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Monday, June 10, 2024

Must-watch Studio Ghibli films

Hint: It’s all of them


By MAYA KORNYEYEVA — mkornyeyeva@ucdavis.edu


Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers.


Studio Ghibli, a Tokyo-based animation studio, is world-famous for its beautifully designed films featuring stories about the human experience and unique world-building. The company was founded by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki in 1985, and boasts a characteristic animation style of rich acrylic colors and individually hand-drawn frames. After numerous projects and partnerships with companies like Walt Disney Studios and Streamline Pictures, Studio Ghibli succeeded in producing four of the top ten highest-grossing animated feature films in Japan. 

Over the last several months, I rewatched every single Studio Ghibli film, from their very first post-apocalyptic animated feature “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” to their most recent psychological drama “When Marnie was There.”

Twenty-three movies later, I am here to tell you which of the Hayao Miyazaki masterpieces are the best of the best; and, most importantly, why these films resonated with me.

My absolute favorite Ghibli movie is “Howl’s Moving Castle,” released in 2004 and featuring music by Joe Hisaishi. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Howl’s Moving Castle” never fails to captivate me every single time I rewatch it, as it is effortlessly beautiful with a deep message about the healing power of love and the strength of character. The movie is about a young woman named Sophie, who is cursed by a witch and transformed to become old and withered after she encounters Howl, a traveling magician and a “stealer of hearts.” Amidst a war, Sophie finds Howl and his moving castle — powered by his fire demon Calcifer — and helps Howl regain his lost heart, free a lost prince and lift her curse. 

The reason I rank this film the highest out of all the Studio Ghibli movies is the moving storyline and well-developed setting. I love the interactions between all of the characters, namely the creation of a family among Howl and all of the lost souls his castle picks up along its way. The music gives the entire picture a theme of blissful peace, and Sophie’s unbreakable resilience to live with the hand she has been dealt is something I find both rare and admirable. 

Tied for second place are the films “Spirited Away” (2001) and “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988). Both of these movies involve superb and imaginative animation, with the first being set in a realm of spirits and the second in the Japanese countryside. I love both these films equally, and I think they do incredible jobs of telling stories of being somewhere new and the process of persevering and adapting to a new environment that follows. Both also celebrate the importance of youth and allow your imagination and soul to act as a guide. 

For instance, every element in “Spirited Away” is magical and surprising, often shocking viewers as they watch the heroine Chihiro struggle to save her parents and form a unique bond with her savior, the river spirit Haku. “Totoro” is likewise fantastical, with adorable forest spirits befriending two young girls as they settle into their new home and wait for their mother to return from the hospital. 

The third place spot has to be awarded to “Princess Mononoke.” This film is set in 14th century Japan as iron manufacturing is beginning to take prevalence and industrial greed starts to clash with nature and the livelihood of the forest. Watching this movie, I was captivated by the depth of the characters and the myriad of conflicts and relationships between every group in the film. The animals, along with the spirits, gods and even demons, are each individually powerful and contributed to the complexity of interrelations woven into the film. 

Moreover, the animation is mind-blowingly fantastical. The fight scenes between the hero, Prince Ashitaka, and the samurai are filled with energy, and the spirits of the forest range from downright adorable to uncanny. Ghibli films generally excel at deep storytelling and relatable, refreshing dialogue, and “Princess Mononoke” is no exception. 

Finally, there are a few Studio Ghibli films that deserve honorable mention. It was extremely difficult to choose favorites, as the genres of the movies are vastly different. My top three mentioned above (well, technically, top four) are must-sees in my opinion, but the following few should most definitely be next.

Grave of the Fireflies” is a historically realistic heart-wrencher about World War II and the realities of death, pain and loss, based on a short story written by Akiyuki Nosaka about his life in Japan during the Kobe Bombings in 1945. The animation is so precise and the story so devastating to witness that this won’t be a film I soon forget. It is truly heartbreaking, and one of the only films that has ever given me a deep feeling of anguish at the conclusion. 

When Marnie was There” falls into a relatively similar category, as the story follows the parallel storylines of Marnie and Anna, two girls separated by time but connected by their emotional trauma and feelings of having nowhere to belong. This animated film is a beautiful work of art and captures the very intricate human feelings of melancholy and desire for connection. 

You can probably tell that I can go on and on about how amazing the Studio Ghibli films are — it is not an understatement to say that watching animated movies from these renowned directors and writers has changed my perception of the world and caused me to truly consider what living is all about. “The Wind Rises” taught me about how pursuing the thing you are passionate about can carry you through adversity and closer to your dreams. “From Up on Poppy Hill” reminded me of the powerful connection of family and friendship across life and death. “Castle in the Sky” showed the importance of choosing what you value and living your life in balance according to those values. 

Animation is such a wonderful tool for visual storytelling, and it is often overlooked in favor of live action. However, I believe some stories can only be told through animation, and I don’t think any other organization approaches it in the unique and profound way that Studio Ghibli does. 


Written by: Maya Kornyeyeva — mkornyeyeva@ucdavis.edu


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.