Reviews and Highlights of the Not-so-Popular Studio Ghibli Films

Even in the anime world it’s hard to find viewers who have seen Studio Ghibli’s limited release titles. You may wonder “Why should I? If no one talks about them maybe they are not worth seeing”. Over the past couple of weeks I have tracked them down, and intend to clear the mist for you. As with my previous Ghibli article the same rating system applies. I hope this guide will point you in the right direction of something new to watch which holds the Ghibli magic we all know and love.

5. Pom Poko (1994)

Pom PokoPom Poko, directed by Isao Takahata appeared to be a promising movie. The lively Ancient Japan style soundtrack stood above Takahata’s other titles with its strong focus on earthy drums and flutes. The animation best matched the visual style of Studio Ghibli’s popular titles with familiar character design and the close attention to detail in background art. Pom Poko follows tanuki (raccoon dogs) who try to save their forest home by any means possible. This usually includes using their magic powers to transform- like in Japanese folklore. This premise leads itself to some entertaining moments, but its impact is lost with its slow narrative style.

The biggest flaw of this film is its weak script with little focus on characterization, and over reliance on narration. The dialogue is full of clever commentary on humanity and technology, which was a refreshing style of comedy for Ghibli. Sadly, these strong moments are frequently broken up by picture-book style narration. The majority of the narration and montages didn’t need to be there and detracted from the rest of the movie. The characters are sadly very forgettable, as the film mostly focuses on the tanuki as a whole. Even the lively English dub can’t save it from its problems.

Despite the decent final act and beautiful closing line, Pom Poko doesn’t add anything new to Ghibli which hasn’t already been covered before. Its environmental message has been done better in Studio Ghibli’s other films like Princess Mononoke, even though the light hearted approach is interesting. Disappointingly, Pom Poko turned out to be one of those painful middle of the road films which didn’t live up to its potential.

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4. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)

My Neighbors the YamadasYou might as well forget this film is part of Ghibli, because it is nothing like anything they have ever made. It is completely unrecognizable in every aspect: the art, narrative style to the music. It was an interesting choice by director Isao Takahata to base a film off a comic strip, “Nono-chan” by Hisaishii Ishii. My Neighbors the Yamadas does not follow a chronological narrative. It is more a collection of skits, squished together to form a reflection and observation on dysfunctional family life.

The art style is simplistic and cartoon-like with focus on light watercolors and thick lines. The character designs are sketchy and disproportionate. Most of the time it’s hard to tell there is any background art to speak of and the character movements are so basic it looks more like it was a project by University students. Besides the visuals being unique, the animation is easily the weakest part of the piece. The music by Akiko Yano complements the scenes nicely with subdued piano pieces but doesn’t stand out as a great collectible soundtrack. Each family member is brought to life with the English dub, which adds to the fun atmosphere.

The film shines in its script which manages to balance meaningful and humorous scenarios. The characters are obscure, but likable. Their silly mistakes and mishaps bring forth many giggles, in a similar way to The Simpsons but more down to earth. I could recognize a lot of the scenarios in the film as things I had experienced in my own family, or seen in other people’s. Thankfully it ends on a touching and fitting note which gives a perspective on how to approach life. It leaves you with the feeling that the writers were actually trying to get a message of some description across after all.

While entertaining and enjoyable, My Neighbors the Yamadas should be approached as a TV series rather than a movie, so one can acknowledge its lack of overarching story. It is hard to recommend for the simple reason it is so different, but if you’re getting sick of the same old anime cliches this could be a breath of fresh air.

Rating:

3. The Cat Returns (2002)

The Cat ReturnsIn the Making-of Documentary Miyazaki explains he is often training newbies in an attempt to shape up new talent to take over at Ghibli when he passes away. Hiroyuki Morita debuts his directing career with this potential end result in mind. He had previously worked as an animator (one significant title being Akira), and was encouraged to take a shot with The Cat Returns. If anyone was wondering what Shizuku’s story in Whisper of the Heart was, The Cat Returns is it. It tells the story of teenager Haru, whom once saving a cat from being run over is encouraged to travel to the mysterious “Cat Kingdom” in order to marry the prince there.

It sounds strange, yes? The style is again very different to Studio Ghibli’s other titles, but Morita-san shows potential. The fantasy elements of talking cats and castles feels like a Disney sequel, where despite being fast paced, colorful and entertaining leaves a little more to be desired. The character designs are more cartoon-like than Studio Ghibli’s usual down to earth approach. Clothes and hair lack detail, which is most obvious with the lack of shading. The narrow faces of the heroine resemble more Mamoru Hosoda’s work, but the colorings are appropriately vibrant to reflect the fantasy aspects of the story. The character movements are smooth and plentiful. Even though the style is different, it is still great to watch.

