The Case of Studio Ghibli

Welcome back to our last episode in our animation series! This month we talked about the history of animation: a story of passion, ego, and innovation. We’ve covered the Disney Exodus, the history of Pixar, stop-motion, and of course LAIKA. Today, we wrap up our series with an episode about a studio that has been enchanting audiences with breathtaking visuals and rich stories for the past 35 years: Studio Ghibli. 


As other studios *cough* Disney *cough* have almost completely abandoned 2D animated feature films, Studio Ghibli has been incorporating new advancements in animation while staying true to their traditional hand-drawn style. The films aren’t all shiny, happy tales with clear villains and heroes, but instead, hold a beautiful realism next to complex and morally ambiguous characters.

So join us as we take a look at the history of Studio Ghibli and highlight some of their films!

Pronunciation and Meaning

  • One of the reasons for the name Studio Ghibli is that it was based on the Arabic name for “hot sahara wind.” The creators wanted to have some new ideas “blow” through the animation industry. 
    • The second known reason for the name is that Hayao Miyazaki’s father was an airplane engineer which led to Hayao growing up to learn about and love airplanes. This is evident in a lot of the movies as you see different versions of aircraft throughout. Ghibli (hard G) was the name of an Italian war plane that represented Hayao Miyazaki’s love for planes and for the country of Italy. While the plane is pronounced with a hard G, Miyazaki changed the pronunciation (either by accident or on purpose) to fit his studio. His pronunciation is more like “Ji-bu-ri.”
  • While there is much back and forth about how to pronounce it we believe that no matter how you say it you can appreciate the amazing work that they have done so far. For us we will be pronouncing it as the soft “g” sound such as in the word giraffe. 


  • Studio Ghibli was founded in Tokyo by Isao Takahata, Toshio Suzuki, and a film producer that many have probably heard of, Hayao Miyazaki. This June will actually be 35 years since Studio Ghibli was founded!
    • The studio has become known for its stunning filmmaking and the work put into their art.  The feature films themselves have garnered praise from the average watcher and critics alike. Their hit Spirited Away won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film in 2003.
  • Although Studio Ghibli was not founded until 1985 there was a film that Suzuki helped Miyazaki with, called Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. It was based on a popular manga strip created by Miyazaki himself. Since it was released a year earlier many do not count it as one of the Studio Ghibli films. Studio Ghibli’s first official release was Castle in the Sky(1986.) 
    • The majority of the films were written and directed by Miyazaki- Some of these include My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Porco Rosso.
      • Even though Kiki’s Delivery Service was originally written by someone else, Miyazaki later re-wrote the script
    • Hayao Miyazaki draws thousands of frames by hand. He distrusts computers and says, “We take [handmade] cell animation and digitize it in order to enrich the visual look, but everything starts with the human hand drawing. And the color standard is dictated by the background. We don’t make up a color on the computer. Without creating those rigid standards we’ll just be caught up In the whirlpool of computerization.” 
  • In the beginning it was tough because the audience was not quite there for it. Unlike now, Anime was not popular in Japan and so very few theaters would show these films. Over time, luckily that has changed as more people see the beauty and value in animation.
  • Unlike the American counterparts in animation, Studio Ghibli is not afraid to give the films time and breaths.  What I mean to say is that there are times in each film where the character sighs, is looking into the distance, or there is a lapse in action. This emptiness in Japanese is called “ma.” It is there and has a purpose. They are not afraid that the audience will become bored, they are more concerned with the emotions and ideas that present.  
  • Empty of Traditional Villains
    • One idea that stretches across these movies is that there is no set villain. All the characters have their own motives and reasons for doing what they do.
  • In 2001 the Ghibli Museum opened in Mitaka, Japan and was designed by Miyazaki who created specific short films meant to be specifically within the museum. It also contains exhibits about animation. 
  • Twenty Two movies have been released: In order they are:
    • Castle in the Sky
    • Grave of the Fireflies
    • My Neighbor Totoro
    • Kiki’s Delivery Service
    • Only Yesterday
    • Porco Rosso
    • Pom Poko
    • Whisper of the Heart
    • Princess Monoke
    • My Neighbors the Yamadas
    • Spirited Away
    • The Cat Returns
    • Howl’s Moving Castle
    • Tales from Earthsea
    • Ponyo
    • Secret World of Arrietty
    • From Up On Poppy Hill
    • The Wind Rises
    • The Tales of Princess Kaguya
    • When Marnie Was There
    • And also a 1993 Tv movie called Ocean Waves

Coming To America and the Influence on other animation

  • In 1985 Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was released in America as Warriors of the Wind. It was badly edited and Miyazaki refused to have his films be released in the West for quite some time. It wasn’t until 1996 that a deal with Walt Disney Studios was reached where they could distribute Studio Ghibli’s movies on the condition that no film editing would be done.
    • The year following this would be one of the movies to help launch the studio into an international brand. This movie was Princess Monoke. This Princess however had no relation to the Disney Princesses.
  • These films have had an influence on a lot of animators over the years
    • Brian Konietzko and Mike DiMartino took inspiration from Princess Monoke for their little series we know as Avatar the Last Airbender
    • Totoro-like characters have appeared in things like South Park, The Powerpuff Girls, and Bob’s Burgers. He also made a  cameo as one of the toys in Toy Story 3. 
    • To illustrate just how influential these films and Miyazaki are, John Lasseter had this to say in 2002 “The very first screening of ‘Spirited Away’ outside of Japan was at the Pixar animation studios, and I was stunned at how amazing this film was. North America hasn’t had a chance to discover Miyazaki’s films. In the animated community he’s a hero, like he is to me.”

