Pop Culture Imports: A Beginner's Guide To Studio Ghibli Movies

(Welcome to Pop Culture Imports, a column that compiles the best foreign movies and TV streaming right now.)

For the first time in its 36-year history of making some of the most breathtaking animated masterpieces of all time, all of Studio Ghibli's movies are available to stream right now. The Japanese animation studio best known for its adorable raccoon-like mascot and the acclaimed works of animation titan Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli is often written off as the maker of peculiar arthouse animes — too philosophical for western kids used to fast-paced Disney movies, and too anime for cinephiles. Well, I'm here to prove those hypothetical haters wrong. Or, at least, to lend a helping hand to those who are interested in diving into the works of Studio Ghibli, but are unsure about where to start or if the studio's films will even appeal to them. I can assure you, of the 21 feature films (and one TV movie) released by Studio Ghibli since its inception in 1984, there will be something for you.

So in this week's Pop Culture Imports, I'm shaking things up a bit and spiriting you away across the Pacific to give you a beginner's guide to Studio Ghibli movies.

If You Like Action-Adventure (Level: Easy): Castle in the Sky

Regardless of what genre you love, Castle in the Sky is the perfect starter Ghibli film. A whimsical fantasy adventure film with a passionate ecological message and some of the most striking imagery to come out of the studio, Hayao Miyazaki's 1986 film is the most accessible movie to begin with for audiences weaned on Disney adventure movies. Castle in the Sky follows the orphan boy Pazu, who discovers a girl floating down from the sky into his blue-collar mining town, buoyed by what appears to be a strange blue crystal pendant around her neck. He takes her in and learns that she is a shepherd girl named Sheeta, who was kidnapped by the greedy government agent Muska and then chased by a group of sky pirates led by the boisterous Captain Dola. But it isn't Sheeta they're after, but her mysterious crystal, which was passed down through her family for generations. Pazu and Sheeta go on a grand adventure that leads them to the mythical Laputa, a castle in the sky that is supposed to hold the key to humanity's greatest treasure, or greatest weapon, depending on who you ask.

Castle in the Sky is a rollicking adventure of mythic proportions that unfolds to reveal a tender, environmentally conscious heart. It's the closest to the Platonic ideal of a Ghibli film — delivering an impassioned message about the environment, greed, and the destructive cycles of life in a beautifully-animated, kid-friendly package.Where to Stream: HBO MaxWhat to Watch Next: AriettyTales from Earthsea, or if your kids aren't watching with you, graduate to the next level of action-adventure, Princess Mononoke.

If You Like Action-Adventure (Level: Advanced): Princess Mononoke

Why the two tiers, you may ask? Because I realize that many of those who flip on an animated movie may not expect the degree of violence that a few Studio Ghibli films showcase. Princess Mononoke is one of Ghibli's most violent films, but it's also one of its greatest achievements — as a feat of animation, as a tragic epic with a stirring ecological message, and as a piece of cinema. Few animated films can rival Princess Mononoke in size and scope, and certainly none on this side of the Pacific. Princess Mononoke is often the first film I recommend to people who have no familiarity with Studio Ghibli, but I wanted to give those watching with families the option of checking out a more kid-friendly film before they dove headfirst into this masterpiece.

Princess Mononoke is an epic tale of gods and demons that fuses ancient Japanese folklore with a modern environmental message. Stunningly animated and exceptionally gory, Princess Mononoke is not for the weak of heart nor for those averse to Miyazaki's angry anti-imperialist, anti-war messaging. In a film where hate and rage can take the form of deadly curses that ravage a person's body and turn them into horrific demons, Princess Mononoke is not subtle about its impassioned ecological themes and its calls for love and empathy. The film follows a cursed warrior, Ashitaka, who seeks to end the battle between the god-like animals of the forest and the rapidly industrializing humans who live in a mining village that threatens to raze the mountain's trees. The village is led by the charismatic, calculating Lady Eboshi, while the animals are led by the titular "princess" San, a fiery woman raised by wolves to hate humanity. Featuring some of the most complex villains and heroes created by Miyazaki and jaw-dropping animation that frequently dips into body horror, Princess Mononoke is easily one of Studio Ghibli's best films and the movie to watch first if you want to be blown away by the magnitude of what animation can achieve.Where to Stream: HBO MaxWhat to Watch Next: Go back to where it all began for Studio Ghibli and watch Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki's first ecological anti-war film that would shape the works of Studio Ghibli for years to come.

