- Trailer: English subtitled version
- What it’s about: Satsuki and Mei have moved to the a new home with their father while their mother recovers in hospital from a chronic illness. It doesn’t take them long to begin exploring the surrounding countryside. Mei soon runs into a series of odd creatures, including a bus-sized cat and a monstrously-sized but friendly spirit she names Totoro.
- Why you should watch it: This is a classic Ghibli film in the truest sense. Totoro manages to capture that sense of wonder, innocence, and the beauty of childhood with no apparent effort. There’s no fighting, no evil villain or manipulative stepmother, but the narrative flows from one beat to another without losing your interest for a moment or employing any of the cliches of the medium. It’s widely regarded as one of the greatest family films of all time even outside of the anime community, as well it should be.
- Caveats: While I quite like the 80s animation aesthetic, I acknowledge that it’s not for everyone. This is also the lightest and most ‘fluffy’ of Miyazaki’s films. It’s deeper than it looks, but it’s still at its heart a children’s movie.
- Themes: The beauty and wonder of nature. Childhood and family.
- Similar works: Howl’s Moving Castle or Castle in the Sky within Ghibli canon.
- Trailer: “Disney Presents” trailer
- What it’s about: While on the way to their new home, Chihiro’s family stops to investigate an abandoned theme park. Unfortunately for them, the park is home to a thriving community of spirits. Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs and she is left to fend for herself, finding a job as a scullery maid in a spa for spirits until she can rescue her family.
- Why you should watch it: Spirited Away is one of Studio Ghibli’s crowning achievements. The animation is fantastic and fantastical, the story compelling, and the characters well-developed. If I had to pick one film to represent the best of anime, this would be it. The English dub is also very well-executed.
- Caveats: The visuals are often straight-up *bizarre*, which might turn off people unfamiliar with the medium. At its heart, it’s a children’s story, so don’t expect something huge with an epic and deep storyline.
- Themes: Independence and adolescence. That appearances can be deceiving.
- Similar works: Anything by Studio Ghibli. I’d start with Kiki’s Delivery Service or Howl’s Moving Castle.
- Trailer: English dubbed version
- What it’s about: The final years of the Second World War – things are turning against Japan. The story follows a pair of siblings who survive a firebombing raid as they try to put their lives back together. But reality isn’t a land of sunshine and rainbows, particularly in Japan towards the end of the War. The elder brother, Seita, soon discovers the difficulties of taking care of a child in a country where pity and compassion are as harshly rationed as the food.
- Why you should watch it: It’s one of the most emotional turbulent movies out there in *any* medium, let alone in anime, and regularly gets high marks even from critics in both Japan and the West. Takahata and Studio Ghibli bring their usual level of skill to writing and animation, bringing the tragedy to life. From the opening narration through the trials and tribulations that the children face, it’s a harrowing journey to watch. Grave of the Fireflies is one of those films that will leave a lasting impact, whether you enjoy it or not.
- Caveats: This is not a happy story. At all.
- Themes: The cruel and petty nature of humanity under stress, particularly war.
- Similar works: Anything by Studio Ghibli – try Princess Mononoke first. Outside of that, Tokyo Magnitude 8.0. Outside of anime entirely, The Road or Schindler’s List.
Trailer: English dubbed version
What it’s about: Sophie, a quiet girl working in a hat shop, finds her life thrown into turmoil when she is literally swept off her feet by a handsome but mysterious wizard named Howl. The vain and vengeful Witch of the Waste, jealous of their friendship, puts a spell on Sophie. In a life-changing adventure, Sophie climbs aboard Howl’s magnificent flying castle and enters a magical world on a quest to break the spell.
Why you should watch it: It’s the archetypal Studio Ghibli adventure film. The story is fun and fast-paced, appealing to both children and adults alike, being both whimsical and deep at the same time. The quality of the soundtrack and animation is first-rate, as is to be expected from Miyazaki. The English dub is well above average, featuring Christian Bale and Billy Crystal, among others. Its a fantastic way to introduce someone to the medium.
Caveats: While it’s got broad appeal, it is at its heart a kid’s film, so go in with that expectation.
Themes: Appearances can be deceiving. There’s also a strong anti-war sentiment woven throughout, particularly with Howl’s conscientious objection to enlistment in the national army. As with many Miyazaki films (Porco Rosso, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, etc), the idea of flight and the wonder and escape that it offers appears, too.
Similar works: Anything by Ghibli, though Spirited Away is probably the closest.
- Trailer: Walt Disney Presents
- What it’s about: Tradition dictates that every young witch spend a year away from home working on their talents before they can become a full-fledged practitioner. Kiki strikes out with her broom, a handful of cash, and her sarcastic talking cat to find her fortune. With no particular talents other than her proficiency at flying, she starts up a delivery service to pay her own way in the big city, meeting a variety of characters from different backgrounds on her journeys.
- Why you should watch it: It’s a classic Ghibli film, magical and whimsical enough to entertain children but with a solid story and enough characterisation and development to keep adults engaged as well. Kiki’s Delivery Service is relatively uncomplicated as Miyazaki movies go, but it manages to turn that very simplicity into a strength, using the lack of distractions to provide a tale with rich thematic content. The English dub is excellent, with Kirsten Dunst voicing the lead role and Phil Hartman as her cat sidekick
- Caveats: The film is 25 years old now and while the animation still holds up excellently, the age is definitely apparent. It is also, at its heart, a kid’s film, so don’t expect things to get too dark or serious.
- Themes: Adolescence and letting go of one’s childhood. The conflict between tradition and modernity.
- Similar works: Within the Ghibli corpus, Howl’s Moving Castle and Porco Rosso are probably the most similar that I’ve seen. If you want something with the same kind of premise and general atmosphere, there’s also Little Witch Academia.