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Stream of the Day: Start Your Studio Ghibli Marathon with These 7 Essential Films

From "Spirited Away" to "My Neighbor Totoro," the films of Studio Ghibli are now streaming for the first time ever in the U.S.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/Shutterstock (3435423a)Princess MononokePrincess Mononoke - 1997

“Princess Mononoke”


With readers turning to their home viewing options more than ever, this daily feature provides one new movie each day worth checking out on a major streaming platform. 

May 27, 2020 is a day Studio Ghibli fans have been waiting for since the Japanese animation powerhouse announced last fall it was making HBO Max its exclusive streaming home in the U.S. The debut of HBO Max brings 21 Studio Ghibli movies to streaming in the U.S. for the first time in the studio’s 35-year history, from the pre-studio release “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” to Hayao Miyazaki’s most recent directorial effort “The Wind Rises.” The initial collection of Ghibli films streaming on HBO Max includes many of the studio’s most definitive works, including the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away,” but it also features lesser-seen titles such as “Ocean Waves” and “Only Yesterday.” The latter wasn’t released theatrically in the U.S. until 2016, over two decades after its initial run in Japan.

The U.S. streaming debut of Studio Ghibli’s filmography makes all of its films more accessible than ever before, which means there should be an influx of new Studio Ghibli fans emerging over the next months. While all 21 of the Studio Ghibli films available to stream on HBO Max are worth a look, newbies to the Ghibli universe should start with the seven following titles to get their crash course in all things Ghibli.

“Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (1984)

Prior to the founding of Studio Ghibli in June 1985, Hayao Miyazaki directed two feature films: “The Castle of Cagliostro” (now streaming on Netflix) and “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.” The latter opened in Japan a year prior to Ghibli’s launch, although it has been claimed by the studio as one of its own in the decades since and has even been included in the official “Studio Ghibli Collection” DVD set. “Nausicaä” is quintessential Miyazaki in its environmentalism themes. Sumi Shimamoto voices the eponymous character, a princess in a post-apocalyptic future who battles a rival kingdom that is killing off an entire species of mutated giant insects. The terror and majesty with which Miyazaki animates these insects brings to mind the sand worms of “Dune,” and the clarity he showed in “Cagliostro” with crafting breakneck action beats becomes more confident here. Throw in Nausicaä’s pet Teto, one of Ghibli’s definitive animal sidekicks, and “Nausicaä” is the prototypical Ghibli movie that should be the start of any Ghibli movie marathon.

“Castle in the Sky” (1986)

A full-size sculpture of a Laputian robot stands tall in the rooftop garden at the Studio Ghibli museum in Japan, which should help put into perspective how essential “Castle in the Sky” is to the animation studio. The first title released under the Ghibli banner, Miyazaki’s 1986 adventure follows a young orphan girl whose crystal pendant turns out to be the key to unlocking the location of a legendary floating castle. The pendant makes the girl the target of pirates and foreign agents who seek to find the castle and steal its technological advancements. The Laputian robots are some of these technical marvels and embody the spirit of Miyazaki’s cinematic obsessions in how they can be utilized for great destruction and even greater beauty (they are gardeners who sustain a tree of life at the center of the kingdom). The robots are an ideal Miyazaki mashup — a machine at one with nature — and make “Castle in the Sky” a foundation for a desired harmony between man and machine that’s explored in a majority of Miyazaki’s works.

“My Neighbor Totoro” (1988)

Miyazaki’s second film released under the Studio Ghibli banner was 1988’s “My Neighbor Totoro,” and it remains one of the director’s most powerful love letters to childhood imagination. The story centers around two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, who cope with their mother’s illness by going on a series of adventures with the eponymous creature. Is Totoro real or imagined? It’s in the blend of reality and fiction where Miyzaki paints with his most human storytelling strokes. The filmmaker has so much fun with the adventures of the film’s first half (the film boasts two Studio Ghibli icons thanks to Totoro and Catbus) that he blindsides the viewer when the painful gravity of the sisters’ reality settles in during the third act. “Totoro” endures because it’s the most impactful example of Miyazaki’s ability to weave an emotional maturity through his most boundless and childlike fantasies.

