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Zusetsu's Favourite Ghibli Films

Looking for a fun way to spend time at home? This is the perfect opportunity to watch Ghibli films! Here at Zusetsu we are massive fans of Studio Ghibli movies . As a children's book illustrator I have a deep appreciation for the beautiful animation, and Yukki grew up about a 15-minute walk away from the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo! Now that many Ghibli films have been released on Netflix UK, we thought it was a good time to go on a proper Ghibli movie marathon :) Despite having watched the films multiple times, there were happy and sad tears, sing-alongs, and very lengthy discussions on the brilliance of each movie. It was a wonderful experience, being able to compare and contrast them all; to consider the themes, the art styles; and the characterisations. As a furoshiki online store, we were also excited by how frequently we spotted furoshiki used in each film!

From Princess Kaguya - furoshiki used to carry items It was so difficult to select our favourites (the order kept switching around throughout our marathon!), but here we have our top five picks for anyone looking for movie suggestions for a good night-in.


OUR TOP FIVE RECOMMENDATIONS: 1. Spirited Away (2001, Director: Hayao Miyazaki) 2. My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Director: Hayao Miyazaki) 3. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989, Director: Hayao Miyazaki) 4. Princess Kaguya (2013, Director: Isao Takahata) 5. The Wind Rises (2013, Director: Hayao Miyazaki) HONOURABLE MENTIONS - Grave of Fireflies (1988, Director: Isao Takahata) - Princess Mononoke (1997, Director: Hayao Miyazaki)


Our Thoughts

SPOILER ALERT! Below we have written down a few points that resonated with us while watching each film. It contains a lot of spoilers, so if you haven't seen the films yet, we recommend coming back after watching :) We would love to know what you thought too!

From Spirited Away - furoshiki used for their move to a new home

Here is what we thought after watching these films:

1. Spirited Away (2001, Director: Hayao Miyazaki)

Our attention was grabbed, right at the beginning of the film, when Chihiro’s car passes a torii gate, which represents the threshold of the spiritual world. Another clue that Chihiro and her family are about to travel into another realm is the two headed sculpture: the sculpture looks into the spiritual world, while also looking into the mortal world.

The bath house is built on several storeys: the top storey is where wicked Yubaba lives. We see the kanji for heaven here, on the elevator doors. It reminds me of a passage in Alex Kerr’s book Another Kyoto, where he describes how Kyoto temples were built in the image of Mount Sumeru, on the peak of which the Lord of the Universe sits (according to Hindu cosmology).

Yukki and I talked about the cultural boundaries of Western folkloric witches and faeries. The European storytelling tradition is a rich one, and we realised that there are certain rules within the tradition. A witch has a black cat, for example. Miyazaki goes beyond these boundaries, making the witch character behave unexpectedly. In Spirited Away we see a parade of characters from Japanese folklore - many of them are familiar to Yukki - in the same way that we see a parade of familiar fairytale characters in Shrek.

Yukki's Comment:

Spirited Away is a movie very close to my heart. I recall going to the cinema with my family when it was first released, which was when I was seven years-old. Chihiro felt like such a relatable girl to me and I appreciate how Miyazaki depicts a narrative of a young girl where the focus of the story is not on romance.

The mythical characters and the setting are indeed ingenious, but when you strip the movie down to it's core, this is a story on identity. It is a story of a scared, ordinary girl going through the fears and joys of self-actualisation - learning how to think independently, to take action based on her beliefs, and to ultimately claim back her own name. How incredibly powerful is that!

Two key moments featuring Chihiro and Haku. On the left, Chihiro is scared and completely reliant on Haku, while on the right, she is full of happiness and in fact liberates Haku from his bind with Yubaba. Oh how the tables have turned! Along the same vein, I tear up whenever I hear the final song Itsumo Nando Demo played during the rolling credits at the end. The melancholic voice just gets me each time and the lyrics seems to echo this core message in a very "Miyazaki" way - soft yet piercing, leaving room for interpretation. You can find the English translation here.