If You Like Coming-of-Age Stories: Kiki's Delivery Service

Action isn't for everyone, and it certainly isn't for much of Ghibli's filmography, which range from low-key slice of life films to outsized epics. Kiki's Delivery service falls somewhere in between, following the coming-of-age of a 13-year-old witch who strikes out on her own for the first time. Surprisingly mundane for such a fantastical premise, Kiki's Delivery Service follows young Kiki, who as per tradition for witches her age, leaves home to live on her own for a year and hone her magical skills. Kiki, who lived her entire life in a sweet rural village, dreams of moving to the big city, and finds the perfect one in the port city of Koriko. But Kiki's enthusiasm for her new life quickly fades as she finds herself out of her element in an unfriendly city, until she stumbles into the kindly baker Osono and picks up the idea of starting a delivery service. Kiki's Delivery Service is refreshingly light on plot, following Kiki on her various delivery misadventures and her awkward friendship with a local gearhead boy named Tombo. But what the film captures in these series of vaguely connected vignettes is the growing sense of unease and anxiety in Kiki as she goes through an identity crisis which may be all too familiar for creatives.

Kiki's Delivery Service would be the best film to pick up for the Pixar lover — it's an emotionally resonant adventure with wacky supporting characters that digs into deeper issues of loneliness and insecurity. Plus, it has a rousing flying sequence that is guaranteed to take your breath away.Where to Stream: HBO MaxWhat to Watch Next: Only Yesterday, From Up on Poppy Hill.

If You Like Romance: Whisper of the Heart

On the most low-key end of the spectrum is Whisper of the Heart, the first film on this list not directed by Miyazaki and one of the rare Ghibli films to not feature a big fantastical element. Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, a longtime key animator for Ghibli who was being primed to take over the studio before his untimely death, Whisper of the Heart is a sweet, romantic slice of life film that follows a bookish junior high school girl named Shizuku who dreams of writing her own novel. One day, Shizuku notices that a boy named Seiji has checked out all the books she has, setting her off on a curious little adventure that involves a strange cat, and a tucked-away antique store that contains a beautiful grandfather clock with a sad story. Her imagination ignited by the clock, Shizuku dreams up a fantasy story about a cat-like Baron looking for his lost love and begins to write her book. Meanwhile, Shizuku strikes up a blossoming romance with Seiji, whose grandfather runs the shop, and experiences the pangs of first love and heartbreak.

Whisper of the Heart is a quaint, quiet little film that plays out more like an indie dramedy than a typical animated movie. But its grounded realism and loving attention to detail is almost as enchanting as the vibrant dream sequences that Shizuku embarks on in her mind, and makes it great gateway for those who don't often watch animated films.Where to Stream: HBO MaxWhat to Watch Next: Howl's Moving Castle, From Up on Poppy Hill, Porco Rosso.

If You Like Escapist Fantasy: Spirited Away

Spirited Away is Studio Ghibli's best movie, but it's rarely the one I recommend to people first, unless they're ready for some surreal, often downright bizarre, fantasy. Miyazaki's answer to Alice in WonderlandSpirited Away follows the distressing journey of a young girl named Chihiro, who gets trapped in the spirit world after she and her parents take a detour into an abandoned theme park. Frightened and way out of her depth, Chihiro is helped by a mysterious young man named Haku, who instructs her to make a deal with a witch that runs a bathhouse for the spirits. Chihiro gets a job in the bathhouse and embarks on a life-changing journey that transforms her from an unlikable, spoiled brat into a fearless heroine.

Utterly transporting and chock full of eye-popping imagery and dazzling sequences, Spirited Away is an uncanny fantasy film that many have tried to imitate, but few could replicate. Like many a Miyazaki film, Spirited Away (still the only Ghibli film to win an Academy Award) is rich with ecological and anti-capitalist themes, but more than its messages and its fantastically creepy supporting characters, Spirited Away excels in the moments in between. The silences. Miyazaki's masterpiece is never afraid to sit back and let the visuals speak for themselves in tender, contemplative scenes that immerse the viewer in the mystical world he's created.