“Princess Mononoke” (1997)

Set in the late Muromachi period of Japan, Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” follows the young prince Ashitaka as he befriends a young woman raised by wolves and finds himself caught in the struggle between the spirits of the forest and the humans who seek to destroy them and deplete the forest of its natural resources. With its environmentalist core and action-ready female lead, “Princess Mononoke” acts as a stirring continuation of the themes and characters Miyazaki first started playing with in “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.” “Mononoke” takes the pacing of “Nausicaä” and elevates it with more brutality and visceral, immersive set pieces. Watching these two Ghibli films back to back helps to illustrate Miyazaki’s growth as a storyteller and his eagerness to push his own boundaries over a 13-year period.

Spirited Away (2001)

The sole Oscar winner in Studio Ghibli’s filmography is “Spirited Away,” which was also named the best animated feature of the 21st century by IndieWire earlier this year. “Spirited Away” beat out the likes of “Lilo & Stich” and “Ice Age” to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, only the second recipient of the prize at the time. Miyazaki’s script follows a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro who finds herself lost in a world of Japanese Shinto folklore after moving with her family to a new neighborhood. Chihiro must survive a land full of cursed animals, malicious witches, and amorphous blobs that devour humans in order to return herself and her parents to the real world. IndieWire called “Spirited Away” the “stunning jewel in Hayao Miyazaki’s pocketful of masterpieces” and “a modern fairy tale that stands on par with the time-tested stories of Grimm.” Like Miyazaki’s best fairy tales, “Spirited Away” explores how the danger and freedom of imagination act as coping mechanisms to a fraught reality.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”

“The Tale of The Princess Kaguya” (2013)

Isao Takahata’s “The Tale of The Princess Kaguya” was named the fifth best animated film of the 21st Century by IndieWire earlier this year. Whereas Miyazaki’s Ghibli films are often uplifting, Takahata’s entries are often devastating (“Only Yesterday” is now streaming and “Grave of the Fireflies” will be streaming at a later date). “Princess Kaguya” is based on a 10th-century Japanese legend about an enchanted girl who comes from the moon and is raised by humble woodcutters. Takahata uses a spare, almost abstract watercolor style to animate the film that proves exhilarating in its most vibrant movements. The style feels as if folklore is being crafted in front of the viewer in real time, imbuing a centuries-old story with a newfound sense of urgency. No wonder its tragic ending is such an emotional gut punch.

“The Wind Rises” (2013)

In naming “The Wind Rises” the seventh best animated film of the 21st century, IndieWire senior film critic David Ehrlich wrote the 2013 historical drama cemented Miyazaki’s legacy as “cinema’s greatest animator.” The film marked a change of pace for Miyazaki in that it’s a biographical drama about Jiro Horikoshi (1903–1982), best known for designing fighter aircrafts used by Japan during World War II. Telling a biopic through animation is rare, but it gives Miyazaki a flexibility to render the technology at the film’s center as wondrous and awe-inspiring as he feels it emotionally. “The Wind Rises” celebrates a technical genius while reckoning with the dark side of technical invention, making it one of the most mature animated films ever made.

The complete list of Studio Ghibli films now streaming on HBO Max include the following titles:

“Castle in the Sky”
“The Cat Returns”
“From Up On Poppy Hill”
“Howl’s Moving Castle”
“Kiki’s Delivery Service”
“My Neighbor Totoro”
“My Neighbors the Yamadas”
“Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind”
“Ocean Waves”
“Only Yesterday”
“Pom Poko”
“Porco Rosso”
“Princess Mononoke”
“The Secret World of Arrietty”
“Spirited Away”
“The Tale of The Princess Kaguya”
“Tales From Earthsea”
“When Marnie Was There”
“Whisper of the Heart”

Studio Ghibli movies are currently streaming on HBO Max.

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