Miyazaki’s Retirement and 2020 Return

  • There were many times when Hayao Miyazaki had wanted to retire and said that he would. When interviewed by Roger Ebert about his wish to retire in 1999 he said  “I wanted to retire, but life isn’t that easy. I wanted to make a movie especially for the daughters of my friends. I opened all the drawers in my head, they were all empty. So I realized I had to make a movie just for 10 year olds, and ‘Spirited Away’ is my answer.”
  • In 2013 Hayao Miyazaki announced that after 28 magical years he was retiring (although he has said this multiple times before this time he actually did.) Since he had been the heart and soul of the company, the studio halted production but did not close. They needed time to recoup and to figure out their next steps.
    • In 2014 they released When Marnie Was There. This was the last film done by Studio Ghibli.
  • In 2015 Yoshiaki Nishimura Studio Ghibli’s former lead film producer began his own animation company in Tokyo named Studio Ponoc. This studio, although having a very similar animation style to Ghibli, branched out and committed to producing and distributing short films. This was different because Ghibli only had short films in their museum. As Nishimura said in an interview  “Today’s animation isn’t that different from what was produced 20 years ago. If we don’t try out new forms of expression, new approaches to animation, new ways of depicting movement, new themes, then audiences won’t enjoy our films.” He has also expressed his aspiration to have his films be for both children and adults because he feels that kids are often overlooked and neglected within Japanese animation. Their first film is on Netflix currently; Mary and the Witch’s Flower. 
  • After 4 years, in 2017 Hayao Miyazaki announced his return.
    • Since then it has been reported that there will be two new movies and one in which Miyazaki is directing. It was set to be released this year and called “How Do You Live?” He knew it would take about 3-4 years to make and has been talked about as his last film. The name is taken from a 1937 book of the same name by Yoshino Genzaburo. Although it takes the same name, it is said that the movie will not be translating the book to movie but instead will have the book be  prominent within the main character’s life. Since it will be his last movie he has expressed that it is a goodbye gift to his grandson, as he himself is preparing for death at the young age of 79.
      • Do we really believe this is his last film?

Isao Takahata

  • While Miyazaki was a powerhouse on outputting films his partner Isao Takahata took a slower approach that yielded movies such as Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Only Yesterday (1991), and Pom Poko (1994). 
  • His first film with Studio Ghibli Grave of the Fireflies he drew from a personal experience as he told the story of a young teenage boy and his sister who are homeless and fleeing from the bombings of World War II on their small Japanese neighborhood.
    • When Roger Ebert wrote about Grave of the Fireflies he said “This film proves, if it needed proving, that animation produces emotional effects not by reproducing reality, but by heightening and simplifying it, so that many sequences are about ideas, not experiences.”
  • Sadly in April of 2018 he passed away at the age of 82.

