Studio Ghibli: Staff Picks

Howl’s Moving Castle

Submitted by Joss Taylor Olson


Many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films (among them Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky, and The Wind Rises) are infused with strong anti-war messages, crystallized in the heroes and villains at the center of the stories. Howl’s Moving Castle is no exception, and the film – adapted from Diana Wynne Jones’s relatively forgettable novel of the same name – is stronger for it. It begins with a parade of vaguely Prussian-looking soldiers marching to the film world’s equivalent of the First World War; by the end, we bear witness to carpet bombings, aerial engagements and a jingoistic king far too insulated from the horrors his country is suffering.

Miyazaki’s pacifism is striking without being preachy: the scarring of nations by war is juxtaposed with a colorful fable about the scarring of people by vanity, literally and figuratively. Both the wizard Howl and the Wicked Witch of the Waste are fierce narcissists whose selfishness blinds them to the plight of others, and their sins are repeatedly imprinted on their surroundings and themselves. Even our innocent heroine Sophie, shielded all her life from human sin and ugliness, is transformed into an old woman on her first brush with evil. Yet unlike the book, everyone ultimately gets a happy ending, with physical reminders of their emotional maturity (see Sophie’s permanently gray hair).

The rich narrative careens across a beautifully animated kingdom vaguely reminiscent of central Europe. Yet for all the love put into the swaying grass and early morning mist of the Germanesque valleys, the greatest set piece is the Castle itself. Lurching ominously across the fields, belching smoke into the crisp blue sky, and literally held together only by magic, the Frankensteined-together abomination of architecture is a testament to the intractable power of human stubbornness. In its destruction and resurrection, it also embodies the enduring spirit of redemption and hope.

The movie moves to the three-quarter time of an eminently waltzable score (in my opinion, Joe Hisaishi’s finest). Those inclined to the English dub will rejoice at Christian Bale’s Howl (Patrick Batemanish in beauty) and Blythe Danner’s calmly omnipotent Madame Suliman, but the real show-stealer is Billy Crystal as Calcifer. “May all your bacon burn” should be a more common epithet.

Howl’s Moving Castle was not my first Miyazaki, and it will not be my last, but it stands as my favorite by miles.

Spirited Away
Submitted by Lena Yang


A bouquet of pink flowers blooms across the screen; the first notes of Joe Hisaishi’s piano melody sets the tone. A sullen little girl dressed in pink and green laments about her new school, and so begins a promising journey of courage and growth.

Hayao Miyazaki, whose works are wrought with imaginative landscapes and large casts of peculiar characters, is perhaps best known for his Academy Award winning picture, Spirited Away. Through the trials of 10-year-old Chihiro’s reluctant move to a new town and her subsequent adventures in a strange liminal land, Miyazaki explores the anxieties of childhood, empowering young viewers to face change with confidence.

Spirited Away diverges from the traditional adventure film narrative by having the heroine subvert the villain using cleverness rather than violence, and the movie is tame as far as action goes. Miyazaki affords the same respect to his villains as he does his heroine, and the suggestion of moral ambiguity allows the film to transcend the archetypal mold of children’s movies. The peculiar cynicism of our timid heroine underscores the emotional trials of childhood. Yet, for all of Chihiro’s petulant remarks and demanding screams, the themes of growth and transformation transcend her petty attitude. She first tumbles awkwardly through the ominous stretch of unfamiliar land, but with the entire cast of Yubaba’s bathhouse cheering for her triumph, Chihiro departs their world not only with reluctance, but also with the confidence to shed her fear for change. As Miyazaki gently put it, “[Chihiro] will be a charming woman”.

Human portrayals are thoroughly convincing, which bring to the film an authenticity that juxtaposes the fantastical. One of the greatest indicators of Miyazaki’s skill is his ability to capture the fluidity of movement and human mannerisms. Even though Spirited Away is an animated film, Miyazaki manages to create a very genuine caricature of a young child by mimicking micro-practices of real children, such as Chihiro tapping her foot to make sure her shoe fits comfortably. His practised hand allows almost imperceptible details to shine through, and often his artistic decisions create a secondary dialogue that suggests at everything left unsaid.

The spirit world is gorgeously realized with meticulous attention afforded to every facet of Mizayaki’s fantastical setting. A soaring, intricately constructed bathhouse spits out billows of steam, water arches in waves as a half-submerged train traverses a dreamy landscape of pale purple and pink, and a bizarre guide in the form of a hopping lamp leads Chihiro to a cottage nestled in the woods. There are soot balls, radish spirits, an eight-legged boiler man, and a number of other odd characters who seem to embody the film’s endlessly suggestive worlds. Spirited Away is a classic Miyazaki-style Wonderland that is all at once fun and instructive, imaginative and realistic.

My Neighbor Totoro
Submitted by Max Szyc


I’ll never forget the moment I stumbled upon the VHS copy of My Neighbor Totoro at my local video store: a child clutching a giant, flying rabbit with similarly oddball rabbits chasing along? Sounds like an action-packed adventure romp where a group of curious children meet a bunch of cool rabbit bros, stumble upon some bad dudes, foil their plans and then party like it is 1989. And why wouldn’t I expect this? Being seven-years-old at the time, virtually every western animated feature I’d been subjected to followed the classic rising action/climax plot structure to the point where I’d watch a movie and become concerned when no fight sequence broke out 15 minutes in.


