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Overcoming Subtitles: My Favourites from the Amazing World of Studio Ghibli

by Yuvthi Misser

The films in this list, although in a specified order, do not need to be watched in this exact order.

1. Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し\) [2001]

Adventure, Fantasy, Coming-Of-Age - 2h 5min

Movie poster for Spirited Away (2001). From IMP Awards.

Spirited Away is perhaps one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen. It is the only Japanese film to win the Best Animated Academy Award and is still one of the highest-ranking Japanese films to date. These achievements also granted the director and writer, Hayao Miyazaki, as well as Studio Ghibli, many accolades. I mention these achievements because it truly speaks to the artistry and world-wide appreciation of the film.

The film captures the essence of what Ghibli is truly capable of, and illustrates the creative and beautiful mind of Miyazaki. Through its fantastical and mythological feel, it allows the viewer to escape into this gorgeous and mesmerising world that perfectly captures the main protagonist’s transition into maturity. According to Miyazaki, he took the inspiration from the older Japanese superstitions of there being kami (spirits) everywhere and used it to advance the coming-of-age story in Spirited Away.

We follow Chihiro, a young girl travelling with her parents to a new destination. They stumble upon a shortcut that Chihiro is reluctant to take because of the tunnel’s dreary appearance. While exploring the newly discovered area, she finds that both of her parents have been turned into pigs. Distraught and terrified, she runs towards a bath-house where she meets Haku, a boy who is under a spell that makes him a dragon spirit. She is then forced to take a job at the bath-house under the harsh eye of Yubaba. Together, through generosity, kindness and hard work, Chihiro learns the meaning of friendship and the importance of patience and understanding, which subsequently help her free her parents.

I could go on and on about how beautiful this film is and list several of my favourite scenes, but for the sake of sticking to the word limit, I will name one; the train scene. Not only is it beautiful but it is a wonderful encapsulation of the entire movie. Chihiro is seated next to No-Face, a spirit who absorbs and reflects what he sees, and Boh, a mouse-turned baby. Both of these spirits have presented Chihiro with issues during the course of the film, but now that she has overcome them by assisting them, they have developed an affinity for each other. It is a resting point in the film that is both beautiful to look at and imitates the long, and often relaxing journey of a commute via train.

Train Scene from Spirited Away. From WordPress.

As mentioned before, Spirited Away also comes filled to the brim with impactful lessons that children and adults would appreciate. Through the experience of being thrust into this supernatural world, Chihiro learns to look out for herself and gains independence, which is a direct contrast to her character at the beginning of the film. However, although one should look out for oneself, there is no shame in helping others or asking for help, which I think is a really important message. Kindness can get you through the darkest situations in the most surprising ways. We see Chihiro try to reason with Zeneba, Yubaba’s twin sister, to forgive Haku for stealing her goldenseal. She does this on behalf of Haku and out of the kindness of her own heart.

Overall, Spirited Away is a feel-good, fantasy film fit for children and adults alike and would leave any viewer amazed and hungry to find more works of art from Studio Ghibli.

2. Howl’s Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城) [2004]

Romance, Action, Fantasy, - 2h

Poster for Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). From Pinterest.

A simple hat shop. An ongoing war. A wizard whose heart was stolen. A dash of romance, the struggles of an old woman and a few anti-war themes. This is the recipe for one of Studio Ghibli’s best films, Howl’s Moving Castle.

Sophie, our main character, works in a hat shop during a war that is being waged between kingdoms (said to be inspired by the Iraqi war.) During an unfortunate and rude encounter with the Witch of the Waste, she is turned into an old woman and placed under a spell where she cannot speak on how she had changed in the first place. She then chooses to seek out Howl, a wizard, and his moving castle in order to help reverse her curse. Due to Sophie’s big heart, she ends up helping other people and other spirits who have had curses cast on them as well, which includes helping Howl. Sophie endeavours to help all those whose paths she crosses all while the war wages on, a war Howl is impatient to end.

