A theatrical retrospective revived the Japanese studio’s adored anime classics.
No creator in the world of anime commands nearly the level of respect that Hayao Miyazaki has earned over his lengthy career— and rightly so, as the 71-year-old director, writer and illustrator is responsible for some of the most beloved animated features of our time. While prolific in the world of animation since 1961, Miyazaki co-founded Studio Ghibli in 1985 with director Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, and the studio has spawned 18 feature films and numerous shorts in the years since.
Miyazaki’s own contributions to the studio’s oeuvre have earned it the most acclaim and recognition over the years, from whimsical early directorial efforts like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service to later, visually stunning affairs such as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, the latter of which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003. His films often feature familiar themes — from the struggle between nature and modern society to strong female leads and supporting characters — and have the uncanny ability to enthrall both children and adults alike.
But Miyazaki isn’t the only noteworthy creator and director at Studio Ghibli, despite his prominence. Takahata has also directed some of the studio’s most memorable films, including the brutal war drama Grave of the Fireflies and the hysterical Pom Poko, while additional directors (including Miyazaki’s son, Goro) have stepped up in recent years to create the next wave of Ghibli favorites.
Many of the films have been released in North America via Disney, though only a handful of them have received theatrical runs. Luckily, to commemorate the studio’s work, the anime centric distributor GKids (gkids.tv) recently worked with Studio
Ghibli and Disney to commission fresh 35mm film prints of more than a dozen Ghibli features, which have been screening in theaters in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and numerous other locations. There’s nothing like seeing a stunning anime opus on the big screen, but if you don’t have a chance to catch the retrospective in theaters, here’s a quick primer on the 10 most essential Ghibli films, all of which are available on DVD. (And if you’re a theater programmer, contact firstname.lastname@example.org to book the collection at your location.)
Castle in the Sky (1986)
Chased by both pirates and the military, which each hope to harness the power of her mystical amulet, young Sheeta falls from an airship into the arms of Pazu, a strong-willed boy. Together, they fight for her safety and to discover the truth behind the mythical floating city of Laputa.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
At its core, Totoro is a light-hearted drama about young sisters moving to a new house in the countryside (while their mother lingers in a hospital), but it explodes with joy when the titular large, fluffy creature appears, whether he’s soaring through the sky or riding a cat-shaped bus.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Easily Ghibli’s most brutal and gut-wrenching work, Takahata’s film spotlights a pair of orphaned siblings near the end of World War II as they struggle to stay alive while Japan falls. Curiously, it was paired with the kid-friendly Totoro for its original Japanese release.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
It’s hard out there for a young witch-to-be, but the resourceful Kiki sets up shop to utilize her one partially developed skill: flying on a broom. The adorable coming-of-age tale was the first to be released domestically by Disney, nearly a decade after the Miyazaki-directed film debuted.
Porco Rosso (1992)
A very different kind of Miyazaki offering, Porco Rosso tells the tale of a fighter pilot working as a bounty hunter — who also happens to have been turned into a pig. While mostly light and fun, don’t underestimate the film: Rosso packs an emotional punch as the third act starts up.
Pom Poko (1994)
Perhaps the strangest effort in the Ghibli canon, Pom Poko turns the real plight of raccoons forced out by modern society into an absurdist comedy — one in which the creatures hone their transformation skills to pose as humans and try to scare the real humans away through myriad schemes.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Arguably Miyazaki’s most stirring work (and certainly his most violent), Princess Mononoke offers a fantastical tale of a young warrior afflicted by a curse, who becomes intertwined in a battle between an iron-making town and the natural beings who surround it.
Spirited Away (2001)
Ghibli’s best-known (and highest-grossing) work offers a dizzying array of visual delights, as it follows Chihiro, a young girl who is pulled into a parallel universe where her parents are turned into pigs. She must navigate a bizarre bathhouse to discover her way back to reality.
The Cat Returns (2002)
A lighter Ghibli entry, Hiroyuki Morita’s The Cat Returns is a delightful romp in which a student saves a seemingly ordinary cat from certain death — and then finds herself betrothed to him, kidnapped and transported to the Cat Kingdom. It’s fluffy as a feather, but hugely fun.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Miyazaki’s gorgeous adaptation of a British young adult novel isn’t quite as focused or remarkable as his two prior films, but this lengthy tale of a young girl turned into an elderly lady — who boards the walking structure — manages to pull it all together with a conclusion that hits hard.