The soundtrack is upbeat and lively with a variety of instruments, bringing a sense of action to whatever is occurring on screen. The Ukelele-based ending song “Kaze ni Naru” by Ayano Tsuji is catchy, well sung and cute. The English dub is fantastic and adds to the entertainment value and characters. It’s a wonder that Anne Hathaway can turn Haru from an simple minded, ordinary girl, to a very down to earth likable girl with just her voice. Its this kind of talent that is rare to see and she makes it sound so easy. Cary Elwes as the Baron balances charming and proper at once.

There’s something about The Cat Returns which doesn’t quite hit home. The story may be simplistic, but the script is tight and no scene drags on meaninglessly. The characters get as much detail as Disney’s Bolt, but they are fairly likable and memorable. The Baron’s consistent, obvious message of ‘believing in yourself no matter what’ did not seem very relevant considering how the main heroine ended up solving her problem. She seemed like a strong girl who already believed in herself – why the need for the lecture? Perhaps it is because the writer, Reiko Yoshida, pretended that she was writing 14 year old Shizuku’s story that it comes off as a little shallow and flat.

Out of all the Ghibli films, this is one of the best ones for young children besides My Neighbor Totoro. Anyone older may not find it bringing much new to the table.

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2. Ocean waves (1993)

Ocean wavesIf anyone is wondering what a Studio Ghibli version of a Makoto Shinkai film would be, look no further! With introspective narration and focus on intense adolescent feelings Ocean Waves was a direct to TV release, as a way to allow young Ghibli animators to get some practice making a cheap film. Despite good intentions, the film went over budget. It was directed by Tomomi Mochizuki whom also did Kimagure Orange Road and Ranma 1/2. He is listed as Go Sakamatto in many credit lists. Ocean Waves tells the story of 2 high school friends who get tied into the emotional problems of new student Muto, and the changes it brings to their lives.

The visual style is only a slight departure from Studio Ghibli’s usual. The strangest creative choice is various sized white boxes that wrap around shots. The characters look cute in unique facial structures- you won’t see a token old person or Nausicaa clone anywhere. The backgrounds are not as amazingly detailed as Whisper of the Heart, but they are a step above TV drawings. The movements of the characters are plentiful, fluid and realistic, and the detail in clothing is very nice. The soundtrack is mediocre. The background music sounds like it comes from an elevator or low-budget documentary, and the ending song is forgettable. There is no English dub for this film but the Japanese actors are very good, as they usually are.

The screenplay takes a while to pick up. The first 10 minutes are boring, inconsequential and badly executed – it starts to look like any other typical anime love triangle including two guys and one girl. Why does one of the boys always have to wear glasses? There is a lot of narration surrounding a school trip, which drowned out the character introduction and didn’t really matter because they ended up going on a trip somewhere else anyway (minor spoiler, you’ll get over it). As soon as the main heroine is introduced the film picks up in pace.

The film is essentially a character study of Muto, from the perspective of the two male leads. She is a very interesting character, and the movie raises more questions than it answers about her. It is intriguing to try and figure out exactly what her problem is. It is realistic in the sense that she never seems to know what she wants and is testing the waters of life. It’s only in the last scenes which takes place years later when it becomes clear what the film might have been trying to say. It leaves a powerful nostalgic, almost empty feeling… then the movie ends on a cliffhanger. It would have been nice to have an extra 5 minutes to make up for the bad beginning of the film, but perhaps we are supposed to be left thinking? For one, why is the film called “Ocean Waves”?

Angst ridden teens and adults alike will find something to appreciate in this film, even if it doesn’t creep up on you until a while later.

Rating:

1. Only Yesterday (1991)

Only YesterdayOnly Yesterday can be seen as My Neighbors the Yamadas done properly. It contains identical themes of family, the progression of life and similar characters, except it is a lot better animated. Directed by Isao Takahata, Only Yesterday follows a 27 year old Tokae who travels to the country for the first time, and reminisces on her life thus far to better understand herself. In the Making-Of Documentary, Miyazaki noted that he had written the flashback sequences, but didn’t know how to put it into a coherent film. Isao Takahata was the director Miyazaki trusted to do such a thing. Because of the lack of younger audience appeal, it initially wasn’t going to get the green light for production, but Miyazaki said “It will work” and the rest is history.

