Share the Magic of Studio Ghibli Films with Picture Books
The first movie our family watched together in a theater was My Neighbor Totoro. It was our 3-year-old’s first time in the theater, and therefore our first movie outing as an entire family. And I’m very happy it was Totoro. Not only do I remember it very fondly from my own childhood, but I consider it to be one of the best family films ever made.
And there’s a lot more Studio Ghibli magic where that came from. Acclaimed filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli actually made several of the best family movies ever made. They’re all beautifully-crafted works of art and they come from a place of the most magnificent imagination. It’s not for nothing that Miyazaki is commonly referred to as Japan’s Walt Disney.
But although we are big fans of both Studio Ghibli and Disney - there are undeniably distinct differences between their movies. And one difference that stands out in particular is the music. While Disney movies are characterized by a soundtrack of fun sing-along songs, Studio Ghibli movies are often scored with some of the most beautiful and mesmerizing melodies I’ve ever heard. And that’s indicative of the more artistic and mature nature of Studio Ghibli films.
Another significant difference between Studio Ghibli and Disney is their traditional handling of female characters. It’s undeniable that most Disney movies are framed by princesses being rescued, finding their prince, and discovering romantic love. But that’s definitely not so with Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s films.
It’s often pointed out that Miyazaki’s female characters are powerful and independent girls who are discovering their inner strength. And any love they happen to discover along the way is often platonic in nature. To understand what I mean, think about how Moana really stands out as a different kind of Disney princess, and imagine if Disney had followed that kind of formula this whole time.
I grew up with the Studio Ghibli films, and I have a very big soft spot in my heart for all of them. And now I really love sharing them with our kids. So just imagine how ecstatic I was when I discovered that 10 amazing Studio Ghibli films have been turned into beautiful picture books that are perfect for reading together as a family.
These picture books are everything I could have asked for. They are illustrated with the actual art from the movies I grew up with, and they’re lovingly adapted with a combination of new narration and dialogue straight from the films. When we read them together, using the different voices of the characters, it very much feels like we’re bringing the films to life.
The Studio Ghibli picture book collection - from Viz Media and the Studio Ghibli Library - is one of my most-cherished additions to our home library. Our 6-year-old often chooses them for bedtime, and he even grabs them from the shelves to read independently - especially after we watch one of Miyazaki’s films for family movie night. It’s a very special and engaging experience reading these books together - particularly when you already have a relationship with these characters, and the beautiful music of the film’s score is playing in the back of your mind.
If you grew up with Miyazaki’s films like I did - and you have kids of your own that you want to share these amazing stories with - I highly recommend checking these picture books out. I consider them a treasured collector’s item - and they are absolutely perfect for delivering the magic of Studio Ghibli to a little imagination near you.
The Picture Books of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli
Although critically acclaimed and an amazing work of art - Princess Mononoke is also the darkest of Hayao Miyazaki’s stories for Studio Ghibli. There’s some violence and it’s definitely intense. The film actually earned a PG-13 rating. For that reason, we obviously haven’t shared the movie with our 6-year-old and our 3-year-old yet, and the picture book is lying in waiting on our shelves for at least another year or two for our son.
The story is fantastic for older kids though. Miyazaki’s imagination knows no bounds. A major theme here is the environment, as the main characters band together to try and save the wild lands. Even James Cameron cited the film as an inspiration for his movie Avatar.
Nausicaä was actually Miyazaki’s second film to direct. And it’s the first to be considered a Studio Ghibli work - even though it was technically made shortly before Studio Ghibli was founded. It’s based off of Miyazaki’s tremendously popular Manga, and it’s often considered by some to be one of the best animated movies ever made. Although, to be fair, I would say that about all of Studio Ghibli’s movies.
Like Princess Mononoke, a big theme in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is the environment. In fact, it released along with a big recommendation from the World Wildlife Fund. In the story there is a toxic jungle full of giant wormlike creatures that people want to eradicate - but Nausicaä wants to find a way to coexist. It’s a very exciting adventure with incredible storytelling and spectacular world-building. But, also like Princess Mononoke, the battles and intense moments might be a bit much for the youngest audience.
And now we’re getting into 100% family-friendly fare. No intense storylines or scary battles to speak of here. The Cat Returns is a G-rated movie about a girl who can talk to cats and accidentally becomes betrothed to the prince of the cats.
