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Studio Ghibli’s best movies transcend simple cinema

Two Polygon reporters discuss

Studio Ghibli

This piece originally ran on the occasion of Hayao Miyazaki’s 76th birthday. We’ve revived it for Studio Ghibli Week, which runs May 25 to 30 on Polygon to celebrate the arrival of the Japanese animation house’s library on digital and streaming services. All week we’re surveying the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. Follow along via our Ghibli Week page.

Studio Ghibli has been a leading animation studio for the past 32 years, and in that time, it’s produced 20 beloved films.

Since the dawn of the studio in 1985, Ghibli has built a community of diehard fans. While it’s not as successful as studios like Pixar, it has caught the eye of cinephiles everywhere. Many of its films have been nominated for Academy Awards. In 2003, Hayao Miyazaki’s celebrated Spirited Away won the award for Best Animated Feature, beating out strong contenders like Lilo & Stitch and Ice Age.

Miyazaki is probably the most recognizable name to come out of the studio, and for good reason. He directed nine of the films produced at Ghibli — and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which was technically released a year before the studio was founded — and has become the face of the company. In 2013, he was the center of a documentary about Ghibli, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, and remains one of the most important parts of the studio’s legacy.

Last week, Miyazaki celebrated his 76th birthday and Ghibli brought the director’s film, Princess Mononoke, to theaters in North America for its 20th anniversary. It’s an exciting time to be a Ghibli fan, and adoration for the studio runs deep at Polygon. In an effort to try and pay homage to Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli — as well as having a good reason to talk about Ghibli at length — senior reporter Allegra Frank and entertainment reporter Julia Alexander sat down to discuss our favorite films and why we love Ghibli as much as we do.

Studio Ghibli

Julia: Allegra, this piece feels like it’s been waiting to happen for quite some time. We talk about Ghibli on a regular basis and every time we do, we can’t help but delve into our immense love for its films.

For me, Ghibli films strike the perfect balance between evocative artwork, seamless animation and, at the heart of it all, gripping storytelling. It’s rare that I make it through a Ghibli movie without being a blubbering mess, especially when returning to watch my favorite, Grave of the Fireflies. But what I love about Ghibli movies is how differently people respond to each film. When I saw The Wind Rises in 2013, I remember being captivated by the use of airplanes and wind in Miyazaki’s animation. My friend glossed over it, however, finding himself enchanted by the story of Jirô’s journey. What’s your favorite thing about Ghibli movies? What makes you return to a title time and time again?

Allegra: I think the Studio Ghibli library is the strongest of any in animation, and it’s definitely high up there in film. While not every film is perfect, and not all of them are endlessly rewatchable — I personally can’t imagine ever watching Grave of the Fireflies again, myself — the vast majority just ... are.

I think it’s because each one is like a diorama. Although they’re in traditional, 2D animation, they feel like three-dimensional spaces that I just want to investigate every single corner of. The world in every Studio Ghibli film is so intricately designed that it feels like it actually exists, even when it never has and never could.

My all-time favorite Ghibli movie, Kiki’s Delivery Service, is a great example of this. The film ostensibly takes place in a version of Europe where World War II never happened. That’s a beautiful concept, and it’s a gorgeous world. Every house feels truly lived in. Every road looks appropriately run down. Characters don’t change clothes often, as is a hallmark in anime, but they seem 100 percent human.

Is that something you’ve noticed about Ghibli movies? What else do you really like about them?

Julia: The diorama analogy is perfect. Every time I return to a Ghibli film I’ve seen multiple times, I still discover something new about it. It wraps you up in its embrace and you don’t ever want to leave the world you’re seeing on screen. For example, when I watch From Up on Poppy Hill, another of my personal favorites, I get so caught up with Umi and Shun’s lives. It never feels like I’m returning to the same characters or same world twice. The movie mainly focuses on their desire to clean up a local clubhouse, Quartier Latin, but there’s so much passion in their fight to save it from a local businessman who wants to tear it down, that you feel like you’re part of their battle. Like most Ghibli movies, I always find myself getting overly attached to these characters.

