The Feature Films of Studio Ghibli
Studio Ghibli is an animation studio sometimes referred to as the “Disney of Japan”. This is despite the fact that Ghibli’s movies are actually good and not filled with racism and sexism. For this article I will focus on their twenty-two feature length films, dividing them into four tiers.
Tier 1 is the best of the best. The greatest films Ghibli have made in their decades as a studio. Tier 2 are still must watch. If you have even a passing interest in animation or good filmmaking you should almost certainly watch these films as well. Tier 3 is still worth your time. These films are a mixed bag but still hold a lot of value. Tier 4 is for hardcore fans only. Completists will still need to watch these movies but I wouldn’t go out of your way otherwise.
Studio Ghibli has had two main directors throughout its history. There is Hayao Miyazaki in the grumpy old man role along with the slightly older and slightly less grumpy Isao Takahata. Together with producer Toshio Suzuki they officially founded Ghibli in 1985. Let’s see what they have created since then!
Tier 1: Best of the Best
Probably the Ghibli movie I’ve seen the most. An epic fantasy tale that is just small enough to fit into a single film. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki with a beautiful sweeping score by Joe Hisaishi, this is perhaps Ghibli’s finest hour. Portraying a complex moral scenario dealing with the environment and how those with different needs have to live with each other could not have been easy, but Miyazaki pulled it off.
Miyazaki’s take on “The Little Mermaid” is 99% perfect. It raises the stakes unnecessarily at one point but other than that the film gets full marks from me. It aims a little younger than say, My Neighbor Totoro, but the story it tells should be simple so I’m not complaining!
Anime was a mistake – probably not Hayao Miyazaki
I don’t believe Miyazaki was thinking of works like Only Yesterday when that quote was misattributed to him. Set in 1966 and 1982 this movie follows Tako Okajima as she reminisces on times from her childhood while going on a trip from Tokyo to the countryside. It is animated in a more realistic style than Ghibli's usual fare although it has the occasional flourish. A beautiful film about a 27 year old woman coming to terms with herself.
Spirited Away is one of two anime to ever win an Oscar. It is about ten year old Chihiro who when moving to a new town away from all her friends accidentally gets trapped in a fantastical bathhouse that exists in the spirit world. One of Miyazaki’s most famous works and a great intro to anime for many non-fans.
Whisper of the Heart
I should mention the director of this film, Yoshifumi Kondo. The plan was for him to become a star Ghibli director before he died of an aneurysm in 1998 at age 47. An article on Anime News Network talks about a book by Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki in which it is said that Kondo’s death was due to overwork driven by the harsh working demands enforced by Isao Takahata.
Whisper of the Heart is a wonderful film. Focusing on junior high student and aspiring writer, Shizuku Tsukishima, this a film that does not talk down to its young protagonist but takes her struggles seriously. While not as well known around the world as My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away it deserves to be seen and appreciated.
Tier 2: Must Watch
Grave of the Fireflies
Perhaps the first piece of Ghibli media I ever laid eyes on. When I was in the third grade there was a Japanese exchange student at the local high school who would come and teach us kids all about Japan. This was awesome but I’m not entirely sure if parents at the time would have approved of her screening part of Grave of the Fireflies for us! I don’t remember being shown any especially traumatizing parts of the film so it all worked out.
Grave of the Fireflies is about two children trying to survive the various bombings of Japan at the end of World World II. It is brutal and sad and a necessary piece of media. On its initial release in 1988 it was a double feature with Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. My only thoughts on that fact is that I sincerely hope Totoro was shown first. Grave of the Fireflies is important viewing but make sure you are prepared for what you will be seeing.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Nausicaa is based on a manga written and drawn by the man himself. It tells the story of a princess fighting to save the world from apocalyptic ruin. Although not as interesting and coherent as the manga it is based on (to be fair the manga ran for long after the movie was released) it is still a great film. Although technically released before Studio Ghibli was officially founded there is no way I was not including this film!
Kiki's Delivery Service
A young witch leaves home to make it on her own. This film was based on a novel of the same name and was written, directed, and produced by Hayao Miyazaki. A classic movie about overcoming your self-doubts that is a real highlight of the Ghibli catalogue.
My Neighbor Totoro
Two young girls move to a new house with their father while their mother is in the hospital. A magical adventure ensues! A runaway merchandising success for the studio since its release and one of their most iconic films. There is no villain in this film nor should there be. I could tell you every happening in the movie right here and ruin nothing for you. Miyazaki has directed the rare film that is truly “all-ages”.
A classic but slightly less seen Miyazaki film about a fighter pilot who is turned into a pig. The titular Porco Rosso is a former Italian soldier who now works as a bounty hunter. Great characters and spectacular action abound in this aerial adventure.
When Marnie Was There
This is the story of a 12 year old girl who hates herself. Living in Sapporo with her foster parents, Anna Sasaki is sent away to the countryside to live with some relatives in order to recoup after an incident during school. It deals with so many themes that are unique to a Studio Ghibli film: depression, anxiety, hints of a same-sex relationship, and discrimination. This was the last film made before Ghibli was announced to go on hiatus in 2014. It doesn’t land everything but it lands enough and is a unique Ghibli work.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
The last film directed by Isao Takahata before his death is based on “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, an old Japanese folk story. In this story an elderly man is out cutting bamboo when one day he finds a tiny princess in one of the stalks. After bringing the child home to his wife he decides to raise her in manner befitting a princess. The animation builds on the experimentation done in his previous film, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and results in something beautiful. As an aside this way the only time Joe Hisaishi composed the score for a Takahata film.
