‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

Paolo Abad

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‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

GET SPIRITED AWAY. Plan your Studio Ghibli marathon accordingly with this guide to the popular icons and the lesser known ones in the canon

Photo from Studio Ghibli via Studio Canal

A handy guide to the Japanese animation studio’s beloved catalog – from the well-loved icons to the lesser known ones

MANILA, Philippines – There’s no denying how much Studio Ghibli changed the face of animation. It’s one of the world’s most revered animation companies – home to master artists like Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and their protégés. 

“It makes films that appeal to a wide demographic by refusing to talk down to children and allowing adults to explore their own feelings in unexpected ways,” wrote Brian Tallerico in a roundup for Vulture.

“The kingdom of dreams and madness,” a documentary called the famed and influential animation studio that brought you the likes of beloved Totoro, No Face, and more.

With the entire catalog of Studio Ghibli available for streaming on Netflix, you now have the chance to marathon them, watch those you have missed, or just bask in the glory of these masterpieces.

Here’s a glimpse at all the Ghibli titles that you can now watch on demand (Check here for the release schedule):

My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro, 1988)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

My Neighbor Totoro is ostensibly the most iconic of the Ghibli films. Heck, its titular character is their mascot, even appearing on their logo and cameos here and there (including Toy Story 3).

At the heart of Totoro is a seemingly simple story. Two young girls, Mei and Satsuki, had to move to the countryside to visit their ailing mother. There’s more to this sleepy town though, where they encounter a friendly, cuddly woodland spirit they call Totoro.

But here, it’s not about a thick, protracted, or epic plot. Yet Totoro is wondrous, exciting, and heartwarming. In the late film critic Roger Ebert’s words: “It depends on a situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need.”

Even with its little feel-good fairy tale, the film has become so much bigger, becoming a cultural icon. If you’ve seen it, watch it again – you know you want to. If you haven’t, meet Totoro. Like a best friend, Totoro will bring joy no matter the situation.

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, 2001)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

Think: Alice in Wonderland, but distinctly Japanese (drawing from its rich folklore) and undeniably bearing the brush strokes of its legendary director. Not to mention the Best Animated Feature Oscar and the Berlinale’s Golden Bear that the film got.

Spirited Away is a strange yet riveting coming-of-age tale of a girl named Chihiro as she finds herself in a bizarre world with a menagerie of spirits and creatures beyond anyone’s imagining.

Chihiro’s parents have been turned into pigs, and she has to find a way out of this plane of existence lest they all be trapped there. It’s all arduous work for the heroine, involving having to take on a job at the local bathhouse, which not only can be frightening but also emotionally taxing. 

In all these, there’s much reason to root for steadfast Chihiro in her adventure in this breathtaking, mystical, yet fully realized world that Miyazaki built. It’s easy to see why Spirited Away has resonated across the world, becoming not only a megahit but a veritable masterpiece of the animated medium.

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka, 1988)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

World War II is nearing its end and the Japanese Empire is about to fall as bombs rain down. But on the ground, for siblings Seita and Setsuko, the worst is far from over. Orphaned, they starve and get sick, and the film doesn’t shy away from traumatic images. It’s an extremely gutting watch, but don’t let this dissuade you. 

In the history of cinema, there have only been a handful of animated films that deal with war. Animated films are often thought to be mere lighthearted affairs, but please don’t be naïve to think this way until you’ve seen this film or its ilk (the choice of animation for depicting war itself is a tricky topic in film theory).

Grave of the Fireflies, is as heartrending and bleak as it gets, but it conveys the human toll of war beyond geopolitical struggles and the folly of leaders. It’s not strictly anti-war in name though, “simply because it cannot prevent another war from happening,” director Takahata himself said.

The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu, 2013)

Jiro Horikoshi dreams of becoming a pilot, but he’s nearsighted. Instead of flying planes, he is spurred to build them instead. He is a real-life figure, having designed the Mitsubishi fighter aircraft that Japan used in World War II. 

The Wind Rises is Miyazaki’s fantastical take on the Mitsubishi engineer’s life. He said he was inspired to make the film after reading a quote attributed to him: “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.”

It was supposed to be Miyazaki’s final work, as he publicly announced his retirement around that time. In 2017, he came out of retirement, saying that he has been working on his forthcoming movie How Do You Live?

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika, 1984)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

Technically, Nausicaä isn’t a Studio Ghibli film, but it was the foundation upon which the entire powerhouse was built.

It’s a post-apocalyptic fable with Miyazaki’s touch – based on his own manga – set in a distant future where a massive war has ravaged the world and left only small pockets of human civilization amid the vast Toxic Jungle.

