Anime Films for the Family: Studio Ghibli

Some years ago, a friend introduced me to the works of Studio Ghibli, an anime studio started by two filmmakers that I wish I had known about years ago.  I don’t really consider myself an anime fan—but I have found most of their films delightfully entertaining. Although the future of the studio is not clear (Hiyao Miyazaki, probably the more famous of the partners, retired), they have released co-productions.

Studio Ghibli’s films are, for the most part, anime for both children and adults that reflect Japanese culture and worldview, but are also about universal themes.  Although the films are not Christian (Shintoism and Buddhism are practiced by the great majority, with Christians about 1.5% of the population, and other religions only 7.1%), there are strong human values in every film. In our world today, it is important to introduce children to the worldview of other cultures, and watching Studio Ghibli films is a beautiful and powerful way to catch a glimpse of Japanese culture.

Of the 10 Studio Ghibli films that I have seen, I have found all of them beautifully drawn, compelling characters, and more realistic about life than the typical animated or anime film. The magic of childhood is very much present in the films, presenting the world in a way that is respectful and gentle, but that doesn’t deny the reality of evil and suffering. Studio Ghibli films do not always have a happy, Disney ending. The stories vary in quality, but many are of high quality, with often unexpected plot twists.

Check out the Windows to the Soul segment on Studio Ghibli on this week’s Salt+Light Radio Hour!

Each film is unique, but here are some common characteristics of many of the films that I have watched:

  • Imaginative, whimsical, beautiful
  • The reality of the spiritual realm is taken for granted, although from a Shinto perspective, not a Christian one. Whether spirits or magic, the worldview in the Studio Ghibli films is the opposite of materialistic, and at least one film clearly shows the poverty of a materialistic worldview. I find it refreshing to watch films that are open to the mystical and spiritual realm. The differing perspective can also provide families and classes the opportunity to discuss our faith in the afterlife as Catholics.
  • Strong human values/themes:
    • respect for elders
    • valuing the family
    • nature
    • silence
    • friendship and loyalty
    • respect for tradition
    • anti-war or pacifist, showing the horrors of war
  • Many of the films have a strong female protagonist
  • Rather than a “happily ever after,” often the films have a bittersweet ending with a sense of acceptance of reality
  • Appropriate for children—although of varying ages ranging from 5+ to more appropriate to preteens or teenagers—but also really enjoyable for adults. Not in a Pixar, comic way, but in the way that it deals with serious themes and the struggles of life, and the sheer beauty of the world and the animation. Some of the films are a bit slower and so would be harder for younger children to watch, but even in the slower films, there is a lot to take in.

In general, I find it helpful to watch the English dubbed versions, rather than the subtitled.

Below, you’ll find a list of some of the more accessible of Studio Ghibli’s films. I’ll share my thoughts on each film as I see it. In the meantime, for finding the appropriate age level for various films, I’d recommend visiting CommonSenseMedia.org on their Studio Ghibli List.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature, adapted from his own manga, about a brave princess trying to bring peace to her world. (Technically, not a Studio Ghibli film; its success prompted the creation of Studio Ghibli.)

Castle in the Sky (1986; also known as Laputa) Directed by Hayao Miyazaki with similar themes to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind: children vs. technology’s evils.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988) Directed by the other founding partner of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies is a powerful film about the consequences of war on the innocent. The story of two children, brother Seita and his little sister Setsuko, struggle to survive the devastating effects of the fire-bombings of the Allied Forces in Tokyo during World War II. It has been called one of the most powerful anti-war films ever.

I saw Grave of the Fireflies too long ago to write a detailed commentary, but I can attest to the power and tragedy of this film. It is not an easy film to watch–and I do not recommend it for children, but for teens who are old enough to be able to handle the intense tragedy and emotion. Although this trailer is subtitled, I watched the dubbed version, which is available on DVD.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988) Directed by Hiyao Miyazaki, this is an extremely gentle film about two little girls who befriend supernatural spirits at their new home. (“Spirits” understood in a fantastical sense from a Shinto perspective.)

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) — Directed by Miyazaki, this delightful film for younger children is the coming-of-age story of Kiki, a young witch who leaves home for the traditional year of starting life on her own. Although Kiki is a witch, there is no sense of evil or seeking power; her only power is flying, which she hasn’t quite mastered at the beginning of the film. This gentle film about a young girl leaving home and gradually building a new life for one’s self amid difficulties doesn’t have many deeper themes, but it is worthwhile entertainment with human values.

Porco Rosso (1992)  — Set in Italy in the 1930s, this is the story of a veteran World War I pilot who is cursed to look like a pig. I am curious to see this film, because it’s received so many positive reviews.

Princess Mononoke (1997) — Directed by Miyao Hiyazaki, this film is recommended for older children ages 12+ by Common Sense Media because of its violence. Princess Mononoke is the story of the conflict between nature and civilization and is darker and more intense than many Studio Ghibli films. I really enjoyed this film when I saw it years ago, and I plan to see it again soon. 

