Five Studio Ghibli films to watch in anticipation of ‘The Boy and the Heron’

Dec. 1, 2023, 2:20 a.m.

“The Boy and the Heron,” Hayao Miyazaki’s latest (and potentially last) animated film, comes out in theaters on Dec. 8. The film, which is the director’s first in 10 years, will likely be an epic culmination of his previous works. Here are five of my favorite Studio Ghibli movies — all written by Miyazaki — to check out prior to the new release.

“Spirited Away” (2001)

This dreamy, coming-of-age film is the only hand-drawn animated film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and is regarded by many as one of Studio Ghibli’s best.

Ten-year-old Chihiro is whisked away to a world of spirits while moving to a new neighborhood. When her parents are transformed into pigs after sloppily gorging themselves on (beautifully-drawn) food, Chihiro takes a job at the witch Yubaba’s bathhouse in an attempt to return herself and her parents to the human world.

“Spirited Away” has all of the elements that Studio Ghibli has become known for. It’s a stunningly animated, heartwarming story that doesn’t dumb itself down for the audience. A beautiful score by Joe Hisaishi perfectly elevates the images on the screen — “One Summer Day” and “The Dragon Boy” are particularly excellent. 

To top it all off, Chihiro is a well-written and likable protagonist. She’s a little bratty at first, like any 10-year-old going through a big life change would be, but she grows into a strong and kind individual that you really root for. It’s well worth a watch.

“Princess Mononoke” (1997)

If you’re looking for a gritty, gray-vs-gray fantasy with themes of environmentalism, then “Princess Mononoke” is for you. In this film, we follow the journey of Ashitaka, the last prince of a dwindling people. After being cursed by a demon attack, Ashitaka is exiled from his village and embarks on a journey to the west in search of a cure; he is then swept up in a bitter conflict between humans and nature.

While a lesser film might try to categorize one side of the conflict as “good” and the other as “evil,” “Princess Mononoke” offers a more nuanced approach. On the human side of the conflict, Lady Eboshi, who is responsible for the destruction of the forest and its spirits, is a strong, matriarchal figure who provides refuge for societal outcasts. San, a human girl raised by wolves, is given a similarly three-dimensional characterization. 

It goes without saying that the animation is stunning. The demons are decidedly creepy, the forest spirits are otherworldly and the combat sequences do not disappoint. The score, again by Joe Hisaishi, is sweeping and beautiful. ”Ashitaka and San” in particular is bound to tug at your heartstrings.

“The Wind Rises” (2013)

Now for something entirely different, “The Wind Rises” is a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, a Japanese aeronautical engineer and the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero. The film follows Jiro from early childhood — when he dreams of being a pilot but is hindered by myopia — all the way through his university days, early career and the start of World War II. Unlike some of Studio Ghibli’s stories, which are primarily world-driven, Jiro Horikoshi is the heart and soul of “The Wind Rises.” Whether or not you like this film really depends on if you like Jiro — but I think you’ll find that it’s not very hard.

“The Wind Rises” doesn’t shy away from asking hard questions. To what degree are we responsible for the results of our creation, and what sacrifices must we make in the pursuit of our dreams? 

Don’t think that the more grounded subject matter means that there aren’t moments of impressive animation. The Great Kantō Earthquake near the beginning of the film is one of the best scenes in the studio’s oeuvre. The film also has one of the studio’s most touching romances. 

Call it heresy, but I’m partial to the English dub. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives Horikoshi the perfect airy, absentminded voice, and Stanley Tucci’s performance as Giovanni Caproni is simply a delight.

“Whisper of the Heart” (1995)

“Take Me Home, Country Roads,” first love, cats and the violin — what more can you ask for in a movie? 

“Whisper of the Heart” is a coming-of-age story about Shizuku Tsukishima, a 14-year-old girl who wants to be a writer. In this earnest slice-of-life, we follow Shizuku as she navigates middle school drama, encounters with a boy named Seiji Amasawa and the anxiety that comes with following your dreams.

An unabashedly slow-paced movie, the film isn’t for everyone. However, I think that it’s an excellent time capsule, both of 1990s Tokyo and of being a young person with lofty goals. The love story is sweet, if a little unrealistic at the end; Seiji manages to somehow be both effortlessly cool and a huge middle school dork. 

The film’s message — about putting your soul into your work and still feeling like it’s not enough — will resonate with you if you’re an artist. If you’re a violinist, listen to the track “Violin Tuning” for a giggle.

“From Up on Poppy Hill” (2011)

Even if you’re a Ghibli fan, there’s a chance that you may not have heard of this movie. I fully admit that it doesn’t show up on many “Best Ghibli Films of All Time” lists. However, it is my favorite.

Set in Yokohama in the 1960s, the film tells the story of Umi Matsuzaki, a 16-year-old high school student who runs a boarding house while her mother studies in America. She meets Shun Kazama, a 17-year-old boy who works for the school newspaper, and they fall in love while trying to save the school’s historic clubhouse. But family secrets and the lingering effects of the Korean War threaten to destroy their relationship. 

If I were to describe this film in one word, it would be “cozy.” Everything about this film exudes warmth, from the characters to the soundtrack to the colors, and that’s precisely why I like it so much. It’s comforting! Not every story has to be a grand, fantastical epic or a bleak treatise on the twisted nature of humanity. Sometimes, you just want a story that makes you feel good.

The characters are excellent. Umi is relatable with a quiet strength, and Shun is a suitably charming counterpart. A host of other likable characters — like Umi’s ditzy younger sister Sora, Shun’s cool-headed friend Shirō and the boarders of Coquelicot Manor — round out the cast. They’re not overly complex, but the story doesn’t need them to be. It’s a simple, heartwarming tale about fighting to save the things that you love, and it hits the spot for me every time.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Michelle Fu ’24 is the Graphics Managing Editor for Vol. 264. She can be found grinding out p-sets, shredding on the violin, and taking stealthy photos of fluffy dogs.

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