Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening friends! What do you think of Varian’s costume of San from Princess Mononoke? Princess Mononoke is perhaps my favourite Ghibli film of all time; it’s a beautiful story with powerful themes and compelling characters, especially San, the human girl raised by wolves.
In case you’re new to the Pond’s recommendation posts, the recommendation posts are brought to you by Varian, the Pond’s very own Toadshifter who is knowledgeable in all kinds of magic! One of Varian’s ambitions is to get better at sewing, hence why whenever Varian has shown you their latest costume, they will always recommend a book that inspired that costume.
As you might have already guessed, today’s book recommendations theme is ‘Studio Ghibli’. I have been rewatching them lately, and their movies fill me with so much joy and hope – kind of like what I want to achieve with The Pond. I wanted to recommend some wonderful books based on my five favourite Ghibli films.
Ghibli films occupy a special place in my heart; I love the themes, the music, the characters, the gorgeously rendered animation, and all the wonderful stories that have stayed with me – and I expect will stay with me for as long as I will live. Therefore, for each movie I recommend two books that I think have similar themes, characters, or share ‘that thing’ that makes the movie and book so special to me. (And that’s why Varian is dressed up as San from Princess Mononoke! Varian loved the film, and they think that San is the coolest wolf-human warrior. They absolutely had to dress up as her.)
Without further ado, here are my five favourite Ghibli films, as well as some book recommendations! I hope you all enjoy this post.
Princess Mononoke is about a prince, cursed following an encounter with a boar god, who journeys away from his village to find the curse’s origin. He gets caught in a struggle between humans and gods, and meets the human daughter of a wolf goddess, San. It has a powerful message about how precious our earth and nature are, the impact of industrialisation, peace, and the complexity of humanity.
THE BEAST PLAYER BY NAHOKO UEHASHI
People who have read The Beast Player will tell you that this book is reminiscent of Ghibli-esque fantasies. The story follows Elin, a girl with the power to talk to magical beasts; a power that puts her at immense risk, but also may mean that only she can stop the wars fought with fierce beasts.
- Princess Mononoke and The Beast Player both have incredible and immersive worldbuilding – both worlds are vivid, atmospheric, but also are centered on incredible and magical beasts and how they are caught in wars between humans.
- Both have themes about nature, the responsibility we have to the world that we live in and share with others, and how our lives are intertwined with theirs in ways we cannot imagine.
- Both stories center on strong and young female characters who defy expectations, navigate a complex and confusing world, and being brave to do what is right.
THE POPPY WAR BY R.F. KUANG
Action. Gods. War. If you loved these things about Princess Mononoke, then you can’t go wrong with The Poppy War, a fantasy/historical novel about a war orphan who gets into an elite military school, setting her on a path of destruction, revenge, and entanglement with the gods.
- Princess Mononoke and The Poppy War were both based on historical periods – the former during the Muromachi period in Japan, and the latter set during the Sino-Japanese War.
- For all its beauty, Princess Mononoke is still graphic, brutal, and unflinching in its portrayal of the war. The Poppy War is certainly no different.
- Gods and spirits both play a significant role in Princess Mononoke and The Poppy War – though perhaps the gods in The Poppy War have more sinister motivations.
I remember watching this in the cinemas 15 years ago, and I’ve never stopped loving it since. It follows a young girl by the name of Chihiro, whose parents turn into pigs after accidentally stumbling into a world of spirits. In order to stay alive and rescue her parents, she finds work at a bathhouse for spirits, makes friends that she will never forget, and journeys across the spirit world to save her friend. It’s a wonderful story about friendship, identity, courage, and the blurred line between good and bad.
DARIUS THE GREAT IS NOT OKAY BY ADIB KHORRAM
Hear me out: even though Darius the Great Is Not Okay is far from fantasy, the themes are, unexpectedly, very similar. Darius the Great Is Not Okay follows biracial teen Darius and his family trip to Iran, wherein he meets his extended family for the first time and befriends Sohrab.