Where to Stream: HBO MaxWhat to Watch Next: The Cat Returns, Pom Poko.

If You Just Want to Watch Some Cute Critters With Your Family: My Neighbor Totoro

Studio Ghibli's most iconic film for its role in the introduction of the studio's adorable mascot, My Neighbor Totoro is also one of its most subdued films. Almost completely plot-less, My Neighbor Totoro is as if you took every cute supporting character in an animated film, drop them in a peaceful forest, and followed them around for a day. More a slow-burning tone poem than a typical children's adventure, My Neighbor Totoro may be a bit of an adjustment for kids used to the zany hijinks of Disney movies, but its whimsical characters and thoroughly enchanting world make the film a surreal journey unlike any other children's film.

Directed by Miyazaki, My Neighbor Totoro follows schoolgirl Satsuke and her younger sister, Mei, as they move into an old country house with their father while waiting for their mother to recover from an illness in an area hospital. The girls soon discover that playful little spirits live in and around their new house, and run into the forest spirit that leads the others on their merry adventures: a roundish chinchilla-like giant, Totoro. Totoro takes them on an adventure through the countryside into a magical spiritual world, where the girls ride the Cheshire-like Catbus and make forests grow with a magic spell. Like many Ghibli films, there is a note of melancholy to My Neighbor Totoro that is hard to describe — but the looming shadow of the Satsuke and Mei's sick mom and the vague post-war references add depth to this strange, otherworldly adventure.

Where to Stream: HBO MaxWhat to Watch Next: Ponyo, Pom Poko, My Neighbors the Yamadas.

If You Think Cartoons Are Just for Kids (Level: Easy): The Tale of Princess Kaguya

If you thought that all of Studio Ghibli's films look the same or sound the same, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is here to prove you wrong. A ravishing work of art, no animated movie looks or feels like Princess Kaguya, which takes its visual inspiration from Japanese woodblock prints and tells a tale of heartbreak and loss as tragic as the folk tale upon which it's based.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya follows a poor bamboo cutter and his wife who discover a tiny girl hidden within a stalk of bamboo. Soon, untold riches follow the tiny girl from the bamboo stalks, and the cutter and his wife realize that the girl must be a princess. Using the riches, they raise the girl — who has rapidly transformed into a beautiful young woman — as the nobility they see her as, taking her to the city and ripping her away from the lovely rural life she had come to know. Tales of the girl's beauty soon spread across the land and dozens of suitors arrive to win the Princess Kaguya's heart, which only belongs to her cozy home in the countryside and a boy who was kind to her there. Intensely beautiful and heartbreaking, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is representative of the envelope-pushing, deeply imaginative work that director Isao Takahata did as the other, lesser-appreciated pillar of Studio Ghibli. Takahata's final masterpiece before he passed away, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is not only his crowning glory, but Ghibli's.Where to Stream: HBO MaxWhat to Watch Next: The Wind Rises, Howl's Moving Castle.

If You Think Cartoons Are Just for Kids (Level: Advanced): Grave of the Fireflies

Oh yeah, you think cartoons are for kids, huh? Well take this  — one of the most devastating films to ever be released, animated or not. Directed by Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies is bleak tragedy at its finest, and Studio Ghibli at its most challenging. Grave of the Fireflies is the first time the studio would tread into the real-world events that left a scar in Japan's national consciousness (Miyazaki would most recently with The Wind Rises), and it resulted in the most shattering film in the studio's filmography.

Based on the 1967 semi-autobiographical short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka, Grave of the Fireflies follows two siblings toward the end of World War II, who are orphaned after their mother dies in an air raid. Sent to live with their aunt's family, the young brother and sister, Seita and Setsuko, find themselves to be treated like unwanted pests. With tensions rising in the household because of shrinking rations, the two decide to live on their own and move into an abandoned bomb shelter. At first delighted to live as they want and play with the surrounding fireflies, Seita and Setsuko begin to struggle to survive. A heartbreaking ode to the fleeting nature of life and a ghastly depiction of the horrors of war, Grave of the Fireflies is a profoundly haunting, painfully tragic anti-war film.

Where to Stream: HuluWhat to Watch Next: Good god, anything lighthearted to bring you out of the abyss that this movie dragged you into. Luckily, My Neighbor Totoro is the unofficial companion piece to this film that will do just the trick.