Pixar gets all the credit for being the world’s most unimpeachable movie studio. Yet movie snobs and all-around animation geeks will tell you that every bit as deserving of kudos for consistent excellence in their work is the Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli. For over a quarter-century, the prestigious studio has been responsible both for some of the most entertaining and endearing children’s entertainment, in addition to crafting some of the most whimsical and profound works in the history of cinema – animated or not.
Founded in 1985 following the box office success of the manga adaptation Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, director Hayao Miyazaki started Studio Ghibli with two members of his Nausicaä production team: Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata. Suzuki, who produced many of the films made by Miyazaki and Takahata, has since retired. Miyazaki is credited with directing eight of the 18 feature films produced by Ghibli. Takahata is slated to direct his fifth feature with the studio next year. Five other director have produced a Ghibli film as well.
With the U.S. release this past weekend of their seventeenth feature, The Secret World of Arrietty (read our review), I thought it would be fun to revisit (or for some, to have a first-ever look at) every single film released stateside by Studio Ghibli, and to rank them in order of preference. This was certainly not an easy task; Ghibli’s made a lot of films in its quarter-century and I genuinely enjoy most of them. Incidentally, I have to admit this may have been the most unequivocally fun movie marathon I’ve ever imposed upon myself.
PLEASE NOTE: Of course, there are some necessary rules to this list. I kept my ranked list strictly within the confines of the Ghibli oeuvre. This means work from the directors’ and co-founders’ earlier days (Miyazaki’s Lupin III and Takahata’s Go Panda! Go!) were ineligible. I also only included films on the list that were (legally) available in the American market. This means a few movies (Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves, From up on Poppy Hill) were also ineligible. This ultimately brought it down to sixteen eligible films for me to rank.
Now, with all that out of the way… let’s get to the list!
The Ranked Films of Studio Ghibli
16) Tales from Earthsea (2006, dir. Gorō Miyazaki)
It was rumored that while making Tales from Earthsea, director Gorō Miyazaki received no assistance from his estranged-at-the-time father Hayao. Unfortunately, it shows; not only is this the only film of the Ghibli canon that I markedly dislike, it is the only one that boasts not one pixel of the color or imagination that defines almost every single other movie the studio has made. Turgid and deathly serious, the story teems with characters as haphazardly conceived as they are drawn. The film’s main theme – that one’s mortality is inescapable – is explored with almost no depth or insight to speak of. Gorō’s second feature, From up on Poppy Hill, will be hitting the States sometime in the next year. Now that he’s reconciled with his father, hopefully some of the Miyazaki magic will pass successfully to a new generation.
The only Ghibli film apart from Earthsea with which I made no real emotional connection, Miyazaki’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of the Diana Wynne Jones novel suffers mostly from an abundance of characters who never captured either my interest or my affection. What’s more, the narrative seems more interested in spectacle than imbuing the story with heart. Still, this ranks among Ghibli’s most technically sophisticated films; Miyazaki’s landscapes have rarely looked more expansive and the Moving Castle itself – which looks like it jumped out of a Terry Gilliam Monty Python sketch – is an eye-popping marvel. If this movie qualifies as lesser Miyazaki, then surely it speaks strangely to the man’s talents as a craftsman.
If Miyazaki is Studio Ghibli’s standard-bearer, then surely his counterpart Takahata is the mad scientist; a man unafraid to experiment with techniques and stories that most animators would shy away from. Aesthetically, this all-digitally animated series of vignettes chronicling an ordinary Japanese family through life’s modest tribulations is unlike practically anything you will see in the studio’s filmography. In terms of storytelling, the movie gets a bit too repetitive to justify even its reasonable 104-minute runtime. Nonetheless, it is a terribly sweet experiment; one jam-packed with insight and wisdom that ultimately pays off more frequently than not.
You can read about my feelings on the latest Ghibli film in further detail in the review I posted last week. In short, however, the film ultimately did not fully capture the qualities that best denote Ghibli’s most definitive works. Perhaps this is due to Yonebayashi’s decision to paint the story with clear antagonists and characters whose entire essences could be articulated on a post-it note – a rarity for the studio. Nonetheless, Arrietty is a truly gorgeous sight to behold and beats the hell out of the Hollywood fare currently vying for families’ time at the box office.
Of the many themes explored in Miyazaki’s Ghibli films, feminism tends to be the most interesting permeation. Many of his stories are told through the eyes of female protagonists, but oftentimes he snugly nestles his feminist text between the lines. Porco Rosso shows Miyazaki’s penchant for feminism at its least sub-textual, and therefore at its least nuanced. This story of a chauvinist pig – no, literally, he’s a walking, talking pig who’s dismissive of women – struggling to accept the skills of the young, hotshot flygirl – a girl, incidentally, who handily fixes his battle plane. While it doesn’t delve into those ideas deeply enough to warrant a higher ranking on my list, Porco Rosso is still loads of fun, with plenty of sprightly airborne action sequences to entertain.