The train and water scenes, especially when Chihiro goes to visit Zeniba, are full of room for interpretation Lastly, on a personal experience level, I love the bathhouse scenes because it reminds me of the time I worked at an onsen inn (ryokan) in Okuhida, deep in the wintry Japanese alps of Gifu prefecture. I stayed there for a month when I was twenty years-old and while my main role there was media strategist intern, I also had to serve dinner to the guests wearing a traditional kimono uniform, not too dissimilar to what some of the Yuna (bath women) were wearing. In retrospect, this experience in Gifu was quite a pivotal moment of growth for me too. It was my first time living away from my parents for this long, and I lived and worked with people from completely different walks of life from my own.

Left: a dining scene in Spirited Away. Right: the outside of the dining halls in the ryokan that I worked in. I wish I had taken proper photos of the dining halls!

Again I wish I had take proper photos of my outfit!

The perks of working at an onsen ryokan is that you get to bathe in an onsen every night, and sometimes have the place all to yourself!


2. My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Director: Hayao Miyazaki)

Sasaki and Mei have a wonderfully kind and gentle father, who is portrayed as bookish and learned, (not unlike Jiro in The Wind Rises) but who also is open-minded to the spirit world. Often in bildungsroman literature, such as Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, and David Copperfield, a child is orphaned or separated from a parent in order to be able to experience the independence of an adventure. In this narrative, the girls’ mother Yasuko is hospitalized, and the father, Tatsuo, is the authority figure. But Miyazaki has drawn a father who, while available and nearby, is totally absorbed in his work. He sits surrounded by his books, although the screens to the garden are open. He should be keeping an eye on the girls, but he’s engrossed in his work. The early adventures in the film happen within earshot of him, but he misses it all!

It’s so lovely at the end of the film, when Tatsuo's wife wonders if she saw the girls sitting in a tree outside the hospital window, and he doesn’t doubt it for a second! It adds to the magic – is there another story there? Did Tatsuo meet a Totoro when he was little too?

We love the pace of the film. We love the moments in Totoro that offer the opportunity and space to linger, and to quietly build up a scene. It increases the dramatic tension. I love how Miyazaki lingers on the rain falling into the puddles, and how the scene slowly develops into Satsuki’s astonishment at Totoro appearing beside her at the bus stop!

The adorable moment that Satsuki realises that Totoro is real!

Yukki's Comment:

My Neighbor Totoro is a heart-warming film that I would recommend for all age groups :) Similar to Spirited Away, the theme song Sanpo is a truly nostalgic song, perhaps even more so than Itsumo Nando Demo. This instantly teleports me back to my Japanese elementary school days when we would sing this during music class. I found a nice English translation here and I hope you'll see why I sometimes hum this song when walking across the lovely hills and greenery of the Cotswolds!

Another fond memory linked to this movie is that my boyfriend Cally, (Cathy's son), and I went to visit Satsuki and Mei's house in Japan! We were visiting my cousin living in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture and she kindly took us to this exact replica - the attention to detail for the indoor decorations (the many books in the father's study, the old-fashioned bath tub) was impressive!


3. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989, Director: Hayao Miyazaki)

We adored the relationship between Kiki and her cute little black cat Jiji. We can understand Jiji speaking all the way through the film, until Kiki's magical power starts to wane. It's lovely how Miyazaki contrasts Kiki's witch 'familiar' (daemon), from the ordinary cat Jiji appears to become once the magical bond is weakened. Kiki and Jiji's relationship is a bit like Lyra and Pantalaimon, from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Jiji is Kiki's best friend and confidante: Jiji gives us a clue to Kiki's feelings . We feel her loss when she can't communicate with him!

Yukki's Comment:

I love this film so much. Similar to Spirited Away, the theme evolves around a young girl growing up, but in this movie the focus is on adolescence. I think Miyazaki captures the awkwardness and difficulties of going through this stage in life so well. I especially love the scene where Kiki talks with Ursula, the artist living in the forest. She is the big sister figure that I needed when I was a teenager too!