Nausicaä is the princess of the Valley of the Wind, one of these nations that have survived. But a rival country threatens to put a stop to the relative calm with the same technology that devastated their world.

Nausicaä is a hint of the preoccupations that would define Miyazaki and company’s later work at Studio Ghibli: the threat of ecological ruin, anti-war sentiment, and more.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta, 1986)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

Sheeta, an orphan girl, has a blue crystal in her possession which is said to unlock the secrets to a castle in the sky called Laputa. She meets Pazu, a young boy who has also heard of the floating fortress of legend. However, other sinister agents have nefarious intentions for the weapons it holds.

Castle in the Sky is the first production made under the Studio Ghibli name. It builds on the stunning world-building and whimsy that Miyazaki had shown in Nausicaä – even with a breathtaking steampunk aesthetic. It’s an excellent glimpse at things to come for the studio.

Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime, 1997)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

Princess Mononoke isn’t exactly light material with a dash of gore and heaping doses of philosophical examination. It asks a question raised time and time again: how can mankind and civilization exist in balance with the old, natural world?

After a skirmish with a formidable beast, Ashitaka receives a cursed wound which refuses to heal and also inexplicably grants him superstrength. On a quest for a cure to halt the festering, he encounters San, a feral “Wolf Girl” who helps guard the forest with its god and spirits from man’s encroachment.

Novelist Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Sandman, etc.) famously wrote the English version of the screenplay. Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Crudup and Gillian Anderson also voice the characters in the English dub.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (Majo no Takkyūbin, 1989)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

Kiki is a spry young witch. As part of her training, she moves to a new town where she can use her various skills to good use – but she’s not even that good at potion and spells. So, Kiki uses her broom to start up a delivery service and befriends the townspeople.

Kiki’s Delivery Service – one of the studio’s most beloved and iconic works – vibrantly captures the young Kiki’s desire to be more self-reliant – but also expresses her struggles to find footing and purpose in the world. 

Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti, 2010)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

While Mary Norton’s The Borrowers has been adapted several times (including one 1997 movie that included Tom Felton), Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s directorial debut is a charming, imaginative retelling of the same tale.

Arrietty and her family are Borrowers, tiny people living in the houses of humans and “borrow” the “things they won’t miss if they’re gone.” They shouldn’t be seen, but she befriends Shō, a boy who’s spending the summer in the house they live in. 

When their secret existence is threatened, they must get help from Arrietty’s new friend.

Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no Ugoku Shiro, 2004)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

Sophie, a young hatmaker, is transformed into an old woman by a curse. In order to lift it and return to her normal self, she comes to Howl, the wizard lord of the titular moving castle for help. Instead, she gets embroiled in the conflict between her country and another.

While Miyazaki has always exhibited a distaste for warfare and violence, Howl’s Moving Castle was said to be his reflection on the Iraq War going on at the time.

Tales from Earthsea (Gedo Senki, 2006)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

Tales from Earthsea was directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s own son, Gorō, loosely basing it on Ursula K. LeGuin’s eponymous fantasy series of dragons, wizards, and a world at the brink of collapse. 

The elder Miyazaki had been working on Howl’s Moving Castle, so his own son took over for this project.

Unfortunately – even as it was still eye candy – this was considered a critical flop amid Ghibli’s streak of acclaimed works.

LeGuin herself expressed disappointment at how it wasn’t as faithful to the source material, saying, “It is reasonable to expect some fidelity to the characters and general story in a film named for and said to be based on books that have been in print for 40 years.” 

Ponyo (Gake no Ue no Ponyo, 2008)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

Ponyo is Miyazaki’s take on the familiar Little Mermaid story: a sea dweller wishes to be human and live among them. It’s a visual treat – from the colors of the sea and the bursts of magical spells – all drawn and painted by hand.

Sōsuke, a young boy, finds a “goldfish” trapped in a jar and rescues it, naming it Ponyo. But the “goldfish” is actually the unruly, adventurous daughter of a sea wizard. She expreses her wish to become human and then transforms into a little girl. But this disturbs the natural order as waves take over the land.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no Monogatari, 2013)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is the late Isao Takahata’s mesmerizing swan song, drawing from a folktale and imbuing it with so much emotion, breathing life to its heroine.

It’s the fable of a girl found on this earth – but clearly not belonging to it. Found by a woodcutter in a bamboo grove, she slips from their grasp too fast as she grows up at a rapid pace.

Unlike most of the films in the Ghibli canon, it has a certain delicateness to it owing to its distinct aesthetic. Just like a moving watercolor painting, it’s easily a standout. Without the hyperreal style that the other Ghibli films have taken, Takahata conveys how things can be fleeting (which the Japanese call mono no aware) with so much heart. 

