for Hayao Miyazaki‘s animation studio.

The film is partially autobiographical as Hayao Miyazaki and his brothers grow up with their mother spending much of her time hospitalised with spinal tuberculosis. It is implied that Satsuki and Mei’s mother suffered from the same thing but never explicitly revealed. Hayao once mentioned that he would not have been able to make the film if the two lead characters were boys instead of girls.

My Neighbor Totoro is a super sweet movie that chronicles the adventures of children, much like films like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.

The master of storytelling

Once you have watched the above films, and loved them (because you will), you will need to know one name: Hayao Miyazaki. He  is a Japanese film director, producer, screenwriter, animator, author, and manga artist, and the co-founder for Studio Ghibli, which is the reason why Studio Ghibli is super amazing. He has been likened to Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg and Orson Welles for his contribution to film.

Image Credit: The Playlist

Hayao Miyazaki puts so much of himself into his films, which make them so unique and interesting. During the production phase of Kiki’s delivery service, he traveled to Sweden to study the buildings to base the fictional city of Koriko. Similarly in Spirited Away, to animate the scene where Chihiro force feed Haku-Dragon medicine, Hayao had his animators go to a verterinarian clinic and study a dog’s mouth as they fed it treats, making the scene really realistic (as much as an animated dragon could be).

Hayao Miyazaki also has tokens of himself embedded in the films – his fascination with flying is evident in many of his films; Kiki flying using a broomstick and subsequently setting up a delivery service, Chihiro flies on the dragon Haku’s back, the Totoro’s fly on the top with Satsuki and Mei during the tree scene.


Your new addiction

There are so many titles for Studio Ghibli, that once you start you will want to go through the whole list in one hit. Pace yourself, as you want to saviour the first time watching a Studio Ghibli film. Studio Ghibli film’s continue to surprise me and I hope it will give the same excitement to you too.

Here are some other titles that in time you should check out in time:

For those that have already fallen for Studio Ghibli – What are your favourite movies? What do you think about the above titles as a starting place? Let me know below.

-The Nominations Girl

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