Animations have rarely enjoyed the kind of popularity and critical acclaim they have under the banner of Studio Ghibli. But what is it exactly about this studio that allows them to enjoy success on all fronts, and globally at that? There’s not just one thing, but several. Be it the attention to detail that’s visible in every scene or the fact that both children and adults can resonate with the stories.
Studio Ghibli Books – Inspiration For The Anime Films!
Their stories have enough for everyone to enjoy something or the other while often containing universal themes, from climate change to the destruction wars cause. There’s also the matter of creating an immersive landscape, with all the little components (the lively animation, the unique and relatable characters, the soothing and joyous soundtrack, the emphasis on stillness, on nature) coming together to present a sensory experience that you can’t help but drown in.
But there’s also the matter of their stories, often adapted from other books or pieces of local cultures. Even books that aren’t derived from one specific work have undertones and thematic similarities with other books. For instance, Spirited Away shares loose similarities with Alice in Wonderland, and several characters and symbols in Princess Mononoke are derived from Daijiro Morohoshi’s Mudmen manga. In today’s article, we’re going to look at some wonderful books that were officially adapted by Studio Ghibli to create properties loved globally now. I’m sure you’ll find some expected and the occasional unexpected entry in here too!
1. The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen (Ponyo)
Remember The Little Mermaid? If you know the character, there’s a huge probability you know her from the Disney adaptation, but strap back for an adaptation that’s set in Japan and is one of the happiest movies you might have ever seen. Directed by Miyazaki, Ponyo is the story of a little boy living alone with his mother in a port town who finds a fish by the seashore one day.
With themes of environmentalism and love forming the crux of the movie, the visually delightful piece works for both younger and older audiences, as is the case with most Ghibli movies. While the original story had a more traditional set of characters (with the mermaid falling in love with the prince), as is the case with the Disney adaptation, the Ghibli movie adds a lot more innocence and simplicity to it. Oh, while setting it in a Japanese locale! And the end product is something truly stellar, a work of art. You can get the book here! 📖
2. The Bamboo-Cutter and the Moon-Child – A Japanese Folk Tale (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya)
A popular Japanese folktale, this story was adapted by Isao Takahata in the most perfect manner possible. The movie is my all-time favorite motion picture of all time, and I reckon it’s going to be the same way for a long time. And what’s not there to love here? The background score is meditative, the animation is hand-drawn with gorgeous watercolor paintings that flow into each other seamlessly, the story is imbued with Eastern philosophy, and concepts of feminism and personal liberation are some of the many themes explored throughout the story.
Oh, did I tell you that the movie is rated 100% on Rotten Tomatoes? If that’s not reason enough to watch this masterpiece, I don’t know what is. In the story, a bamboo cutter finds a princess inside the stalk of a young bamboo plant one day. She’s anything but normal, and what follows afterward propels the story forward. You can get the book here! 📖
3. The Borrowers by Mary Norton (Arrietty)
The first installment in a beloved series about the Clock family: a group of tiny people who call themselves the Borrowers. They live secretly from the world of humans and borrow things now and then for their survival. The main character in this book series is Arrietty, the titular character in the movie. The movie follows Arrietty as her world clashes with the world of a boy named Shō.
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the movie is visually refreshing, particularly how the entire world is often shown from the Borrowers’ perspective. The little things, such as the size of a sugar cube or a needle in the hands of Arrietty, flesh out their world beautifully, and it perfectly helps set up the world of the Borrowers to our eyes. There’s a calmness to the movie that helps bring to life the little moments that would otherwise go unnoticed. You can get the book here! 📖
4. When Marnie Was There by Joan G. Robinson
One of the few Ghibli pieces that are intended for older audiences more than their younger ones, When Marnie Was There, was adapted from a novel of the same name. A psychological thriller that borders on the edges of fantasy, the story follows Anna, a young girl who temporarily shifts to the countryside after getting ill and isolated from everyone in her vicinity. There she meets Marnie, and what follows changes her life forever.
Another dear favorite of mine, the movie is almost haunting in parts owing largely to its huge, sweeping landscapes and a gentle yet urgent background score. But what largely drives the narrative forward is an emotional love story, the heart of the movie and the story. This is another Yonebayashi film, and you can see, even more so here, how his animation style is visually distinct from other directors who’ve created Ghibli movies. You can get the book here! 📖
5. Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono
One of the most beloved movies and characters of the Studio Ghibli franchise, Kiki first featured in Kadono’s novel, which was followed by five sequels and two special editions. The book has also seen three musicals and a live adaptation being spawned out of it, outside of the acclaimed Ghibli adaptation. But why does the character enjoy such popularity, even after these many decades? Well, for one, there’s the obvious factor of magic, something we all crave, as readers and viewers.
