Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
My Neighbor Totoro will connect with a very young crowd, and Kiki’s Delivery Service makes for the perfect follow-up that explores slightly deeper themes of growing independence and creative roadblocks. Kiki is a 13-year-old amateur witch who sets off to a new city to find her way with only her broom and cat companion, Jiji, by her side. Kiki’s Delivery Service crafts a sweet relationship between Kiki and Tombo, and it repeatedly uses Kiki’s innocence as a way to express wide-eyed awe at the world of possibilities surrounding her. Kiki is also one of Miyazaki’s best and boldest female protagonists, not in short supply in his movies. Kiki slowly finds a balance in her life as the movie explores work versus creative passion and how something as infinitely freeing and magical as flight can still be commodified and turned into a chore.
Spirited Away (2001)
Spirited Away is a breakout Studio Ghibli film that won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, a first for an anime movie. Spirited Away was the general audience’s introduction to Miyazaki, and it’s an acceptable place to start. However, the movie feels like a culmination of many of Miyazaki’s earlier ideas. There are shades of both Satsuki and Kiki in Chihiro, whose time in the spirit realm works better if the viewer has already been exposed to a few coming-of-age Ghibli stories. Spirited Away chronicles the young Chihiro’s dedicated efforts to restore her parents to their human forms after their egregious gluttony turns them into literal pigs. Only after Chihiro works off their debt can they all safely return home. Spirited Away connects with audiences of all ages, but its Japanese folklore influences and creepy-looking creatures become more palatable after further Miyazaki exposure. Spirited Away teases more mature themes through Chihiro’s low status in the spirit realm, but it’s still Miyazaki at his most magical and mainstream.
Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
Castle in the Sky is the first official Studio Ghibli movie, but it’s a surprisingly advanced early effort from Miyazaki. Laputa: Castle in the Sky tells an extraordinary airborne adventure that follows the same basic formula of many Miyazaki films. However, from its start, there are some distinct details that make it a more challenging and adult experience. Sheeta and Pazu, the film’s child protagonists, are lost orphans chased by sky pirates and corrupt officials who want to rob them of what makes them special. Sheeta and Pazu’s dream to locate the mysterious floating castle, Laputa, hits extra hard because these two have so little in life. It’s a magical story with a grim underlying theme about the importance of dreams and how war and commerce will slowly corrupt the world’s innocence and beauty.