Pom Poko (Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko, 1994)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

A comedy that mines Japan’s rich mythology, Pom Poko depicts a tribe of tanuki (raccoon dogs) struggling to keep their homes and resisting urban encroachment. 

Even if the tanuki are really “good-natured,” they’re a mischievous lot. They even have the ability to conjure illusions, shapeshifting into humans and various objects to sabotage the development of the suburbs outside Tokyo.

FernGully be damned, it’s hard to miss the message the director, Takahata, is trying to convey.

Only Yesterday (Omoide Poro Poro, 1991)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

Takahata’s Only Yesterday is a gem considering that a lot of Studio Ghibli’s work draws from fantasy.

Imbued with a sense of nostalgia and wistfulness, it follows Taeko Okajima, who has only known Tokyo her entire life. Now in her late twenties, she decides to visit her in-laws in the countryside as a breather from the big city life.

On her way there, a flood of memories as a young schoolgirl come rushing in, as Taeko questions who she has become.

Porco Rosso (Kurenai no Buta, 1992)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

At the center of the movie is Marco Pagot, a former World War I fighter pilot cursed to become a pig. Now living as a bounty hunter, he is famously known as “Porco Rosso,” which translates to “Red Pig” in Italian.

Miyazaki’s action-filled caper channels some of the charm of those old film noir, Old Hollywood pictures. It almost feels like one, but with the freedom that comes from using the animated medium and the filmmaker’s masterful touch.

Ocean Waves (a.k.a. I Can Hear the Sea / Umi ga Kikoeru, 1993)

Ocean Waves is a young adult drama originally made for television by some of those from the younger generation at Studio Ghibli.

The plot is as uncomplicated and realistic as it gets: it’s about a love triangle that forms when a transfer student, Rikako, comes in between two friends, Taku and Yutaka.

Whisper of the Heart (Mimi o Sumaseba, 1995)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

Yoshifumi Kondō was already being groomed to become successor to the masters at Studio Ghibli – before his untimely death in 1998. Whisper of the Heart was his last feature: a blend of no-frills romantic yearning with some magical excursions.

Shizuku dreams to be a writer and Seiji is an aspiring violin-maker who cross paths. As the latter pursues his dream in faraway Italy, Shizuku decides to finally pursue her own, toiling to complete a story inspired by an antique shop’s cat statuette (called “The Baron”) before his return.

The Cat Returns (Neko no Ongaeshi, 2002)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

The Cat Returns is a relatively short (75 minutes) spinoff of Whisper of the Heart, with the dashing Baron making another appearance in this surreal Alice in Wonderland-esque tale.

Haru, a girl with the uncanny ability to talk to cats, saves one from getting run over by a truck. Disenchanted and worn out by life as a schoolgirl in the city, she finally gets a chance from the grateful cat – purportedly a prince – to visit “a place where you can forget all your troubles”: the Kingdom of Cats.

From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka Kara, 2011)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

It is 1963, Japan is preparing to host the Summer Olympics and everything is gradually picking up – especially from the devastation brought by World War II.

“It seems the whole country is eager to get rid of the old and make way for the new. But some of us aren’t so ready to let go of the past,” says Umi, the Ghibli drama’s protagonist, who had just lost her father during the Korean War.

She befriends and teams up with a boy in her class as the school clubhouse is threatened to be taken down. However, they learn that they share a disconcerting yet unclear connection.

Here, Gorō Miyazaki takes on his own father’s written work, and ends up being more successful with it than his previous Ghibli outing.

My Neighbors the Yamadas (Hōhokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun, 1999)
‘Totoro,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more: Your guide to all the Studio Ghibli films

In the sitcom-like My Neighbors the Yamadas, the characters resemble caricature-like doodles (and even the watercolor style of Takahata’s other and final work, Princess Kaguya). It’s because it hews closely to the sparse drawing style of its source comic strip in comedically depicting a modern Japanese family and their mishaps.

Although it may touch on subjects that can seem too specifically Japanese, it’s a delightful, zany watch.

When Marnie Was There (Omoide no Mānī, 2014)

Anna, a withdrawn young girl, was told to spend the summer in a seaside town to recuperate after a debilitating asthma attack. There, she’s drawn to a mysterious abandoned mansion. 

But one time, it appears that it’s not ramshackle as it had seemed to be and meets an enigmatic blonde girl who introduces herself as Marnie. 

Is she talking to a ghost? But holding her hands is as real as it gets. Throughout the film, Anna discovers the place’s sad history, and as it comes to its climax: the truth about herself.

This would’ve been Ghibli’s final film – made before the studio’s hiatus – until Miyazaki returned from retirement. – Rappler.com

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Paolo Abad

Paolo Abad writes, edits, and shoots for a living. He is one of the founding partners of the online radio platform Manila Community Radio.