The Ultimate Studio Ghibli Film Guide: 2000-2004

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The Ultimate Studio Ghibli Film Guide:
1984 - 1989 | 1991 - 1994 | 1995 - 1999 | 2000 - 2004 | 2005 - 2010 | 2011 - 2015

Japan's Studio Ghibli1 animation studio has famously and justifiably risen to worldwide prominence for their superb and unique films. Many of these films were made by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, although the films made by other directors retain the Studio Ghibli quality and ethos. The studio has also been unafraid of pushing the boundaries in theme, making both lighthearted and harrowing films, as well as covering topics not usually considered likely to attract an audience.

Studio Ghibli films emphasise themes of belonging to one's environment, peace, magic, hard work, wonder, flight, strong and wise elderly women and determined young girls. The spirituality of all living things, as emphasised in Shinto polytheistic beliefs and customs, is particularly significant; all animal and plant life is respected. Other themes include magical castles, which may even walk or fly, travelling on important journeys by train, transformation and the threat of total or nuclear destruction. Heroines share a magical flying experience with their heroes. Military vehicles or locations tend to be horribly beweaponed, bristling with multiple gun turrets.

Miyazaki is a Europhile, and many of his films have European features, particularly with regards architecture and aircraft. Art nouveau and vehicles from the 1920s-1950s are strong artistic influences.

Studio Ghibli had long been virtually unknown outside Japan. This changed in 1999 with the release of Princess Mononoke (1997) in Europe and the United States, the first film released following a distribution deal with Walt Disney Pictures. Though Princess Mononoke allowed Studio Ghibli to put its foot in the door and gain international attention, it was the release of their first film of the 21st Century, Spirited Away, that kicked the door wide. Yet this success came at a time of uncertainty; Yasuyoshi Tokuma, the studio's financial founder and head of Tokuma Shoten Publishing Co, Ltd, Studio Ghibli's parent company, died in September 2000. Following his death different parts of the companies were sold off, with Studio Ghibli's own future uncertain.

The Films

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.

During the 20th Century Studio Ghibli's films were little seen outside Japan. In 1996 Disney signed a 15-year agreement to release Ghibli's films on home media worldwide, though it took a surprising amount of time for Disney to release these films on the home video market in English. Few were released before the 21st Century. As well as the original Japanese actors to voice each character, the English actors are also listed.

12. Spirited Away (2001)

DirectorHayao Miyazaki

Chihiro, a 10-year-old girl, is travelling to a new home and town with her parents, fearful of the future. After taking a shortcut that turns out to be a wrong turn they find themselves walking through a mysterious abandoned town that her father assumes is a closed theme park, although the sweet smell of food comes from a restaurant filled with food, though no-one is there. While her parents greedily eat, Chihiro explores the town and meets a boy named Haku who warns her to leave quickly before sunset. The sun then sets and when Chihiro tries to flee with her parents she discovers they have turned into pigs. She also discovers that she is unable to leave as the town is now cut off by a sea.

Terrified, she is helped by Haku who says that she is in the spirit world. To survive, she needs to find a job in the bathhouse. This is ruled by the greedy witch Yubaba, who was the one who turned her parents into pigs. After insisting on getting a job, Yubaba is forced to hire her, but when she signs the contract Yubaba takes away her name and renames her Sen2, making her forget her own identity. Haku, the boy who had warned and helped her earlier, helps her remember her name and recognise her parents as pigs, and admits that he must work for Yubaba as he no longer remembers his name and has no home back in the real world.

The bathhouse is where spirits and gods come to relax and be replenished from the real world, away from humans. Despite facing prejudice from the other workers, she helps clean a river spirit that had been turned into a stink demon by pollution. Meanwhile she is at first helped by a mysterious spirit called No-face who she admits into the bathhouse, believing him to be a customer. However in the greedy atmosphere of the bathhouse he turns increasingly greedy and eventually into a monster.

Can Sen rediscover her name, save her family, help Haku, prove her worth and return to the real world?

Length120 minutes
SettingModern rural Japan and a bathhouse in the spirit world
Dramatis Personæ
  • Chihiro Ogino aka Sen, 10-year-old girl trapped in the Spirit World (Japanese: Rumi Hiiragi, English: Daveigh Chase)
  • Haku, Dragon Spirit of the Kohaku River and Chihiro's friend (Japanese: Miyu Irino, English: Jason Marsden)
  • Yubaba, witch ruler of the bathhouse (Japanese: Mari Natsuki, English: Suzanne Pleshette)
  • Zeniba, Yubaba's twin sister and opposite (Japanese: Mari Natsuki, English: Suzanne Pleshette)
  • Kamaji, boiler room worker (Japanese: Bunta Sugawara, English: David Ogden Stiers)
  • Lin, bathhouse servant who cares for Sen (Japanese: Yoomi Tamai, English: Susan Egan)
  • Chichiyaku, bathhouse manager (Japanese: Tsunehiko Kamijō, English: Paul Eiding)
  • Aniyaku, bathhouse assistant manager (Japanese: Takehiko Ono, English: John Ratzenberger)
  • No-Face, mysterious silent spirit (Japanese: Akio Nakamura, English: Bob Bergen)
  • Aogaeru, greedy bathhouse employee (Japanese: Tatsuya Gashūin, English: Bob Bergen)
  • Bandai-gaeru, bathhouse Foreman (Japanese: Yō Ōizumi, English: Rodger Bumpass)
  • Boh, Yubaba's giant spoilt baby (Japanese: Ryūnosuke Kamiki, English: Tara Strong)
  • Akio Ogino, Chihiro's father (Japanese: Takashi Naitō, English: Michael Chiklis)
  • Yūko Ogino, Chihiro's mother (Japanese: Yasuko Sawaguchi, English: Lauren Holly)
English Release2001

