Cultured Screen Time: Studio Ghibli’s Best Japanese Anime

Many a cultured parent has submitted to the necessary evils of TV, yet still strive to show their children something cultured and (hopefully) educational. Anime, or Japanese animation, is a great way to give your kids their screen time fix while exposing them to something entirely new with a different cultural perspective.

And if you’re going the anime route, Studio Ghibli (pronounced gee-blee) is an absolute must. Studio Ghibli, much like the American film studio Pixar, is the best and most successful maker of children’s films for all ages in its home country of Japan.

The difference between Studio Ghibli and Pixar, however, is in the wide range of tone between films, and the style of animation. While Pixar movies are animated with CGI, Studio Ghibli movies are drawn by hand; the end results can be an enchanting experience for children raised with computer-animated films. Also, while most Pixar films are light-hearted, Studio Ghibli films vary widely in tone and cover a range of topics, even drawing from real events in history. The films also incorporate traditional Japanese myths and folktales in their stories, allowing children to learn about the stories of a culture different and yet similar to theirs. Also, while Pixar attracts much attention for deigning to narrate a story from a female main character occasionally, the majority of Studio Ghibli films feature female protagonists.

So if you’re looking to expose your little one to something new when it comes to animated films, check these out!

My Neighbor Totoro

1988, G

Arguably, the most popular of all Studio Ghibli’s films amongst all ages, this film is a definite must-see. The premise is simple: A father moves with his two daughters into an old house near the hospital where the mother is convalescing. When the children explore the forest around the house, they meet a nature spirit who they call Totoro.

The spirit serves as a guide to the mystical community of whimsical forest creatures, who delight the young children with their antics. Eventually, the mother heals and the family is reunited, with a healthier respect for the nature that surrounds them.

Despite being set in post-WWII Japan, this is probably the most lighthearted film for young children. There is little suspense, or hints of larger themes that will detract from the magic of the forest spirits. This film can be seen by kids ages 5 and up.


The Secret World of Arrietty

2010, G

This film will look familiar to many parents watching, as it’s based on the classic children’s story The Borrowers, by Mary Norton. The story is much the same: A boy discovers a family of tiny people who share the house he lives in; he befriends them and learns about their little lives. The story is shares perspectives between the boy and the little people, so there are many entrancing scenes.

While this film does not draw heavily on traditional Japanese folklore, the world painted is amazing. This is truly a movie made first and foremost for young children, and is suitable for children of all ages. 

Kiki’s Delivery Service

1989, G

An apprentice witch named Kiki is given a flying broom and starts an oddball delivery service; high-jinks ensue. This movie is simple, but that works well for a younger audience. The setting is a toothless mix of Japanese and American cultures, so it’s perfect for any younger kids who are new to the genre.

Porco Rosso

1992, PG

This is a quirky one (and my personal favorite). An ace World War I pilot is turned into an anthropomorphic pig, who flies around Italy, evading the fascist government. This is one of the few Studio Ghibli movies with a defined time and setting, and the finished result is fascinating. It is a love affair with both early aviation and the country of Italy. And the references to real historical events are well-timed: At one point the main character quips “I’d rather be a pig than a fascist.”

The action in this film isn’t graphic, but is mildly hair-raising. The heavy historical setting will preclude a younger audience, but this film is watchable for children ages 8 and up.

Spirited Away

2001, PG

The beginning of this film is similar to My Neighbor Totoro: A girl is in the process of moving with her father and mother to a new home. However, the family (and the film) take a hard turn in a strange direction, and end up at a seemingly-abandoned fairground. When the threesome explores the area, the parents find a mysterious feast awaiting them. The girl wanders across a bridge, and winds up in another realm.

When she is warned to leave before the sun sets, she finds her parents at the feast, but they have been turned into pigs. In order to save her parents, the girl must enter into the other world and make a deal to free her parents from their fate.

Like My Neighbor Totoro, this films is heavily influenced by Japanese mythology; the other realm is truly one of magic and legend. The end-result is a wildly successful film – both in Japan and the United States. John Lasseter, the director of Pixar, was picked by Disney to supervise a translation of the film into English, which increased the audience of Studio Ghibli’s films in the United States. The British Film Institute also included it on their list of “2005 Fifty Films you should see by the age of 14”. It is in the top ten.

Howl’s Moving Castle

2004, PG

If Spirited Away was the first film to attract a wide audience in the United States, Howl’s Moving Castle was the first to be marketed to American children. Based off a novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, this film has a star-studded cast of actors who lend their voices to the English translation.

The plot is also one children can love: Sophie, a young woman, is cursed by a witch and becomes an old woman. The main character then sets out on a quest to regain her youth, and encounters a young, powerful wizard named Howl. Howl resides in a giant steampunk house, which walks across the vast sprawling plains of the world. With him lives a young apprentice Markl and a minor fire demon named Calcifer. Howl promises to remove Sophie’s curse if Sophie can help him remove a curse of his own, which keeps him confined to his house.

There is much peril and magical combat in this film, which is definitely aimed at children ages 8 and older. However, the world in this film is as magical as the ones of Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro, and it remains one of Studio Ghibli’s most popular films amongst audiences of all ages.

The magical setting, the prevalence of strong female protagonists, and the infusion of strange and new culture are all hallmarks of Studio Ghibli films; just as important to young avid movie-watchers as the next Pixar movies.

What are some of your favorite foreign animated films? Will you take up anime? Tell us in the comments below!

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Tags : movies   film   anime   

Nicki Kanwal
I've only seen My Neighbor Totoro, and love it. Looking forward to watching the rest
Kira Smirnova
Funny..... I actually tried to stream Totoro last night and couldn't find it. Same goes for other Miyazaki films (other than Ponyo). Please let me know – we don't have a DVD player
Shirin Behnia
My two boys love all these movies so much
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