The whimsical world of Studio Ghibli

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A Japanese animation studio tells beautifully realized coming-of-age stories

For many Americans, classic Disney films defined their childhoods. Yet in Asia, a different animation studio captured the imagination of a generation: Japan’s Studio Ghibli. Founded in 1985 by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, Studio Ghibli has produced 20 animated films full of the fantastical and whimsical, the realistic and the thought-provoking.

Despite the inclusion of the magical and mystical, the core elements of the films are universal: courage, friendship, love of family, coming of age, caring for nature, and the reality of war. Unlike the action-packed pacing of modern Hollywood films, Studio Ghibli operates at a slower pace, taking in the beautifully lush animated scenes and developing characters’ relationships.

Here we introduce three of our favorite Studio Ghibli films that the family can watch together:

Castle in the Sky (1986)

Pazu, an orphan boy, rescues a girl who falls out of an airship in the sky, her descent slowed by a magical blue pendant. The girl, Sheeta, is chased by both pirates and an army eager to steal her necklace, which they believe will lead them to the floating island of Laputa. The two work together to elude their captors and reach Laputa, a long-lost civilization capable of advanced military prowess but now overgrown with vegetation. The movie is full of action, humor (especially from the family of pirates and their crusty but loving matriarch, Dola), and melancholy as it tackles whether humans should be capable of possessing weapons of mass destruction. 

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, move with their father into an old house to be near their mother, who is sick at the hospital. While playing outside, younger sister Mei follows two rabbitlike spirits down a tunnel where she lands on the large, gentle Totoro. Later Satsuki finds her sleeping on the ground, the creature nowhere to be found. Later Totoro shows up to both of them in times of need, including when Mei goes missing while delivering corn to their sick mother. The film moves at a gentle pace with little conflict, yet wonderfully depicts familial relationships: the bickering and playfulness between sisters, the caring attention of a father, and the concern the girls have for their mother. 

Spirited Away (2001)

Ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents take a detour in the woods and accidentally cross into the spirit world. Then, Chihiro’s parents are enchanted into pigs by the witch Yubaba. With the guidance of the mysterious boy Haku, Chihiro finds a job working at Yubaba’s bathhouse. In her quest to save her parents and return to the human world, Chihiro learns that hard work, persistence, and kindness open many doors. She also learns that people are rarely as bad as they first seem. Some elements may disturb young children, including some blood, smoking, and a greedy monster who will gobble up anything that gets in his way.

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