Studio Ghibli movies have an uncanny way of charming both adults and children alike, yet understanding all the minute details that make these films truly magical can be difficult.
Consider reading some books like Diana Wynne Jones’ Kiki’s Delivery Service and Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There for further understanding of their movies. These novels can provide a deeper appreciation of them both.
Castle in the Sky
Castle in the Sky (known in Japan as Gondoa) marks Studio Ghibli’s official debut, an extravagant fantasy adventure packed with high-flying action and pure, innocent wonder. Furthermore, this film boasts resonance and complexity, which make it one of their finest works, particularly from a narrative standpoint.
The story opens in a vaguely European early 20th-century world characterized by legends of Laputa – an incredible flying fortress with supernatural properties that is widely revered across society. When farm girl Sheeta (Keiko Yokozawa; Anna Paquin in English dub) discovers an amulet crystal that points towards Laputa, she teams up with scrappy mining town boy Pazu (James Van Der Beek; Mayumi Tanaka in Japanese) on an epic journey that eventually leads them all the way there.
Though not as profound as some of Miyazaki’s other works, its visuals make up for its lack of depth. The animation is exquisite, with stunning details and worlds just beyond your imagination; Joe Hisaishi’s score adds even further.
This movie is an exceptional family flick that can teach a great deal about teamwork and courage. Sheeta and Pazu, who serve as main characters, both demonstrate how if one puts their mind to something, anything is achievable. Furthermore, the film offers some moral lessons regarding environmentalism and technological progress- although this message doesn’t come across quite as strongly in comparison with some other Miyazaki works.
Castle in the Sky is often considered a precursor to Studio Ghibli’s more mature works, such as Princess Mononoke and Kiki’s Delivery Service, taking inspiration from it for many elements such as flying machines and an aerial city in these later movies. Furthermore, Castle in the Sky stands as an outstanding example of how to balance reality with fantasy in an animated film; real-world forces alongside fictional ones that add an air of wonderment are both present here.
Hayao Miyazaki had an immense impact on animation as an influential animated director, frequently proclaiming, “I gave up making true happy endings long ago.” While this statement might sound negative, Kiki’s Delivery Service contains one such happy conclusion; instead, it reflects the complexity and drama present in many Ghibli films reinterpreting classic literature or creating original stories; Miyazaki’s films are deeply embedded with literary inspirations which form their framework.
One of Studio Ghibli’s first movies, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, was an impressive reimagining of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels novella and precisely, chapter three, where Gulliver ventures to Laputa, also paying homage to 1940’s Japanese science fiction artist Tetsuji Fukushima who provided Studio Ghibli with inspiration for many futuristic worlds.
Nausicaa: Princess of the Post-Apocalyptic World follows Nausicaa as she traverses a post-apocalyptic world filled with vast poisonous forests and giant insects. Nausicaa herself is inspired by both Homer’s Odyssey narrator Homer himself, as well as an eccentric princess from an 11th-century Japanese tale entitled ‘The Lady Who Loved Insects. Ghibli has always been heavily influenced by literature, one example being their collection of picture books that contain easy-to-read scenes taken directly from the films themselves!
Ghibli movies possess a magical quality, not necessarily due to being fantasy or sci-fi in the genre, but due to the solid literary DNA permeating their works, from their themes of environmental and social sustainability and character characterizations that frequently reference classic literary figures – such as Ovid’s transformations or Diana Wynne Jones reworking of The Fable of Pig and Wolf to Ursula Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea or Isao Takahata’s rendition of The Tale of Bamboo Cutter; Ghibli movies offer tales that explore nature, meaning, and life’s mysteries!
Howl’s Moving Castle
Many may recognize Howl’s Moving Castle from its movie adaptation, but this fantasy novel stands on its own with an engaging story and characters all its own. Hilarious yet romantic at times, its world-building makes this book perfect for fans of magical tales and fantastic reads alike.
Sophie, a witch in a small town, isn’t content with her lot in life. Working in an unfulfilling hatter’s shop leaves her feeling isolated from her colleagues. But one day, a strange flying object passes over their village before disappearing into an adjacent hillside – followed by reports about an evil wizard terrorizing young women and taking their hearts. Sophie decides to quit her job and investigate further what’s going on.
Sophie encounters Howl, an eccentric wizard living in a dilapidated old house. A hatmaker by profession, his home is also the site of an intriguing and magical moving castle with four doors leading into different places that each provide their distinct atmosphere and scenery. Sophie finds herself drawn to this fantastic place – soon enough, she begins falling for Howl!
Spirited Away is an animated feature film adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s fantasy novel of the same name, though she initially expressed reservations. After seeing how successful Spirited Away had become, she ultimately agreed to allow Ghibli to use her work as inspiration. Though initially wary about using such an esteemed author for inspiration, Ghibli knew they could trust Le Guin’s writing to deliver both depth of storytelling and epic adventure in one package.
Ghibli Studios found their first financial success with this film, which helped ensure their studio continued. While not as complex as later works from them, this one still shows their ability to translate deep human emotions into visual and narrative forms. Arguably, it is their most philosophical film in terms of exploring our environmental responsibility but also our agency and moral complexity.
No matter where you stand on Studio Ghibli movies, reading their source texts is sure to open your imagination and provide insight into why so many people enjoy them. Finding a replica might not exist, but some books come close – we have put together this list as some great options for those searching for that specific something with Ghibli!
Some of these books might be more suitable for younger readers, while there are others ideal for more mature readers as well. Princess Mononoke is an epic fantasy that depicts a world at war; although at first glance, this anime film may seem similar to others with magical settings and mythical creatures like Dragonball Z, there’s much more going on than meets the eye here. Princess Mononoke explores humanity’s relationship to its natural environment and features themes similar to those of other Studio Ghibli works.
Ghibli’s dark and brooding film Nausicaa of the Seaweed is not suitable for young viewers, yet it is nonetheless one of his finest cinematic achievements. Based on Nausicaa of the Seaweed book series, this adaptation to English fails somewhat compared to his other works but provides valuable lessons about saving one’s people.
Hayao Miyazaki wrote the original novel of this series that inspired Goro Miyazaki’s film, while his son directed its adaptation. While this book does not directly relate to its inspiration for Goro’s film adaptation, its large pages allow readers to study its beautiful illustrations while giving an idea of its subject matter and theme.
Hiromasa Yonebayashi made his directorial debut with this film based on Mary Norton’s 1952 book The Borrowers; it tells the tale of tiny people living amongst vast humans in secret. Ghibli’s deep themes shine through in this fantastic tale about confronting the tragedies of our past so we may move forward together as humanity. It makes an excellent closing film.