Studio Ghibli
Japanese film directors Miyazaki and Takahata produce vivid, realistic animation that portray different periods of history. (Illustration by Nick Spearman, Savannah College of Art and Design)
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Studio Ghibli
Japanese film directors Miyazaki and Takahata produce vivid, realistic animation that portray different periods of history. (Illustration by Nick Spearman, Savannah College of Art and Design)

But you should watch all the Studio Ghibli movies anyway.

It was extremely hard for me to pick only five Studio Ghibli movies, when all of them, in my opinion, are works of art. This list is meant to open the doors for you to the master creations of Studio Ghibli. Furthermore, three of these movies that I highly recommend will be the work of genius animator Hayao Miyazaki. I encourage anyone who reads this to not only watch these five recommendations, but to also binge every movie Miyazaki has ever created. Let’s begin.

First, a little background on Miyazaki, whom I envision to be free-spirited, and whose motivation and love for animation further pervades his work. Each of his movies has a certain ethereal serenity and demonstrates major concepts of transcendentalism. This is majorly ironic, given that transcendentalism originated in New England 1836, and as history goes, Japan at that time was an isolated country.

The point is, Miyazaki is awesome. Many admire his fantasy world because there is a certain aloofness to reality. See my review below on “Kiki’s Delivery Service” to see what I mean. Aside from his fantasy world, however, his perspective on the history that takes place really resonates with audiences’ emotions, a concept which will be discussed below in my review of “Grave of the Fireflies.”

1. “Kiki’s Delivery Service”

“Kiki’s Delivery Service” is absolutely one of my favorite movies of all time. It is my number one desert island movie, my nap time movie, my “let’s be fat and happy movie” and my perfect date night movie. Though all of Miyazaki’s movies should be watched, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is an absolute must, no questions or doubts allowed. Made in 1989, the film identifies as a drama/fantasy.

Thirteen-year-old Kiki moves to a seaside town with her talking cat, Jiji, to spend a year alone in accordance with her village’s tradition for witches in training. After learning to control her broomstick, Kiki sets up a flying courier service and soon becomes a fixture in the community, but when the insecure young witch begins questioning herself and loses her magic abilities, she must overcome her self-doubt to get her powers back.

This movie is the definition of a coming-of-age film, where the protagonist finds self-confidence and courage. I always watch this movie to remind myself that, if a fictional 13-year-old witch can make it out on her own, then I can accomplish the same thing. Yes, I compared myself to a fictional witch. You will too, so don’t judge me yet.

“Kiki’s Delivery Service” embellishes a “‘50s Europe where neither World War ever occurred — and fills them with wonderous energy, colour and life,” as stated by Osmond from Empire. Osmond continues, “The film is actually more accessible to Western viewers, with Kiki’s journey to find herself told with effortless charm and humour.”

I could not have given a better review than his. If you cannot take my word for how awesome and visually inspiring this movie is, take Osmond’s opinion and watch the movie.

2. “Howl’s Moving Castle”

Created in 2004 but released in the U.S. in 2005, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is another drama/fantasy from Studio Ghibli that I highly suggest.

Sophie has an uneventful life at her late father’s hat shop until she befriends a wizard named Howl, who lives in a magical flying castle. However, the evil Witch of Waste takes issue with their budding relationship and casts a spell on young Sophie that ages her prematurely. Now Howl must use all his magical talents to battle the jealous hag and return Sophie to her former youth and beauty.

First off, a magical flying castle: Let that sink in for a bit. This should really be your motivation to watch this film. We all dreamed as kids to have a magical flying castle and Miyazaki delivers. The intricacy put into the design and architecture of this house makes you sit in awe at the sheer imagination. I mean, who else would have thought a giant castle could have legs for walking?

If you are in the mood for pure fantasy, no real-life lesson attached, unless you are a victim of a spell or have a magical castle, then I recommend spending the afternoon watching “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

3. “Porco Rosso.”

