Warning: spoilers ahead!

Even in the West, where pop culture is dominated by Disney, it seems as though Studio Ghibli films were still a formative part of many people’s childhoods. In my case, my siblings and I went through a phase where we watched Ponyo (2008) on a loop. 

Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Toshio Suzuki (Miyazaki and Takahata are primarily directors and writers while Suzuki acts as a producer). The studio’s films have received unprecedented critical and commercial success and are regarded as some of the most noteworthy contributions to animation as an art form. The Ghibli films often feature themes of endurance during times of hardship, pacifism, environmentalism, and children being forced to grow up before their time while still maintaining their youthful wonder. You may remember Kiki’s coming-of-age story in Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), the pointless and never explained war in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), or the central conflict of protecting or destroying nature in Princess Mononoke (1997). These themes appear in the studio’s earliest works, such as Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988).

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro (Totoro) was produced alongside Grave of the Fireflies (Fireflies), and the two films share some story components. While the former was directed by Miyazaki and the latter by Takahata, both focus on a pair of siblings struggling with difficult circumstances, with the older sibling taking responsibility for the younger one. Fireflies is set in Japan during World War II and both children perish in the end, while Totoro’s conclusion with the implication that things will be better for the children from now on is much more hopeful. However, because of their similar plots but contrasting tones, the two films complement each other well. 

Totoro is about two sisters who move to a country home to be near their ailing mother and find comfort in their new friendship with some magical forest creatures. I love Totoro because of its cheerful depiction of a relationship between humans and nature through the girls interacting with “Totoro” and his array of forest friends. According to an interview in the book, The Place Where Totoro Was Born, Miyazaki “wanted to make a film [showcasing] how spectacular Japan’s nature is.” I was also moved by the realistic and heartfelt portrayal of the family dynamic: with their mother sick and their father working, Satsuki is often pushed into the role of parent for her younger sister Mei, which is clearly taxing on her. While Mei only needs a cuddly companion to cope with her mother’s illness, Satsuki is grateful for her new friend because he provides her with support in taking care of her sister.

Spirited Away

Spirited Away (2001) shattered all records and defied all expectations, popularising Japanese media among Western pop culture and cementing animation as artistically legitimate entertainment. In this film, the child-heroine Chihiro finds herself in a supernatural otherworld accessed through an abandoned theme park and must save her parents who have been turned into pigs. The inhabitants of this otherworld are inspired by Japanese mythology, including Chihiro’s friend Haku, a dragonesque river spirit. Spirited Away is especially famous for winning the 2003 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature—currently the only non-English film to win in this category—although several more Ghibli films have been nominated.

The themes of childhood and growing up appear in Chihiro acting for herself and saving her parents, who remain ignorant of anything wrong or of what their daughter has experienced throughout the film. While in the otherworld, she is also conscripted to work at a bathhouse where she helps a river spirit in distress in a truly memorable scene. This famous sequence is a personal favourite of mine. When it first arrives, the spirit looks like a pile of mud from which Chihiro retrieves trash, such as the remains of a bicycle, a sickening illustration which profoundly demonstrates the effects of pollution.


While we all hold an enduring nostalgia for its early films, Studio Ghibli is continuing to produce modern classics. One such film is Arrietty (2010), written by Miyazaki but directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, about a family of tiny people secretly living in a human’s house. The story follows their 14-year-old daughter Arrietty, whose life changes when she befriends an ill human boy called Shō. The Ghibli creators’ dedication to depicting the natural world in their art is once again apparent, as the country house where the story takes place is surrounded by stunning greenery and florals.

The familiar themes of coming-of-age and children grappling with harsh realities on their own appear in this film. Arrietty is eager to prove herself at her first “borrowing” (retrieving items from the house), and Shō is revealed to have been sent to live with his aunt before undergoing heart surgery, while his parents remain largely absent. Arrietty also draws upon a unique combination of sources for its aesthetics. The story is based upon Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, although Miyazaki changed the book’s setting of 1950s England to 2010 Tokyo, while composer Cécile Corbel used elements of “Celtic folk music and medieval Turkish songs” in the soundtrack.

Studio Ghibli’s Influence

Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are cited as an inspiration for filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro and Wes Anderson, and Screen Rant claims that Pixar and Ghibli are connected by “mutual inspiration“. Additionally, because of Ghibli, anime has become a staple of pop culture in the West—demonstrated by dubbed versions being much easier to access now than 20 years ago—and animated properties are increasingly enjoyed by adults as well as children. Shows such as Avatar: The Last Airbender and Castlevania are produced in America but mimic the style of anime, and animated shows aimed at teens and adults such as Arcane are becoming more frequent.

However, Studio Ghibli and Japanese anime still stand apart from most Western animations. These studios retain 2D animation as their signature style in the face of many companies switching to the faster and cheaper 3D option. The mass production of films in the West cannot afford the time required for traditional animation. However, there is perhaps jealousy in Hollywood of the artistic flair of anime. Pixar’s Luca adapts aspects of the Ghibli environment while Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish include elements of other art forms (pastels, watercolours, splatter paint, comics) within the 3D animation.Takahata passed away in April 2018, the last film he directed being The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013). Miyazaki retired in 2013 but is now returning to direct How Do You Live? (2023) with Suzuki onboard as a producer. However, today’s up-and-coming creators engage with the Ghibli films in new ways, including a stage adaptation of Totoro in the West End with puppets built by Jim Hensen’s Creature Shop, and the Studio Ghibli Theme Park, which opened in Japan last year, demonstrating how Studio Ghibli will remain beloved worldwide, even as the company passes into new hands.