Top 10 Times Studio Ghibli Movies Tackled Serious Issues
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Top 10 Times Studio Ghibli Movies Tackled Serious Issues

VOICE OVER: Samantha Clinch WRITTEN BY: B Stevenson
Studio Ghibli has tackled a lot of serious issues. For this list, we'll be looking at times films released by the Japanese animation studio addressed heavy or poignant themes. Our countdown includes “Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Grave of the Fireflies,” and more!

Top 10 Times Studio Ghibli Movies Tackled Serious Issues

Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Times Studio Ghibli Movies Tackled Serious Issues.

For this list, we’ll be looking at times films released by the Japanese animation studio addressed heavy or poignant themes. Since we’ll be revealing some crucial plot points, we are issuing a SPOILER ALERT.

Which of these moments got REALLY real? Let us know in the comments below!

#10: The Great Kantō Earthquake
“The Wind Rises” (2013)

This film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki combines elements of fiction with true events from the life of aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi. While taking a train on his way to university, Jiro is caught in the real-life earthquake that struck Japan in the year 1923. Over 100,000 people are estimated to have perished in the quake, and it brought about the annual Disaster Prevention Day that is still observed in the present. The scene is relatively brief, but it captures the sudden devastation that seismic events cause. It’s one of the most serious moments in a film that doesn’t shy away from heavy topics, including the loss of Jiro’s fiancée.

#9: The Complexities of Parenting
“When Marnie Was There” (2014)

Raising kids can be hard on even the best parents. This flick explores the difficult relationships that can arise between children and their elders thanks to some creative narrative choices. While staying with her foster mother’s family in the countryside, Anna struggles with issues of abandonment and belonging. While she feels grief for her unknown biological parents, she worries that her guardians don’t really love her. Things only get more complex once she meets a girl Marnie, whom she eventually realizes is the spirit of her deceased grandmother. As it turns out, while Marnie was estranged from her daughter Emily, she raised a young Anna after Emily’s death. Anna certainly finds out some tough information about her history, but she’s all the better for it.

#8: Cultural Changes
“Spirited Away” (2001)

Chihiro is a girl suffering from oblivious parents in this Academy Award-winning movie. After they’re both transformed into pigs, she must rescue them and recover her own stolen name. With a memorable scene involving a polluted water spirit, there are clearly environmental issues at play. But critics and fans have also speculated about the relationship between themes of greed and the Western cultural references in the film. Some believe that “Spirited Away” highlights a tension between traditional Japanese culture and capitalist influences from the West. This can arguably be seen in Yubaba’s possessions and attitude towards money, as well as those of Chihiro’s parents themselves. Although this analysis is subjective, there’s no question that “Spirited Away” is concerned with matters of consumerism and lost identity.

#7: The Tanuki Lose Their Habitat
“Pom Poko” (1994)

Any Ghibli fan knows that the studio often concerns itself with environmental themes. This Isao Takahata-directed feature is no exception, focusing on a clan of Japanese raccoon dogs being displaced by human development. The tanuki put their mystical abilities to good use in myriad attempts to prevent further habitat destruction. Unfortunately, though, they aren’t entirely successful. Even though it’s an animated film about animals, this mature film contains several dark moments that remind us of the severity of the issue at hand. In fact, in the film’s final scene, one character looks into the camera and urges the audience to take action towards conservation.

#6: Chronic Illness
“My Neighbor Totoro” (1988)

As a young child, it can be difficult to understand complex health matters. But it isn’t hard to feel the emotional toll these can take on a family. This beloved fantasy film explores these issues with sensitivity and heart. After moving closer to their mother, who is undergoing long-term treatment for an illness, two young girls befriend the neighboring spirits. Despite this new source of excitement in their lives, their mother’s unstable condition proves to be an understandable source of stress. It leads to conflict between Satsuki and Mei, and even a brief disappearance on the latter’s part. Some have speculated that this theme is autobiographical, since Hayao Miyazaki’s mother spent several years in hospital battling chronic illness during his childhood.