Spirited Away (2001) — Written and directed by Miyao Hiyazaki, Spirited Away won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003. It is the story of Chihiro, a young girl who is upset with her parents for moving. As they travel to their new home, they visit a village that is occupied by a sorcerer and spirits, where Chihiro’s parents are transformed into animals and taken hostage. Chihiro escapes being changed but loses her name, and must find a way to redeem herself and her parents. An amazing film, Spirited Away has some scary scenes but a courageous, kind-hearted, and loyal protagonist.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2005) – Directed by Hiyao Miyazaki, this is my favorite Studio Ghibli film for sheer entertainment. It’s a delightful, whimsical fantasy loosely based on Diana Wynn Jones’ book of the same name. There are many elements of a fairy tale: enchantments that disguise, a wizard and a witch, a war, king, a castle that lumbers along, a love story, and the protagonist, young Sophie Hatter, whose strength, kindness and love change the lives of those around her, despite her troublesome enchantment and initial lack of self-confidence.

Secret World of Arrietty (2011) — Directed by a new director at Studio Ghibli, Hiromasa Yonebayashi and based on the classic children’s fantasy, The Borrowers, by Mary Norton, adapted for the screen by Hiyao Miyazaki. 

The Borrowers was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. “Borrowers” are little people—about five inches tall—and unseen people who share your house with you, living under the floor and in the walls. They survive by “borrowing” things that you never miss, or that you know you put somewhere but can never find. Curious Arrietty is the only child of the Clock family and is curious about the world beyond her family’s hidden spaces. One day she is seen by the Boy who is visiting the house. Discovered, she is delighted to make a new friend and to see the world of the “human beans.” But the lives of the Clock family are put at risk when the owner of the house spies on the Boy and discovers them.

I was delighted that Studio Ghibli decided to take on The Borrowers, and the film is beautifully animated. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed in how this less complex story moved a bit too slowly for my taste. A less-compelling tale, The Secret World of Arrietty is still a delightful film for children.

The Wind Rises (2013) — The last film written and directed by Hiyao Miyazaki before he retired, is a more complex story of a young man whose dream is to design planes. Inspired by the life of famous warplane designer Jiro Horikoshi, the film is only partly factual. But it feels like an animated bio-pic, taking us through decades of Japanese history—including the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, the Great Depression, and the ambivalent sentiment of Japanese citizens during World War II. There is much to admire in Jiro’s character, and the story focuses quite a bit on his love for Nahoko, a young woman that he rescues as a very young man.

What is difficult about the film is that Jiro actually designed war planes for the Japanese during World War II, including the infamous Zero, which could out-maneuver every other airplane when it first flew in 1940. Over 10,000 of these planes were built and flown, and the Zero caused great destruction during World War II. Jiro designed the planes knowing they would be used for war, and he talks about not wanting the war to design war planes, but he goes ahead and does it anyway, with the  motivation that he just wants to design planes, even though he knows his planes would deal out so much death. This is not fully explored, but left as a contradiction and glaring moral question for Jiro’s character, which is heroic and likable in so many ways.

The film is well-done, beautifully animated as always, with interesting characters. Overall, I found the film a bit slow for my taste, especially when I discovered that some important elements of the story were not factual. However, The Wind Rises is a masterpiece well-worth viewing, as well as a fascinating example of an animated bio-pic that skillfully brings us through decades of Japanese history. I would recommend it for older children simply because it’s complexity and depth.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) — Directed by Isao Takahata. A Japanese folktale about a tiny princess whom an elderly bamboo discovers magically growing in a bamboo plant. He takes her and raises her with his wife in the idyllic country side, where Lil Bamboo grows too rapidly for an ordinary girl.

Despite their happy time in the country, her father buys a rich home in the city for his daughter, and has her trained in the ways of wealthy society. The princess unwillingly obeys her father, torn by her love for her previous life in the forest with her friends, and her desire to obey and make her father happy. But the inhuman process of choosing a husband merely for appearance and status is greatly distressing to the princess and also somewhat to us as viewers.

This is an amazing and visually exquisite  film. In terms of the animation alone, this is my favorite Studio Ghibli film. This film has all the hallmarks of a great Studio Ghibli film: a beautifully told story, complex characters, incredibly symbolism in the visuals, and deep themes, including:

  • the consequences of our choices
  • the nurturing and love important for a child in the family
  • a critique of living by appearances and seeking social status
  • the value of a simple life of harmony and love
  • the incredible beauty and gift of nature

Despite the serious themes, the story can be followed by children in middle grades. A delightful film for the whole family.

When Marnie Was There  (2014)— Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s second Studio Ghibli film, When Marnie Was There is the story of Anna, a foster child who is sent for her health to the seaside to stay with her foster mother’s sister and husband. Struggling with feeling like an unwanted outsider, both lonely and sad, Anna explores the neighborhood and is fascinated by a dilapidated mansion that is accessible by land only in low tide. Anna eventually meets Marnie, a blonde-haired girl from the mansion, and they become friends. 

But the nature of their friendship is elusive, as Marnie sometimes disappears and Anna will  find herself suddenly alone. What (and who) is real becomes a growing tension in the film, but the gift of their friendship and the surprises it contains, nurtures and heals both girls. The ending is deeply moving, linking the present with the past.

Some reviewers found this film slow-moving, but for me and any other adult or older child (ages 10+) who has questioned his or her identity, this film is profoundly engrossing, poignant, and rewarding.

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