Quite simply a masterpiece that became the first and only non-English language film to win the 'Best Animated Film' Oscar. It has also appeared on many critics lists of the best films of the 21st Century. In fact in 2014 Time Out Magazine listed it as the second of the World's Top 100 Animated Films as chosen by animators, behind only Pinocchio.

The English translation was supervised by Pixar's then Chief Creative Officer, John Lasseter, and in return a bouncing lamp, inspired by Pixar's logo, features in the film. The film's story was inspired by a bathhouse that Miyazaki regularly visited when he was young that had a little door he felt must be magical, with many of the buildings in the spirit world inspired by buildings at the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum.

Themes include Chihiro's coming of age, a common theme in these films, with her discovering her place through hard work. Once again a train journey plays an important part in the lead character's journey through life, though this time the train is in the spirit world. As Haku is a dragon, Chihiro and Haku share a magical flying journey together – his name means 'soul'. The soot sprites seen in My Neighbour Totoro also appear. Another key theme is that of greed and pollution, with greed transforming Chihiro's parents into pigs and also corrupting No Face, but hard work, thinking of others and purity not only save Chihiro but allow her to save them all in the end. No one can help themselves unless they are also able to help those around them.

13. The Cat Returns (2002)

DirectorHiroyuki Morita
PlotSchoolgirl Haru saves the life of a cat about to be hit by a lorry. She later learns that he was the Prince of the Cat Kingdom and his father the Cat King has decided she should be rewarded with catnip and mice and that she should be brought to the Cat Kingdom, turned into a cat and should marry the prince. After hearing a voice directing her to the Cat Bureau where statues can come to life, a cat statue called the Baron promises to help her as she is kidnapped and taken to the Cat Kingdom, where she grows a tail, cat ears, paws and whiskers. Can the Baron help her become human once more?
Length74 minutes
SettingEarly 21st Century Japan and Cat Kingdom
Dramatis Personæ
  • Haru Yoshioka, 17-year-old schoolgirl who saves a cat's life (Japanese: Chizuru Ikewaki, English: Anne Hathaway)
  • Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, sentient cat figurine (Japanese: Yoshihiko Hakamada, English: Cary Elwes)
  • Muta, aka Renaldo Moon, fat white cat and ally (Japanese: Tetsu Watanabe, English: Peter Boyle)
  • Toto, living stone raven (Japanese: Yosuke Saito, English: Elliott Gould)
  • The Cat King, ruler of the Cat Kingdom (Japanese: Tetsurō Tanba, English: Tim Curry)
  • Prince Lune, cat saved by Haru (Japanese: Takayuki Yamada, English: Andrew Bevis)
  • Yuki, cat in love with Prince Lune who aids Haru (Japanese: Aki Maeda, English: Judy Greer)
  • Natori, Cat King's advisor (Japanese: Kenta Satoi, English: René Auberjonois)
  • Natoru, Cat King's aide (Japanese: Mari Hamada, English: Andy Richter)
  • Naoko Yoshioka, Haru's mum (Japanese: Kumiko Okae, English: Kristine Sutherland)
  • Hiromi, Haru's best friend at school (Japanese: Hitomi Satō, English: Kristen Bell)
English Release2005

A sequel of sorts to Whisper of the Heart (1995) which featured The Baron as a small figurine that inspired the central storytelling schoolgirl to write a story, but in this film he is a figurine who can come to life and helps others who come to the Cat Bureau. Muta also appears in both films but his appearance changes, particularly colour; in this film he was inspired by a stray cat that had adopted Studio Ghibli as his home.

This film began when Ghibli were asked to create a 20-minute cat-based short film by a Japanese theme park, although the deal fell through. Aoi Hiiragi, the author of the manga that had inspired Whisper of the Heart, was asked to write another story featuring the Baron. Although the Japanese theme park idea had not worked out it was decided to proceed with the story and develop it as a 45-minute direct-to-video film as a training exercise for the next generation of directors. After Hiroyuki Morita impressed Ghibli's heads with his storyboard proposals, particularly the believability of main character Haru, it was decided to make the film a full-length animated film to be released in cinemas.

The film features key Ghibli themes, particularly transformation. The heroine also shares a flight with the Baron, descending from a vast height with the help of numerous crows that allow them to walk in the air. The film also has a beautiful idea that anything that people have put their spirit into creating can gain a spirit and life of its own.

14. Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

DirectorHayao Miyazaki

War! Blamed for the disappearance of a neighbouring kingdom's prince, Porthaven is under attack by enemy forces. When local troops intimidate 18-year-old Sophie, she is rescued by charismatic but heartless wizard Howl. This is seen by the Witch of the Waste who has unrequited love for Howl, and in revenge she curses Sophie, turning her into a 90-year-old.

Leaving her home to break the spell, Sophie's adventures lead her to rescue a sentient scarecrow who directs her to Howl's Moving Castle, a fortress on legs powered by fire demon Calcifer and also home to Howl and his apprentice Markl. The castle has magical portals leading to different towns. Howl has been summoned by the King's representative Madame Suliman who wants to use magic to fight the war, yet the more magic is used, the more witches and magicians are likely to turn into monsters. Instead Howl turns himself into a giant bird to fight against both sides to try and preserve life, yet the more he does so the more likely he is to transform permanently into a monster.

Can Sophie end her curse, end Howl's curse, free Calcifer the fire demon and end the war?

Length115 minutes
SettingMid 1920s kingdom of Ingary, including port Porthaven, capital Kingsbury, Market Chipping and a mountainous region called the Waste
Dramatis Personæ
  • Sophie, young milliner who is cursed and transformed into an old woman (Japanese: Chieko Baisho, English: Young: Emily Mortimer, Old: Jean Simmons OBE)
  • Howl, pacifistic wizard who fights to end the war (Japanese: Takuya Kimura, English: Christian Bale)
  • Witch of the Waste, elderly witch in love with Howl who, jealous of Sophie, curses her (Japanese: Akihiro Miwa, English: Lauren Bacall)
  • Calcifer, fire demon powering the castle (Japanese: Tatsuya Gashuin, English: Billy Crystal)
  • Markl, apprentice boy wizard and Howl's assistant (Japanese: Ryunosuke Kamiki, English: Josh Hutcherson)
  • Madame Suliman, sorceress Regent of Ingary (Japanese: Haruko Kato, English: Blythe Danner)
  • Lettie, Sophie's sister (Japanese: Yayoi Kazuki, English: Jena Malone)
  • Honey, Sophie's stepmother (Japanese: Mayuno Yasokawa, English: Mari Devon)
  • Turnip Head, a sentient scarecrow that follows Sophie (Japanese: Yo Oizumi, English: Crispin Freeman)
  • King of Ingary (Japanese: Akio Ōtsuka, English: Mark Silverman)
Aircraft Numerous airships, ornithopters and flying boats and other fixed-wing aircraft
English Release2005
BeweaponedVarious heavily-armed warships, airships, tank-carrying trains are seen, as well as Howl's Moving Castle containing gun turrets (which are never used).
InspirationDiana Wynne Jones' novel Howl's Moving Castle (1986)

Not many animated films feature a 90-year-old woman being the true love of two young men, a prince and a wizard. This film was made as a response to the 2003 Iraq War with Miyazaki determined to make an anti-war statement. As he had retired (again) following Spirited Away, initially another director, Mamoru Hosoda3, had been approached to direct but Hosoda and Studio Ghibli parted directions.

Many of Miyazaki's key themes occur. It is notable that Sophie's home is adjacent to a railway and she indeed rides the rails shortly before her life is transformed forever. Like many Ghibli heroines, she is seen walking in the air and flying with her true love, and like in Laputa: Castle in the Sky, something – in this case a ring given to her by Howl – is able to direct her back to the castle. Like all Miyazaki's heroines, Sophie takes on hard work - particularly cleaning Howl's castle - in order to find her place in the world, although she had been shown as working hard in her hat shop earlier. The film also moves in unexpected directions, particularly regarding the Witch of the Waste who becomes a sympathetic character by the end.

As the film was based on English author Dianna Wynne Jones' novel that is set in Wales with Howl himself Welsh, the film has a Welshness about it, yet elements of the fictional land of Ingary are also inspired by Colmar and Riquewihr in France to give a pan-European feel. The film changes several plot elements from the novel, adding the anti-war theme but also removing the novel's revelation that Sophie has an innate magical ability herself. The steam-driven castle itself now walks on legs rather than floating as in the novel, presumably because a floating castle had appeared in Laputa: Castle in the Sky.

A huge success, it became Japan's second-most successful film at the box office behind only Spirited Away. Howl's Moving Castle was nominated for Best Animated Film for the 2006 Oscars, losing to Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Looking Ahead

By the end of 2004 Studio Ghibli had well and truly established themselves on the international stage and were finally achieving the recognition earned for their artistic achievements. The studio was also able to regain a period of stability when in 2005 it was spun-off from Tokuma Shoten Publishing and became its own independent company once more. Though arguably the studio would not make a film to quite the same peak again as Spirited Away, the world was now watching and waiting for each new film with baited anticipation.

1Pronounced 'Jib-Lee'.2A Japanese character is pronounced 'chi' as part of 'Chihiro' but 'Sen' on its own, which means 'Thousand'. 'Chihiro' means 'Thousand questions'.3Hosoda has since enjoyed great success directing his own films, founded his own animation studio and was Oscar-nominated in 2019.

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