Ghibli offers a mix of wistful dramas and epic fantasy adventures where universal themes like nature, grief and coming-of-age are gracefully handled. Specific historical events and pressing ecological matters also provide inspiration. Their hand-drawn animations are not only gorgeous, they are packed with intrigue, boundless imagination, humour and enchanting creations such as the giant, huggable creature Totoro (the logo for the studio) whose squidgy form entered popular culture in 1988 in one of their most beloved films My Neighbour Totoro. This is a perfect introduction to their catalogue; a story about two sisters who move to the country that features some of Ghibli’s most famous creations such as Catbus a flying, magical vehicle in the form of a cat.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a fantastic coming-of-ager about a young witch who gains independence through learning to run her own business. A highlight of this animation is Kiki’s sarcastic cat who she can, of course, speak to and whose dry humour is a total winner. Spirited Away’s world of sorcery and spirits is a little darker and close in tone to Alice in Wonderland, featuring a 10-year-old girl making a turbulent journey through swamps and scary places. Howl’s Moving Castle takes place in a world of witchcraft, and follows a young girl who must break the curse of being placed in an old body. It’s based on Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy novel, with British female authors also a source of inspiration for other titles such as Arrietty (based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers) and poignant time-travel drama When Marnie Was There based on one of Miyazaki’s favourite YA books by Joan G Robinson. Miyazaki’s fascination with aviation can be seen in many of Ghibli’s films, such as Porco Rosso, where a WWI veteran is cursed to look like a pig, and also the film he claimed was his swansong The Wind Rises a biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed Japanese fighter planes during WWII.

Many of Ghibli’s fantasy epics are ripe with ecological themes. Princess Mononoke comments on the devastation of human advancement on nature and Pom Poko depicts battling forest animals, who realise they need to co-operate to overcome a common enemy in sprawling housing development. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a post-apocalyptic anime where a warrior princess is determined to restore peace to a dying land. Ponyo celebrates the wonder of nature, through a young boy who befriends a goldfish who turns into a human girl. Castle in the Sky plays out like a spy thriller and Tales from Earthsea is more of a dungeons and dragons type quest.

Delicate teen romance Whisper of the Heart, was the only film to be directed by Yoshifumi Kondô, a potential successor to Miyazaki, who sadly passed away. It featured a well-dressed, magical cat who reappears in comedy, The Cat Returns. Further poignant dramas featuring romance and family life, are Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves, My Neighbours the Yamadas and From Up on Poppy Hill which observes preparation for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. You’ll notice that young girls are predominantly the focus of Ghibli output, and in the electrifying The Tale of the Princess Kaguya the studio make a stinging point about how badly young women can be treated or underestimated by society. And, with opportunities for fantasy-fuelled escapism more sought after than ever right now, Studio Ghibli’s rich, inviting and endlessly inventive oeuvre is the diversion we all need.

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1 Apr–31 May 2020 THE LIST 75