FILMS RECS: A STUDIO GHIBLI TOOLKIT FOR THE SCHOOL YEAR

18th October, 2020

Words by Farah Ghafoor · Artwork by Isabella Acosta

This month marks the start of a journey like none we’ve ever faced: one that’s full of unique technological, academic, and emotional challenges. The academic year will likely push many of us to our breaking points as we navigate a different world both in and out of our homes. As someone who’s returning to university for the first time in a long while, I wanted to share some films that brought me comfort over the course of this year. When the pandemic broke out, I dove into the vibrant, artistic worlds of Studio Ghibli, an internationally acclaimed Japanese film studio best known for their animated films. I spent time with Chihiro, Shizuku, Ponyo, Kiki and other spirited Ghibli protagonists as they ventured into new and often dangerous territories.  

Now, from the bottom of my Studio Ghibli rabbit hole, I can assure you that the films I’m recommending are a source of light and sustenance during difficult times. These are films to watch not only when you’re in despair and need something to steel yourself against your troubles, but also when you want to open your heart to the little pleasures in life that you may take for granted. Even if you’ve seen these movies before, they will provide a different and perhaps more meaningful viewing experience after all that has happened and all that is to come. 

Studio Ghibli points out that joy and survival require gratitude – for nature, friends, mentors, family, and peace. Their protagonists are also usually incredibly ordinary, by which I mean that they cry, stress out, fight, sacrifice, make mistakes and get into trouble, but then are able to problem solve and persevere. By ordinary, I mean that these characters, often children or teeangers, are passionate, honest, curious, brave, and hard-working. The films show that what is seen as rock bottom is only a stop along the way on the path to achieving your dreams - as long as you keep moving.

So this year when you’re grappling with personal issues alongside tests, assignments and exams, take a longer break and select whichever one of these films you need at that moment. Brew a hot drink, press play, and remember that you can do absolutely anything these heroes do. Stand straight and face forward, main character, because this is your Ghibli film. 

1. Whisper Of The Heart

The story takes place in the small world of a middle-school writer, Shizuku. Her world expands when she investigates everyday mysteries like that of someone reading all of the same books as her and explores an unknown territory after following a cat to an antique shop. Many of us, like Shizuku, prefer to live in fictional worlds, not only because they are more enjoyable than reality but because these escapist tendencies are a good, though temporary, cure for uncertain times. Like us, Shizuku has no idea what her future holds, so she focuses on the short term. This film will comfort you and inspire you to focus on what you love most in your life. 

2. My Neighbor Totoro

This film is about a family’s move to the countryside where their mother is hospitalized and two sisters, Mei and Satsuki, befriend local forest spirits. Whether you've moved home for the academic year, or are simply stuck spending more time with your family than ever, you’ll no doubt be inspired by the relationships in this movie, and the message to value your relatives. If your family members have fallen ill this year, you’ll also probably identify with the underlying loneliness of these characters despite their outward cheer, and how they lean towards magic to cope. This film will hold your relationships to the light. 

3. Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind

Set in a post-apocalyptic world, Princess Nausicaa is a more or less ordinary teenager who never gives up hope for a better and safer future, and has empathy for all creatures and people. She learns to forgive herself when she breaks her pacifist code, and focuses on the good in all life forms, no matter how dangerous they may appear. This is the film to watch when you need to be kinder to yourself and others – for this year and for a better, brighter world beyond the pandemic. 

 

4. Kiki’s Delivery Service

This is the coming-of-age story of a young witch who moves to the city in the tradition of a witch-in-training. As brave Kiki builds herself a life, she reaches out to kind acquaintances around her for the intimate connections that she left behind in her village. But Kiki doesn’t doesn’t find them, and her resolve weakens until she feels isolated and depressed. This lack of connection to our friends, families, and the world we once knew is what many of us have experienced over the past year. By the end of the film, you’ll hopefully be so inspired by Kiki’s resilience that you’ll regain confidence in yourself and the future within your grasp. 

 

5. The Cat Returns

This film follows the adventure of a high school student, Haru, who, after rescuing a supposed prince, is coerced into marrying him even though he’s a cat. In order to remain human in this fantastical world, Haru needs to remember who she is, what she’s capable of, and what she wants.  This absurd tale promotes a simple but clear message: believe in yourself. In the face of the challenges that this year will bring, it helps to imagine yourself as an island, the waves of this new world trying to pull you apart. Believing in yourself, as Haru demonstrates in the film, means to plant your feet on that dry land and announce that this is who you are and who you want to be. 

Farah Ghafoor has had her poems published in places like Hobart, Room, and Ninth Letter. She has been recognized by the League of Canadian Poets, the Alliance for Young Writers and Artists, Hollins University, and Columbia College. You can find her online at farahghafoor.weebly.com and on Twitter @farah_ghafoor

 

Isabella Acosta is an illustrator and graphic designer with an insatiable passion for aesthetically pleasing color palettes, wholesome food, and her Italian Greyhound.

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