Specific Movies we want to Talk about

  • Although these movies are amazing if you have children you may want to look at some suggested age groups for each movie.
  • My Neighbor Totoro
    • Summary: 
      • Satsuki and her younger sister, Mei, settle into an old country house with their father and wait for their mother to recover from an illness in the local hospital. As the sisters explore their new home, they come across and make friends with many playful spirits in the nearby forest.Most notably the massive cuddly creature, Totoro.
      • The film’s title character became a trademark for Studio Ghibli, and the film is regarded as one of the most-loved children’s films of all time
    • Fun Facts
      • Miyazaki’s mother suffered from spinal tuberculosis when he was a child, and spent a lot of time in the hospital. The film is said to be semi-autobiographical in that sense, though it never reveals the mother’s condition. He allegedly said that the film would have been too difficult for him to make if the protagonists had been boys like him and his brother
      • The name Totoro is very similar to the Japanese word for “troll.” In the original version, Mei mispronounces the word to “Totoro” and that’s where the name comes from
      • Totoro is the name of the species, and the big gray Totoro is called, “Oh-Totoro,” The middle one is, “Chuu-Totoro” and the tiny one is “Chibi-Totoro” 
    • Money:
      • Estimated Budget of $3.7 million
      • US Gross almost $2.3 million
      • Cumulative Worldwide was about $30.5 million
        • Although the film didn’t break even until Totoro dolls were sold
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service
    • Summary: Kiki is a young witch who must spend a year on her own as she develops her powers. Setting out at the tender age of 13, she finds a small town in need of a resident witch. She sets up shop with her sarcastic cat Jiji, and operates a delivery service out of a bakery. 
    • Fun Facts
      • The city Koriko, in which the film takes place, was based on several European cities like Stockholm, Lisbon, and Paris. There is also some elements of San Francisco tossed in there as well
      • Koriko also exists in an alternate 1950s Europe in which WWI and WWII didn’t happen
      • There are actually two dubs for the film, and the first non-Disney dubbing is considered to be a more accurate translation of the original film. The Disney dub was done almost 10 years later with Phil Hartman as the voice of Jiji. Unfortunately, Hartman died before the dubbed version was released and it is dedicated in his honor. 
    • Money
      • It made $1,004,057 overall in the USA 
      • And cumulative worldwide gross was $10,150,365
  • Princess Mononoke
    • Summary: The harmony between the humans and animal gods is crumbling. The young protagonist Ashitaka has been injured and infected by an animal attack. He then begins a journey with his elk Yakul to find Shishigami; the deer-like creature that controls life and death. Along the way he comes across humans that are damaging the forest which brings the wrath of Moro the wolf god and her human daughter Princess Mononoke. 
    • Fun Facts: 
      • When a certain convicted felonious film producer (Harvey Weinstein) obtained the rights to the film, he insisted on a cut version. Miyasaki refused and Studio Ghibli sent his office a Katana sword with the words, “no cuts” etched into the blade. The film was released in its entirety and when Miyasaki was later asked about it, he reportedly just smiled and said, “I defeated him.”  
      • The first animated film to receive the Japan academy prize for Picture of the Year
      • Writer Neil Gaiman anglicized the script for the English subtitles and dubs. However, on the DVD audiences can choose the literally translated version of the original script for subtitles 
      • Before premiering the English dub at a film festival, Miyazaki was quoted saying,“With Princess Mononoke, I intentionally threw out all the rules of entertainment movie-making, which is why it will take some time for a true evaluation of this film to emerge. I hope you will enjoy all of the ridiculously long 2 hours and 13 minutes.”
    • Money:
      • US Gross was almost $5 million
      • Cumulative Worldwide Gross was about $162 million
  • Spirited Away
    • Summary: Chihiro and her family are moving to the countryside. On their journey there they find an abandoned amusement park where her parents decide to eat and pay later.  CHihiro decides instead to explore and comes across a young boy named Haku who warns that they are in danger and must leave. When she returns to her parents they have been turned into pigs and she must work to release her and her family from this magical realm.
    • Fun Facts:
      • It began without a script. It was unstructured and an organic way for the process to begin.
      • The young Chihiro was inspired by Miyazaki’s friend’s 10 year old daughter. Every summer Miyazaki would take the summer off for a sabbatical and one summer (while on one of his many retirement stages) he took inspiration from the young apathetic girl and began on a film that would once again bring him back to the studio.
      • After reading young women’s magazines to get a better understanding of his target demographic he was saddened by the fact that these manga magazines focused too heavily on love and romance.
      • The faceless spirit within the film borrows the design of a silkworm both in looks and actions.
      • Each character has meaning behind their name
        • Chihiro- a thousand searches 
        • Yubaba- bathhouse witch
        • Boh- baby or little boy
      • The cleansing of the earth spirit was based on real events where Miyazaki remembers cleaning a river near where he lives where there was a bicycle with its wheel out of the water. He thought it would be easy to pull out but the mud had caked on for years.
      • After winning the 2003 Best Animated Film Miyazaki did not attend the award ceremony. He could not bring himself to visit a country that was bombing Iraq. 
    • Money:
      • Estimated budget of $19 million
      • US Gross was almost $14 million
      • Cumulative Worldwide was almost $348 million
      • It was the first film to gross $200 million before being released in the US.
    • Studio Ghibli’s biggest success
  • Howl’s Moving Castle
    • Summary: A young girl named Sophie is cursed by the Witch of the Waste, and is turned into an old woman. Under the cure she sets out to seek her fortune, which brings her to the strange moving castle and a magician named Howl. There Sohpie befriends Calcifer the fire creature who powers the castle and is bound to the there by contract. Her only chance to break the cures lies there within the castle and the self-indulgent magician and his companions.
    • Fun Facts:
      • Howl’s Moving Castle is based upon a novel written by Diana Jones in 1986 of the same name. Diana Jones had no input in the film, though she did meet with representatives from Studio Ghibli. She has been quoted during production, “It’s fantastic. No. I have no input – I write books, not films. Yes, it will be different from the book. In fact it’s likely to be very different. But that’s as it should be. It will still be a fantastic film”
      • Howl’s Moving Castle was originally directed by Mamoru Hosoda. He was invited by Studio Ghibli to make the movie, but was dropped midway. Hayao Miyazaki took over and completed it, so you could say that the movie was actually done by both of them.
      • In order to express the fact that Howl’s castle is made of paper-mache, Miyazaki decided to reduce the noise the castle makes when it moves. (Don’t believe me? Watch it again.)
      • In the Japanese version of the film, Sophie’s 18-year-old self and 90-year-old self have the same voice actor. Miyazaki insisted that the actress, Chieko Baisho, did both roles because in the movie, although her age changes, her thoughts do not.
    • Money:
      • It had a budget of roughly $22 million
      • US Gross $5,576,743
      • Cumulative Worldwide Gross $236,212,992



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