I was first introduced to the wonderfulness that is Studio Ghibli when I was in my teens, in the form of The Castle of Cagliostro . I was enthralled by the story. A damsel in distress. A forbidden love. Fantastic fight scenes that defied gravity and reality. My uncle had a copy of the film in his vast DVD collection. From there it was Totoro and the rest fell into place. I am no expert. I haven’t seen every film by the studio. But these have remained my Favorite Studio Ghibli Films since my adolescence.
Castle in the Sky | 天空の城ラピュタ
Let me begin by saying that I adore the music of Joe Hisaishi. I think it was this film that sparked my interest in paying attention to how the tracks push the plot along. Several years ago I found a video someone had posted on YouTube of all the scores Hisaishi composed for the Ghibli films and I had goosebumps up and down my arms the entire time. Everyone in the room was smiling, and an eruption of applause continued for minutes as the concert concluded. Castle in the Sky‘s performance was my absolute favorite.
This is, of course, a different performance, but it’s so smooth and Mr. Hisaishi is one of the happiest composers I have ever seen! But now…on to the story. As with most Ghibli films, there is a fantastical element to Laputa. Sheeta is a descendant of the long lost kingdom of Laputa. Orphaned, she lived alone until Muska, some kind of government official, kidnaps her to gain access to the city. Pazu, an orphan himself in a mining town in a deep valley, rescues her and they become fast friends. Through eccentric friends and flying machines they work together to solve the mysteries of Laputa to keep its power from falling into the wrong hands. Castle in the Sky is a story of love, friendship and hope.
My Neighbor Totoro | となりのトトロ 
This delightful tale is one of those stories that seems to have a backstory. Two young sisters have moved from their city-bound home to the countryside with their father to be closer to their mother who is recovering from some kind of illness. The adventure begins slowly their first day as Satsuki and Mei work with their Grandmother neighbor to clean the house.
Throughout the tale the sisters learn to navigate each other’s feelings of hopelessness, adventure, and friendship. When they meet Totoro and his friends they begin to learn that anything is possible. Magic grows seeds overnight. A giant cat bus whisks them across the rice patties and rolling hills. A huge tree provides a cozy, comfortable bed for them all. And an ear of corn and a lost shoe solidifies sisterly love. This Studio Ghibli film is a timeless one. Even to this day I will find another detail I missed the last time – and it’s one of the few I refuse to buy on DVD because, in my throwback mind, it can only be watched on VHS!
Kiki’s Delivery Service| 魔女の宅急便 
In a world where people grew up knowing and accepting witches, Kiki must leave home at a young age to begin her training. With a broom in hand her mother made for her she flies to a city where she hopes she can make a difference and find her place amongst the other young learning their way. It’s not long before she’s befriended by a boy named Tombo who is obsessed with flying machines, whom she initially tries to ignore as she learns to be independent.
It becomes increasingly difficult for Kiki to adjust to her new surroundings – away from everything she’d ever known and living with a different kind of family. Although they are incredibly supportive of her endeavors, even fully endorsing her delivery service for their bakery, she still finds herself slowly losing her abilities as her fears take over. Soon an airspace disaster occurs, and she must learn to trust herself to make a change.
Spirited Away | 千と千尋の神隠し 
Spirited Away is another one of those films where you can notice details years after your first showing. Many of its characters have become staples in fans of Ghibli’s work. The story line follows young Chihiro as she and her parents take a shortcut through the woods in an attempt to reach their new house more quickly. Instead they stumble upon an old, seemingly abandoned theme park deep in the forest. Once there Chihiro becomes trapped in the spirit realm, at risk of losing her identity and her parents forever. It is here that she meets Haku, Kamaji, Lin, Yubaba, Zeniba, No-Face and Boh. Spirited Away explores the differences in cultures, economics, and acceptance. The film amassed over thirty awards and to this day is still a favorite film internationally, not just in Japan.