Studio Ghibli comes to Netflix: What to watch *first*

Of course, all the Studio Ghibli films are worth watching. Since its foundation in 1985, the studio has achieved what most great auteur directors would have reason to envy. But as some of them rank among the finest pieces of animation ever made, it is essential to know which ones you really cannot afford to miss. As Netflix has recently acquired international distribution rights for almost the entire catalogue, and the DVDs are expensive, there is never going to be a better time to catch up with some of the most rewarding experiences cinema has to offer. Especially since the studio is coming out of hiatus this year, with the intention of founder Hayao Miyazaki making one last film, the upcoming How Do You Live?

Netflix has chosen to stagger the release of the films over the months of February, March, and April, adding 7 more films on the first of each month, so it is a good idea to keep up to speed on which ones you can watch and when. In every case, I advocate for watching the films in their original Japanese audio, with subtitles. Netflix does give you the option and although the dubs for Ghibli films are among the best around, the original magic is best preserved without the distraction of uncanny dubbing.

Before we begin, it should be noted that there is one notable omission from the catalogue coming to Netflix, and that is Isao Takahata’s infamously devastating 1988 wartime drama Grave of the Fireflies, as this film has had a long history of rights disputes through which Netflix were seemingly unable to battle. The film is indisputably a masterpiece of Japanese post-war cinema, critiquing the militaristic stubbornness of the era and its human cost. It is exceptionally hard going but absolutely essential viewing. I urge all those of a robust constitution to seek it out themselves.

My Neighbour Totoro (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1988) arrived 1 February

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The first batch of films arrived on the first day of February. Netflix seems to have cannily laid out their schedule, mixing big hitters with minor but exceptional works, and the flagship of the first-wave is easily My Neighbour Totoro. It is arguably the best of the lot, purely because of its simplicity. The film borrows from Alice in Wonderland as readily as it does from Japanese folklore and spiritualism, presenting a truly idyllic space for young sisters Satsuki and Mei to grow in their knowledge of the world through their interactions with the playful spirits inhabiting the nearby forest. It is as charming and enchanting an introduction to dark and uncomfortable ideas as a child could hope to have, and the sense of atmosphere and wonder it maintains throughout ensures that to this day it is one of my favourite films.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1989) arrived 1 February

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One of the most purely delightful coming of age stories ever made – and Ghibli made many of the best – it follows the titular teenage witch, setting off to make her own way in the world. Like many of Ghibli’s films, it is light on story but dense with character, as both Kiki and the people she befriends in her new life of independence are absolutely joyful. The film positively bursts with charm, nuance, and goodwill, presenting an achingly picturesque world to lose yourself in.

Porco Rosso (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1992) arrived 1 February

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Something you will notice watching these films is the way in which the studio, and Miyazaki as a director, reworks familiar motifs throughout the catalogue. One of the more out-there of these is the concept of sky-pirates, who feature heavily in both Castle in the Sky and this eccentric piece that represent two of the adventurous yarns in the filmography. Fortunately, Porco Rosso – the daring, literally pig-headed bounty hunter of the skies – is around to right wrongs and win hearts. The themes of feminism and anti-fascism are well worth cheering, but as usual it is the unforgettable characters who make the film so rewarding.

Only Yesterday (dir. Isao Takahata, 1990) arrived 1 February

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Of course, it was not only Hayao Miyazaki who made Ghibli the force it is. Many potential successors rose up through the ranks of the studio, and one of the most celebrated was Isao Takahata. He was in many respects the Ozu to Miyazaki’s Kurosawa, delighting in mood and sadness while Miyazaki focused on character and adventure. The two crossed over, and Takahata made his share of good fun films such as Pom Poko, but his works always had a stateliness that commanded respect. This may very well have been his crowning achievement and one of the most underrated of the Ghibli films. It mixes past and present, pastoral and urban, as lead character Taeko (voiced by Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley in the English dub) returns to home and finds herself swept away by poignant memories from her childhood. It is a sweet, placid mood piece with an achingly sentimental finale that elicits tears of joy every time.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1984) arrives 1 March

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And here we are, the film that started it all. Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of his own manga. This is where you will find the origins of so many of the tropes and ideas of steampunk environmentalism that would refine and mature over the course of the studio’s lifetime. Although a little rougher than some of the later projects, Nausicaa delivered a scope and majesty previously unheard of in animation. Neither Ghibli nor the genre itself would be what it is today without Nausicaa. A true classic of the genre with a mystical atmosphere and scale that marks it out as one of the defining works in the medium.