Admittedly, this one’s a bit of a cheat, seeing as it was made a full year before Studio Ghibli was even founded. Still, given how its popularity snowballed into the future successes of the studio – and given how nicely it fits in thematically with official canon, it was hard not to consider this at least prototypical Ghibli. Among the starkest, bleakest visions of dystopia Miyazaki has ever committed to celluloid, Nausicaä is a fabulous mixture of breathtaking imagery, amazing creatures, interesting characters and potent allegory. If it doesn’t rank higher, it’s because Miyazaki has made works of deeper nuance and meaning. But it’s still thrilling to see that this production team (Isao Takahata produced it) knew what it was doing from the get-go.
Also sharing the record showing for the largest depiction of animated raccoon testicles in the history of cinema (Pocahontas would have won that prize, had Meeko’s most risqué scenes not been cut for the G-Rating), Takahata’s sophomore effort with Ghibli is a sweet, yet strangely sad tale of nature’s losing battle against man’s quest for industry and “progress.” Pom Poko – a story of talking, shape-shifting raccoons who literally wage war against the humans devastating their habitat – may wear its message of environmentalism proudly – and loudly – on its sleeve. But the intentions here are sincere, and they are emotionally involving. That’s actually quite a feat, considering how the story is centered not around a single character, but around the dozens and dozens who make up the heroic raccoon tribe.
With a 72-minute running time, The Cat Returns is perhaps less substantial and more formulaic than most of the Studio’s other work. But it is also one of their most purely funny efforts, and it’s an absolute blast to watch. The story of a young girl who is suddenly whisked away by the King of the Cats so she can be forcibly married to his son, viewers are given a unique glimpse into an obscure magical kingdom ruled by cats. The results are nothing short of unapologetically bizarre, making the film completely transcend its somewhat predictable storyline. The Cat Returns is also noteworthy for showcasing one of my very favorite Ghibli characters, Baron Humbert von Jikkingen.
Arguably Ghibli’s most ambitious film (at the time, it was certainly their priciest), Miyazaki’s violent labor of love could very well be seen as the movie he had been working toward his entire career. Many of his recurring themes – environmentalism, feminism, mythology – are strongly peppered throughout, and it is astonishing how seamlessly he manages to weave so many disparate sensibilities into a work of unequivocally single-minded cohesion. Even more astonishing than Mononoke’s ambition, however, is its exuberance. Its themes may be heady, but the film remains energetic, is oftentimes quite funny and – most importantly – it’s damned fun.
One of the more delightful and truthful coming-of-age stories out there, this tale of a young witch-in-training who sets out to start her own small business in a strange town gets just about everything right. Kiki, in her quest to achieve independence from her family, is never less than totally likeable, and the people she interacts with along the way – her kindly landlady, an infatuated boy and her smart-alecky cat Jiji (voiced fabulously in the English dub by Phil Hartmann) – teach her an amalgam of important life lessons that are at once clearly presented, yet never pat. It’s essential viewing for anybody who has ever thought about wanting to grow up.
While it received boffo reviews and grossed more money than any other Ghibli film in the U.S. Box Office, I’m compelled to argue that Miyazaki’s twist on The Little Mermaid is his most underappreciated work. More concerned with whimsy and sprightliness than narrative cohesion, the movie whisks along in a manner akin, as some have opined, to how a child might energetically and chaotically tell such a tale. The approach may rob the film of a finely-crafted plot arc, but it suits the film perfectly. This was also Miyazaki’s first 100% hand-drawn effort in years (with 170,000 separate images being drawn total) – a suitable move to accompany the film’s breathtaking simplicity.
Don’t let the plot to My Neighbor Totoro fool you into dismissing the iconic Miyazaki film as simpleminded kids’ fare. True, there is nothing particularly taxing about watching two girls move to a new country home with their father, encountering numerous whimsical creatures along the way who may or may not be real (including the iconic Totoro, dust-spirits and a cat-bus). But the pure, escapist joy to be had in these encounters with the benevolent beast – all in the midst of these girls anxiously awaiting the return of their sickly mother – resonates with tremendous emotional complexity that both child and parent will understand in their own special way. My Neighbor Totoro is about the validation of imagination, and an argument that storytelling can be as much about catharsis as it is about escapism.