#5: Themes of Pacifism
“Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004)

Finding herself suddenly cursed, milliner Sophie moves in with Howl, a wizard conscripted by the King to battle a nearby nation. Although he desperately attempts to avoid recruitment, we later find out that he has been meddling in the fighting on his own terms. In one sense, we see the trauma that this involvement inflicts on Howl. In another, the conflict turns out to be unnecessary in the end. The prince whose disappearance spurred the struggle is revealed to have been Sophie’s scarecrow companion, suffering from a curse much like her own. “Howl’s Moving Castle” is thought to be partly inspired by Miyazaki’s perspective on the 2003 Iraq War. Ultimately, it takes multiple approaches to criticize state conflict and to communicate a pacifist message.

#4: References to the U.K. Miners’ Strike
“Castle in the Sky” (1986)

The influence of mid-eighties U.K. politics on this fantasy adventure film are numerous. In fact, director Hayao Miyazaki took multiple trips to South Wales around the time of the political conflict. He admitted to “The Guardian” that these travels had a direct influence on “Castle in the Sky” and its miner characters. One of the film’s main characters, Pazu, lives in a mining town full of pitmen who are anything but weak. And they prove to be invaluable allies once Pazu and his friend Sheeta are in need of help. With the pirate Captain Dola and her henchmen on their tail, who knows what the protagonists’ fate would have been if not for Duffi and his neighbors.

#3: The Consequences of Technological Advancement
“Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (1984)

Taking place long after a human-induced event of apocalyptic proportions, this acclaimed film is a cautionary tale to say the least. In the wake of a massive war called the Seven Days of Fire, the land has become a toxic and dangerous place filled with strange plants and scary critters. And what enabled the conflict? Giant Warriors: massive, bipedal beings that are the stuff of nightmares. Through a dramatic narrative, the film weaves together issues of climate change, weapons of mass destruction, and artificial intelligence. The message it gets across is that humans need to be mindful of what our technological inventions bode for societies and the environment.

#2: War Tears a Family Apart
“Grave of the Fireflies” (1988)

In a catalogue that rarely shies away from darkness, this may be Studio Ghibli’s most devastating film of all. Seita and Setsuko are two siblings living in Kobe, a city struck by a firebombing during World War II. It’s hard enough to witness the children being orphaned by the strike. But they face abuse by a relative meant to be sheltering them, and after setting out on their own eventually succumb to starvation. Although the film’s director has opined that “Grave of the Fireflies” is not an anti-war film, its depictions of trauma and suffering speak for themselves. Whether tackling the loss of a sibling or the plight of being unhoused, it viscerally speaks to the effects of war on everyday people’s lives.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

Ocean Pollution, “Ponyo” (2008)
This “The Little Mermaid” Adaptation Spotlights Waste in the Ocean and Fishing Practices

The Dangers of All-Powerful Weapons, “Castle in the Sky” (1986)
The Titular Castle Contains a Precious Material With Atomic Capabilities

Preserving Cultural Institutions, “From Up on Poppy Hill” (2011)
A High Schooler Lobbies to Save an Old Clubhouse from Demolition

Gender Roles, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” (2013)
A Moon Spirited Adopted by a Mortal Family Finds Her Life Restrictive & Unfulfilling

#1: Iron Town’s Battle for Resources
“Princess Mononoke” (1997)

This movie follows Prince Ashitaka, a member of an Emishi community who is attacked by a boar god poisoned by iron. His journey to discover the origin of the sickness leads him to Iron Town, an urban development at war with the neighboring communities and spirits. While its leader Lady Eboshi has authorized harmful deforestation and resource extraction, her settlement provides a home and employment for marginalized people. The conflict is disturbing yet ethically complex to say the least. For communicating its message through a thoughtful story and tying it to simply unforgettable visuals, “Princess Mononoke” has to be our top pick.