List O’ The Week: Studio Ghibli films

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This list represents a ranking of the Studio Ghibli films that I have seen between 1984’s ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’ and 2010’s ‘Arriety’. This list is to somewhat celebrate the arrival of Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film ‘The Wind Rises‘ which will premiere at the Venice Film Festival. I’ve still yet to see ‘From Up On Poppy Hill’.

Studio Ghibli has made some of the greatest animated films of all time. Almost every film is beautifully textured and thoughtfully written. This list is ranked purely in terms of how much I enjoy these films; it’s not necessarily a reflection of how well made they are but rather how much I enjoy revisiting them, so there may be some controversial choices here.

18. The Ocean Waves (1993) – Dir. Tomomi Mochizuki

Fairly generic teen romance, originally made for Japanese television. Doesn’t have the eye for detail, character design or pacing that the best Ghibli flix share. 5.5/10

17. Tales From Earthsea (2006) – Dir. Goro Miyazaki

Goro got a lot of flack for not living up to the standards his father set. But honestly the biggest problem here is the adaptation of the story being told. It is rarely made engrossing and feels like generic fantasy fare. Miyazaki senior was always a lot better at adapting complicated, pre-existing source material and making them more Ghibli-friendly. This is less successful, although it does have its moments of inspiration and beauty, especially in the climax. 6/10

16. Arriety (2010) – Dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi

I really wanted to like this. It’s carefully crafted and it’s a solid, mature (as in not-juvenile) fantasy story for children. But…..it’s kinda boring. There is very little in the way of exciting adventure or comic relief, and the story feels quite bare and under-written. Ultimately it just doesn’t live up to the work of Ghibli prime in either story or design. 6/10

15. The Cat Returns (2002) – Dir. Hiroyuki Morita

This is another example of Ghibli-lite. It’s a very watchable, if not overly original, semi-sequel to Whisper of the Heart. This was never intended as major Ghibli fare, but it’s a painless way to pass 90 minutes. 6.5/10

14. Ponyo (2008) – Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

A lot of people liked this and I do enjoy the second half when the town becomes submerged and surrounded by a stunning array of almost pre-historic seas creatures. Those weird and wonderful scenes embody the almost youthful joy that Miyazaki brings to his films. But I prefer the sleek animation style of Miyazaki’s other films and the story here again feels slight and generic compared to his best works. The conclusion feels so oddly rote and by then I’ve stopped caring; I’m too busy looking at the beautiful kaleidoscope of images on the screen. 7/10

13. My Neighbour the Yamadas (1999) – Dir. Isao Takahata

Certainly the oddest film Ghibli has released. When people say ‘comic book movie’ this is not what people have in mind, but it’s a fairly apt description. I have a feeling this film will resonate more with Japanese audiences familiar with the source material. They seem to represent the comic equivalent of a ‘Japanese Simpsons’, and as such a deeper understanding of Japanese family dynamics might have been helpful, but the film is fairly uncomplicated and offers enough variation for its episodic style to not become too grating. 7/10

12. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) – Dir. Isao Takahata

Now we’re into the serious contenders. This is seriously one of the most depressing films you’ll ever watch, hence its low position on the ladder. It’s rightfully considered as one of the best war films ever made, and while I believe that animation can be used to tell any type of story, funny or sad, silly or mature, I prefer animated films that do things live action cannot easily replicate, and allow me to explore fantastic worlds with fantastical sights that exist beyond the physical and beyond the physics and rules of the live action world. This movie tells a very straightforward and harrowing story about children during the war, and while it has some nice surreal moments, it mostly follows the logic of live action filmmaking and while it remains engaging, it’s rarely exciting and almost always too somber to be enjoyable (this is true of many war films, which is not a genre I particularly love.) I always skip this when I re-watch Ghibli films, but that doesn’t diminish the obvious power of this harrowing and brave film. 8/10

11. My Neighbour Totoro (1988) – Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

This is another that I would rank lower than most. While the film is sporadically joyous and exciting, it is also episodic, a tad ponderous and too sparsely plotted for a 90 minute film. All the moments with Totoro are fantastic, particularly if the cat bus is involved, but when it’s (he’s?) not around the film shifts to somber and plaintive, a shift that can feel a tad jarring. Although I do appreciate the way the fantastic elements neatly sidestep into moments of boring reality, the way the life of a child would. One minute you’re cleaning the house, the next you’re chasing soot sprites, one minute you’re waiting for the bus, the next minute…your bus is a giant cat. I also appreciate that the film deals with the entire array of childhood emotion in a realistic way, not just the fun and imagination, but the fear of the unknown, for example the extent and severity of their mother’s illness. On the whole this is a highly enjoyable film, but I don’t believe it’s deserving of a top rank in the Ghibli cannon. 8/10

10. Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind (1984) – Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

Technically Studio Ghibli was founded after the release of this film, but I’m still counting it because it very much still feels like a Studio Ghibli production (wanna fight about it!!!!!). This film introduces so many themes, conventions and ideas that are carried throughout all of Miyazaki’s work: The strong female lead character, the power-hungry but still ambiguously-evil villains, the male companion who helps the lead out, the environmental consciousness, the love of flying machines, a beautiful, but pissed-off natural entity, and I could go on forever. Many consider this a forerunner for later works like Princess Mononoke and it certainly shares that film’s super-serious tackling of man’s destruction of the environment as well as a somewhat rambling narrative. The reason I rank this lower than most other Miyazaki works is mostly because its so deadly serious and despite the very beautiful, detailed design and background work (as well as the gorgeous flashback sequence of Nausicaä as a child), the colour palette is quite flat and the quality of Miyazaki’s animation only improves over time. 8/10

9. Only Yesterday (1991) – Dir. Isao Takahata

One of the most purely realistic, non-fantastical stories produced by Ghibli, but no less affecting or engaging because of it. Certainly this story could be told quite easily and cheaply as a live action picture, but the beautiful detail that is given to even the most mundane image, grants the film a beautiful, painterly nostalgic glow that would be missing in a live action telling of the story. I also enjoy the frankness of the way the film deals with the realities of growing up. No animated Hollywood film would have scenes of a largely-sympathetic father character slapping their child. Nor would it devote almost 10 minutes of film time dealing with the menstruation of the main character’s school-aged self. This is a simple, beautiful story about growing up, childhood and, naturally falling in love. One of Ghibli’s most realistic and emotionally mature works.  8/10

8. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) – Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

This film is notable for having no real villain or antagonistic characters (okay, the crows are kinda jerks, but still). Rather, this is a pleasant, highly enjoyable film about growing up and learning to believe in yourself. But it’s nowhere near as cloying or bland as I’m making it sound. Sure, Miyazaki will make more exciting, mature and complex films but none as breezily enjoyable as this. It’s perfect viewing for a lazy summer’s day and Kiki represents one of Miyazaki’s more engaging and sympathetic lead characters. 8.5/10

7. Princess Mononoke (1997) – Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

My issues with this film are the same as my issues with Nausicaä. It takes itself very seriously and while the visuals are as amazingly rendered as always, the colour scheme is a tad flat compared to Miyazaki’s other adventure films (Nitpicking, I know). Having said that, this is a truly epic action film: an all out war between humans and the forest that skips past simple black and white of environmental arguments and moves into the multitudes of greys that exist in this world. Ashitaka and Mononoke are fairly humourless, not-entirely-memorable protagonists but the intelligent and vicious leader Lady Eboshi makes for a fascinatingly complex villain, who I only characterise as such because I can’t think of a more appropriate title. Her practicality in the face of obviously horrific acts elevate this film and add layers of ambiguity to the argument of how man and nature can coexist without destruction. It should also be mentioned that the Forest Spirit is one of Miyazaki’s most awe-inspiring creations. 8.5/10

6. Porco Rosso (1992) – Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

You might be thinking how on earth is Porco Rosso better than Princess Mononoke? After all this is a slight, somewhat silly film about a fighter pilot turned bounty hunter who is inexplicably turned into a pig at some point in his life, who happens to live on a private beach along the Adriatic Sea. Well it’s not better than Princess Mononoke but it’s a lot more fun. I mean, look at that description, how could it not be fun? This film also combines Miyazaki’s love of the ocean and the sky. I know this sounds silly, but no one can animate clouds and water as beautifully as Miyazaki. He knows intimately what is both mundane and beautiful about all things natural. This film is also more intentionally funny than most Miyazaki pictures and features some great action sequences both in the air and on the ground. The greatest moment of the film however (which alone brings the film up half a point) is the scene where Marco/Porco is remembering a moment during the war when he passed out and dreamt that all of his fallen brothers were rising up the heavens to join a white band clouds in the sky. It’s truly beautiful and poetic moment in a film that is for the most part, a fun, sometimes silly action movie. 8.5/10

5. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) – Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

In terms of plotting and narrative fluency, this film isn’t very successful. In fact, a lot of Miyazaki film’s struggle to not jerk the audience around from one location to another in a sometimes jarring, haphazard fashion. However in terms of pure visual storytelling and wonder, this film is only surpassed by Spirited Away. Plot isn’t important, sure there’s an anti-war message tucked in there somewhere, but mostly it’s an excuse to come up with weirdly beautiful set-pieces and get away with excessive visual eye candy like the beautiful fields of flowers or that bizarre scene of Sophie and Howl’s escape from Madam Suliman; honestly that scene makes no sense but that’s part of what makes these film so engaging; they follow their own fantastical logic, which gives them their distinct Ghibli flavour. This movie, like Porco Rosso and Kiki’s Delivery Service is another of Miyazaki’s works that seems enamoured by its European-like settings. Joe Hisaishi’s wonderful score highlights this European essence and gives the film a true international feel. 9/10

