The Beginner’s Guide to Ghibli Films

The Beginner's Guide to Ghibli Films: finding the right Japanese animated films to enjoy as an American viewer

Studio Ghibli is a Japanese animation studio. Their work is expressive, evocative, and immersive. The influence of Ghibli storytelling and animation style has spread globally, raising the bar and making us rethink the limitations of the 2D medium.

I can’t recommend Ghibli movies strongly enough if you’re wanting deep storytelling and beautiful—often hand-drawn—cinematography. But I’m also quick to warn: they’re not for everyone.

We’re used to animated films being specifically targeted to younger audiences, but this isn’t true of all Ghibli movies. Several of them are, indeed, quite violent. Others, too quiet and contemplative for viewers expecting that over-the-top energy that we so often see in American animated films.

The Beginner's Guide to Ghibli Films: finding the right Japanese animated films to enjoy as an American viewer

If you’re excited to dip a toe into a different style of animated film, here are a few films I’d recommend for the new and uninitiated viewer.

If you’ve never watched foreign films, I highly recommend starting with Howl’s Moving Castle. Based on the book by Diana Wynne Jones, this movie has many familiar Western storytelling elements that make this a comfortable transition from Disney or Dreamworks. It’s fun to see how the Japanese interpretation of a European-inspired setting differs from the aesthetic we’re familiar with in the States.

GIF: a blond-haired young man in grand attire waves farewell as he flies backward off a balcony.
Watch if you love: vain heroes, magical houses, flowers, fairy tale curses, and fire demons.

Young viewers are likely to enjoy The Cat Returns. This movie is gets overlooked in most Ghibli film conversations, but the wacky surrealism is wonderful in an Alice in Wonderland kind of way. The Cat Returns will give you a closer look at Japanese storytelling themes, especially in how paranormal creatures or magical beings are expected to behave toward humankind.

GIF: a human girl with cat ears dances with an anthropomorphic cat wearing a mask.
Watch if you love: portal fantasy, royalty, damsels in distress, cats, and catastrophes.

My Neighbor Totoro is a notable classic children’s film from Studio Ghibli. The quiet, countryside setting in rural Japan is beautiful and immersive, gently allowing the viewer to explore a world that feels slightly set apart from the rest of the world. Jump in, and I think you’ll be surprised how different animated films can be!

GIF: a furry gray creature with a big grin on his face jumps, causing the young girl beside him to fly into the air.
Watch if you love: rural Japan, sisterly shenanigans, mythical creatures, and enormous trees.

If you’re ready for more heavy Japanese influence, Spirited Away is one of my personal favorites. It’s a bit uncanny and pulls in loads of Japanese mythology and culture. If you enjoyed the unsettling-yet-heartwarming storytelling in Cartoon Network’s Over the Garden Wall, you’ll probably like this one. Note: this isn’t a film for viewers who are easily unsettled or frightened.

GIF: a boy in traditional Japanese attire runs, guiding a girl in a t-shirt and shorts along behind him.
Watch if you love: bath houses, evil enchantments, mythical entities, dragons, and rescue missions.

If you want something clean and comfortable, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Ponyo are both easy to recommend for whole-family viewing. They’re sweet and peaceful films with a lot of fantastical elements that spark the imagination and impart some valuable life lessons along the way. If you’re trying to find a movie with no scary stuff, these are the safest bet.

GIF: a small red fish with the face of a child does backflips in a green bucket
Watch if you love: girls with magical powers, new friendships, delicious foods, and funny animals.

Porco Rosso is a unique combination of magic and historical fiction. This is a slightly more perilous film, involving shoot-outs, fist-fighting and aerial-piracy, and centers around adult characters moreso than children. It’s a great film for seeing how animated films can be truly literary works that convey thought-provoking concepts.

GIF: an anthropomorphic pig gives a thumbs-up signal from the cockpit of a red aeroplane
Watch if you love: rowdy bars, old airplanes, mechanical women, crazy competitions, and post-war politics.

Pick up movies like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or Princess Mononoke with a word of caution. These are far more violent, tend to portray the good, the bad, and the truly ugly sides of humanity, and have endings which remain open to interpretation. They’re delightfully complex stories and stunningly beautiful to watch, even when things get ugly.

GIF: a young woman in fur and tribal-style attire holds a spear and rides astride a huge white wolf.
Watch if you love: warring countries, environmental themes, violent fight scenes, forgotten cultures, and unearthly creatures.

There are many other Studio Ghibli films to watch and enjoy. I hope you’ll give them a try, and be inspired to see animated film in a whole new way.

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