Ursula: Magic and painting are a lot alike. You know, a lot of times, I just can't paint. Kiki: Really? When that happens, what do you do? Before, I could fly without giving it a thought. But now, I don't know how I did it. Ursula: When that happens, all one can do is struggle through it. I draw and draw, and keep drawing. Kiki: But then, if I can't fly... Ursula: Then I stop drawing. I take walks, look at the scenery, take naps, do nothing. Then after a while, all of a sudden I get the urge to draw again. Kiki: I wonder if that will happen? Ursula: It will.

We loved how the animation incorporated a different type of illustration (the painting in the background) - it felt a bit meta!

Ursula: I decided to become an artist when I was about your age. I liked to draw so much, I almost hated to go to bed. And then one day, all of a sudden, I couldn't draw anything. Everything I drew, I didn't like. Kiki: Hm... Ursula: I realized that my art up to then was a copy of someone else, things I had seen somewhere. I decided I had to discover my own style. Kiki: Was it difficult? Ursula: It's still difficult. But then, the results...They seem to be a little better than before.

Isn't that so moving? I think I need these words on a big poster on my wall!

Did you notice how Miyazaki included women at different stages in their life? It's as if we are seeing how Kiki will grow up!

Tombo and Kiki's relationship is so cute too :) Lastly, we were astounded with the familiarity in the Western setting of the film. How did they manage to so accurately design these scenes that feel so distinctively European? This film was released prior to when the World Wide Web became publicly available! Going to Europe to take photos of the streets is one thing, but how did they manage to get the level of detail in indoor shots of people's private homes?

We had to pause the film here because Cathy and I both felt that this kitchen was so English!


4. Princess Kaguya (2013, Director: Isao Takahata)

We thought the artwork was sensational. The rural scenes abound with lingering scenes of flowers and nesting birds, and all of the joys that small adventurous children can find there. Soft, sketchy outlines and sweeping washes of watercolour evoke the warmth and connection with home and this landscape. Kaguya is born to be raised as princess at court - and it's Heian Kyoto where she is now expected to conform.

For animation alone this beautiful film should be top of my list. The Ghibli trademark of space, and time to linger, is here in abundance as we watch young Princess Kaguya grow to the age where she must accept her destiny in the Imperial Kyoto court. I’m fascinated by the Heian era, and so the setting of the court scenes, with its little details like the standing curtains, and the Genji-like sequences of over-enthusiastically amorous men, really resonate.

Yukki told me that Princess Kaguya is mentioned in Murasaki's The Tale of Genji, in the chapter called The Picture Contest! Isn't it remarkable that this old, old story is discussed in Murasaki's work of 1008!

'Since illustrations of tales were the most attractive and engaging, the Ise Consort's Umetsubo ['plum court'] party had theirs done for all the great classics of the past.'

The Emperor's gentlewomen discuss the paintings:

'In the first round The Old Bamboo Cutter, the ancestor of all tales, was pitted against the 'Toshikage' chapter of The Hollow Tree.'

'This tale about the bamboo is certainly hoary enough, and it lacks lively touches, but Princess Kaguya remains unsullied by this world, and she aspires to such noble heights that her story belongs to the age of the gods.'

(Murasaki Shikibu, trans. Royall Tyler, The Tale of Genji, Penguin Classics, 2001, pp.324-325.)

The film's art work is expressive and emotive, with its free sketchy lines and ethereal watercolours. The art work and the measured pace of the film allow lots of beautiful sequences of nature, and simple childhood joys of roaming freedom and forged friendships. When Princess Kaguya is taken to live a life full of etiquette and restrictions at the court, and finally bursts with emotion, the artwork and pace alter in a stark and astonishing way: the landscape under Kaguya’s running feet becomes a wasteland after battle: the sketchy lines become firmly pressed, emotive and dark.

The only reason Kaguya isn’t placed higher in our list is because it has to do battle with the extraordinary imaginative power and rich artwork of Spirited Away, and Totoro. Let’s face it – the creative breadth of the Ghibli Studio gives us such a broad canvas of imaginative genius, it’s all but impossible to rank them!