When I think of “Porco Rosso,” I cannot help but smile because the main character is a chivalrous pig. No, seriously, the main character is a pig. I also cannot help but think about “Animal Farm” because of this. Yes, yes, I know, “That’s a sick joke, Mela.” Get over it. It is a completely random connection, but don’t blame me for George Orwell being a prolific writer.

Comparing two characteristics through pigs is downright hilarious. You have a chivalrous pig in fantasy/magical realism and then you have faces of the Russian Revolution also portrayed through a pig. Admit it, you just laughed.

All jokes aside, “Porco Rosso” is a top-notch movie. In Italy in the 1930s, sky pirates in biplanes terrorize wealthy cruise ships as they sail the Adriatic Sea. The only pilot brave enough to stop the scourge is the mysterious Porco Rosso, a former World War I ace who was somehow turned into a pig during the war. As he prepares to battle the pirate crew’s American ace, Porco Rosso enlists the help of spunky girl mechanic Fio Piccolo and his longtime friend, Madame Gina.

Like I said before, the sheer imagination Miyazaki has is something to be in awe of. I personally would have never thought to create sky pirates and a hero who is a pig. All jokes aside, I appreciate the mechanisms of the movie, such as the animation, storyline, character development, the subtle romance and my favorite, the “macho” theme. It was the 1930s, so if you weren’t being the macho dude of your group, you’re missing out.

Seriously though, there is something about “Porco Rosso” that makes you smile. Maybe it is the magical realism and my fascination with WWI and WWII culture that I can simply appreciate the movie for what it is. I don’t know. Just watch the movie.

These last two movies are not directed by Hayao Miyazaki, but after some crucial decisions, I thought it best to give you other flavors that also make Studio Ghibli such an acclaimed film production agency in Japan.


4. “Pom Poko.”

Okay so, this movie is weird. I’m putting that out there right now. If you think you know what weird is, you do not, but I must admit, I appreciate the lesson conveyed by creator Isao Takahata: There is a harsh reality wherever you go, and urbanization will be the death of us all. Cynical? Who cares; according to Frank Sinatra, “That’s life.”

Takahata’s film uses the tanuki, creatures of myth and beloved folktale characters, as his heroes. They are viewed as bringers of fortune with shape-changing abilities. In this film, their forest home is threatened by urban development and, to save it, they must use all their supernatural talents, and boy are they supernatural.

After watching “Pom Poko,” I had to do some research to find out if the depiction of the tanuki is similar, and it is. I do not want to spoil the surprise, so if you want to see what surprised me, go watch the movie. Aside from the wonderful folklore, the realism of bitter reality reaches out to its audience. There is no happy ending, but rather something more bittersweet.

Takahata imparts with this movie the question of how we can stop deforestation and urbanization. My cynical answer is, based on the movie, that you can’t. Rather than trying to stop it, we merely adapt. No easy task of course, but society is evolving. Unfortunately, there is no turning back the clock.

5. “Grave of the Fireflies”

“Grave of the Fireflies” is a 1998 war drama. Also directed by Takahata, “Grave of the Fireflies” is one of the most gut-wrenching, tear-jerking movies I have ever seen.

This movie is a devastating meditation on the human cost of war. It follows a teenager named Seita, who is charged with the care of his younger sister, Setsuko, after an American firebombing during World War II separates the two children from their parents. Their tale of survival is as heartbreaking as it is true to life. The siblings rely completely on each other and struggle against all odds to stay together and to stay alive.

I will not relay any spoilers about this masterpiece, but I will say the lifelike portrayal of WWII Japan serves as a reminder that not only Japan, but everyone else in the war, experienced a traumatic event that they can never get back from. “Grave of the Fireflies” portrays the bitter reality that sometimes not everything will be okay, but we make do with what is given to us and survive. The movie allows for us to contemplate the definition of humanity.

Well, on that note, these are the movies from Studio Ghibli that I recommend. These movies should open the doors for you to the pathway of Studio Ghibli, which can be found on most anime streaming platforms. There is a common theme structured throughout the movies, but I will let you use your noodle to figure that out.

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