Studio Ghibli’s films are coming to Netflix. Make time to binge them all | Ryan Gilbey

The Japanese studio’s works are fit to stand beside the greatest of all cinema, not only animation

Netflix will earn itself brownie points from even its most sceptical subscribers by making available from this month virtually the entire back catalogue of the Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli. Founded in 1985 by four film-makers, including the great directors Hayao Miyazaki, now 79, and Isao Takahata, who died in 2018 aged 82, Studio Ghibli has produced some of the most intoxicating films of the past 50 years.

Even a cursory synopsis hints at the sort of delirium to expect: in Pom Poko, a tribe of raccoons with shape-shifting powers, as well as scrotums that turn into parachutes, band together to deter property developers from churning up the countryside; in Spirited Away, a girl is put to work in a bathhouse for gods after her parents scoff too much street food and turn into pigs; in Porco Rosso, a first world war fighter pilot battles fascists even after becoming a pig. (Miyazaki has a thing about pigs.)

The animation style ranges from the psychedelic (the monsters’ parade in Pom Poko is trippier than anything since Fantasia) to the pastoral (such as the watercolour wash of My Neighbours the Yamadas and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya). Wild inventiveness is part of these films’ appeal, but the themes explored in them are more pertinent than ever to our world – the anti-war bent of Howl’s Moving Castle and Porco Rosso; the urgent environmental concerns of Pom Poko and Princess Mononoke. A Studio Ghibli protagonist typically discovers a kind of humility and harmony with the land, coming to realise that the human race is only one small component of life in the universe. Nature is where sanctuary and equilibrium can be found. Slap-bang in the middle of Kiki’s Delivery Service, for instance, a trainee witch whose powers have deserted her simply takes a woodland sabbatical while she waits for her mojo to return – and the movie powers down along with her. “We have a word for that in Japanese,” Miyazaki told the critic Roger Ebert. “It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.”

Howl’s Moving Castle.
Howl’s Moving Castle. Photograph: Buena Vista/Everett/Rex Features

Far from falling prey to the exaltedness of late-period Terrence Malick, Studio Ghibli is always level-headed. When the main character in Takahata’s coming-of-age story Only Yesterday, a woman in her late 20s, is in danger of becoming misty-eyed about the beauty of nature, she is put gently right by a fellow worker. “City people see forests and woods and streams and they’re happy because they think what they’re seeing is nature,” he tells her. “Apart from back deep in the mountains, almost everything you see here is the work of a farmer. This scenery has come about by lucky accident as people have struggled with nature to get what they needed to survive. That’s how the countryside works.” It’s a wise and touching speech with only the faintest hint of farmsplaining.

Another appealing quality of Studio Ghibli should by now have become apparent: the prioritisation of women, which has set an example that other film-makers, let alone fellow animation studios, have been lamentably slow to follow. I was drawn to these films in the first place because of the dearth of children’s entertainment with female characters to show to my youngest child when she was growing up. The girls and women in Studio Ghibli can be endearing, difficult, defensive, joyful, stubborn, heroic. Complex, in other words, like actual people, rather than the demure movie princesses, damsels in distress or one-dimensional tough cookies that are the go-to girls of much of cinema. (Only Yesterday might even be the first animated film featuring adolescent girls discussing their menstrual cycles.)

It is standard practice when recommending Studio Ghibli to compare its movies favourably with the work of US animation behemoths such as Disney. But the best of Studio Ghibli is fit to stand beside the greatest of all cinema, not only animation – this is film-making with the untethered imagination of Cocteau, the wit of Tati, the depth of Fellini and the warmth of Howard Hawks. The jury at the 2002 Berlin film festival knew this when it split its top prize between Spirited Away and Paul Greengrass’s kinetic, documentary-style Bloody Sunday. Two more dissimilar films it would be hard to imagine, but in uniting them in approbation, the jury (headed by the Indian-American film-maker Mira Nair and including the visionary Argentine director Lucrecia Martel) recognised that passion and originality transcend superficial distinctions between adult and family cinema.

See for yourself: the first batch of seven titles, among them Only Yesterday, My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, is already streaming. The same number again will follow at the start of next month and the final seven at the beginning of April. (Only the haunting wartime lament Grave of the Fireflies, currently on Amazon Prime, is absent, though by way of compensation Miyazaki’s nutty adventure The Castle of Cagliostro – made in 1979, before Studio Ghibli’s formation – is already on Netflix.) English-language viewers shouldn’t be snooty about watching the movies dubbed into their own tongue either. Miyazaki himself raved about the voice work of Lauren Bacall as the grotesque Witch of the Waste in Howl’s Moving Castle, praising it as even closer to his original concept than the Japanese-language vocal track. And Michael Keaton gives one of the richest and tenderest performances of his career as the porcine pilot in Porco Rosso. He soars – and so do these films.

• Ryan Gilbey is film critic for the New Statesman

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Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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