Once in the Cat Kingdom, she actually begins to turn into a cat as well. She needs to learn to stick up for herself and get herself out of this mess and back into her own realm before it’s too late. The Cat Returns definitely fits into the long tradition of Studio Ghibli films and books featuring women discovering their self-confidence - but our 3-year-old daughter is admittedly much more intrigued by all of the adorable cats lining these pages.
The Secret World of Arrietty is based on The Borrowers by Mary Norton. Arrietty is a very, very tiny person that lives with her family underneath a human’s home. Occasionally they go inside the home to borrow things - like a single cube of sugar that will probably last them for months.
The main relationship of this story is between Arrietty and a human boy named Shawn who comes to live in the house above her. But, unfortunately, it can’t last - because once a borrower has been seen they’re supposed to move to a new home. And the housekeeper is dead set on ridding the house of the curious “pests”.
Castle in the Sky is the last book on this list that might be seen as too intense for the youngest audience. The film includes several scenes of battles and guns and airships. And while the picture book is not as intense as the movie - it’s something to be aware of.
That being said, both our 6-year-old and our 3-year-old have watched this movie. Castle in the Sky is one of my very favorite stories from Hayao Miyazaki. The friendship between Pazu and Sheeta is definitely a major highlight - as the friendships in Studio Ghibli films always are. But what makes this story truly special is the big payoff of the mysterious floating island of Laputa. It’s incredibly imaginative, and I’m in love with the robots who were left behind there leaving flowers on graves and taking care of birds.
It’s undeniable that young girls discovering their self-confidence is a common theme for Miyazaki, and Kiki’s Delivery Service is absolutely the culmination of that theme. It’s basically the entire plot of the story. And it’s just spectacular.
Kiki is a young witch who needs to go off by herself to a new town. All young witches are required to leave for a year as part of their training, and find their special niche in life. Kiki is unsure about her talents at first, but she soon realizes that she can get around the town much quicker than others while flying on her magic broom, and she decides to open a delivery service. This one is pure, feel-good family fare with a big helping of self-discovery and affirmation.
Ponyo is actually based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. A magical fish falls in love with a little boy and turns herself into a girl so she can be with him. Of course the gigantic difference here is that the stars of this story are young children - which is obviously a very different dynamic to the relationship than the Disney film.
Like I mentioned before, Miyazaki often takes the focus off of romantic relationships and replaces them with meaningful platonic relationships between the main characters. By making the main characters only 5 years old - the connection between Sosuke and Ponyo is made even more magical and special. I believe that Ponyo is arguably the most feel-good story in the Studio Ghibli collection.
Howl’s Moving Castle is actually based off of the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, and it’s always been one of my favorite stories from Miyazaki. In it, a young girl is put under a curse by a witch that turns her into an old woman. After that she goes and lives in a giant, wandering castle owned by a spoiled wizard and powered by a grumpy fire spirit.
Like most of Miyazaki’s stories, the magic of Howl’s Moving Castle is found in the relationships between all of the characters. The character development is quite impressive, and I end up caring about every member of this ragtag group very much. And, as is so common with Miyazaki’s work, the main focus of the story is not on Sophie’s relationship with Howl - but on her growing self-confidence in herself.
Totoro is certainly the most iconic figure in the world of Studio Ghibli movies. We even wrote a featured article on My Neighbor Totoro the film because it’s such a perfect family film. It was the first Studio Ghibli movie I ever saw - and I still have my VHS copy from Fox Video in the cabinet to prove it.
What makes My Neighbor Totoro such an amazing story to share with the family is the loving relationships on display, and the unbridled imagination running wild. We love the sweet, precocious, adorable Mei in this story so much - we even gave our daughter the middle name Mei. It’s one of those stories where you’re left wondering until the very end whether or not the adventures with Totoro and his friends are entirely in the imagination of the young girls - or if there’s actually a little magic in this world.
Spirited Away has always been my very favorite movie by Miyazaki. It won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003 - and that was the same year that I saw it for the first time. I actually borrowed it from a family friend and watched it with my future wife when we were in high school - and she bought me my own copy the next week. And that’s still the copy of the movie that we have in our collection today.
The story of a little girl who wanders into an abandoned theme park with her parents is simply perfection. When the sun goes down it turns out they are in a bath house for spirits, and getting back home isn’t going to be easy. Spirited Away can certainly spooky, which is part of what endears it to us, but it’s also incredibly inspiring and beautiful. This is Miyazaki at his very best and our favorite book of the bunch by far.
Have you shared Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s movies with your kids yet? Which one is your favorite? Have you discovered these amazing picture books yet? Let us know in the comments!