Princess Mononoke (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1997) arrives 1 March

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For my money, Nausicaa walked so that Mononoke could run. Ghibli returned to the epic mode in later projects like Castle in the Sky and Tales from Earthsea, but never more successfully than in what is very possibly the studio’s best film, Princess Mononoke. Following its young hero’s journey to rid himself of a curse and unite the warring forces of nature and technology, it presents a unifying message with a scope and efficacy that has never been bettered in cinema. Its characters are complex and unforgettable, its imagery masters the sublime mode Nausicaa failed to reach, and the visuals and animation are some of the most spectacular ever put on-screen. It is genuinely one of the best fantasy films ever made (if not the best) and a crowning achievement in animation.

Spirited Away (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2001) arrives 1 March

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By consensus the best of the Ghibli canon, Spirited Away – like My Neighbour Totoro – channels Alice in Wonderland, as protagonist Chihiro finds herself trapped in a mystical bathhouse where she must work for her and her parents’ freedom. The usual set of colourful and memorable characters are more present than ever, but what really takes centre stage is the atmosphere and environment in this one. By this point Ghibli were mixing CGI with their hand-drawn animation and the greater freedom of movement and environment is really felt here, allowing the bathhouse to feel vivid and alive, populated by such an assortment of wonders, both horrifying and enchanting. The studio’s mastery of both movement and stillness has never been better showcased than here, and neither have Joe Hisaishi’s wonderful compositions. It feels like a true journey of the imagination and has cemented itself as a modern classic.

Whisper of the Heart (dir. Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995) arrives 1 April

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This is essential viewing for anyone hoping to make a living as an artist, or anyone looking to make their own way in the world at all for that matter. The film follows aspiring young novelist Shizuku, as she drops out of high school to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. The film is keenly aware of the weight of responsibility she is taking on and the conversations she has with her father and her mentor Shiro Nishi are powerful. It is some of Miyazaki’s best dialogue ever, articulating the struggles that come from trying to express yourself through your art, and the fact that this was the only film its director lived to make is a devastating reflection on how easily such hard won creative genius is lost. As previously stated, coming of age stories were a common theme in Ghibli’s films, but this is one of the most personal, heartfelt, and accurate treatises on the subject ever, and another of my personal favourites.

Howl’s Moving Castle (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2004) arrives 1 April

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Following on the heels of Spirited Away, Ghibli’s next project was if anything more of a freewheeling dance through the fields of imagination. After more polished and assured projects, Howl brought the studio back to the eccentricity of the earlier works, melded with their later resources and size of canvas. The film adapts Diana Wynne Jones’s novel of the same name, following a young shop assistant Sophie who, like many a Ghibli protagonist, ventures out on her own to lift a spell placed upon her. In her journey she falls in with the dreamy young heartbreaker wizard Howl and his retinue. It is another delightfully atmospheric, feelgood yarn with a wonderful cast of characters and an especially playful tone, flitting from a mature stillness to childish rapture and adolescent angst.

The Wind Rises (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2013) arrives 1 April

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Although he will be returning with one last film soon, Hayao Miyazaki’s last film would have been an entirely fitting swansong for an exceptional career. Another film adapted from one of his own manga, it is based on the true story of Jiro Horikoshi, whom the film portrays as a lifelong pacifist and aviation lover whose passion for flight was ultimately perverted into a weapon of war. The film has a quiet, reflective tone based in the reflection on a life of rewarding work with which you have a personally complicated relationship. As well as their most grounded and introspective work, The Wind Rises is also Ghibli at its most romantic, portraying Jiro’s pure, openhearted affection for the love of his life Naoko. Rather than the wonders of a fantasy world, The Wind Rises brings the wonder out of the real world, delivering moments of such peacefulness and uplift out of its bittersweet tale.