Where to start with Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli as The Boy and The Heron arrives to London Film Festival

What other Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli films should you watch before 'The Boy and The Heron' arrives at the London Film Festival?

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itsThe long-awaited new work from anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli is set to have its British premiere at the BFI London Film Festival this month, and given it's fanfare after premiering at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, looks to be one of the talks of the festival circuit going forwards.

The film, touted to be Miyazaki’s last, was theatrically released in Japan on July 14, 2023, by Toho and was screened in both traditional theatres and other premium formats such as IMAX and made $52 million in Japan upon its release - despite a lack of promotion regarding the film. Only overnight did we get a teaser trailer for the work - aside from reviews from Japan, the West has been a little in the dark regarding the work.

What we do know however, without adding spoilers for those looking forward to the international screenings, is that ‘The Boy and The Heron’ (君たち は どう 生きる か ジブリ) has been described as a "big fantastical film", following a boy named Mahito Maki (Santoki), who discovers an abandoned tower in his new town and enters a fantastical world with a talking grey heron.

Though the new film takes its name from a 1937 novel of the same name, Studio Ghibli was quick to point out that although there is a reference to the book by Genzaburo Yoshino, it is not a true adaptation of his work. Instead, Miyazaki has created a work distant from the narrative contained in the novel but still manages to create nods to Yoshino’s tale.

For those however who might not be too familiar with the works of Studio Ghibli or Hayao Miyazaki, or are fans of Japanese animation and stuck as to where to start regarding the output from Studio Ghibli, may NationalWorld make a few suggestions ahead of the film’s international premiere to get you set for Miyazaki’s ‘last’ feature film?

Where to start with Studio Ghibli?

Start here: Spirited Away (2001)

'Spirited Away' earned Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli the 2023 Oscar for "Best Animated Film" (Credit: Studio Ghibli)'Spirited Away' earned Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli the 2023 Oscar for "Best Animated Film" (Credit: Studio Ghibli)
'Spirited Away' earned Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli the 2023 Oscar for "Best Animated Film" (Credit: Studio Ghibli)

Though it may have been ‘Princess Mononoke' that established Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki’s presence in Western cinema, it was the release of ‘Spirited Away’ in 2001 that truly cemented both the studio and the director’s place in cinema. 

The film follows Chihiro Ogino, a ten-year-old girl who, while moving to a new neighbourhood, enters the world of kami (spirits of Japanese Shinto folklore). After her parents are turned into pigs by the witch Yubaba, Chihiro takes a job working in Yubaba's bathhouse to find a way to free herself and her parents and return to the human world.

It launched a second wave of enthusiasm in Japanese animation, one perhaps not seen since the release of ‘Akira’ in Western cinemas almost a decade prior. However, it became a critical success in the United States, where it overcame the Disney/Pixar monopoly at the 75th Academy Awards and earned the “Best Animated Film” Oscar. 

My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

Set in rural Japan during the 1950s, the story follows two young sisters, Satsuki and Mei, who move to the countryside with their father to be closer to their ailing mother in a nearby hospital. As they explore their new surroundings, they encounter a magical forest inhabited by whimsical and lovable creatures, including the titular character, Totoro, a giant, furry spirit of the forest. 

The film beautifully portrays the sisters' adventures, their friendships with the forest spirits, and the resilience and hope they find in the face of their mother's illness. "My Neighbor Totoro" is a timeless masterpiece that captures the wonder of childhood and the importance of imagination and connection with nature.

My Neighbor Totoro" has not only captivated audiences in Japan but has also gained international popularity and acclaim. With its universal themes of family, friendship, and the enchantment of nature, the film transcends language and cultural barriers. Hayao Miyazaki's unique and imaginative storytelling, combined with Studio Ghibli's exquisite animation, has earned the film a dedicated global fan base. Totoro himself has become an iconic character recognized worldwide, and the film's enduring appeal has led to numerous adaptations, merchandise, a dedicated theme park attraction and even a theatrical show of the same name.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

The voice acting talent for the English dub of 'Princess Mononoke' was a testament to the growing popularity of Studio Ghibli in the West (Credit: Studio Ghibli)The voice acting talent for the English dub of 'Princess Mononoke' was a testament to the growing popularity of Studio Ghibli in the West (Credit: Studio Ghibli)
The voice acting talent for the English dub of 'Princess Mononoke' was a testament to the growing popularity of Studio Ghibli in the West (Credit: Studio Ghibli)

Considered Miyazaki and Studi Ghibli’s ‘breakout’ film for Western Audiences, ‘Princess Mononoke’ was helped by an exceptional cast providing voices for the Western dub of the film. Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Gillian Anderson, Claire Danes and Billy Bob Thornton all lent their voices to the characters in the film, which follows a young Emishi prince named Ashitaka, and his involvement in a struggle between the gods (kami) of a forest and the humans who consume its resources. 

