Culture Film & TV

A guide to Ghibli

Last weekend, while UK dwellers were probably fast asleep, something magical happened. Netflix dropped the first 7 out of a total 21 Studio Ghibli Films that will all become available over the next 3 months everywhere excluding Japan, Canada and the USA. The booing and hissing issuing from across the Atlanic is almost audible.

I was first introduced to Studio Ghibli through Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the prolific auteur who has arguably created the studio’s best known and most celebrated films. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, being taken to the cinema to see this film when I was around 7 or 8 years old altered my perception of what animation was capable of.

The depiction of a gloriously dilapidated metallic castle moving across both fiery warzones and luscious green hillsides was already unforgettable. It also provided me with a glimpse into Miyazaki’s abiding fascination with metamorphoses that could give Ovid a run for his money. From the Witch of the Waste’s henchman who, made of an inky sludge, can mould their bodies into various shapes, to the protagonist Sophie who is cursed to live in the body of an elderly woman, it quickly becomes clear that this studio is not interested in depicting absolutes, but rather in the shifting and moveable elements of identity and place.

The way that, whether it was a slice of lovingly fried bread or piles of perfume bottles, Howl seems to breathe life into even the most innocuous, everyday objects making up a character’s world bears testament to the studio’s insistence on affording respect and attention to even the planet’s most minute features. This meticulously careful way of looking at and handling the world (or worlds) was something I had not experienced in film before, and I have not frequently experienced since.

If you are wondering where to begin with Ghibli’s somewhat overwhelming list, worry not! Netflix have also made it more manageable by staggering the release dates. In the first 7, My Neighbour Totoro (1988) offers a warm welcome for new viewers to the collection. Although it may be the general premise, it would be reductive to describe this film as being simply ‘about’ the two sisters, Mei and Satsuki, learning to cope together as their mother’s terminal illness worsens. Our introduction to the wonderfully fluffy, chubby, benign forest spirit named Totoro, alongside its two tiny sidekicks and the bizarre hybrid CatBus is not something that is easily forgotten. It is this magical realism that imbues the film with its surreal beauty and longevity.

Indeed, although this particular film and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) are perhaps best seen for the first time as a child, what we are left with: a will to to find courage within painful circumstances, a sense of the importance of protecting non-human life, and of extending kindness to that which we do not understand, are ideas that permeate almost every Ghibli film.

A still from Kiki’s Delivery Service

Still, we should save some of our excitement for March 1st when two of the studio’s most incredible creations will all become available for streaming. In what Napier’s recent study entitled Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art calls a ‘radical’ or ‘even subversive’ apocalyptic vision for the earth’s future, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) follows a (refreshingly awkward) princess with a unique ability to communicate across species, understanding the needs of the mutated insects who make the toxic jungle their home.

Punctuated with imagery of gas masks and structured around Nausicaä’s fight against the Kingdom of Tolmekia who seek to wipe the insects out entirely, this is a film that feels timeless whilst also being, clearly, incredibly timely. So too does Princess Mononoke (1997) focus on ecological questions, but is perhaps even more visually stunning, made up as it is of illustrations of a simultaneously gory and delicate quality.

If you are looking for something that has the feeling of a blockbuster dominated by action whilst retaining the quintessentially magical essence only Ghibli provides, this is it. What is immediately striking from watching even a small handful of the collection then, is the insistence on writing consistently nuanced, intelligent girls and women, who are, from Princess Mononoke to Kiki, permitted to possess both vulnerability and incredible ferocity.

Although certain hidden gems, like The Cat Returns (2002)and particularly Nausicaä , deserve to be resurrected, personally I am still awaiting March when I will finally be able to view Spirited Away (2001) in the beautiful quality it was intended for, having worn out my scratched DVD copy long ago. Ghibli fanatics frequently make cases for the superiority of lesser known works, and it is certainly a shame that the heartbreaking film The Grave of the Fireflies (1988) will be excluded from the Netflix acquisition. However, there is a reason that Spirited Away is still the most universally beloved Ghibli film.

The story follows Chihiro who, after her parents greedily consume food that is not theirs to take, is condemned to work in a bathhouse frequented by otherworldly beings ranging from the Radish Spirit to the giant headed sorceress Yubaba herself who runs the business.

The more I return to scenes of cookery in Ghibli films though, the more forgiving I become towards her piggish parents. Whether it is the perfectly proportioned gelatinous dumplings or the kompeitō (tiny star shaped bits of sugared candy) thrown to the Susuwatari, translating literally as ‘travelling soot’, every bit of animated food looks as tempting as the next. Indeed, there is something of a deliciously tactile quality to every aspect of his filmography. This is a collection that, once experienced, has a way of leaving us wanting seconds.

Available Now

  • Castle in the Sky (1986)
  • My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
  • Only Yesterday (1991)
  • Porco Rosso (1992)
  • Ocean Waves (1993)
  • Tales from Earthsea (2006)

Available from March 1st

  • of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
  • Princess Mononoke (1997)
  • My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
  • Spirited Away (2001)
  • The Cat Returns (2002)
  • Arrietty (2010)
  • The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (2013)

Available from April 1st

  • Pom Poko (1994)
  • Whisper of the Heart (1995)
  • Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
  • Ponyo (2008)
  • From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
  • The Wind Rises (2013)
  • When Marnie Was There (2014)