1984 - 1989 | 1991 - 1994 | 1995 - 1999 | 2000 - 2004 | 2005 - 2010 | 2011 - 2015
Studio Ghibli is the most famous animation studio in Japan and has gained a reputation for high-quality films. These emphasise themes of peace, magic, hard work, wonder, flight, a sense of belonging to one's environment, and strong elderly women and young girls. The spirituality of all living things, as emphasised in Shinto polytheistic beliefs and customs, is also important, ensuring that all animal and plant life is valued. Other themes include magical castles, which may even walk or fly, travelling on important journeys by train and the threat of total or nuclear destruction. Giant robots also feature in early films, and military vehicles or locations tend to be horribly beweaponed, bristling with multiple gun turrets. Many of these films were made by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, including the internationally acclaimed, Oscar-winning Spirited Away. All the films demonstrate animation of the highest achievable standard of quality.
Studio Ghibli was founded by four key individuals. It can trace its origin back to when Miyazaki met Toshio Suzuki, the editor of Animage, Japan's first popular magazine dedicated to animation and manga. They met following Miyazaki's directorial debut, The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), a film featuring thief Lupin III1. This achieved great critical success but made little initial impact at the box office, though it has since become a cult classic. Miyazaki shared with Suzuki his plans to make Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind but Suzuki failed to find investors willing to gamble on an unknown property. They therefore serialised the story as a manga in Animage, to great success. This persuaded investor Yasuyoshi Tokuma, founder of Tokuma Shoten Publishing, to finance the film adaptation, which became an instant hit.
Nausicaä's success greatly encouraged Miyazaki and Suzuki. With Miyazaki's mentor and fellow animator Isao Takahata (1935-2018), who had worked with Miyazaki since 1968, and Tokuma's investment, Studio Ghibli was born.
Talking Gibberish: A Studio By Any Other Name
The name 'Ghibli' was chosen by Miyazaki, who is an aeroplane enthusiast, possibly because his father worked in the Japanese aircraft industry. He was inspired by the name of an Italian aircraft, the Caproni Ca.309 Ghibli reconnaissance aircraft, which saw service in the Italian Air Force during the Second World War, predominantly in Libya. Its name means 'hot wind', particularly hot wind from the desert. In Italian, 'Ghibli' starts with a hard g, the same sound as the English word 'give', yet due to a pronunciation error by Miyazaki when founding Studio Ghibli, the studio's name is officially pronounced 'Jib-Lee'.
Studio Ghibli Directors
Hayao Miyazaki is not the only director to have made films for the studio; seven other directors to date have released films, including two by Miyazaki's son Gorō. Yet it is fair to say that Hayao Miyazaki has produced most of the studio's greatest successes.
|Directors||No. Films Made||When|
|Michaël Dudok de Wit||1||2016|
Breaking the Language Barrier
During the 20th Century Studio Ghibli's films were little seen outside Japan. In 1996 Disney signed an agreement to release Ghibli's films on home media worldwide2 using their Miramax label. They also agreed to distribute upcoming film Princess Mononoke (1997) in cinemas, releasing the film in English in 1999.
Although the cinematic release had little impact, Princess Mononoke quickly gathered momentum when released on DVD. This slowly led to further Ghibli releases being translated into English and reaching a wider audience. It took a surprising amount of time for Disney to release these further Studio Ghibli films on the home video market, leading to criticism that they had purchased the distribution rights deliberately to prevent their worldwide release, considering Studio Ghibli films a potentially threatening rival to their own animations.
Below is a summary of Studio Ghibli's films during this period. Also mentioned is whether the films pass the Bechdel Test. This can be summarised as whether the film involves two or more named female characters who have a conversation together that is not focussed on men.
Miyazaki is a Europhile, and many of his films have European features, particularly modelled after Italy, Germany and Wales, or feature aircraft and weapons inspired by those built in pre-War Britain, Italy and Germany. As the films are often set in Japan, British audiences can delight in seeing cars driving on the left side of the road.
The first film made by the team that became Studio Ghibli was actually animated by Topcraft Studio, which folded in 1984. Topcraft became Pacific Animation Company which in 1988 was bought out by Disney to become Walt Disney Japan, though in 1985 many of the animators instead joined the fledgling Studio Ghibli. As Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was made by the team that became Studio Ghibli it is included below, though at the time of its original release Studio Ghibli did not yet exist.
0. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
|Plot||A thousand years after the world was all but destroyed in the Seven Days of Fire, humanity's survivors live surrounded by a poisonous toxic jungle filled with gigantic insects, some of which grow as large as a city block. Most surviving humans are bitterly fighting among themselves for the diminishing resources, yet Nausicaä, Princess of the Valley of the Wind, believes in living peacefully, in harmony with nature. An aircraft carrying a surviving Warrior, one of the giant atomic robots that had destroyed the planet a millennium earlier, crashes in the valley. Soon Nausicaä's peaceful way of life is threatened by warring factions. Each faction wishes to ensure that no other gets hold of the Warrior and does not care what happens to the Valley of the Wind. Can Nausucaä protect her people as well as the insects, finding a way for all to mutually coexist?|
|Setting||The Valley of the Wind and surrounding area, a thousand years after a devastating war|
|Aircraft||Both the Tolmekians and the Pejites have vast heavily-armed flying boats, Nausicaä has a one-person glider.|
|Robot||The vast biorobotic Warrior|
|Beweaponed||The flying boats are bristling with guns, as are the Tolmekian tanks|
|English Release||Warriors of the Wind: 1985, Disney: 2005|
Nausicaä is named after a character in Homer's Odyssey. Her further adventures were serialised in Animage magazine until 1994, with more characters and complex interplay. This film was released with a glowing recommendation from the WWF3.
Nausicaä's Mehve glider, named after Möwe, 'Gull' in German, inspired a real-life working prototype, the OpenSky M-02. The Tolmekians' vast aircraft were inspired by the Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant, a German Second World War military transport aircraft and the largest land-based aircraft of the war. The gigantic Warrior was animated by Hideaki Anno, who later created Neon Genesis Evangelion. Star Trek: The Next Generation has a minor recurring race named the Nausicaans, who were named after the film; fittingly Patrick Stewart who had played Captain Picard in that series features in the 2005 English dub of the film.
Before Disney paid for the 2005 translation of the film there was a highly altered 1985 English dubbed version which was renamed Warriors of the Wind. This removed almost a quarter of the film's runtime to make it 'more marketable for the US market', deleting many of the key environmental messages and renaming the characters: for example, Nausicaä became 'Princess Zandra'. This convinced Miyazaki for many years that there was no suitable market for Studio Ghibli's films outside Japan.
In 2014 Time Out Magazine listed it as 96th of the World's Top 100 Animated Films
1. Castle in the Sky (1986)
|Plot||A young girl named Sheeta has been kidnapped by the military and is being transported on an airship, which falls under attack by the piratical Dola gang. During the raid Sheeta falls out of the airship, but a crystal she wears on a pendant allows her to float rather than fall down to the mining town below. She is found and befriended by Pazu, an orphan working in the mine who dreams of building an aircraft and looking for the lost, legendary city of Laputa, a floating island and castle hidden in a storm cloud in the sky. Pazu and Sheeta learn from an old miner that the crystal is made from Ætherium, a powerful ore that humans once knew how to use to give cities the ability to fly. The Dola gang and the army are all after Sheeta and the crystal: it holds the key to discovering the abandoned, lost city which possesses unfathomable knowledge and ultimate power. Who can Sheeta and Pazu trust?|
|Setting||Between a mining town and Laputa, flying island, in an art nouveau-esque period|
|Aircraft||Two named airships: Air Destroyer Goliath and pirate ship Tiger Moth, aeroplanes, unpowered kite glider and two-men four-winged 'flappter' aircraft. The island castle of Laputa also flies.|
|Robot||Numerous powerful giant robots capable of flight that destroy Air Destroyer Goliath as well as Muoro's fortress|
|English Release||Streamline: 1989, Disney: 2003|
Also known as Laputa: Castle in the Sky and named after the floating land in Jonathan Swift's famous Gulliver's Travels (1726). As la puta is coincidentally Spanish for 'the whore', however, the name Laputa has often been removed from the title.
Fox squirrels like the one in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds can be seen on Laputa, while the Laputian robot is based on a design that Miyazaki had developed for a 1980 episode of Lupin III. A working replica model flappter has even been made. The setting for this film was inspired by a visit Miyazaki made to Wales in 1984.
Once again the children in the film are the innocent heroes while most of the adults are warlike and selfish, planning on conquest. This is particularly apparent when the characters discover Laputa; Pazu and Sheeta are amazed by the beauty of the garden while Muska's reaction is horror at how far nature has spread. Pazu leaves his hometown by train, the first time that a train is used in a Ghibli film to symbolise the first step on a journey to a new life. In contrast to Pazu's basic train, Muska travels with a warlike, armoured tank-like train and his first act on finding Laputa is testing its weaponry, unleashing a nuclear-like blast on the sea below.
The film is Time Out Magazine's 84th greatest animated film ever.