But what I love most about Ghibli movies is how vulnerable each one makes me feel. Take Grave of the Fireflies, which isn’t just my go-to Ghibli title, but is also my favorite film of all time. The story about the love between two siblings and how far they’ll go to protect one another resonates with me. I have a close relationship with my brother, and watching just how far older brother Seita would go for his younger sister Setsuko affected me like no other film ever has. Ghibli characters feel unnervingly real. When these characters are going through the rougher parts of their journeys, it’s difficult to remember they’re not real people and the stories are fictional. Ghibli films are built on the writer’s, director’s and animators’ love for these characters. They’re handled with such care, they essentially make themselves more vulnerable in the process. You can see that with every Ghibli movie, and it allows you to let your guard down. Watching Ghibli movies is such a surreal, all encompassing feeling, and that’s so rare to find with most films.

Of course, another reason I love Ghibli movies is their whimsical nature. Nothing is off limits, and when tied in with Japanese lore, the stories that are told feel grander than I could have expected. Perhaps none do this as well as the studio’s signature title, Spirited Away. Allegra, what do you love about Spirited Away?

a young girl and a water dragon gasp at something off-screen in Spirited Away Image: Studio Ghibli/GKIDS

Allegra: Is “everything” an acceptable answer? There’s a reason that’s the one that really broke through to mainstream Western audiences, and it’s also currently the highest-grossing anime of all-time in Japan. (Spirited Away has held that title for going on 15 years now, but a new challenger has emerged.) The film is a simple story about growing up, but one masked with such wonder and fantasy that anyone can watch it, even if they don’t care for more intimate stories. But those of us who do, and particularly girls around Chihiro’s age, cling onto it because it’s like looking into a mirror.

Spirited Away is about a bratty suburban pre-teen who has no interest in culture, no desire to have responsibilities and no patience for respecting her elders. When she’s sent off into a mystical realm of dragons and talking toads, she’s forced to confront this and grow up. We all have to do that at some point, although my pubescent years were way less pretty. (Also, I’m still looking for a guy — or dragon, honestly — as dope as Haku.) That’s why the story has stuck with me for all these years, and I imagine that’s true for others as well.

That the lead of Spirited Away, and all of my other favorite Ghibli films, is a young girl also resonates with me. The films at the top of my list alongside that one and Kiki’s are Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro and the very lovely, very mundane Only Yesterday. Each one includes a similar theme about the nature and essentiality of aging, and they all star an intelligent, strong, witty girl. That meant a lot to me growing up, even if I didn’t have the words for why just yet.

Do you consider the proliferation of female protagonists to be a major reason why you love Ghibli films? Or does it not matter as much to you?

Julia: I don’t know if it’s a major reason, but I appreciate it. I also like that Ghibli doesn’t worry about modeling their female characters on any kind of stereotype in film. All of the characters are different in their own right, but each is just as special as the last. They’re not trying to be something they’re not, and I think as someone who grew up unsure of who they were, that resonated with me. Ghibli films remind you that it’s okay to be kind of a mess because the point of the journey is what you learn along the way, not the destination.

Life is messy, and Ghibli films remind you it’s not always going to be peachy. There will be tough times, but the main theme of every Ghibli movie is hope. You have to hold on to your beliefs and know in your heart that one day, everything will be alright because you have loved ones in your life. Even Grave of the Fireflies, which is one of Ghibli’s saddest films, carries an unwavering sense of hope, determination and love throughout. When I was younger, I relied on two things during bad times: Ghibli movies and Harry Potter books. Looking at it now, it’s not surprising. Both carry similar elements and both remind us that pain is a part of life, but so is joy, friendship and love.

That may sound corny, but Ghibli uses themes that everyone will experience throughout their lives and cultivates stories around those themes. Fear, ambition, hope, friendship, family, love and death are all important themes found in most Ghibli movies. When I was younger, I appreciated the stories and the vibrant worlds I was seeing. As an older fan of Ghibli, I appreciate the honesty that bursts through in every title.

Allegra, any last thoughts on Ghibli before we wrap this up?

Allegra: Now that Miyazaki has retired, at least for the time being, Studio Ghibli films may start to feel like a relic of our childhoods. But I also don’t think that will ever be true; at least, I hope it won’t be. These films still feel as fresh as the first time I saw them, and I’ll always love them more than ... almost anything, really.

Julia: For real. Happy birthday, Miyazaki. And thanks.

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