But it’s not just that. The story is also a beautiful coming-of-age tale that innocently captures the struggles and confusion we face while facing the world on our own. The feminist tones of the story are handled perfectly, with a delicate balance between self-independence and dependence on those you love. As is usual with most Ghibli productions, the music and animation are vivid and captivating, providing yet another fulfilling cinematic experience. You can get the book here! 📖
6. The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin
You can safely skip this and the next one (if any) from the nine movies we talk about in this article. Why? We’ll talk about that in a bit. First, to speak of the book series that inspired the film, Earthsea (or The Earthsea Cycle) is a series of high-fantasy novels that contain several interspersed themes, from coming-of-age to finding your destiny and a cosmic balance. The old Eastern philosophy of Taoism is also present throughout these books, shaping the concepts of power and responsibility in these stories.
Why have I been talking about the books so much here? It’s because Gorō Miyazaki takes this complex series and turns it into something entirely different in his debut movie. The characters are there, and the broad storylines are there too somewhat, but the themes and deeper aspects of her world are sacrificed for a simpler portrayal that doesn’t work in the end. In Guin’s own words, the movie largely shifted the moral themes of the story and instead focused on physical violence, making it a tale of good vs. bad. You can get the book here! 📖
7. Earwig and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones
The only two Studio Ghibli movies that have more negative ratings than positive ones on Rotten Tomatoes are this and the previous entry. This, too, has been directed by Gorō Miyazaki and is the first computer-animated film created under the Studio Ghibli banner. Gone are the signature vivid landscapes accompanying the Ghibli movies or characters that viewers can relate to and fall in love with. Instead, we have CGI animations that take away all the expressions and life that are the core of these movies.
But don’t let any of it detract you from this wonderful book about a young orphan with a knack for adventures and fun named Earwig. Orphanages in stories are usually houses of horrors for our protagonists, but not Earwig. She does what she wants and makes others do what she wants as well. But when she’s whisked off by Bella Yaga, who poses as her foster parents, she’ll take the challenge of showing her who’s the one in charge here. Will she succeed? That’s for you to find out! You can get the book here! 📖
8. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Another Wynne Jones on the list, and why not? The themes and settings of her novels closely resemble many Ghibli productions, and her books have something for all ages to devour. The book follows a girl called Sophie, the eldest among three girls, in a world where magic and prophecies are a regular part and parcel of life. The first in a fantasy trilogy about finding your destiny and the courage to pursue it, the adaptation directed by Hayao Miyazaki brings to life Jones’ story gorgeously.
The movie also has an anti-war message at the heart of it, a deviation from the novel. It also has strong feminist themes, emphasizing love, life, and compassion. Miyazaki has also referred to the movie as being his favorite among all his creations because of its message that life is worth living in and through all of its complexities. The movie is the perfect example of Miyazaki’s magic making its way to the screen, with lush animation and emotional intensity. You can get the book here! 📖
9. The Wind Has Risen by Tatsuo Hori (The Wind Rises)
The novel, written back around 1936, revolves around our protagonist, who lives with his fiancée Setsuko, who’s diagnosed with tuberculosis. The book is considered to be semi-autobiographical and was one of the two primary inspirations behind Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, the other inspiration being Jori Horikoshi’s life and his invention of the zero fighter planes (which was chronicled in his book Eagles of Mitsubishi: The Story of the Zero Fighter). Combining these two sources, Miyazaki wrote a manga titled The Wind Rises, which was later adapted into the movie we discuss here.
Miyazaki takes liberties with Horikoshi’s life to add themes of human corruption, love, and a treatise against militarism. And therefore, you get a picturesque movie filled with imagination and wonders of modern science and how our selfishness only leads to the ruin of it all. The music and the serene writing help drive the message even more subtly and effectively. You can get the book here! 📖
10. How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino
And now, for our last entry in this list, we have a movie that’s yet to be released but is officially slated to come out mid-2023, directed by none other than Hayao Miyazaki himself. The novel by Yoshino is Miyazaki’s favorite childhood book, as has been mentioned by the legendary director himself, while also being an inspiration to many of his movies over the years. The book is a simple story about a 15-year-old boy and what it means to be human.
The book is about finding your place in this cruel world and the trials and tribulations that come with it. Philosophical in its approach, the book is loved and cherished by millions of readers across the globe. The book is reportedly going to play a vital role in the life of our protagonist in Miyazaki’s movie, which is going to be a “big fantastical film.” The movie might be Miyazaki’s last movie after his last stint, which was directing The Wind Rises. You can get the book here! 📖
These are the books which inspired the popular Studio Ghibli Japanese anime movies. You can watch/download some of these movies online on Netflix and other OTT platforms as well. Let us know in the comments which is your favorite book!
Part-time freelance writer, full-time chemistry graduate student, Amritesh loves everything books. Gift him a book if you chance upon him, and he’ll love you forever.