Love Disney? Try these glorious Japanese animations you might not have heard of

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Words: Keyan Milanian

Before Merida, before Moana and before newly feminist Belle, there was Kiki the entrepreneurial witch and her sassy, sarcastic black cat, Jiji. Animated film Kiki’s Delivery Service came out in 1989, the same year as Disney’s The Little Mermaid. But while Ariel was begging her father to be allowed to marry a human prince, Kiki was waving goodbye to her family, opening her own business and, eventually, making good in a strange town.

There’s no denying Disney has been producing incredible work for almost a century, but for more than 30 years now, Studio Ghibli and its co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, sometimes referred to as ‘Japan’s godfather of animation’, have been creating inspirational female characters, enchanting storylines and beautiful artwork for their own magical feature films.

In 2003, Ghibli’s Spirited Away won an Oscar for best animated film, helping to bring the studio’s work to a wider Western audience, but many of the company’s releases remain relatively unknown outside Japan. Here, we match a few Disney favourites with Ghibli films for you to try.

If you like… Alice in Wonderland

Try… Spirited Away

Perhaps Studio Ghibli’s most famous film, Spirited Away is a modern coming-of-age classic that brought the film company huge exposure after landing an Oscar in 2003. Ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents accidentally wander into an alternate universe where her parents are cursed and turned into pigs. She begins working in a traditional bath house where she helps scrub down weird and wonderful creatures and must discover how to save her parents while being cursed herself. Chihiro, like Alice, is both brave and vulnerable but, helped by friends, eventually navigates her way out of a seemingly impossible challenge. A great entry into the woman-loving, often wacky, world of Ghibli.

If you like… Mulan

Try… Princess Mononoke

One of Ghibli’s more serious films (check ahead if you have younger viewers), Princess Mononoke revolves around the battle and balance between mankind and nature, a favourite theme of the studio. San, aka Princess Mononoke, is adopted by a family of wolves and helps them tear apart the humans intent on destroying the forest in which they live. Kickass San is a raw-meat-eating, knife-brandishing, bloodthirsty, not-in-the-least-interested-in-men young woman who becomes vital to a life-or-death mission to save the planet.

If you like… The Little Mermaid

Try… Ponyo

Based on the same classic story as The Little Mermaid, Ponyo is another semi-coming-of-age feature about a young girl finding her feet (literally, she’s a fish before drinking a magic elixir that helps her sprout legs and arms) and making a break for independence. At times frankly ‘they must have been on something’ weird, it tells how Brunhilde/Ponyo, the daughter of a wizard who lives underwater, escapes his overbearing and overprotective grasp (she’s kept in a tank with her other sisters) and becomes best friends with a young boy. OK, so there’s no Sebastian or brushing of hair with a fork, but what it lacks in singing crabs it makes up for in tsunamis, fish-riding and giant watery sea goddesses.

If you like… Snow White

Try… Howl’s Moving Castle

Like Snow White, Sophie (a young hat-maker) has her life changed dramatically as a result of a jealous older woman – the infamous Witch of the Waste in Sophie’s case – who curses her by turning her into a 90-year-old. Similarly, Sophie ends up looking after a bunch of sometimes childish blokes (Howl throws a strop at one stage because he thinks he’s ugly) in an unconventional home and has to bring order to a chaotic household. Unlike Snow White, Sophie controls her own destiny as she becomes pivotal to a civil war and discovers the secret to Howl’s curse and her own. It’s based on a book by British author Diana Wynne Jones.

If you like… Brave

Try… The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Quite unlike the majority of Ghibli features in style, Kaguya is a beautiful, artwork-like film based on a 10th-century Japanese fairy tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. In it, a poor, childless couple living in the countryside stumble on a mysterious princess growing inside a piece of bamboo. Later, her parents find gold in the same way, become rich and decide to move to the city to find their adopted daughter a husband grand enough to match her celestial background. However, like Merida in Brave, Kaguya prefers not to stand on ceremony and would rather break with tradition. Bring tissues for this one – you’ll probably need them.

If you like… Finding Dory

Try… When Marnie Was There

Identity, and our search for it, is a theme much discussed in both Disney and Ghibli films and Marnie is no different. Anna Sasaki is a 12-year-old foster child sent to a seaside town to recover from a serious asthma attack. While there, she meets Marnie and the two strike up a strong bond. A tale of sisterhood and self-discovery, Anna’s friendship with Marnie is pure and strong and the film is a beautiful commentary on self-doubt and how friends can help us through it.

If you like… Frozen

Try… My Neighbour Totoro

Satsuki and little sister Mei make some rather unorthodox friends in one of Ghibli’s most recognisable films. Yes, it’s a very different film to FrozenTotoro is another where you could easily imagine the writers might have been smoking some funny-smelling cigarettes (there’s a bus that’s a cat and a pretty far-out dance sequence Bob’s Burgers later paid homage to) – but at the root of it is the love between sisters and how that love helps them through tough times (along with some unusual, magical pals). Sound familiar?

If you like… Up

Try… Grave of the Fireflies

Ghibli and Disney don’t generally do sad or tragic films, but these two are up there. While Up had audiences in tears in the first 10 minutes alone, referencing infertility and centring around the loss of a much-loved wife, the tragic Fireflies is set during the Second World War and revolves around a young man’s attempts to keep him and his little sister from starvation during the last days of the conflict. Like Up, there are both funny and hugely sad turns, but while Up pretty much reserves all the feels for the intro, Fireflies really puts you through the wringer throughout. Definitely not one for the faint-hearted.

If you like… Peter Pan

Try… Laputa: Castle in the Sky

In Ghibli’s first feature film, released in 1986, heroine Sheeta unknowingly holds the key to a vast and mysterious castle that floats in the sky surrounded by clouds. Like Peter and Wendy, Sheeta and Pazu work together and manage to solve the film’s central riddle (the castle’s ancient secrets) and fight off the bad guys in a fantastical and other-worldly setting.

If you like… The Fox and the Hound

Try… Arrietty

Both stories of unconventional friendships, Arrietty was influenced by The Borrowers while The Fox and the Hound was loosely based on the novel of the same name. The Ghibli film tells the story of a sickly boy, Sho, who befriends the tiny but brave Arrietty. Both friendships are tested through conflict as a result of their non-traditional connections, and both tales find the friends forced to make big decisions over their relationship.

Main image: Rex