Japan’s anime studios have produced hundreds of amazing and memorable shows and movies. Among the greatest, and probably the most famous, is Studio Ghibli. Founded in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, the company created fantastical films popular across the globe.
Some of the most famous of these were released during the studio’s first 10 years. They spanned the gamut between fantasy, adventure, and real life. No matter the genre, each film was beautifully written and drawn. It’s the main reason these Studio Ghibli movies remain classics.
11 Castle In The Sky (1986) Is A Race To Capture A Magic Crystal
The first release, Castle in the Sky, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, quickly defined the types of films Studio Ghibli would release over the next decades. It mixes a coming-of-age tale with fantasy. Then, it’s wrapped in a historical time period.
In a steampunk version of the 19th century, protagonists Sheeta and Pazu, both orphans, search for a mysterious floating city. Along the way, they’re pursued by pirates and government soldiers. They also encounter a giant robot that Sheeta can control. Eventually, the pair find the floating city, now overgrown and abandoned. Both orphans try to determine what to do next.
10 Grave Of The Fireflies (1988) Is A Semi-Autobiographical Story Of A Brother & Sister Surviving In WWII
The second entry by Studio Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies, is a far different movie than that fantastical Castle in the Sky. Directed and written by Isao Takahata, the film is based on a semi-autobiographical manga about the final days of World War II in Japan. Its main focus is on a brother and sister, Seita and Setsuko, who have to survive after their home is firebombed in an ally attack.
There are no magical rescues in Castle in the Sky. Instead, the movie provides one of the most realistic looks at the horrors of war. This includes illness, starvation, and death. Since its release, Grave of the Fireflies has been ranked as one of the greatest war films in history.
9 My Neighbor Totoro (1988) Features The Iconic Mascot Of The Studio
This fantasy film was the first of two consecutive releases written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It’s the first Studio Ghibli film that opened up a merchandising arm for the company that has amassed over one billion dollars to date. Additionally, one of its main characters, the large mouse-like Totoro, became the studio’s logo.
Taking place in a post-WWII Japan, My Neighbor Totoro focuses on the adventures of Satsuki and Mei, the daughters of a university professor who all move to the country. While exploring their new surroundings, the girls come upon dust spirits in their home. They, in turn, introduced them to the mystical animals in the forest, one of them being Totoro.
8 Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) Involves The Theme Of Overcoming Internal Conflict Such As Artist Block
Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of the most well-known Studio Ghibli movies in the U.S. thanks to Walt Disney Studios. Nearly a decade after its initial release, it was dubbed and shown to American audiences in 1997 as the company’s first release under a 15-year contract. It makes sense since the theme of the film fits well with the Disney stories of that time.
As a witch trainee, Kiki leaves her home at the age of 13 to find a new life. Along the way, she helps a kind bakery owner deliver her goods via Witch Delivery Business. Unfortunately, circumstances cause her to lose her powers. Kiki’s goal in the rest of the film is to remove the “artist block” she has so she can soar once more.
7 Only Yesterday (1991) Is A Realistic Drama For An Older Audience
Where the focus of Hayao Miyazaki’s films was based in the world of fantasy, his partner Isao Takahata delved deeply into normal human relationships. Such was the case with 1991’s Only Yesterday. Not only was it a contemporary story but it tapped into a genre that other anime creators didn’t touch on much before its release.
Only Yesterday is a realistic drama written for adults. In particular, it focuses on the protagonist Taeko Okajima, a 27-year-old female looking for a change of pace from her hectic life and work in Tokyo. So, she decides to visit her sister-in-law’s home in the rural countryside. Along the way, she comes to love the quieter, idyllic life over her cosmopolitan existence.
6 Porco Rosso (1992) Follows An Anthropomorphic Pig As A Former WWI Pilot & Current Bounty Hunter
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Porco Rosso is the story of an anthropomorphic pig who is a World War I pilot turned spy. Think Porky Pig, except suaver. Now a bounty hunter in 1930s Europe, Porco is embroiled in pre-World War II intrigue and pirates.
Shot down by an American flyer on the way to get his plane serviced, Porco arrives in Milan by train. While there, he learns that Italy’s fascist government has hired pirates to capture and destroy seaplanes. Along with allies, both eager and reluctant, the former WWI ace helps to prevent an early attack by Italy’s air force. Many film reviewers feel Porco Rosso is the most underrated film in Studio Ghibli’s catalog.
5 Pom Poko (1994) Is A Comedy-Drama Based On Japanese Lore
Raccoon dogs are the main focus behind Pom Poko. In a rare fantasy drama by Isao Takahata, the story is inspired by Japanese folklore and poetry that dates back to the early 20th century. It’s also a story about the incursion of modernization into rural society.
In the late 1960s, a clan of tanuki, the raccoon dogs, are threatened by new suburban development. Fast forward three decades and the remaining members fight with each other for resources. Eventually, the matriarch, Oroku, convinces them to band together and defeat the increasing suburban sprawl.
4 Whisper Of The Heart (1995) Is A Teenage Coming-Of-Age Tale
With Whisper of the Heart, it was Hayao Miyazaki’s turn to write a teenage coming-of-age tale. This time around, the film’s direction was by Yoshifumi Kondo, who would pass away in 1998.
The movie’s protagonist is Shizuku Tsukishima, a 14-year-old junior high school student who’s passionate about creative writing. At one point, she spends countless late-night hours creating a fantasy story based on a boy she has met, only to be rejected by him after he reads it. Interestingly enough, the boy loves her, but they both have to experience the struggles of teenage love to reach that point.
3 Princess Mononoke (1997) Follows Ashitaka As He Tries To Help Villages & Mystic Forest Animals
Before Spirited Away became Studio Ghibli’s most famous worldwide release, that position went to the fantasy film Princess Mononoke. With writing and directing by Hayao Miyazaki, this is one of the studio’s epic fantasy films. It was so popular that Neil Gaiman wrote the script for the North American dub.
Set in the late Muromachi period of Japan, Princess Mononoke mixes speculative realities with conservation. It also entails the quest of the main hero, Ashitaka, as he tries to help villages and mystic forest animals work together against a villain who makes space by clearcutting trees. While he does this, Ashitaka has to deal with a cursed arm that kills him at the same time it gives him superhuman strength.
2 My Neighbors The Yamadas (1999) Is A Slice-Of-Life Comedy In Comic Strip Fashion
Isao Takahata returned with an anime that addressed a slice of normal life—well, sort of. Though My Neighbors the Yamadas was a contemporary anime, the way it was put together was overall different than previous films.
This time, Takahata went with a stylized comic strip formula. Additionally, instead of a straight storyline, Yamadas was a series of comedy vignettes detailing the everyday happenings of the family. Overall, despite positive reviews, the film didn’t do well at the box office.
1 Spirited Away (2001) Follows The Brave Journey Of A Young Girl In A Mystical Land
By far, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is the most well-known of Studio Ghibli’s releases. It was also the highest-grossing film in Japanese history for the first two decades of the 21st century. It was so popular that, once Disney purchased its North American rights, Pixar’s John Lasseter agreed to executive produce the English dubs.
Spirited Away is a tale of heroism on the behalf of loved ones. After venturing through an unusual tunnel on the way to their new home, Chihiro and her parents enter a mystical land, one where her parents are cursed and turned into pigs. It takes determination for Chihiro, renamed Sen by an evil witch, to find the best way to return her parents to normal.
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