Following Castle in the Sky
Following the success of Castle in the Sky, Miyazaki proposed a much gentler, slower and more magical film, My Neighbour Totoro. Yet the financers felt that there might not be enough action to interest a widespread audience, particularly as it had a simple domestic setting without superheroes or villains, and was therefore a financial risk. Miyazaki wanted to prove that it was possible to make a successful, peaceful, innocent film and that there didn't always need to be guns and violence. In order to interest the producers in investing the funds to make it, they suggested that two films could be put into production at the same time: only one needed to be as successful as Castle in the Sky to be able to make a profit overall. The studio found two investors; Tokuma reluctantly funded the magical and uplifting My Neighbour Totoro, considering it the safer option. The bleak, realistic and harrowing Grave of the Fireflies was financed with investment from the publisher who had released the novel the adaptation was based on. So two films that could not be thematically and emotionally further apart were made at the same time, though both dealt with the relationships between two siblings. This was to put a strain on the fledgling company as animators were constantly changing between working on first one film and then the other.
2. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
|Plot||At the very end of the Second World War two Japanese children are orphaned during the incendiary firebombing of Kobe. After selling all their mother's possessions to buy food for their aunt they are thrown out of their aunt's house. Living in a cave-like bomb shelter, they slowly starve to death.|
|Setting||Japan around city of Kobe, 1945|
|Aircraft||B-29 Superfortress bombers destroy Kobe.|
|Beweaponed||The B-29 was armed with four twin-gun turrets. The Japanese fleet also bristles with weapons|
|English Release||Central Park Media: 1998, ADV Films: 2012|
|Inspiration||Novel Hotaru no haka (A Grave of Fireflies) (1967) by Akiyuki Nosaka|
Haunting and harrowing, yet breathtakingly beautiful. An outstanding punch-in-the-stomach. No wonder Time Out Magazine rated it the 15th greatest animated film of all time. The novel the film is based on is semi-autobiographical as two of the author's sisters died of malnutrition during the 1940s while his father died in the bombing of Kobe.
In common with other Ghibli films, trains represent the journey of life. At the start of the film Setsuko dies in an underground railway station with the sound of a train the last he hears. When the city of Kobe is all but destroyed, a burnt-out railway carriage can be seen. The children leave their destroyed home for their aunt's travelling by train.
Unusually the film was financed by investment from the original publisher of the novel after Tokuma remained uninterested. This means the film rights differ from the other Studio Ghibli films; when Netflix bought the rights to stream the Studio Ghibli Collection, Grave of the Fireflies was the only film excluded.
One criticism that has often been levelled against Japanese films portraying the Second World War, including Grave of the Fireflies, is that it shows Japan as the victim of the war and the target of American aggression. The Imperial Navy is jingoistically sung about as 'defending Japan from invaders', for example, when the truth was that Japan had aggressively invaded China, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Java, Bali, Borneo, Sumatra, Timor and Burma.
3. My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
|Plot||The Kusakabe family, archaeologist Professor Tatsuo and his daughters Satsuki and Mei, move into an old house in the countryside while their mother, Yasuko, spends time in hospital. Mei discovers that the woods next to their garden are home to three magical Totoro creatures - a small one, a middle-sized one and a great big one - who live in a camphor tree. They share some magical adventures, including riding in a 12-legged catbus, a magical creature who is part cat, part bus.|
|Setting||Japanese countryside outside Tokyo, 1958|
|English Release||Streamline: 1990, Disney: 1998/2005|
Why Yasuko is in hospital is never specified; she seemingly spends her time sitting up in her bed while smiling. This reflects a child's view of the world as children rarely understand adult medical conditions. The film is semi-autobiographical, as Hayao Miyazaki's mother had spinal tuberculosis when he was young, and is based on where he grew up in Sayama Hills, Tokorozawa, near Tokyo. This film marks the first appearance of Soot Sprites, also called Soot Gremlins; here they are small, black, furry soot animals said to live in abandoned houses. They would later appear in Spirited Away. Mei has The Three Billy Goats Gruff as a bedtime story, only in this film the goats and trolls have been combined; Mei names Totoro after mishearing 'Tororo', which is Japanese for 'Troll'. Totoro, cuddly creatures with bunny ears, have since become Studio Ghibli's mascot and logo. There are three Totoro, a small white one named Chibi-Totoro (Little Totoro), the middle-sized blue named Chuu-Totoro (Medium Totoro) and the King Totoro, the grey Oh-Totoro (Big Totoro).
