My Love Affair With Japan Part II: Studio Ghibli

Growing up, I definitely had the best memories of summer vacations. Two months of doing absolutely nothing but eat and play. Days blur and merge until I’ve forgotten how far gone I was and with some time away from school I would lose all ability to write anything on paper. But there was one specific summer I actually remember in more detail because it changed the course of my life forever.

I still remember channel hopping with my brother on the television in our parents’ room when I was 9 and he was 7. We came across an animé unlike any other. Our eyes were glued to the screen for what seemed like an eternity. Everything was in Japanese and frankly we couldn’t understand anything but we didn’t so much as blink. We were in a trance. We cried. We laughed. We didn’t know what was going on. When it ended, we were in complete and utter shock. That animé was none other than Spirited Away.

With the giant Laputan robot outside the museum (no pictures allowed inside) in Tokyo, Japan

Given how young (and unsupervised, might I add) we were at that time, we didn’t even learn what that movie’s title was until years later. We would, however, talk about the strange albeit exhilarating experience from time to time. Finally, at 22, more than a decade later, I got to visit the Studio Ghibli Museum on a side trip to Mitaka, Tokyo. Needless to say, I was instantly brought back to my childhood and had the time of my life.

I tried making a definitive personal ranking of all the Ghibli films but in all honesty I totally loved most of them that it was hard enough to choose just five for this post. Hopefully I’ll get around to doing that in the future, but for now, here is a list of my absolute favourite movies from arguably the best animation production company in the world.

SPOILER ALERT: Some descriptions may include spoilers so read at your own risk.

5. Princess Mononoke (1997)

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The titular character in Princess Mononoke just gets me. I empathize with both her utter disdain for mankind and her uncompromising love for nature. Not to mention, she’s a wolf-princess who has basically had it with all of society’s crap. She’s really me! All these aside, Princess Mononoke is definitely one of Ghibli’s smarter films. If there is one thing the studio has perfected throughout the years it’s definitely showing us that moral grey areas are real. To quote George R.R. Martin quoting someone else, “a villain is a hero of the other side”. There is no black and white. We all make mistakes, perhaps some graver than others. What matters is that we don’t let hatred get in the way of us living our own lives and living out our own truths.

4. Only Yesterday (1991)

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Only Yesterday came into my life at such an auspicious time. I was months from graduating from college and was transitioning from a pescatarian diet to a vegetarian one. It was, in simpler words, a very confusing period in my life. I was, however, in the best position at the best possible time for Only Yesterday to teach me lessons and to give me direction. Taeko’s struggles which include, but are not limited to her career choices, her love life, and her childhood dreams, mirrored my own. Watching her story unfold, I was presented an opportunity to truly question my sense of self and what I really want out of life. Her desire to live a more peaceful life in the country definitely fortified my aspiration to one day have an organic farm of my own away from the city.

3. The Cat Returns (2002)

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No other piece of art has cemented the way I feel about myself in relation with cats than Ghibli’s The Cat Returns. It is known that I am both a cat person and a human cat. All my life I have just observed people, cultures, events; oftentimes with a glum indifference and a false sense of superiority. All my life I have had an affinity for the feline species (and perhaps a suppressed ability to talk to them, who knows). Ten minutes or so into The Cat Returns I start bawling when a young Haru feeds a stray kitten (or young Yuki) a box of fish crackers. Ghibli has unquestionably mastered surprising its audience with these subtle yet tender moments. On top of that, it was great to see The Baron again, this time equipped with unforgettable lines that bring you home: “What I need you to do is to learn one thing: always believe in yourself. Do this and no matter where you are, you will have nothing to fear.”

2. Whisper of the Heart (1995)

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I honestly thought romance was dead up until I saw Whisper of the Heart this year. It’s not the first romantic animé I have seen but for me, it is the best. The relationship between Shizuku and Seiji, albeit new and blossoming, is already tested by time and distance and is a perfect encapsulation of the kind I wouldn’t mind nurturing in the future (maybe minus the let’s-get-married part given they were still high schoolers). I am still as lost and confused as 14-year-old Shizuku, but her grasp on writing as a passion is just as firm as mine. Her being positively inspired by Seiji’s relentless pursuit of his dream to become a master violin-maker is something that I have personally experienced. After all, this blog wouldn’t be around if it were not for a slightly bruised up heart and ego as a consequence of admiring someone so deeply. Yes, you read that right: just like how Shizuku started writing a book while Seiji was away, I fell in love abroad and started a blog, end of story.

1. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

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If there was a BuzzFeed quiz entitled “Which Studio Ghibli character are you?”, nine out of ten times I would get Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service as a result (the other time would probably be Princess Mononoke if I’m on a particularly misanthropic mood). Let me count the ways Kiki and I are the same person: Kiki is a badass young witch (1); her best friend is her cat Jiji (2); she is as courageously adventurous as she is fiercely independent (3); she leaves the nest at a young age (4); she is extremely dedicated to her work (5); she starts feeling like an outsider in her new home (6); she becomes anti-social (7); she basically loses her ability to fly due to burn out (8); but finally, she gains back her magical powers and proceeds to do what she loves most: flying (9). Her dedication to seeing her issues through, even if she has to face them alone, has inspired me on so many occasions to do the same. Kiki’s Delivery Service is the ultimate marriage between a coming-of-age plot and a tale of wanderlust, and in all honesty it is the most accurate representation of the story of my life.