Animation in film is dominated by studios such as Pixar and Dreamworks; and although these produce some high quality and emotionally evocative films, there is one studio that often outshines them in terms of artistic imagery and visual story telling. That studio is the Japanese rooted Studio Ghibli, and in this article we take an introductory look at the legendary artistry that has given Ghibli its well deserved status in cinematic history.

In 1984, Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki adapted his complex comic book into a screenplay, and one of his original anime films, Nausicää of the Valley of the Wind, was brought to cinemas. The story is of a princess who struggles to prevent two nations from destroying themselves and their planet.

A year later, the film was adapted and given a Western voice in the US, and his work was brought to the masses in the form of the controversial Warriors of the Wind. A studio was developed by Miyazaki, director Isao Takahata, and producer Toshia Suzuki. The torch paper of cinema’s love affair with Studio Ghibli had been lit, and off the success of this film.

Miyazaki’s enchanting storytelling and the studio’s breathtaking visual splendour enraptured audiences; and in 1996, Disney agreed to distribute Studio Ghibli’s films internationally, dubbing those that had already been released into English and bringing the magic to the world.

Grave of Fireflies

In 1988, Studio Ghibli produced the Takahata directed Grave of Fireflies. This still stands as one of the most heart wrenching and beautifully devastating animated films to have been made. In wartime Japan, a young boy and his little sister struggle to survive when faced with homelessness following the death of their mother. The mixture of evocative imagery and childlike innocence that seeps through the screen to the audience work together to enthrall and envelope so that is impossible not to feel for the characters and their horrendous plight.

Spirited Away

In contrast, Studio Ghibli released Spirited Away in 2001. This remains as one of the favourite anime films of many cinema buffs, and it is hardly surprising given the films fanciful originality and extravagant storytelling. When 10-year-old Chihiro and her parents drive to their new home, they take a wrong turn and end up in an abandoned theme park. Chihiro ends up in a world full of monsters and must fight her way back to her parents and her new life in a new home.

There is a myriad of visual and narrative metaphors for fear and anxiety within the film, which focuses on the young Chihiro’s strength and faith in order to overcome the physical and mental obstacles that stand in her way back to safety. In Spirited Away, Miyazaki really demonstrates his vivid imagination and understanding of a child’s psyche in order to bring a complex issue to life in a way that is disturbingly entertaining and visually invigorating.

Spirited Away has gone down in history as one of the top animated films ever made; and in 2004, Ghibli produced their second universally acclaimed masterpiece. Howl’s Moving Castle, based on a book by British author Diana Wynn Jones, tells the story of Sophie Hatter. When Sophie is cursed to look like an old hag by the Witch of the Waste, she runs from her home and finds the moving castle of the wizard Howl. Once there, Sophie befriends his fire demon Culcifer and strikes up a deal whereby if she frees Calcifer of Howl, he will help her return to her younger self.

Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle again demonstrates the incredible imagination and visual dexterity of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki as a director. As with previous films, Miyazaki matches his whimsical colourful imagery with dark and often scary representations. The juxtaposition works to create a journey that plays with an audience’s emotions not just through the narrative but through what is offered on the screen.

Throughout 2016, UK cinemas will be screening classic Ghibli films to celebrate the studio’s impressive achievements since its conception. The studio has gained a strong following, and a number of its films remain favourites of animation fans, and indeed of cinema fans in general. The films’ fantastical storytelling and quirky, whimsical imagery have captured the hearts and imaginations of generations of filmgoers. This year, it may be your turn.


*Featured Image: The Wind Rises (2013) directed by Hayao Miyazaki and animated by Studio Ghibli