- Both Chihiro and Darius venture into worlds unknown to them – for Chihiro, it is adulthood and the spirit world, and for Darius, it is Iran – and both come out stronger and changed at the end.
- Consequently, both navigate and struggle with their identities, and learn that sometimes people who they believe are good may do and say bad things – and it still doesn’t make them bad people.
- Both explore and emphasise the power and importance of friendship, and how people shape who you are and who you become.
GIRLS OF PAPER AND FIRE BY NATASHA NGAN
One of the most wonderful things about Spirited Away is its themes and the worldbuilding – and I couldn’t help but think that Girls of Paper and Fire, though grimmer and heavier than Spirited Away, have some parallels.
- Girls of Paper and Fire is set in a world where demons are of higher caste than humans – and humans are definitely looked down upon in the spirit world in Spirited Away.
- A significant theme in both Girls of Paper and Fire and Spirited Away is identity and autonomy, and not losing yourself in a place that is trying to steal your sense of who you are.
- Though done in different ways, both Lei and Chihiro resist and fight back through love: for Lei, by falling in love with a Paper Girl, and for Chihiro, by making lasting friendships and saving her friend, Haku.
WHISPER OF THE HEART
I adore this film and it is probably one of my favourite romances ever. It follows young teen Shizuku, who is a bit of a bookworm, has her head in the clouds most of the time, and wants to be a writer. She’s a little different to her family, who are pragmatic, ambitious, and focused. Chance leads her to meet an aspiring violin-maker, and the story that unfolds is beautiful, poignant, and so full of hope. It captures how terrifying it is to follow your dreams, of love, hope, and determination. (For my friends who have watched it, please enjoy this video!)
FINAL DRAFT BY RILEY REDGATE
For the longest time, I hadn’t read a book that captured the powerful emotions that Shizuku felt; I felt Shizuku’s feelings so deeply, and I could never really understand why. Until I read Final Draft – which I think is a book that understands both Shizuku and I.
- Final Draft brilliantly captures the burning desire and ambition to write, to create something that is meaningful and complete – a feeling that Shizuku feels across the movie. Both stories are about ambition, dreams, and feeling the need to prove oneself.
- Both Shizuku and Laila, from Final Draft, are incredibly imaginative, and this is a core part of their identities and their storytelling.
- Both Final Draft and Whisper of the Heart are powerful, quiet coming-of-age dramas that explore the mundane moments in life, the beauty of it, and also the wonders and tenderness of love.
THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR BY NICOLA YOON
Goodness, I loved The Sun Is Also A Star – for its whimsy, its exploration of improbability, and the strange nature of duality. The Sun Is Also A Star follows Natasha and Daniel who, under (extra)ordinary circumstances, meet, grow, break apart, and fall in love — all in the space of a day.
- Both The Sun Is Also A Star and Whisper of the Heart explores the dualities of life – success/failure, reality/imagination, hope/despair.
- Though The Sun Is Also A Star explores this through Natasha and Daniel’s relationship, these dualities are explored through Shizuku’s pursuit of her dream and the oppressive possibility of failure.
- In both stories, chance and destiny are an important part of the story; as chance leads the characters to the turning points of their lives.
- Both are about taking chances, about loving fiercely and vulnerably.
KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE
I recently rewatched this and I loved it even more. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a wonderful coming-of-age movie about a young witch, Kiki, who moves to a new town to establish herself as the town’s witch. There, she starts to grow roots, makes friends, but also experiences the ups and downs of independence and change. I loved this movie for its subtle and powerful perspective that centers on young teens, especially girls, their personal journeys, and finding their place in the world.
FRONT DESK BY KELLY YANG
Kiki’s Delivery Service vulnerable and honest narrative really reminded me of Front Desk, a middle-grade book about ten-year old Mia who manages the front desk of a motel while her parents clean the rooms.
- Both Front Desk and Kiki’s Delivery Service center on girls going through a challenging and significant change in their lives.
- Importantly, Front Desk and Kiki’s Delivery Service underscores the quiet strength of youth, and also how they don’t succeed alone – but with the support of the people that love and believe in them.
