Studio Ghibli is the legendary animation team behind classics like My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001). This iconic Japanese animation studio was founded on June 15, 1985, by Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Toshio Suzuki. Through his work, Miyazaki has changed the way animated movies are produced in Japan and captivated audiences the world over by transporting them to both immersive fantasy worlds and into the lives (and problems) of everyday heroes.
Miyazaki announced his retirement from creating feature films after the release of The Wind Rises (2013), but he’s since ended his hiatus to work on the upcoming project How Do You Live? Whether you’re a huge fan of Studio Ghibli’s films or you’re new to the studio’s acclaimed collection of movies, you’ll want to learn just how this innovator and visionary changed the film world — and is continuing to do so even now.
How Miyazaki Got His Start in Animation
Born on January 5, 1941, Miyazaki has always known he wanted to have a career in animation. His father, Katsuji Miyazaki, was the director of Miyazaki Airplane, a manufacturing company that specialized in building parts for Zero fighter planes. From a young age, Miyazaki loved aviation and incorporates airplanes and flight into nearly all of Studio Ghibli’s movies, from 1986’s Castle in the Sky to 2013’s The Wind Rises.
Miyazaki studied economics at Tokyo’s Gakushūin University, and, after graduating in 1963, he started working as an animator at Tōei Animation, Asia’s largest producer of animated films at the time. While there, he met other animators, including his future collaborator and business partner, Isao Takahata, and his future wife, Akemi Ōta. For Tōei, he worked on several projects, including the 1968 fantasy film The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun.
Despite working for a larger company, it didn’t take long for Miyazaki to develop his unique, now-trademark animation style. Excelling at a rapid pace, he eventually outgrew his entry-level job, and, in 1971, he left Tōei Animation entirely. During this time, he worked as an animator for a variety of well-known studios, including A-Pro, Nippon Animation, and Telecom Animation Film.
In 1979, Miyazaki made his first solo feature-length film, The Castle of Cagliostro. Meanwhile, he also produced a comic strip, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, for Animage magazine. The manga told the story of a princess, Naushika, and her journey through an ecologically ravaged world. As Studio Ghibli fans know, Nausicaä was later adapted into a 1984 film of the same name. In fact, working on this film encouraged Miyazaki and Takahata to collaborate on more projects, which led them to found Studio Ghibli.
Launching Studio Ghibli
After founding Studio Ghibli in 1985, Miyazaki and Takahata (along with producer Toshio Suzuki) didn’t waste any time before producing high-quality, hand-drawn animated movies. Studio Ghibli revolutionized not only the way animated movies were made in Japan but also how they were perceived by audiences.
Since its founding, the studio has created and contributed to the following feature-length movies:
- Castle in the Sky (1986)
- Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
- My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
- Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
- Only Yesterday (1991)
- Porco Rosso (1992)
- Ocean Waves (1993)
- Pom Poko (1994)
- Whisper of the Heart (1995)
- Princess Mononoke (1997)
- My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
- Spirited Away (2001)
- The Cat Returns (2002)
- Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
- Tales from Earthsea (2006)
- Ponyo (2008)
- Arrietty (2010)
- From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
- The Wind Rises (2013)
- The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
- When Marnie Was There (2014)
- Earwig and the Witch (2020)
Like most companies, Studio Ghibli has had its financial ups and downs. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the studio gained more success, thanks in part to more international acclaim — in part due to a partnership with Walt Disney Studios, which, since 1996, has held worldwide distribution rights of Studio Ghibli’s animated films. In acquiring the rights, the Walt Disney Studios decided to dub the Japanese-language movies in English, thus helping them gain more mainstream popularity in the U.S.
Some of Miyazaki’s Most Impactful Movies
Like most studios and production companies, some movies are more enduring than others. While the animation is breathtaking in every Studio Ghibli film, some features have gained extra recognition — for all the right reasons.
Unlike other animated films, Studio Ghibli’s works are highly regarded for featuring important life lessons, tackling complicated or subjects, and rendering unforgettable imagery. For example, the 1986 movie Castle in the Sky seems to tell a rather classic story about a young orphan, Sheeta, who is kidnapped by the conniving Colonel Muska, who believes Sheeta (and her blue crystal pendant) holds the key to finding the ancient city of Laputa. While en route to prison, the airship Sheeta’s on is attacked by sky pirates, all of which leads to Sheeta meeting a fellow orphan, Pazu, and discovering the ruins of Laputa. Despite its familiar fantasy premise, the film goes the extra step by showcasing the conflict between manmade technology and nature.
Years later, 1997’s Princess Mononoke, which broke Japanese box office records at the time, centers on environmentalism again by illustrating how humans are harming the earth to better themselves. Although at first, it tells the story of a young warrior who leaves his village to seek revenge on a creature that harmed him, the film goes on to lean into both feminist and spiritual themes — and it doesn’t shy away from (often brutal) truths.
But not all of Studio Ghibli’s movies focus on nature. In fact, 2001’s Spirited Away, which is often regarded as Miyazaki’s career-defining masterpiece, tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl who’s moving to a new town with her parents. When the trio stumbles upon a mysterious and seemingly abandoned theme park in the woods, Chihiro finds herself in the realm of spirits and deities. Not to mention, her parents have been turned into pigs.
In order to save her parents, and herself, she must navigate the world of spirits and the beings who reside there. Transportive, imaginative, and expertly plotted, Spirited Away became the top-grossing film in Japanese history. In part, it also cemented Studio Ghibli’s worldwide renown by earning an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. (Sure, awards aren’t everything, but you know how Hollywood is…)
We could go on and on about all of Miyazaki’s films, but we’ll limit ourselves to just one more — 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Without a doubt, Howl’s has continued to resonate with fans, partially because it does it all — there’s fantasy, adventure, a stunning world, and, of course, unforgettable characters.
Loosely based on Diana Wynne Jones’ beloved novel of the same name, Howl’s tells the story of Sophie, a young seamstress who is turned into an old woman when the conniving Witch of the Waste enters her shop. Eventually, Sophie finds her way to a magical, moving castle and befriends its inhabitants, which include a fire demon, Calcifer; an apprentice wizard, Markl; and the titular wizard and castle-owner, Howl. In addition to reiterating the value of compassion, this feminist film is also very anti-war.
Everything We Currently Know About “How Do You Live?”
In 2013, Miyazaki announced he would be retiring from the industry after the release of The Wind Rises. As a result, Studio Ghibli was reconstructed as Studio Ponoc. Despite Miyazaki’s statements, film critics and fans believed the move wouldn’t be permanent, especially since the illustrious animator had hinted at other projects.
Finally, in 2016, Miyazaki announced plans for a new full-length feature film, How Do You Live? Based on a 1937 book of the same name, the story follows a young boy and his uncle as they experience bullying, poverty, and spiritual growth after moving into a new neighborhood. Together, they must find the courage to navigate their experiences.
So, why come out of retirement for this film? Well, Miyazaki has stated that he was making the movie for his grandson. To him, the movie says, “Grandpa is moving on to the next world soon, but he is leaving behind this film.”
In December 2020, Miyazaki explained that the movie is “half-finished” and should be released as early as 2023. And, if it’s anything like his other award-winning movies, Miyazaki will leave another indelible mark on the world of animation.