8. My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
While living with their father in a country house as their mother receives cancer treatment at a hospital in the city, two sisters encounter a guardian of the forest and the magical woodland creatures he protects while exploring the garden of their new home.
My Neighbour Totoro is an uplifting, joyfully silly escape from the troubles of the world. The second and third Studio Ghibli films to be released [see where Grave of the Fireflies placed shortly] couldn’t be more different in tone, aesthetic and outlook, but they both make an incredible connection with audiences at different stages of their lives.
Totoro is Miyazaki’s love letter to the feeling of being a child and the power that watching animation has to temporarily release you from the troubles of the real world, though he respects children enough not to claim fantasy escapism will solve everything. Sometimes though, you can take a moment or two from confronting the scary changes in your life and simply ride the Cat Bus.
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7. Spirited Away (2001)
After moving house to the country, young Chihiro finds her way to a bathhouse that caters for restless spirits and agrees to work there in order to free her parents who have been transformed into pigs by a witch.
Spirited Away is a simply magical coming-of-age fable that seems comfortable and familiar up to a point but still ends up being full of surprises. Miyazaki’s Oscar-winner operates on a tricky dream logic, serving up some of the most iconic images not only in Ghibli but in all animation, most memorably Chihiro and restless but benign spirit No-Face sitting together and staring, lost in thought, out the window of a train to who knows where.
It’s easy to forget just how unashamedly weird Spirited Away is, mixing together Japanese mythology, cheese dream psychedelia and a bit of old fashioned Lewis Carroll-esque nonsense into a hugely satisfying stew. It’s bold and fun, and has imagination to spare, but never loses track of who the heroine is and the emotional upheaval she is going through.
6. Only Yesterday (1991)
A woman in her late twenties looks back on her school days and summer holidays in the country when she returns to her family’s farm as an adult.
Only Yesterday is about reflecting on your past with hindsight and memories tied to places and people. This was Isao Takahata proving that animation was just as well-suited to adult drama as fantasy for children. It’s a mature and nuanced story that hits particularly hard if you find yourself at a particular stage in your life looking back with a mixture of fondness and regret.
The timeline ping-pongs from adulthood and real responsibility to school days where every trial and change seems seismic. The fantasy element is relatively dialled-back for a Ghibli film but there is more than a bit of “A Christmas Carol” going on with Taeko communing with a spectral younger version of herself and looking to use her past actions to inform her present and guide her future. It’s intellectual and emotionally developed, but also warm and genuine and funny as every great coming-of-age film should be.