It was a critical and commercial blockbuster, becoming the highest-grossing film in Japan in 1997, and also held Japan's box office record for domestic films until 2001's ‘Spirited Away.’ Interesting to note also that the English dub was scripted by Neil Gaiman - of ‘Sandman’ and ‘American Gods’ fame.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Kiki’s Delivery Service’ is set in s European-inspired coastal town and follows the adventures of a young witch named Kiki. According to tradition, when witches turn 13, they must leave their homes for a year to find a new town to live in and develop their magical skills. Kiki, accompanied by her loyal talking cat Jiji, sets out on this journey to find her place in the world. 

She eventually starts a delivery service using her broomstick, offering to deliver goods to the townspeople. Through her interactions with various characters, Kiki learns about independence, self-discovery, and the importance of perseverance. The film is a heartwarming tale of growing up, friendship, and finding one's own identity.

Despite being one of the older Studio Ghibli productions it nonetheless has charmed audiences not only in Japan but also internationally with its timeless and relatable themes of self-discovery and the transition to adulthood resonate with viewers of all ages. Sort of what Disney tried with ‘Seeing Red’ but with a much more luscious animated style to it than the CGI offering.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

If musicians are nervous about “second album syndrome” then perhaps Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli were concerned over the international reaction to their follow-up to ‘Spirited Away,’ 2004’s entry into Studio Ghibli’s filmography, ‘Howl’s Moving Castle.’ Set in a magical world filled with enchanted creatures and powerful sorcery the film follows Sophie, a young woman who is transformed into an elderly lady by a wicked witch's curse. Seeking a way to break the spell, Sophie stumbles upon Howl's Moving Castle, a fantastical, walking fortress inhabited by the enigmatic and reclusive wizard Howl. 

As Sophie becomes a cleaning lady for the castle and forms a bond with its eccentric crew, she is drawn into a complex tale of love, war, and the consequences of magic. The film beautifully weaves together themes of self-discovery, the impact of war on society, and the transformative power of love, all against the backdrop of a breathtaking and ever-changing steampunk-inspired world.

Both Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli didn’t need to have concerns though, as ‘Howl's Moving Castle’ has garnered international acclaim and a dedicated fanbase. Its intricate and mesmerizing animation, along with its compelling characters and intricate plot, has enchanted audiences worldwide. The film's themes of love, identity, and the consequences of war resonate deeply with viewers, and it stands as another testament to Miyazaki's storytelling prowess. 

For the brave: Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Though not a Hayao Miyazaki movie, ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ still released by Studio Ghibli and is considered one of the most downbeat animated films to be released; even at university, this writer can attest to watching the film in a room full of males and each one of us having to take a moment to reflect post movie, with someone ‘chopping onion’ in the room evidently. 

Set in the city of Kobe, Japan in June 1945, it tells the story of two siblings and war orphans, Seita and Setsuko, and their desperate struggle to survive during the final months of the Second World War. The ugly beauty of the film lay not in the animation (that itself is once again a thing of joy) but in the almost frantic final chapters of the film where things look hopeful for Seita and Setsuko, only to be blighted with bad luck and the horror in Japan during WW2. 

Despite viewers enduring the depressing situation that the pair find themselves in constantly throughout the film, ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is universally acclaimed not just as an important moment in Japanese animation, but is considered one of the greatest anti-war films of all time. Just be sure to bring tissues if you’re off for a screening.

When is ‘The Boy and The Heron’ screening at the BFI London Film Festival?

Hayao Miyazaki’s work will be screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2023 on Sunday 08 October at 2:45pm at the Southbank Centre, Royal Festival Hall followed by an encore screening on Sunday 15 October 2023 at 2:30pm.

How can I get tickets to the BFI London Film Festival 2023?

Tickets to screenings at the BFI London Film Festival, alongside availability to the movies on show, can be found by visiting the festival’s ticketing section of their website.