Beginner's Guide: Studio Ghibli

One of my problems with anime, even the most-accessible, is that most of what’s available is on TV. If you want to really appreciate what it has to offer, you’ve gotta shell out money for something that’ll take several hours, perhaps even days, to finish. It’s a shame because anime movies do exist, hence today’s topic.

Studio Ghibli is a production house you’ve most-likely heard of by now, even if you’re not into anime. Their films, stretching back to the mid-80’s, are some of the most-widely recognized and praised that animation in general has to offer. This success is based on a combination of widespread appeal, timeless themes and the idea that anime need not stick to its typical conventions and limitations in order to be successful. It’s a motto that’s held true for 30 years, such that their library of 21 films, 1 made-for-TV special and a currently-running series is almost-entirely high production and worthy of the title of “classic”.

Studio Ghibli movies fall into one of three genres: 1. Fantasy (i.e. Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke or The Tale of Princess Kaguya.) 2. Drama (Only Yesterday, Whisper of the Heart or From Up On Poppy Hill.) 3. Fantasy/Drama Hybrid (Spirited Away, The Cat Returns or The Secret World of Arrietty.) Additionally, the genres can even be broken up further to get high-fantasy (Tales from Earthsea,) or biopic drama (The Wind Rises.) Overall, the movies use these genres to relay themes of environmentalism, nostalgia and coming of age, sometimes all three at once.

It’s hard to discuss the studio’s movies as individual movies, so instead I’ll talk directors. I say this because, like any studio, the directors bring their own voices to the table and contribute in their own little ways. Also, keep in mind that my opinions of each one might vary from someone else’s, so it’s best to get several takes before jumping right in. I’m biased, after all.

The easiest place to begin is with the studio’s most-famous member, Hayao Miyazaki. One of the founders back in 1985, Miyazaki created the studio because he wanted the freedom to make films his own way. To-date, Miyazaki has made 11 movies, 9 (or possibly 10, depending on who you ask) under the Studio Ghibli banner, all of which I’d recommend. Miyazaki is also almost-strictly fantasy in style. His movies, which range from family-friendly to grown-ups only in content, often place his protagonists in scenarios of wonder that can only come from fantasy, and they often tackle themes of environmentalism, coming of age and the joys of childhood. Even The Wind Rises, his most-unique film to-date, contains certain elements of these themes. If you want a true sense of what the studio is like, he’s your best place to start.

Isao Takahata, while also a founding member of Studio Ghibli, is the complete opposite of Miyazaki stylistically. While Miyazaki likes fantasy, Takahata is more concerned with dramas. His films, some which are fantastical in nature, are usually period pieces that convey cold, harsh truths about life in Japan. While this, in some ways, makes Takahata more interesting than Miyazaki, it also makes his films harder to watch. Takahata is a cold, distant director who likes making cold, distant movies, but if you don’t mind that then he too is worth your time.

Next, we have the late-Yoshifumi Kondo. The sad part is that he was slated to be Miyazaki’s successor at one point in the mid/late-90’s, as evidenced through Whisper of the Heart being written by Miyazaki. Though not for everyone, the movie’s about a girl coming to grips with love, music and her true passions in life. Unfortunately, his movie, while brilliant, remains his sole foray into the world of directing, as Kondo would die of an aneurism 3 years after it came out. Still, if you like dramas with occasions elements of the fantastical, then he’s a good place to go.

Toward the beginning-late years of the 2000’s, Studio Ghibli began training their younger, less-experienced animators to become directors too. The first of these was Hiroyuki Morita, who, sadly, only directed one movie for the studio before going his separate way. The movie, The Cat Returns, ties directly with Kondo’s work, as it was intended to be a semi-sequel. The film remains the studio’s shortest, at a mere 75-minutes, and is easily one of its lesser-entries qualitatively, but it’s definitely charming in its own right. If you have little kids, or little time to spare, and want something light and non-taxing, this is your safest bet.

Perhaps the most unusual of the group is Goro Miyazaki, aka Hayao Miyazaki’s son. Initially hesitant to direct, his first film remains the studio’s only real flop: Tales from Earthsea. Nevertheless, he’s slowly begun showing his talent with his later film, From Up On Poppy Hill, as well as the current series he’s directing, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter. While not quite what people expect from the son of the great Miyazaki, Goro’s strengths are in simple dramas that convey the dark undertones of life in a subtle-yet-sentimental way. If you don’t mind that he’s still improving, give Goro a shot.

And finally, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Miyazaki’s current successor, Maro (as he’s often called) is a director more concerned with fantasy on a smaller scale. His movies, of which there are only 2, deal with the magic of everyday life, showing that even the simplest settings can be fantastical if you let them. He’s not the most-profound director in the studio, but he’s definitely the most Western and easily-accessible outside of Miyazaki. If simple, quiet dramas with fantasy elements are your fancy, give him a try.

Two people in particular deserve mention. The first is producer Toshio Suzuki, without whom a good chunk of the studio’s movies wouldn’t exist. I’ve never quite understood what a producer really does, but if he’s allowing these movies to happen, then good on him. And the second is Joe Hisaishi, who has scored 11 of the studio’s films. True, there are other composers that are equally as good, but it’s his attention to thematic detail that makes him shine. Hisaishi usually collaborates with Miyazaki, but if you see his name in general it’s usually a good sign.

So what makes Studio Ghibli easy for beginners? Well, there’s really one answer to that: accessibility. The big issue with most anime, even more Western-themed material, is that it feels too Japanese. That’s not to demean quality, but chances are that shows like Mushishi, Watamote, Welcome to the NHK or Paranoia Agent wouldn’t really break major boundaries in the West, and nor would movies like Akira or Jin-Roh. They might try, but they can’t transcend the fact that, at the end of the day, they still feel like anime.

That’s where Studio Ghibli differs, as their movies, even the more Japan-centric ones, feel like genuine, animated movies with easy accessibility. And this is why, even excluding Disney’s Western distribution as a factor, so many non-Otaku at least have an understanding of what Studio Ghibli is; sure, Disney's helped, but when you had people like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert discussing My Neighbor Totoro in the early-90’s, years before Disney got their hands on distribution, you know there’s cross-appeal.

I’m not exaggerating either. For all the talk of Studio Ghibli being great, there’s a reason they’ve persisted. There’s a reason their movies sell-out more frequently than most anime, and why they’re top sellers on sites like Amazon and eBay. Yes, they’re anime…but would you really understand that if you were watching them for the first time without any knowledge of it? I can tell you that I know people who hate anime, yet don’t mind Studio Ghibli. This is because they don’t only make anime films, they do, but also films that transcend cultures, as evidenced by the fact that Spirited Away is still the only anime film to ever win an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

As for availability, Studio Ghibli is some of the easiest anime out there to find. Thanks to Disney’s licensing rights in the West, as well as their occasional offshoots to Miramax, Touchstone Pictures and GKids, you need only look in your local video store to find a lot of their films. Additionally, their more recent films have also had theatrical runs, so there’s that option too. The only exceptions to the “easy to find” rule are Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday, thanks to licensing and content issues, but even then the former can be purchased via Sentai Filmworks’s website. In other words, there’s really no excuse to not check them out.

So remember, the next time you have a conversation about anime with a beginner, be sure to mention Studio Ghibli; after all, there’s a reason they’re well-loved by Otaku and mainstream filmgoers!


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