This was the second of the three Studio Ghibli films originally dubbed into English in 1989, although only the 2005 Disney Dub English adaptation is widely available now. In America the film has been released as My Neighbor Totoro. Unusually, although there is a train line nearby, no-one travels by train. Instead journeys are undertaken by catbus. Kanta, a boy about the same age as Satsuki, does ride a bicycle; Kiki's best friend would be a cyclist in the following Studio Ghibli film. Also although there are no aircraft in the film, Kanta plays with a model aeroplane.
While the film flopped on its original release it has since become a cult hit. Totoro makes cameo appearances not only in other Studio Ghibli films, but also, as one of the seminal characters in one of the most influential animations of all time, in other animated films, including Pixar's Toy Story 3 (2010). Time Out Magazine has rated it the third greatest animated film of all time, behind only Spirited Away (2010) and Pinocchio (1940).
4. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
|Plot||Following her 13th birthday, young witch Kiki leaves home to spend a year finding her own way in the world, accompanied by her black cat Jiji. Arriving at a large port city she initially struggles to find a place to stay before befriending a pregnant woman and her husband, who live in a bakery. Living in the bakery's attic she begins a flying delivery service, helping all those she meets with her enthusiasm and hard work. Yet she feels very old-fashioned and self-conscious around others her own age, particularly Tombo, who is building a flying bicycle. Her loss of confidence results in her losing both her power of flight and the ability to talk with her cat. When Tombo is threatened by a major airship incident, will Kiki be able to save the day? Can she accept that she is valued even if she only has one set of clothes including a little, old, black dress?|
|Setting||Fictional city of Koriko, northern Europe in the Mid-20th Century|
|Aircraft||There are several biplane flying boats as well as the British Handley-Page HP42; a dirigible airship; an aircraft being made out of a bicycle and several flying brooms.|
|Inspiration||Novel Kiki's Delivery Service (1985) by Eiko Kadono|
|English Release||Streamline: 1990, Disney: 1998/2010|
Once again the film's themes include hard work and helping others; Kiki has literally no place to stay until she does a good deed, which is rewarded with her being given her own room. Through her delivery business she often goes above and beyond to help others, cooking pies, sweeping their floors, lighting their wood-burning ovens and changing their lightbulbs. Kiki undertakes part of her journey by the symbolic train: after sheltering from the storm by following Jiji's advice of 'Don't panic!', Kiki hides in a railway wagon which takes her to the city. She is far from a paragon, feeling unworthy around others her own age because she only has black clothes to wear, with the exception of her red bow, rather than the colourful styles she wishes she too could wear.
The film is set in a north European city which has British double-decker buses advertising Studio Ghibli, and Germanic/Scandinavian architecture, combining elements of Stockholm, Gotland, Lisbon, Paris, Milan and the cable cars of San Francisco while the sea is a combination of the North Sea, Baltic and Mediterranean. It takes place in a 20th Century where the world wars never happened. There are airships and 1930s aircraft, but also transistor radios.
Award-winning in Japan, where it was also the most-successful film of 1989, this was the first Ghibli film that Disney bought the international rights to. Although it had previously had a limited release in English in 1989, Disney's 1998 dub has since been criticised. Some of the dialogue was removed in 2010, mostly sarcastic comments said by Jiji, played by Phil Hartman. Hartman died in 1998 before the English dub was released and so the Disney version is dedicated to him. In the original Japanese edition, Jiji was a far friendlier and cautious female cat rather than a cynical, sarcastic tom. Another difference is that in the first Disney version Kiki at the end is again able to understand him, whereas in the original Japanese she does not regain her ability, having outgrown talking to animals and being able to stand on her own. The 2010 Disney dub removed Jiji's dialogue at the end to bring it in line with the Japanese story. Another change Disney made was removing all references to Kiki drinking coffee, feeling it inappropriate for a 13-year-old to do so, changing it to hot chocolate.
When Disney released the film in 1998, ultra-right-wing US group Concerned Women for America announced they were boycotting the Walt Disney Company because of their 'dark agenda' that included promoting witchcraft. No-one noticed. Witchcraft or not, Time Out Magazine considers this masterpiece the 60th greatest animated film.
Studio Ghibli almost became a victim of their own high standards and Kiki's Delivery Service came close to being the last film that they made. This was because the norm in Japan's animation industry was to pay animators a standard rate based on the number of animation cels completed; as Studio Ghibli films were made to a far higher quality than other Japanese animated films of the time, the cels took longer to make so fewer cels were completed in any given time. This meant that the animators' wages correspondingly dropped, to the degree that many of their most talented employees were struggling to afford to live. Only by employing the animators directly rather than on a production basis would this change and allow the studio's continued existence.