When I first saw this film under the anime section on Netflix, I thought that I would never be able to get into it. I procrastinated watching it for weeks until I finally reigned in my attention span and sat down to watch it. I deeply regret not watching it sooner. This film is, in every single way, breathtaking. The visuals are stunning, the voice acting is amazing, and the story itself is heart-warming; all of these being usual in a Ghibli film.

Howl’s Moving Castle, like most Ghibli films, is an innovative, dreamy, and perfect production of fantasy and dreamlike qualities. One of my favourite shots in the movie is the scene where Howl reveals to Sophie one of his safe places, known as his childhood home. This meadow scene is draped in green and sprouting with many kinds of colourful flowers that overlook a lake.

Meadow scene from Howl’s Moving Castle. From Pinterest.

Throughout the film, there is the main idea of found family and shared experiences. Sophie befriends a lonely, yet loyal Scarecrow, a little wizard’s apprentice boy named Markl, a demon who is cursed to be a pit of fire named Calcifer, the Witch of The Waste and of course, Howl. Sophie comes from a background where she works as a cleaner and hat maker, and it is obvious that she is not happy. Her mother, although appearing in aristocratic attire, claims to be poor and does not have a connection with her, opting instead for running off with various husbands. Her mother even goes as far as selling out her daughter to the very sorcerer queen that Howl and Sophie are trying to outrun. However, during the duration of the movie, Sophie finds herself falling in love with Howl and accommodating the rest of the gang, whom she eventually chooses over her mother. Not only are they understanding and helpful like a real family, but they see the good and bad in each other and choose to accept them.

Howl’s Moving Castle will never cease to blow any viewer away with its stunning visuals and heartwarming storyline.

3. My Neighbour Totoro (となりのトトロ) [1988]

Children’s film, Fantasy, Adventure - 1h 28mins

Poster for My Neighbour Totoro (1988). From IMDb.

Do you ever look back at your childhood and wish for there to be some furry friends to help you through the rough times? Do you ever wish you could make an entire tree grow with a few movements of your hand?

My Neighbour Totoro invokes the viewer’s childlike wonder and innocence as we follow two children and their father after they move into a new farmhouse in the city of Tokorozawa. Surrounded by the indigenous and beautiful plant life, Satsuki and her younger sister Mei, befriend a giant furry creature known as Totoro. Totoro aids them in finding the joy within the trauma of having their mother sick in hospital and reignites their happiness. Totoro acts like a guardian to the little girls and even helps Satsuki try to locate Mei with the help of a cat-like bus.

This was a film that I enjoyed from start to finish and one that also made me shed a few tears, mostly because I was envious that I did not have Totoro when I grew up. Once again, Ghibli never disappoints with their animation style and their wonderful soundtrack, and it is impossible to watch this film and do anything other than smile. There are not many films that can be classified as truly innocent, but Totoro manages to earn a high-ranking spot of innocence. Since the soundtrack and visuals are all stimulating and adorable, the sweet storyline adds an extra layer of purity.

It does not have a formulaic structure that traditional scripts follow. Instead, it follows just the simple, every-day life of Mei and Satsuki as they get accustomed to living in the countryside with Totoro. There is no main conflict and the story is centred on how Totoro helps Mei and Satsuki through a rough part in their childhood while their mother is in hospital. The film has plenty of heart-warming moments and plenty of still moments as well, which make it seem like you are simply privy to the girls going through their day. The film coasts along and follows each character, instead of jumping into the next scene, and this contributes to the magic of Studio Ghibli. In essence, this film feels like a breathing point and is very comforting to watch because of its child-like and adorable nature.

4. Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓) [1988]

Drama, War, Tragedy - 1h 33 min.

Poster for Grave of the Fireflies (1988). From Rotten Tomatoes.