So just imagine what youngster me thought when My Neighbor Totoro became my first animated film (and Japanese film, too) to go against the grain. There were no aerial bunny battles to be found. Instead, I got a simple, charming tale of two sisters moving to the countryside and eventually stumbling onto a world of magical creatures. Sure, it sounds like an average children’s movie, but Miyazaki does his flick different by featuring no epic fights… or any major conflict at all. This storytelling freedom made me realize just how emotionally powerful and creative animation can be, and I will forever thank Miyazaki for showing me the light.

…But since I brought it up, you’ve got to admit a duelling Totoro would make for the most exceptional cartoon badass.

The Secret World of Arrietty 

Submitted by Hunter ‘Haunter’ Birdsworth


The Secret World of Arrietty (also known as Borrower Arrietty) is Studio Ghibli’s take on The Borrowers, a tale about little people no bigger than the palm of your hand who “borrow” things – like a cracker or sugar cube – here and there in your house. Many films  The Great Mouse Detective, An American Tail and All Dogs Go to Heaven – have attempted a miniature world amongst us humans, and while the filmsare strong in their own right they fail to make me believe that the living breathing world captured in the film was alive and plausible. Arrietty accomplishes beautifully, once you see the film in motion, it’s hard not to feel the details in small objects that we neglect or are barely able to comprehend. Rain drops feel like they have weight, flowers and grass stand tall like trees, nails become stairs and all of these don’t even seem fantastical or anything of the sort. Studio Ghilbli manages to make these seemingly plain objects feel like they take on a whole new life just from changing our perspective. The English cast is also surprisingly splendid  course there’s the Disney singer Bridgit Mendler (also lending her song “Summertime” to marketing) voicing Arrietty with a surprising amount of credibility: it’s refreshing having a teenage girl in an animated feature also voiced by someone fairly close to her age. Will Arnett also gives a strong performance as Arrietty’s father and Amy Poehler voicing the mother is a welcome combination of both frantic and worrisome energy with genuine care.

When Arriety was released in the States, there was some criticism leveled at the  lack of action. However that lack of action is just another reason I love the film and Studio Ghibli itself. It doesn’t need big explosive scenes to capture children and their parents; in fact, the entire first half of the film doesn’t really have much of a conflict. It’s just Arrietty and the human boy living together and learning to be each other’s friend, no romantic implications here, just friends who deeply care for each other. This film has a ton of atmosphere and lots of quiet moments that are sure to please children now as much as they will when they sit down and watch it years from now. The Secret World of Arrietty might take a few years of maturity and growth to truly appreciate, but its magic is no less real to anyone of any age.

Princess Mononoke
Submitted by Sam Henry Miller


The utter sublimity about Studio Ghibli’s animation remains unrivaled amongst other artists of its form; it has for 30 years and likely will for 30 more. To argue this point for Princess Mononoke would be in vain, as the film unobjectionably adheres, or even supersedes, Ghibli’s deft visual norm. But to analyze Mononoke’s narrative, animated or otherwise, is to excavate something veritably distinct, not just amongst other Fantasy narratives of the time or canon, but amongst even Ghibli’s own. Mononoke is easily the most tactfully complex narrative of all Ghibli stories, and there’s a very specific reason for this: Mononoke has layers.

Now what we have at the surface is a Man vs. Nature story– but it’s slightly more complex than that because our protagonist proper, Ashitaka, claims allegiance to neither but is rather a mediating force between both. So too is San (Princess Mononoke, the wolf princess), although she does not realize this initially but rather hinges to the delusion that she is a “God of Nature”. Only through Ashitaka’s patience and love is her humanity and unfactioned, ‘unallied-to-anything-other-than-peace’ role revealed and accepted. So that’s the second layer: Mononoke is a romance. Its romance is one of love’s ability to transcend physical differences between souls despite war, hate, and vendetta.

But, alas, one final layer lies abstract within Mononoke’s story and in no small part emancipates it foremost against narratives of its kind on a global, sociopolitical scale:

No one, no one force, nor one cause is ascribed a value judgement in Mononoke. Humans aren’t bad because they sap nature for resource and seek to conquer and colonize. Nature isn’t bad because it’s wild, unforgiving, and nihilistic. Nor are the former good for their choice to steer altruistic or the latter good for its decision to relinquish ancient grudges. Ultimately, the message is clear: our essences are static, but, by choice, we can with dynamism aspire to be the best versions of them.

Conversely, we can assume if Mononoke instead were written for/by classical, typical Western minds—notorious for assuaging colonial guilt by tossing their protagonist into the realm of the savage Other and saving the day—Ashitaka would likely have ‘sided’ with Nature and helped take down the iron-mongering humans for the savages, because they “need” him. This all-too-common cinematic scenario fails to acknowledge a human capacity for epiphany and even neglects  the “noble, savage Other’s” capacity for malevolence.

Instead, Mononoke, at its third layer tells a story of Other vs. Other, and nowhere is I, We, or Us to be found other than within abstract ideals like peace, love, and forgiveness—qualities everyone possesses, even aspects of nature, by virtue of sentience. Our protagonists, Ashitaka and San, fight for these implicitly, and in the end, no one faction is punished for their actions, but rather left humbled and educated.

Mononoke is an exemplar of insightful, moving, steadfast storytelling, well earning its rank—by critics, scholars, and lovers alike—among the canonical “best films”, not just of Studio Ghibli, but of cinematic history.