Starting (Tuesday 26th March) at 6:30pm is a season of Studio Ghibli films on Film4 that run for just under 3 weeks. Kicking off with Spirited Away, the Oscar-winner is thought of by many to be the pinnacle of Ghibli’s output, and Hayao Miyazaki’s extraordinary fantasy adventure appears to encapsulate everything that’s great about the studio’s brand: the magic, wonder and horror combined with inquisitive and fearless child protagonists who venture off into brave new worlds.
But the real beauty of Ghibli is that, though separate from Disney and Pixar in many ways, they’ve got a back-catalogue to match either. There are so many other films of theirs – almost every one released in fact – that have the beauty and charm of the bigger and better-known films. And so whilst Spirited Away might be the obvious choice for anyone wanting to experience vintage-Ghibli, here I aim to provide a summary of five well-known alternatives to their most notorious effort for those wondering ‘where next?’
These films all feature in the Film4 season and come very much recommended; some of which are more accessible than Spirited Away (not that Spirited Away is an arduous challenge) and all of which have diverse plots, characters and worlds. The first of these follows a day after Spirited Away on March 27th, and is the action-packed Princess Mononoke. It proudly boasts the New York Post’s acclaim on the DVD that it’s “the ‘Star Wars’ of animated features!”, and such a comparison is understandable.
Focusing on the battle between nature preservation and the production of materials (and indeed, cities), this intelligent action animation is a rare breed. It heavily relies on the beasts, spirits, Gods and other creatures that inhabit the worlds of Studio Ghibli and have helped to make it the worldwide phenomenon that it now undoubtedly is. This is rarely more impressive than in Mononoke, particularly during the dynamic opening set-piece and the stunning (and influential) scenes with the Forest Spirit.
From here The Cat Returns, Porco Rosso and Kiki’s Delivery Service follow which are essential viewings for those already familiar with Studio Ghibli and certainly shouldn’t be missed for any fans of pigs and cats out there. My Neighbour Totoro comes next and with it comes the large rabbit-like creature that is synonymous with the Ghibli brand as its poster-creature.
The loveable but silent friend of the two girls in this short, narratively-sparse film that’s so much the opposite to Mononoke that it compliments it well is every bit as famous as Mickey Mouse or Homer Simpson in the East. And with background-cameo homages in Toy Story 3 and South Park, he’s not doing bad in his attempts to ‘break America’ either. Totoro is a simple tale with some deeper themes that evokes childhood memories probably more than any other they’ve done to date.
The surprise Ghibli take on the classic Borrowers is next up in the form of 2011’s Arrietty, before my personal favourite: Howl’s Moving Castle. Adequately covering and condensing its plot into a few lines is nigh-on impossible, but it’s suffice to say that this Wizard of Oz-like adaptation is a shape-shifting fairy-tale about love, war and all things in-between.
Succeeding Howl a couple of days later is Ponyo! This is a story of a boy and his fish, the eponymous Ponyo, who wants to become a human so much that she does. It follows the two children and their turbulent relationship with nature – most specifically the sea – and rewards us with some of the most beautiful scenes in Ghibli history with the lit-up ocean and shots of the ships late at night. The accessibility of it and reliance upon thoroughly cute creatures and characters puts it closer to Totoro than anything else on this list, and that can’t be a bad thing.
Finally – after a whole host of ‘other’ Ghibli films including the famously depressing Grave of the Fireflies which I’m choosing to ignore for reasons of happiness and optimism (despite it being thoroughly impressive, obviously) – it’s with Castle in the Sky on April 11th that my five recommended pieces of Ghibli viewing comes to an end. The similarities with Howl run more than name-deep, and so if you enjoy the castles, mystery, magic, princesses and beasts of the former, then be sure to check out the latter to round off your adventures of animation from the land of the Rising Sun.
All of these films are presented in their original Japanese language with English subtitles – as they should be (a dubbed Ghibli film just doesn’t quite capture that unique experience) – and a select few of these top releases are repeated at some point throughout the season too, so no excuses for missing out. Only Pixar can rival the combination of childhood innocence, wonderful mystery and animated characters that are found in the depth and darkness of Studio Ghibli.