Below is a photo of the children's book called Kaguya Hime (Princess Kaguya), which Yukki kindly gave me for Christmas! I'm taking Japanese classes at Oxford, and my challenge is to be able to read it! :)

Yukki's Comment:

It was my first time watching Princess Kaguya through this movie marathon, but I understand why Cathy was raving about it :) The artwork is just stunning and the Heian Period of Kyoto is exactly her cup of tea! By coincidence, I recently started following a Chinese blogger Liziqi who I can't help but think is living exactly the kind of life Princess Kaguya would have wanted if she was allowed to live in the countryside. Liziqi was raised by her grandparents and currently lives in the rural area of Sichuan province caring for her grandmother, making food and handicrafts from scratch. I think she is the modern day Princess Kaguya and I envy her lifestyle too!

Compared to the other Ghibli films that we so far mentioned, you can really feel the limited rights that women have compared to men. There are many flying scenes in Miyazaki's films, and even though Princess Kaguya was directed by his long-time work partner Isao Takahata, I felt one of the key moments that highlighted Princess Kaguya's captivity is where she is gifted a caged bird, unable to fly freely.


5. The Wind Rises (2013, Director: Hayao Miyazaki)

This film is based on a real person: Horikoshi Jiro. It follows an individual with a strong dream; the dream of building a beautiful aircraft. Jiro's career coincides with World War II, and the beautiful planes that he designs are fighter planes.

'Airplanes are destined to be tools of destruction, but I still choose the pyramid.' Jiro regrets that his genius was used for war, but still chooses to facilitate the progress of science.

Miyazaki's films often appear to echo his loved ones, and here, in The Wind Rises he explores the Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which was experienced by his father.

In this frightening scene, you can also see how many people use furoshiki as bags and rucksacks

Their love story is so beautiful and heartbreaking

Yukki's Comment:

I learned prior to watching the film that many of the key sound effects, the airplane engines and the earthquake for example, are made by human mouths (if you know this before watching the movie, you can really tell it's human sounds!).

I thought it was also interesting how there were scenes in this film that I vividly recognised from my own experience, even though this was set in a time prior to when even my parents were born. For example, I instantly knew that the university that Jiro went to right after the earthquake was Tokyo University.


Honourable Mention: Grave of Fireflies (1988, Director: Isao Takahata)

We watched Grave of Fireflies too, which continued the theme of war. It is a harrowing film, and not one for young children!

This is a story that needed to be told and remembered. It’s a harrowing tale of war shown through the heart-breaking struggle of two siblings to survive in the most appalling of circumstances. The only parallel I can think of is Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. A story that appears to be so bleak on first reading, would be tempting not to revisit. Just as I'm glad I reread Jude, I’m so glad we watched Grave of Fireflies again for our Ghibli movie study. What stands out to me now, are the moments of sheer, wonderful, natural childish joy in simple things. The Ghibli Studio beautifully captures the essence of being a child: the younger sister Setsuko is drawn with an irrepressible curiosity and playfulness even as the situation is becoming impossibly bleak. There are terribly hard scenes that bring you to tears, but this is an amazing piece of work, and rightfully belongs amongst the works of animation genius.


Honourable Mention: Princess Mononoke (1997, Director: Hayao Miyazaki)

A brilliant, complex film, where Shinto-esque spirits inhabit the undisturbed forests, and an empowered woman can hunt down a forest god. One of the themes is the morally ambiguous conflict between humankind's growth and development and Nature's need for preservation. The take-away appears to be neither black or white – the message seems to be one of balance and harmony. Prince Ashitaka and San part as respectful friends; representatives of the human, industrial world, and the forests full of wildlife, gods and spirits.


What are your favourite Ghibli movies?

We thoroughly enjoyed this movie marathon, but we know there are still many more Ghibli films! We would love to hear your recommendations on what we should watch next :)

1 Comment

Hafsa Bashir
Hafsa Bashir
May 11, 2020

What a beautiful and lovely post. Yukki Chan sounds such a thoughtful child (Kikisreadingservice).

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