With the info that Studio Ghibli’s newest film, From Up on Poppy Hill, will be getting a US release in March, and having just watched The Secret World of Arietty for the first time, I felt it was high time that I finally addressed my addiction to the work of the studio and of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, the incredible director/writer/producer who founded it. Sometimes referred to as “The Japanese Disney”, Ghibli is known for the consistent high quality of its films and maintaining the use of traditional hand-drawn animation in an increasingly digitized medium. Fluffy, for one, has never been a huge fan of CGI animation; while many excellent films have been produced in the format, the novelty of it has worn off for me and I occasionally find myself wondering, as I view the latest forgettable kiddie film, how much better it might have been if, you know, actual artists had been involved. (A good example of this is the recent onscreen rendering of Dr Seuss’s The Lorax. I’m absolutely NOT bagging on Dr Seuss, who was an undisputed genius, but the film… well, the film had nothing on the original 2-D TV cartoon from the seventies, which ran a good hour shorter, was probably produced on a microfraction of the new movie’s budget, and both looked and sounded better. Of course, that’s a rant for another day.)
While I will have to admit that I have by no means seen every film produced by the studio or all the earlier output of Miyazaki himself, I’ve seen enough to know that I love it. The movies I have seen each have distinct, gorgeous palettes and worlds while displaying a continuity of artistic style that makes them unmistakable for anyone else’s work. Ranking them is tough, but here are my picks for the ten best.
10. The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
The oldest film on my list is also the oddest duck here. Pre-Ghibli and technically a franchise film as it follows the exploits of Lupin III, an already-famous anime character in his own right, nonetheless this movie is pure Miyazaki. Steven Spielberg has called it his favorite action movie, and it is definitely action-packed, jamming robberies, counterfeiters, car-chases, countless narrow escapes, a clock-tower fight and a runaway princess bride named Clarice into its running time. It’s a fun popcorn flick, breakneck-paced and pretty to look at. The style here is notable because, while Miyazaki stays true to the original designs of the major franchise characters (Lupin, Jigen, Fujiko and the rest) his own artistic stamp is already evident, and the detailed backgrounds, while not as lush as in many of his later works, look worlds better than those in any other Lupin animation I’ve yet seen. Solid and enjoyable, it’s the perfect bit of fluff with strong hints of the greatness yet to come.
9. Ponyo (2008)
This tale was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, as was the Disney film of the same title, but Ponyo and Ariel couldn’t be more different creatures (despite both being gingers). Though Ponyo falls in love with a human boy and consequently longs to become human herself, she is much younger than the Disney version, and she’s the daughter of a wizard and a goddess. Though all ends happily with Ponyo allowed to rejoin the human world, the question of such imbalances of nature is addressed more explicitly here, with Ponyo’s magical transformation resulting in a tsunami which provides much of the dramatic tension. I’m going to go out on a limb here and admit that I prefer English dubs to subtitles when viewing Ghibli/Miyazaki work (heresy among anime fans, I know, but I don’t want the distraction from the visuals in these films), and there were some complaints about the casting of the dub for Ponyo, namely that the main characters were voiced by younger siblings of flavors-of-the-moment Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers, but I found the voice work adequate. Far better than adequate is the realistically fantastical depiction of the undersea world.
8. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Howl’s Moving Castle, based on the Diana Wynne Jones novel, concerns the adventures of Sophie, a young hat maker cursed by a witch to have the appearance of a 90-year-old woman, and her efforts to reverse the spell. Entering the service of the powerful, mysterious wizard Howl, while maintaining a pact with the fire demon Calcifer who promises to break the curse on Sophie if she can find a way to release him from the spell binding him to the castle, Sophie has a lot of work to do, and this is a lot of movie. So much happens in this film that it’s easy for a viewer to get lost. But what’s important here is the strength of the characters, particularly Sophie herself and the titular wizard. At its heart, it’s a love story, though an odd one, with one of the best representations of Miyazaki’s recurrent theme of self-discovery. The artwork is incredible– Howl’s castle, held together only by magic, is an illogical wonder to behold– and Calcifer, despite being sort of not corporeal, is probably the most adorable being that Ghibli’s ever drawn.
7. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Also pre-Ghibli, this post-apocalyptic story was animated by Top Craft, the studio responsible for the glorious artwork of my favorite animated film of all time, The Last Unicorn, and this film is just as beautiful, albeit in a bleaker style, as befits its subject matter. Our heroine is a princess of a small human settlement a thousand years after the earth was all but destroyed by bioengineered Warriors who left the planet ravaged and poisoned. Nausicaa’s efforts to reconcile humans with the earth never come off as preachy, and her quest to avoid another catastrophe at the hands of a less enlightened princess and her minions make for engrossing viewing. Some of Miyazaki’s best flight sequences are in play, as are a lot of giant squicky mutated bug-a-pillars called Ohmu, which we discover are actually intelligent and friendly despite their fearsome appearances. It’s a cautionary tale, but an entertaining one, and at all costs avoid the butchered version called Warriors of the Wind: this mid-80’s American edit completely alters the plot and misses the point. The later redub by Buena Vista is the definitive.
6. The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
I mentioned I had just gotten around to watching this one, and it’s gorgeous. This is Ghibli’s take on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, which follows a family of tiny people who live within the walls of a regular-sized home and survive by “borrowing” what they need from the bigger “human beans”. When teenaged Arrietty accidentally reveals her existence to a sick young boy who has come to stay in the house, a whirlwind of chaos naturally ensues and Arrietty finds an unexpected ally. Arrietty’s titular world is beautifully rendered, giving a true sense of being small in a world designed for giants, reminiscent of the magical artwork of Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH. The dub’s casting of Bridgit Mendler as Arrietty is inspired, as the character physically resembles Mendler with darker hair, and even shares similar facial expressions. Perspective and light are the keywords for this film’s unique look– the juxtaposition of normal-sized objects and the miniscule Borrowers is well-executed, and the setting, even when rainy, is drenched in a summery glow.
5. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
The story of a young witch’s journey of self-discovery, Kiki’s Delivery Service is sweet with a sense of fun, much like the character herself. Learning how to make her way in the world alone, a tradition among witches, Kiki chooses to settle with her cat Jiji in a seaside town which looks vaguely Scandinavian and earn a living making deliveries on her broomstick. It’s more difficult than she expects, and she has trouble fitting in with the locals, and soon she is beset with a lack of confidence that saps all her powers. She perseveres, however, and even makes some good friends in a schoolboy named Tombo and a free-spirited artist named Ursula. When Tombo is placed in danger, Kiki is able to step up and reclaim her magic to save her friend. The film is, as always, absolutely lovely; we are treated to many sweeping aerial views of the quaint little town and the sea beyond, but here the style is trumped by the character, as Kiki is one of Ghibli’s spunkiest and most endearing heroines.
4. Castle in the Sky (1986)
Much of Miyazaki’s work celebrates the joy of flight, and none more so than Castle in the Sky. We get to experience the skies in so many ways here– via vast airships, lightning-fast gliders, and in one particularly perilous sequence, even in a huge kite. And of course, there’s the castle, which also flies. This film was steampunk before steampunk was a thing, replete with all the requisite hardware, including robots, but its action-oriented plot is balanced by moments of quiet, almost surreal beauty. Our heroine, Sheeta, is the last surviving member of a royal bloodline from the floating land of Laputa, a long-abandoned city held aloft by the power of magical crystals. She is pursued by the ruthless Muska, who wants to find the ancient city in the clouds for his own nefarious reasons, and a cadre of air-pirates who later become allies. Her most important ally, however, is a working-class boy named Pazu, who joins her on the run and finally realizes his late father’s dream of visiting Laputa. Visually stunning, this was the first film to be released under the Ghibli banner, and set the standard high.
3. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Much like the earlier Nausicaa, this is an environmental tale, but this film takes the concept to another level: rather than detailing ruin via humanity’s destructive nature alone, this time around they’ve pissed off the very gods. We are immersed in the Japan of the distant past through the journey of the cursed prince Ashitaka, and his interactions with the human girl, San, who was raised by the wolf gods and is known as Princess Mononoke, as well as with the progress-minded Lady Eboshi of Iron Town, whose dedication to bettering her peoples’ lives through manufacturing and development has angered the numerous gods of the forest. The movie is at times quite violent and employs some disturbing, even nightmarish imagery, but at the same time its lavish, almost ethereal artwork keeps the eyes begging for more. This is by sheer scope and spectacle alone a monumental work, its characters realized in shades of gray that acknowledge the potential for both good and evil in every being, its universe rendered in near-perfect detail.
2. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
What film, you ask, could possibly top one about saving the world from the wrath of the gods? A small, whimsical film about children discovering, and enjoying a lot of fun playtime, with forest spirits. Satsuki and Mei, two sisters who have just moved with their father to an old house to be close to the hospital where their mother, who has been ill, is convalescing, find three totoro of various sizes, from squee-inducing tininess to bigger-than-life, in the woods around their new home. The girls have several magical encounters with the totoro, who take them for rides on a flying spintop and in the unforgettably cute, real-live Cat-Bus. These adventures help alleviate the girls’ day-to-day worries, but when they learn that their mother has taken a turn for the worse, little Mei sets out to visit her on foot and of course gets lost, leaving big sister Satsuki terrified, but with the help of the totoro and the Cat-Bus, Satsuki finds Mei, and together with their magical friends, they go to the hospital and find their mother doing much better. The Cat-Bus takes them home, and that’s the end. Well, over the credits we see Mom come home, but that’s really all there is to it. A simple movie, but somehow one that stays with you, and never, ever fails to uplift my spirits when I’m feeling blue. Pure joie de vivre distilled to its finest essence.
1. Spirited Away (2001)
The undisputed masterpiece of the Ghibli studio and Hayao Miyazaki’s career, the story of Chihiro, the grumpy schoolgirl whose quest to save her parents from the angry spirits who transformed them into pigs leads her into service in a sort of supernatural spa, is a straightforward fairy tale on the surface, but is really a multileveled allegory, rich with subtext about selfhood and selflessness, the ultimate discovery tale. As Chihiro moves through her strange new world, making friends, learning to help others, and finding out who she really is and what she is capable of, we follow along, enchanted both visually and intellectually. I have written at length about the wonder which is this film before, and it is of necessity to place it at the top of this list, as there is no film before or since quite like it– simple enough to enthrall the smallest child, yet profound enough to engage the wisest adult, and incredibly beautiful besides. It is less a film than a journey unto itself, one which finds new currents of meaning in even repeat viewings, all the while inundating you with its transcendent artwork and a transporting sense of space and place. A triumph on every level, this is the exquisite pinnacle of the animator’s art.
I am enthusiastic about the upcoming redub of From Up on Poppy Hill, and curious to see where it will land in my pantheon. The array of voice talent assembled for the dub is impressive– Ron Howard, Jamie Lee Curtis, Beau Bridges, Gillian Anderson (who has done Ghibli dubs before, portraying a wolf goddess in Princess Mononoke) and comedian Jeff Dunham are all on hand, and the story sounds intriguing– a pair of high school students who find themselves falling in love are confronted with the possibility that they may in fact be brother and sister– so we shall see. At any rate, my geeky heart is aflutter with anticipation.