The Wind Rises
A fictional version of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, engineer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane used in World War II. Some may be surprised by the lack of actual magic in a film that was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. A controversial film in Japan that could be seen as praising a man whose engineering achievements led to so much death and destruction. I believe that while this film deals with that issue in a tasteful manner its romance subplot is a weakness that drags it down.
Tier 3: Worth Your Time
Castle in the Sky
The first film made under the Studio Ghibli name. A classic in its time that I don’t enjoy as much as the movie wants me to. Castle in the Sky marks the beginning of the partnership between composer Joe Hisaishi and Hayao Miyazaki with the soundtrack being a strength of the film. It tells the story of a girl and a boy who are trying to keep a magic crystal away from the bad guys while searching for the legendary floating castle, Laputa.
From Up on Poppy Hill
The sophomore film of Goro Miyazaki's career is a much better effort than his debut. This is a film that I really enjoyed but made some strange decisions that hurt it a bit. Set in 1963, From Up on Poppy Hill tells the story of a boy and a girl trying to save their school’s clubhouse from being torn down. A fun time that gets a little weird.
My Neighbors the Yamadas
Based on a newspaper gag manga, My Neighbors the Yamadas was directed by Isao Takahata and released in 1999. It consists of a series of shorts focusing on the Yamada family who are rather similar in archetype to the Simpson family. The somewhat dim but loving father, the nagging mother, the precocious son and daughter along with the elderly grandmother and dog feel oddly familiar coming from a culture as different as Japan’s. A solid movie with some strong gags.
The Cat Returns
A fun romp directed by animator Hiroyuki Morita, it is a spin-off of Whisper of the Heart. After saving a cat from being run over by a car, Haru Yoshioka finds out that the cat is actually prince of the Cat Kingdom. After being taken into the Cat Kingdom by the king (who wants her to marry the prince) she and her cat friends try to escape. I really like the main character but don’t have much to say about this film.
Tier 4: Hardcore Fans Only
A story about tanuki with magical testicles fighting back against the humans who are destroying their homelands. However, it's not nearly as fun as it sounds. There were a lot of good ideas in here but Takahata needed to do more to justify its 119 minute running time. Pom Poko would probably be a tier 2 film if you cut 45 minutes from its run-time.
Tales from Earthsea
I HAVE NO SON! - Hayao Miyazaki
The directorial debut of Goro Miyazaki is not a great movie. It’s not so bad that if I were Goro’s father I would walk out halfway through the movie to smoke a cigarette, but it is not great. Tales from Earthsea is a fantasy film that exists.
A made for TV movie that is the first Ghibli film not directed by Miyazaki or Takahata. Directed by Tomomi Mochizuki and based on a novel by Saeko Himuro it is a curious romance story focusing on the high school life of Taku Morisaki and his strange relationship with a beautiful new transfer student. The fact that the protagonist is a high school boy and everything is shown from the male perspective makes the film feel less like a Ghibli work. Ocean Waves is at its best in its attention to detail and the quiet moments but I wish it was either more or less melodramatic. It never seems to commit to being something great.
Howl's Moving Castle
Based on the novel of the same name written by Diana Wynne Jones I feel this was a fairly large miss by Miyazaki, but it at least contains another great score by Joe Hisaishi. An anti-war film with uninteresting characters and a vague message.
Probably my least favourite Studio Ghibli film. It is the feature film debut of animator, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Not much is done with its setting of little people who live in the nooks and crannies of a house. The villain especially feels very un-Ghibli.
There you have it! My complete rankings of the feature film works of Studio Ghibli at the time of writing. Any disagreements with my tier choices? Let me know!
In January of 2020 (a few weeks before the virus really spread) I visited the Ghibli Museum located in Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan. The first thing I did was see a short film exclusive to the museum called A Sumo Wrestler's Tail. A small story of sumo wrestling mice and the elderly couple who help them out. It was very cute! Besides exclusive films, the museum is a fantasy world for Ghibli fans that I would highly recommend.
The future of Ghibli is uncertain. Hayao Miyazaki has come out of retirement and is working on a new feature length film entitled, How Do You Live? Isao Takahata passed away on April 5, 2018 at age 82. Goro Miyazaki is directing a computer generated film adaptation of the book Earwig and the Witch written by Diana Wynne Jones (the same woman who wrote the book Howl’s Moving Castle). This is planned to air in December 2020 in Japan. In 2015, Yoshiaki Nishimura and other Ghibli refugees left to form Studio Ponoc.
I have no idea what the future holds for Studio Ghibli and once Hayao Miyazaki is truly done directing films it’s hard to imagine a Ghibli without him. There is always talk of a certain director (Satoshi Kon, Makoto Shinkai) being
the next Miyazaki but perhaps anime has become too self-referential for that to happen. Not to mention the terrible production practises and brutal working conditions pervasive throughout the industry that threaten to destroy it if not fixed soon. Studio Ghibli could easily dissolve in a few years but its works will always be there to inspire us. That might have to be enough.
This is my day 42 post for #100daystooffload
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