Six Live Action Movies For Fans Of Studio Ghibli

Jul 20, 2020
Studio Ghibli characters

The animated films of Hayao Miyazaki and his renowned production company, Studio Ghibli, have amazed and entertained us for decades. Always imaginative, they're imbued with heart and reflections on humanity’s relationship with one another and the natural world. Although they may not have the beautiful style of the animated Ghibli filmography, there are many non-animated films that invoke the same feelings. As the PCG's most devoted Miyazaki fan, I've picked my favourite 'Ghibli-esque' live-action movies.

Image of Christian Bale as a little boy standing above the crown holding a toy plane

Empire Of The Sun (1987) 
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical account of his time living in Japan in the latter days of World War II is filled with tropes also found in many of Studio Ghibli films. A child split from a family member (see Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro), aviation (Porco Rosso, The Wind Rises) and the horrors of war (Grave Of The Fireflies). In his debut film role, Christian Bale deftly portrays Jamie ‘Jim’ Graham as a wide eyed adventurer initially oblivious to the toll of war happening around him, an unwitting documentarian of Japan’s fate.

Mija offers the super pig a piece of fruit

Okja (2017) 
Eco-friendly messages can be found in most of Miyzaki’s works and, by association, Ghibli’s oeuvre as well. It's a quality that also runs deep in Bong Joon-ho’s Netflix-produced Okja. An eco-friendly message is delivered by larger than life caricatures, especially in Jake Gyllenhaal’s Johnny Wilcox and the youthful Animal Liberation Front members. The initial liberation of the titular super pig reminds one of the chase scenes from The Castle Of Cagliostro, all angular limbs and ridiculous stunts. Mija’s friendship with Okja resembles that of Satsuki and the giant spirit in My Neighbour Totoro as they play innocently through the forests of South Korea unaware of the fate that awaits them.

Horned Pan

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Albeit a much darker and more violent film, there are similarities between this and many Ghibli films. Guillermo Del Toro is a confirmed fan of Miyazaki and, like many of the Japanese auteur's films, the spectre of conflict hangs thick in the air as a young girl tries to comprehend the world of adults as the Spanish Civil War rages. She finds refuge in a fairy tale that prophecises the return of Princess Moanna, the daughter of the Lord the Underworld. Like Spirited Away, it is a story about fantastical creatures tempting a girl away from the troubles of the real world, only for her to find that not all is what it seems in both these strange and sometimes horrifying lands.

Image of girl touch face of a statue

The Secret Garden (1993)
Any one of the numerous adaptations of Frances Hodgson Burnett novel could be included here. Like so many Ghibli films, both the book and the film versions deal with an orphaned girl finding a hidden place filled with magic. This allows her to escape from the monotony of the world her strict uncle has instigated in his house. This particular version of the story may not be as visually striking as the 2020 release directed by Marc Munden but in its simple, real world and practical way it more effectively conveys the message that it doesn’t always take magic to solve our problems.

Mad scientists

The City Of Lost Children (1995)
There are a number of Jean-Pierre Jeunet directed films that have similarities to Miyazaki’s stories, such as the fantasy world of Amelie and the WWII setting of A Very Long Engagement. The highest number of parallels can be found in The City Of Lost Children. The difference between those other Jeunet outings and this may be the off-centre sensibilities of long time collaborator Marc Caro. It is a fantastical caper that in other hands it would be a less inspiring children's film. Here it is an unsettling tale populated with strange and grotesque characters that are brought to life by a cast that includes Dominique Pinon and Ron Perlman.

Man in foreground looks back at a series of watermills

Dreams (1990)
Also known more commonly as Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, this is a visual feast as the legendary Japanese director brings eight vignettes based on his actual recurring dreams. Spanning the past, present and future as it was in the early 1990s  there are several segments that bring the vibrant wonder of Miyazaki’s Japan to the live-action realm. Take the segment entitled Village Of The Watermill for example: it is a short film befitting any slice of life anime. Of course Kurosawa had been helming films long before Studio Ghibli's inception, with masterpieces like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo to his name, but with Dreams he created one of the most tantalising visual feasts ever committed to celluloid.

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This is only scratching the surface of films that share the Studio Ghibli characteristic attention to visual imagination and invention. From The Goonies to Dr. No, one can find similarities everywhere, due not in small part to the fact that these classic animations don't sit removed from filmic history but are instead steeped in it, being influenced by as well as influencing many filmmakers. With the studio still going strong I cannot wait to see what impact they will have on the future of the movie industry. 

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