The characters look like identical copies of the younger sister and Dad from My Neighbors the Yamadas. Miyazaki noted the emphasis on facial muscles to greater display the age of 27. This is the most obvious changes to the artwork style. This was a daring choice but Tokae sometimes looks like she’s an old lady when she grins. Otherwise, the colors are soft, backgrounds nicely detailed and there’s a fantastic amount of fluid movement. The flashback scenes with the energetic schoolchildren are where this becomes most apparent. The cover art of the DVD is questionable. Because of the character design on the cover I always thought older Tokae… was a man.

For a story about a woman looking over her life it is very endearing and interesting to watch. The flashback sequences depicting her family and primary school life are heartwarming. It perfectly captures universal experiences of that age – PE classes, being bullied, trying to fit in, crushes and struggling at study. They mix comedy, drama and a trickle of romance all together. The script is very tight. There are no scenes that could have been cut – each one offers something to the character. The meaning of all this self exploration becomes clear at the end of the film which presents one of the most creative and beautiful end credit scenes I have ever seen. It brings the film to a satisfying conclusion.

In my last article I said “Porco Rosso” had the most character detail out of all Ghibli films. This movie has beaten it! Even once you count out Tokae, the male protagonist and side characters are given a decent amount of attention. All of them are likable, but the two leads are the most memorable.

Touching, nostalgic and heartwarming, Only Yesterday is a solid coming of age film. Sadly, it is not for everyone – if you want action or fantasy stay well away.

Rating:

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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20 Comments

  1. Zach Dennis

    Been very impressed with your Ghibli knowledge. Good look at some not as well known pieces of work from them.

  2. Michael
    0

    Enjoyed this more than your other Ghibli list. I’ve not watched all of these, I will though. Seen My Neighbors the Yamadas. I think this is a pretty good animation film. Some people might not like the animation style, but i think it is refreshing in it’s simplicity…

  3. gate-keeper
    0

    There is something extremely magical and poignant about Only Yesterday…initially, I thought this might be a sort of boring movie (I mean, the general plot is a 20-something taking a vacation in the country…eh?) but I quickly had not trouble understanding the main character Taeko. By the end of the movie, I was cheering her on!

  4. Ocean Waves is great. It doesn’t try to do too much; it simply focuses on the main characters and tells their story honestly. You never feel manipulated as you do with many Hollywood films. The dramatic conflicts are real and interesting.

  5. Nice article. The Cat Returns is pretty cool. The story is so full of hilarious and surprising ideas – I really envy the writer for his imagination.

  6. SkateBen
    0

    I am not the biggest Anime fan but I know my ghibli films. Pom Poko is a good piece of animation, I prefer it above the other ghiblis on this list.

  7. Camille Brouard

    I think it’s great that you explored a little more about the directors of the film (particularly in relation to Miyazaki), an aspect I hadn’t thought about as much with the Ghibli films. Thank you!

    • Jordan

      No problem 🙂 I think it’s good to make the distinction

      • Courtney

        I agree! I very much enjoyed the additional information regarding Ghibli directors, particularly relative to Miyazaki. I have always been more of a Miyazaki fan than a Ghibli fan, but I should take more time to investigate the rest of the Ghibli canon as well. I would be interested to see how much of Miyazaki’s handprint is on everything Ghibli makes. Perhaps another article idea for you; I’d love to read it!

  8. Sarah Finch

    No other film company does whimsicality so well. To be honest, I’ve been feeling a little impatient with Ghibli lately (spoilt of me, I know), but I quite like the sound of Only Yesterday.

    • Jordan

      Arriety wasn’t too bad out of the newer Ghibli’s but yeah, they haven’t been as good the past few years.

  9. Ewan Wilson

    Sadly I’ve only seen two of these, but from your reviews it sounds as though they’re worth putting aside the time for; I feel a little guilty for not giving the less fantastical side of Ghibli much attention before now, but thanks for highlighting the worth of these films!

    • Jordan

      LOL don’t feel guilty! There are tons of people out there who haven’t seent these either. Until I wrote this article I hadn’t!
      If one sounds like your thing go ahead- some of these seem to be for a smaller audience.

  10. I love Studio Ghibli and have watched most if not all of their films. I think perhaps you are being a little harsh with Pom Poko. Perhaps it is my green tendencies coming through, but I have found it to be one of my favorite films. Isao Takahata is not given the respect he deserves. With Grave of Fireflies and
    Pom Poko under his belt he is a very accomplished and impressive director.

  11. Virgil

    I love “Only Yesterday”. It’s one of the Ghibli’s best in my opinion. “My neighbors The Yamadas” has impressive visuals but lacks a coherent story arc.

  12. Ryan Errington

    I agree with you on Pom Poko, its characterization was poor and central message forced upon audiences. As for The Cat Returns, I’m aware it is not popular amongst other Studio Ghibli, yet for me it contains a wonderful charm.

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