What’s to love about Studio Ghibli’s Films

The recently-announced production hiatus by Studio Ghibli will certainly lend a somewhat sad air to this year’s showing at Nippon Kids of the most recent (and, for now, final) feature-length production by the Japanese animation giant, When Marnie Was There (Erinnerungen An Marnie).  In honor of this special event, here is a look back at the films from the Ghibli filmography with the best and most powerful lessons for kids.

7. Kiki’s Delivery Service (Hayao Miyazaki, 1989)

While most stories about witches place a big emphasis on showing off magical powers, Kiki’s takes a markedly different approach.  Anything supernatural or sorcerous about being a witch in Kiki’s world is downplayed, in lieu of a story that focuses much more on the simple joys of daily hard work and helping others out when and where you can.  All this is tied into a perfectly paced coming-of-age tale that reminds younger viewers that, while leaving childhood homes for the wider world can be scary at first, pushing through can lead to a life greater than they could ever have imagined.  

6. Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2010)

Based very loosely on the children’s book The Borrowers, Yonebayashi’s first Ghibli film tells the story of a young, sickly boy inspired to not give up on living when he witnesses the incredible courage of Arrietty and her family, part of a race of tiny people.  Seeing how they never give up and never lose their ability to love, even in the face of a huge world that could easily crush or kill them, he finds the determination to fight his illness and live on to remember them, even though they are eventually forced to part ways.  It’s a tale of love, but also of the beauty in being alive, even when fate throws you for a loop.  

5. Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995)

The deliberate stillness of much of this film belies the passion of its characters, a young boy and girl each just starting to realize what they want out of life.  Although they are still preteens, both feel a yearning and a drive to commit to a goal.  By the end of the film, the girl has written the first draft of a novel, and the boy has been accepted to a school in Italy to learn how to make violins, each excitedly looking forward to their next steps into the future.  In a time where it’s become harder and harder to get people, both young and old, to think about the big picture, this film provides a wonderful and clear example of the happiness to be found in thinking long-term about what living a meaningful life truly means, and what one can do now to make that dream a reality.

4. When Marnie Was There (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2014)

If When Marnie Was There does indeed end up being the last feature-length production by Ghibli, it’s quite a powerful note to go out on.  This is a film that pulls the amazing trick of flawlessly combining scenes involving struggles with physical illness, depression, loss of family, uneasiness about physical appearance, and uncertainty about personal identity without ever become pessimistic about childhood, life, or growing.  It depicts them all from the perspective of its child protagonist, in ways that both adults and children can relate to and learn from.  It’s one of those rare movies that truly are for the whole family.  

3. My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)

Featuring two of the most iconic character designs in the history of animated film, My Neighbor Totoro tells the story of a young family trying to adapt to country life, after they moved there so that their ill mother can better recover.  Over the course of their adventures, the two young girls encounter a group of peaceful Totoros (trolls, of a sort) that inhabit the forest.  Their scenes together are suffused with a love of and reverence for the power and beauty of nature, and of the joys in finding simple things in life to be happy about.  A great message for kids, to be sure, but also one plenty of adults could stand to relearn as well.  

2. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, 2013)

One of the most visually unique movies in the Studio Ghibli canon, this film is an affecting retelling of an ancient Japanese legend about a moon princess who comes to Earth in child form to live for a time as a human.  However, her carefree and loving nature is soon forcefully repressed by the strict social and gender norms of her culture.  How this plays out over the course of the story is a striking example of the dangers of holding on too tightly to some customs, even when they don’t fit everyone, and is a powerful encouragement for children to not be afraid to find their own path through life.

1. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

To this day, Spirited Away remains one of the definitive creations of both Studio Ghibli and its beloved co-founder, and it’s not hard to see why.  Combining the usual stunning animation work of Miyazaki with an unforgettable musical score by Joe Hisaishi, its tale of a young girl forced to grow up and take on maturity and responsibility for herself (and very much against her will, at first) is still one of the most potent coming-of-age stories to come out in the past 15 years.  If there is any film recommended to introduce your young ones to the wonderful worlds of Studio Ghibli, this is the one.  

It’s been a wonderful several decades of animated work by the Japanese Walt Disney and his colleagues, and we can’t wait to see what they do next, be it film-related or otherwise.  In the meantime, we at Nippon Connection welcome one and all to join us for our screening of Erinnerungen an Marnie on Thursday, May 26, at 3:30pm in Mal Seh’n Kino.  

See you there!  

-Noah Franc

[Edit: Studio Ghibli’s hiatus might not be as definitive. The studio has shown a new (co-produced) film in Cannes]

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