Perhaps one of the greatest movies you will never want to watch ever again, Grave of the Fireflies is a departure from the usual mystical feel that we get from Ghibli movies and instead embraces the devastating details of the Second World War. The film is an anti-war tragedy that leaves deep, emotional wounds in the viewer, and is quite difficult to forget. Honestly, if you are not in the right headspace to watch this kind of emotionally tolling movie, I would suggest skipping it entirely and coming back to it when you are ready.

The story begins with the line “September 21st 1945. That was the night I died,” spoken by the protagonist, Seita. We are shown a grim scene of his body being collected along with others at a train station. When a janitor finds a rectangular candy container in Seita’s pocket, he roughly disposes of it in a field adjacent to the station. The spirit of his younger sister, Setsuko, is set free and is joined by Seita’s spirit as they hold hands in a field of beautiful fireflies. It then cuts to a few months earlier, when an air-raid wreaks havoc on their town and they are forced to separate from their mother. After the devastating raid is over, they come to find that their mother has died from third-degree burns all over her body. The story then moves from tragedy to tragedy and takes the viewer on a torturous, depressing and emotional journey of two siblings just trying to survive during the destruction of their country while having virtually no one to help them.

This film is not for the faint-hearted. I am quite a sensitive person but it takes a certain amount of elements to make me shed a tear at a movie. Grave of the Fireflies, however, made me bawl like a new-born. After watching it for the first time, my eyes were puffy and I felt distraught for a good day or two. It is one of my favourite movies, yes, but I do not want to watch it again.

It steers completely away from the usual Ghibli scene of majestically beautiful, innocent scenery and paints a realistic, traumatic and gut-wrenching picture of war. A signature trait of Studio Ghibli is Miyazaki’s sentiment of anti-war, as mentioned before in Howl’s Moving Castle review. However, Miyazaki did not direct this anime, it was instead directed by Isao Takahata, who is also an anti-war advocate. It focuses on getting the viewer to understand that war is nothing to be fond of and it comes with a cost on human lives. We are often told the story of good vs evil when being taught about the second world war. However, Grave of the Fireflies takes away the divide between the powers and shows that no matter which side your country was on, civilians suffered and lives were ruined. Since Japan was known as the enemy of the US and other allied powers, it is a great watch in order to build shared empathy for Japan and the livelihoods of the axis powers.

The film, although jarring, has light sprinkles of innocent and happy moments between the two siblings as they find their slivers of happiness amongst these catastrophic events. But it is also what makes this even more heartbreaking as you watch their happiness get crushed over and over again. There is an ongoing theme of human suffering, and the theme of war at the expense of the people, as we are taken from tragedy to tragedy, never given a break or a breather from it, just like the protagonists.

Grave of the Fireflies is a great movie and is a masterpiece but it is something that I recommend that you only watch once, because of its extremely upsetting and haunting effect. It is still really beautiful, and I feel that more people should watch it.

5. Kiki’s Delivery Service (魔女の宅急便) [1989]

Comedy, Fantasy, Adventure, Drama - 1h 43min

A scene from Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). From WallpaperAccess.

Once you’ve wiped your tears from watching Grave of the Fireflies, you’re going to need a minute to collect yourself and then put on something to make you happy. Kiki’s Delivery Service will do just that.

It follows the same structure as My Neighbour Totoro, in which there is no real conflict, rather just a day to day collection of a 13-year-old witch’s journey. Kiki, the main character, and her talking cat, Jiji, embark on a journey to another town to put her skills to the test. They land in Koriko, and Kiki quickly takes up a job as a courier, specifically called a “Witch Delivery Service.” It then follows her adventures and obstacles as she becomes accustomed to living in a different world as a witch.