This was the most pleasant surprise of this whole marathon. Few outside the most devout Ghibli fans know of this film’s existence. It’s easy to understand why. Outside of a few vibrant dramatizations of its protagonist’s written works, Whisper of the Heart studiously plants itself in world we inhabit. Telling the story of Shizuku, a book-obsessed schoolgirl who finds the drive to express herself artistically when she falls for a young musical prodigy, the film’s successes are three-fold. First, we never lament the absence of a new, exotic Ghibli universe, because we identify so strongly with Shizuku. Second, the film succeeds in telling a plausibly naïve story of first love; it’s the best straightforward love story in Ghibli’s oeuvre. Most importantly, though, is what Kondō’s film speaks to regarding the desire to express oneself artistically: it’s a painful, frustrating process, but one loaded with innumerable opportunities for personal enrichment and discovery.
Ghibli’s first official feature is also their most unreservedly fun one. Transporting and swashbuckling in every conceivable way imaginable, Miyazaki and Takahata (he produced this one) proved from the very beginning just how prepared the Ghibli house was to reinvigorate the animation genre and what it is capable of. In many ways, Castle in the Sky’s story – an orphaned rapscallion embarks on an adventure with a beautiful princess to unearth the truth behind her mysterious past – is terribly old-fashioned. At the same time, though, the narrative’s familiarity is easily forgotten in the midst of the breathtaking animation, loveable characters in Sheeta and Pazu, stellar American voice acting (Cloris Leachman as the menacing yet kindly Dola being my favorite), mind-blowing airship sequences, and the best of the many, many musical scores by Miyazaki composer Joe Hisaishi. Of the studio’s many features, this is arguably the most rewatchable.
Don’t mistake this Oscar winner’s ranking in the #2 spot as an implication that Hayao Miyazaki’s indisputable masterpiece is anything less than sublime. In truth, it stands not merely alongside Wall-E as the pinnacle of 21st Century animation; it rightly deserves utterance in the same breath as Snow White and Alice in Wonderland when ruminating over the most powerful and beguiling of children’s fables that the cinema has ever produced. It is one of my very favorite films.
So much happens in this story of a selfish, introverted girl who sets out to rescue her parents from an evil witch by seeking employment in her bath-house for the spirits (re-read that last sentence). At the same time, so little about it should actually work; the presentation is unrelenting, the logic of the world is under-explained, and the structure of the plot is at once episodic yet somewhat shapeless. Yet none of these potential flaws impede Spirited Away as they might another film. This is because, despite the absence of logic, Miyazaki paints it all in a way that manages to make complete and utter sense.
Chihiro, the film’s protagonist, learns a great deal along the way. But those lessons – in true Miyazaki form – are not dictated to us as a lesser children’s parable might do. We instead are asked to infer from those lessons, to absorb them, and to share in Chihiro’s newfound sense of bravery and selflessness – entirely in our own way. Spirited Away wields as much meaning as it does magic.
I do not cry during movies. Ever. And I did not cry during either of my two screenings of Grave of the Fireflies. Just because no tear ran down my cheek, however, that doesn’t mean Isao Takahata’s film was incapable of devastating me more viscerally than practically any other movie I have ever seen, animated or not. It is not exaggeration when I say my entire body went numb after first seeing it. It reduced me to a state of near-catatonia. I tried to watch a rerun of one of my favorite sitcoms in order to bring levity to my evening, but to no avail. Its devastation overwhelms you.
Grave of the Fireflies, the brutally unsentimental story of a teenaged boy named Seita and his very young sister Setsuko struggling to survive in a WWII-ravaged Japan, did not need to be animated. Given how its lack of the fantastical and its markedly uglier palate distinguishes it from Ghibli’s other works, the studio probably never truly needed to tell this story either. But Takahata, as fearless as any filmmaker working with Ghibli, clearly saw something in this adaptation of Akiyuki Nosaka’s novel that he needed to tell. Working within his genre of choice, the animator’s masterpiece is as personal and necessary as it is bleak and uncompromising.
When I hear dissenters bemoan Grave of the Fireflies, they typically cite its relentless brutality and its allegedly cheap exploitation of child protagonists for emotional manipulation. A friend of mine even declared that – had it been live-action – it would merely have been perceived as bad Spielberg. Certainly, Takahata’s story hovers above those pratfalls, but the reason he never falters is because of how much investment his story places on Seita and the logic guiding (and misguiding) the poor decisions he makes on behalf of himself and his defenseless sister. Unlike countless other War movies we’ve seen, though, the chief villain of the story is not simply the unseen enemy, but the fateful choices Seita makes in light of the circumstances handed to him.
Grave of the Fireflies, more importantly than being a story about war, is a meditation on guilt and redemption, and it finds something of worth beyond the nihilistic depiction of senseless carnage. It devastates not because it exploits, but because it remains true to the complexity of its own ideas. It may be the last movie that comes to mind when you bring up Studio Ghibli, but no other film exemplifies the studio’s values in quite the same way.