- Both examine how terrifying but empowering new-found independence can be, and candidly shows that it’s okay to be scared, but it is also important to be brave and do your best.
AMINA’S VOICE BY HENA KHAN
Watching Kiki’s Delivery Service was empowering, and reading Amina’s Voice made me feel empowered too. Amina’s Voice is another lovely middle-grade book about Amina, who goes through immense changes such as starting middle school and changes within the family, and is about growing up, change, and faith.
- As mentioned earlier, Amina’s Voice and Kiki’s Delivery Service share a common theme in young people navigating the new and significant changes in their lives and ups and downs that come with it.
- I love both for their quiet explorations of struggling to navigate these changes in their lives and how it isn’t always a ‘big’ thing that gets us down, but many small mundane things that still mean a whole lot.
- Both have narratives that are utterly charming, honest, and ultimately wonderful that emphasise the power and importance of supportive friends.
THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA
Kaguya is often forgotten when we think about Ghibli films, but this remains to be one of the most poignant and most moving films I’ve ever watched (while I’m writing this, I’m tearing up a little just thinking about it. Kaguya is a retelling of the The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, and follows a little girl who is found in a glowing bamboo shoot alongside gold and fine cloth. Believing her to be a princess, the bamboo cutter and his wife raise her to be a noblewoman. This is such an incredible and heart-aching story about the beauty and pain of life, love, and the constrains and expectations of being a young woman. (Okay, I am full on sobbing while writing this post now. But seriously, watch this movie.)
THE POET X BY ELIZABETH ACEVEDO
Though The Poet X may not be fantasy and explores real-life issues and teen problems, I can’t help but see so many parallels in The Tale of The Princess Kaguya and The Poet X – a story Xiomara, a Dominican teen who wrestles with growing up, navigating the world as a young woman, and also coming in conflict with her religious mother.
- Both Kaguya and The Poet X are about two young girls who have to come to terms with their world and society; navigating familial expectations, societal and patriarchal expectations and pressures.
- The stories explore how both Xiomara and Kaguya want and crave independence from patriarchal institutions, and how they both just want to be free to live a life that gives them joy.
- Both The Poet X and Kaguya are told in uncommon but beautiful ways that fit their stories and their emotional journeys. The Poet X is told entirely in verse, befitting of Xiomara’s passion for the spoken word, and the art style in Kaguya is unique and breathtaking, and fits the magical and celestial elements of the story.
LAURINDA BY ALICE PUNG
My second recommendation based on Kaguya is, again, not a fantasy but a contemporary – and yet they both have quite a few themes in common. Laurinda is one of my favourite books – a book I don’t often talk about – and follows Lucy, a Vietnamese-Chinese teen who is admitted to a rich school and has to wrestle with the machinations of classism, privilege, propriety, and the expectations of being in a private school.
- One of the strongest parallels between Laurinda and Kaguya is that both girls, Lucy and Kaguya, feel conflict between two identities and two lives – how they ‘ought’ to act in the presence of others versus who they truly are and want to be.
- Though Laurinda is more comedic whilst Kaguya is more sombre, both stories explores, satirises and criticises the strange and unusual standards of propriety and classism.
- At its heart, both stories are about two teenage girls exploring and resolving the conflict that they feel – decorum or carefree joy? obedience or authenticity? careful propriety or living a life that embraces both love and pain? – in order to survive the complex worlds they’ve found themselves in.
Ghibli films are truly special and are so important to me, so I wanted to dedicate a book recommendation post to their films. If you haven’t watched any Ghibli films, I highly recommend the ones above – and I promise there’s a film for everyone. I also hope that you have found a new book that you might want to read.
- Have you watched any of the films or books mentioned above? If so, which ones and what did you think of them?
- What is your favourite Ghibli film of all time? (If you haven’t watched any, what would you be interested in watching?)
- If you could recommend a book based on a Ghibli film, what would the book be?
- Do you like Varian’s costume of San from Princess Mononoke? 😘