The film is more about experiences than story-telling, as it does not have the usual three-act structure. The animation is adorable and sweet, like that of My Neighbour Totoro and really delves into the life of living beside a port city. We experience Kiki’s highs and lows as she navigates this new experience and there is a beautiful metaphor brought to life by Ursula, a friend that Kiki makes. Ursula is an artist and when they initially meet she tells Kiki about her artist’s block and how she overcomes it by searching for a new passion and inspiration. Later on, when Kiki is depressed and can be seen losing her powers, Ursula assures her that a new passion will come along and she will regain them. It is a beautiful message for creatives, such as myself, who often find that we are in a slump and cannot muster the energy to create anything well. But Kiki’s Delivery Service will reassure you that your passion will come back to you, and nothing can stop you.

This film reminds us of the potential each of us has within ourselves, and the complexities of being human that result in our talents and qualities. It is a movie that I can turn on when I am feeling uninspired or in need of a distraction and some pretty scenery.

Kiki’s Delivery Service can awaken your inner creativity and reignite your will to keep going and to keep persevering. It is a good comfort movie to keep in your favourite’s list.

6. Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫) [1997]

Action, War Fantasy, Adventure, Drama - 2h 14min

Japanese poster for Princess Mononoke (1997). From doraemon.

I saved Princess Mononoke for last because it is my favourite out of all of these Ghibli films and, as the saying goes, I saved the best for last.

Much like Spirited Away the film takes on a fantastical and mythical element as it focuses on the conflict between Iron town and the spirits of the surrounding forest. The conflict is navigated through the eyes of Ashitaka, an Emishi prince who has been cursed by a corrupted demon boar. He sets out to seek the help of the forest spirit, while the curse slowly takes over his entire left arm, giving him superhuman strength that will eventually kill him. He finds himself travelling towards the forest and has his first encounter with the titular character, San, a girl raised by the wolf goddess of the forest. He then makes it to a village, run by a generous woman named Eboshi, who allows women from brothels and people with leprosy to work in her factory. He then realises that the town and the forest are readying to wage a war against each other, as their industrialised territories expand and more of the forest becomes destroyed. It is then up to him to mediate between the two, while also trying to heal his own curse.

The animation is flawless and detailed, which is no longer a surprise for Ghibli films. However, there is a reason why this one is my favourite and that goes beyond animation quality. The message and folklore that inspired the movie is much greater and gives the film even more depth, which goes to show the universality of Studio Ghibli. The voice acting and the soundtrack are impeccable and one of the best scores I’ve ever heard. It truly encapsulates and brings to life the story and its complexities, and the voice acting helps the film flow along very smoothly and keep its integrity.

The story, initially thought out just to be a commentary on humanity’s destruction of nature, is much deeper than that. And, upon further inspection, can be humbling and thought-provoking for children and parents alike. If you take a closer look at the characters in Princess Mononoke you will see that they are not painted in terms of absolutes; meaning that they are neither only good nor only bad, and all they do is try to do their best in the best way they see fit. Eboshi is a feminist and gives work to both women she has saved from brothels, and people who have been affected by leprosy. She is deeply compassionate and sympathetic. Her fatal flaw is that she does destroy the forest in order to carry on with her ironwork. The same goes for San; she is raised by the wolf goddess and, therefore, thinks herself as much a part of the forest as any other animal or spirit, so she is angry towards Eboshi and the people that constantly tear her home down. San and Eboshi are both similar despite being placed on either side of the conflict and only despise each other because of that.

The idea these complexities convey is that no one is simply evil or simply good. A person is a mixture of both good and bad. The main motif in the film is to see objectively and empathetically, as a means to solve the issues presented. It is the blind hatred and anger that metaphorically poisons Eboshi and San, and physically poisons the boar and Ashitaka, and that is when they lose their way. It is a beautiful message to teach children and a beautiful reminder of the complexities of people and to what extremes people will go to in order to do, in their mind, the right thing.

Princess Mononoke is both enjoyable and thought-provoking, which is why it is my personal favourite of all the Studio Ghibli films I have watched so far. It revives and tests the viewer’s faith in humanity. It imbues a different approach to life in terms of looking at a conflict that hopefully will inspire a new generation of people to truly see with “eyes unclouded by hate.”

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