4. Pom Poko (1994) – Dir. Isao Takahata

A highly underrated Ghibli gem. I mean, come on! How many films can you see where transforming raccoons use their powers to turn their balls into weapons as they attack the humans threatening their forest. And that’s just a small part of the crazy of this film. While retaining the environmentalist message of Miyazaki’s films, Takahata adds a lot of humour and fantastical bizarreness to the proceedings (I particular like the implication that energy drink sales have increased recently purely because of the raccoon market which needs energy to transform) to make this one of Ghibli’s most entertaining (and yes, quite odd) films. The centrepiece of the film is a giant parade full of awesome and grotesque sights that is put on by the raccoons to scare away the human population. This extended sequence is one of the weirdest, most beautiful and audacious sequences of any Ghibli film. Unlike Mononoke and Nausicaä which both have a kinda-sorta-happy conclusion that still manages to leave you feeling shitty about the human race, this film takes a more realistic (well relatively speaking, the film does take place in a real housing development in Tokyo) and clever tack, while also suggesting that these animals still have a future as long as we are aware of their plight. 9/10

3. Whisper Of The Heart (1995) – Dir. Yoshifumi Kondo

Along with Pom Poko, Whisper of the Heart is my favourite non-Miyazaki directed Ghibli film. Directed by the talented Kondo who unfortunately died not long after the film’s release, this film is a mix between Only Yesterday’s realism, The Ocean Wave’s teen romance and Spirited Away‘s flights of fancy. But it exists completely as its own entity and it’s about as enjoyable as a super-chaste, coming of age teen romance has any right to be. I know that as a live action film I would find this intolerable, but in animated form, the realistic earnestness of the central romance and the ‘if you work hard, you can achieve anything’ theme of the film becomes both quaint and charming. The beautiful fantasy sequences, painted by Naohisa Inoue go a long way to making the film more exciting and developing the film’s unique sense of style. Like Miyazaki, Kondo has an eye for seeing the beauty in the mundane and understands the youthful excitement of the road less taken, such as when Shizuku discovers a small hidden alley and feels a shiver of excitement at the possible adventure ahead. I’m also a sucker for this film’s version of John Denver’s ‘Take me Home, Country Roads‘. 9/10

2. Laputa: Castle In The Sky (1986) – Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

In terms of pure fantasy storytelling scope and ambition, this is definitely Miyazaki’s greatest achievement. While it lacks the polish of Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky is a high satisfying, full-blooded epic adventure story that moves quickly from one beautiful action set piece to the next with humour and pathos. While Sheeta may not be the most interesting Ghibli heroine, there are enough wacky side characters and an interesting villain in Muska to keep the story from dragging. Laputa itself, the floating castle of the title is an absolutely gorgeous creation. A once thriving technological marvel in the sky, now abandoned by humans and taken over by the plants and animals that live there. The image of the dead robots, covered in moss over time, blending into the natural environment of the island is truly memorable. 9.5/10

1. Spirited Away (2001) – Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

From the moment I first watched this in Year 9 English, (we were doing an anime module for some reason – I aced it) I have classed this as one of my favourite films. Period. Animated or otherwise. It’s a fantastic fantasy adventure story that everyone from any age group should enjoy (that sounds like a marketing tag, but it’s true). This is a completely engrossing telling of a ‘Through the Looking Glass’ type story of a girl lost in a magical world. Miyazaki’s worlds never deal in absolutes the way Hollywood fare has the tendency to do. Chihiro is not the perfect little daughter, not is she a spoiled brat; she’s a normal girl, completely dependent on her parents who must learn self preservation. By the same tack, Yubaba the villain, isn’t unambiguously evil. She is more like a cranky president of a multinational who doesn’t tolerate things she can’t control. She is capable of love and empathy the same way her ‘good’ twin sister Zeniba is capable of acts of malice. This is an absolutely gorgeous film filled to the brim with spectacularly designed characters and landscapes and featuring Miyazaki’s most expertly told narrative, without sacrificing his crazier (in a good way) tendencies for mini tangential adventures and moments of pure unexplained weirdness. 10/10

Note: I know it’s poor form but I usually watch the dubbed versions of these films when available. This is mainly so I can focus on the beautiful visuals without being distracted by the subtitles, but I accept that I may be missing a lot of story and character subtleties by choosing not to watch it subtitled. However from what I understand, Studio Ghibli dubbing is done with more care than the dubbing of other anime films.

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