Top 5 Essential Studio Ghibli Viewing
It is almost an irony that there are people today who know who Hayao Miyazaki is, but still go blank faced at the mention of ‘anime’. It is a sign of how integrated Ghibli films are into the mainstream media, where your casual (note: slightly ignorant) movie goer does not make the connection. “It’s just animation from Japan” they say, which is the perfect cue for facepalming. It has been such an influential studio that numerous books and essays have been written about them (if anyone is interested, check out the essays by Fred Patton). Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 by prior Toei Animators Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata after the success of Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind (1984), with the firm intention to bring something new to the animation industry. The world wide appeal of Ghibli has proved they have succeeded in their goal. Miyasaki’s plane obsession was apparent from the very beginning, it seems, as”Ghibli” refers to the name Italians used for Saharian scouting planes in World War II.
Studio Ghibli’s films are important to millions of people so when creating this list I tried not to let my personal feelings of enjoyment come into the end score. Instead of enjoyment I considered marketability – what’s the biggest audience appeal, what’s the likelihood it could appeal to someone off the street. Also, Ghibli’s best films are described as mimicking a “magical, warm and fuzzy feeling” like Disney. This is something that I took into account as well. I ranked the best 3 titles in categories of Animation, Soundtrack, Characters and Story (most importantly the ending). The one with the most mentions would be on the list, in whichever order got the highest score. It was a fun ride, and here is the end result – the Studio Ghibli films that showcase the qualities we love about the studio the best: fantastic visuals, memorable soundtracks, lovable characters, the ‘magical feeling’, fun fantasy stories and endings that linger with you. Don’t just watch one, give them all a go!
5. Porco Rosso (1992)
While Porco Rosso was the highest grossing film in Japan the year it came out, it stands as one of the most unique Studio Ghibli films, and one for adults rather than children. It was based off a 15 page manga by Miyazaki himself which is a lot shorter and less detailed. Fantasy is not the main focus, even though there are undertones of it. It is best described as a character exploration, with elements of adventure and romance. It showcases the amusing daily routines and successes of the grumpy, Bounty Hunter pig Porco, and the endeavors of the people around him to befriend and understand him. The artistic merits are strong, especially in the detailed character and mechanical designs. The colors are on the softer side, but the amount of movement is grossly apparent in the plane flights. The backgrounds are not Ghibli’s best, but they do the job. The soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi captures perfectly the wistful feeling of flying – especially in a particular flashback sequence I will not spoil, however, the melodies do not linger in your memory like some of his other works do.
It is hard to describe what makes this an ‘adult’ film. Perhaps it’s the fact all the characters work, like every other adult does, so adults may have more patience to find interest in the daily life of working citizens. Regardless, those who are a sucker for planes seem to find immense enjoyment in the film as well. The characters are the strongest part of the movie. They are interesting and likable with more background detail than any other Miyazaki characters. Your care for them is what makes you keep watching.
The film ends on a cliffhanger where the main focal point of the story is left unexplained, but it keeps you thinking, as clues are hidden throughout the movie. The English dub wasn’t bad, Michael Keaton has not earned fans for his portrayal of Porco, but the rest of the main cast like Gina and Fio hold up nicely. The only other downside for the dub would be some of the side pirate characters who have overly grumbly, put-on voices! For those interested in alternate language versions, Miyazaki himself says he prefers the french version of Porco, by Jean Reno (Tais Toi!, The Pink Panther) more than the Japanese one. Overall, Porco Rosso isn’t the most exhilarating of Ghibli films, but it is an interesting character study which feels very down to earth and real despite its setting and fantasy elements.
4. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Grave of the Fireflies is the most serious of the Studio Ghibli films, and debatably the most moving. The story was based off an 1967 semi-autobiography by Akiyuki Nosaka. It follows two young children, Seita and Setsuko as they struggle to survive in World War II Japan. Even though it is an 80’s production the animation still holds up today in the detail in the backgrounds and character design, besides the fact the colors are a tad dull. The music by Michio Mamiya is fantastic – it enhances every scene to the point where it could bring you to tears alone. The opening and ending theme in particular is memorable.
The script by Isao Takahata is tight, and direction strong – only about 10 minutes could have been cut. The only characters you will care about are the two protagonists, and that is the way the film was supposed to be. There is great detail displayed as to how their lives are run and the hardship they go through, which renders a lot of empathy from viewers. There are two different English dubs for this movie. I have only heard the one by CPM which is very strong. All the voices are believable and suit the characters – I don’t have a single complaint. The ending is very powerful and will haunt you long after the movie is over. No major story elements are left hanging, although you will probably rewind to see the first scene in the film again. At its best Grave of the Fireflies is interesting and touching, as it depicts war in a manner that feels closer to home. A warning that there is absolutely no action in this movie – so if you’re an action fan, you won’t be too happy with this. For those who feel like going through a tissue box, or want to see a very different side to Ghibli, this is the one to choose.
3. Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
Laputa is a film where the phrase ‘an oldie but a goodie’ comes to mind. It was the first official Studio Ghibli movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki. While the visuals are dated from the lack of detail in the character clothing and hair, the amount and fluidity of movement and colorful detail in the backgrounds are abundant. It’s a “girl with a magic crystal” story, and the idea has been seen a million times since then. It remains interesting due to the amount of thought given to the characters. The 10 year old protagonists, Pazu and Sheeta are so cute, good natured and endearing you want to cuddle them! The side characters are likable too, despite them mainly being served as comic relief. The film ends conclusively and in a satisfying manner, although it is sad to say goodbye to the characters you have learned to love.
This is a great family film as it can be watched by kids without them being too freaked out by the villains or visual aspects (like Spirited Away). The musical score by Joe Hisaishi is beautiful, catchy and I guarantee you will get the main theme stuck in your head after the film is over! Pazu’s voice sounds lower and more mature in the Disney English dub, which is quite strange. James Van de Veek was 26 when he voiced him – so I can’t ever imagine Pazu as a ten year old in the dub. It will not appeal to everyone (at least Anna Paquin sounds like she could be 10) despite this the acting sounds natural, energetic and convincing. In Japanese the protagonists sound a lot more cutesy. For a mixture of comedy, drama, a trickle of potential romance and action, you can’t go wrong with Laputa!
2. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Princess Mononoke is another mature Ghibli title. If you’re planing to make your kids to watch it beware that there is swearing and plenty of blood. The setting of the movie feels similar to a modern Nausicca with the focus on nature, forest spirits, and Gods and Demons – the only thing missing is the Ohmu. We are introduced to a young warrior, Ashitaka, who upon being cursed journeys to seek out a land beyond his village which may cure or kill him. He meets an abundance of wonderful, and not so nice characters along the way that enrich his journey, including a “Wolf Girl” named San. These characters are rich and intriguing. You learn to emphasize and like the protagonists the more the film goes on, even if they are distant at first. The soundtrack by the incredible Joe Hisaishi is immensely moving with the variety of instruments and strong melodies. It is arguably the best of his work.
Princess Mononoke mixes fantasy, folklore, good old sword fights, guns, and just about anything you may want to see in an action film (except an exploding car) into one. The beautiful background art and non-stop fluid movement in the characters and what is happening around them makes Princess Mononoke an awe to experience. The animation is most impressive in the fight scenes, which are wonderfully choreographed and made just the more interesting with its fantastical elements. Even in the 90’s Mononoke doesn’t look as polished as Ghibli’s work from the last decade but it still looks amazing.
It is the combination of all these factors, with the strong script intermingled with drama, hints of romance and the occasional giggle which makes the film truly engrossing and, dare I say it, a magical experience. The film ends by wrapping up all ties it created with a satisfying conclusion. It leaves an air that the characters will continue to enjoy their (theoretical) lives and overcome setbacks. Along with Laputa, this film is the easiest of the “old Miyazaki” to recommend. It won up to 30 awards in Japan alone, so if that is not an incentive to see it, I don’t know what is!
1. Spirited Away (2001)
Spirited Away was the first Studio Ghibli film I saw, way back in 2003 shortly after it had left the cinema. Even though I have seen it over 4 times since, even 10 years later, I still love it. It won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, so it is the most well-known title of Miyazaki’s to the mainstream media too. The scene opens to a grumpy 10 year old girl, Chihiro who has moved to a new town. Tired of the car trip, her dad takes a detour which brings them to an abandoned amusement park. Chihiro and her family soon discover there is more to this amusement park than just fancy food.
Spirited Away’s production team expanded their computing animation software to build on the aesthetic in Princess Mononoke, and it shows. The quality is a giant step up from previous titles, with a focus on brighter coloring and more detailed backgrounds. They almost look like great works of art or photographs because of their realism. As always, the character designs are eye-pleasing, but especially creative this time around due to the number of monsters in this film, so be prepared to see a wide array of colors, creatures and scenery. The majority of the characters are not human, but their personalities are oddly endearing and memorable. Haku and Chihiro are given the bulk of backstory, and their interactions and chemistry is very engrossing. The detail isn’t as thick as in Porco Rosso, but it gives you enough to remember them.
The soundtrack is absolutely stunning with the wide array of instruments and unforgettable melodies. The English dub by Disney is great, although the actors have populated many other animated works. The acting is very believable and genuine. Chihiro voiced by Daveigh Chase (Lilo from Lilo and Stich) does a great job at portraying every high and low of pubescent emotion and moving you. Jason Marsden, who is more hilariously known as his role of Chester in Fairly Odd Parents is unrecognizable as the serious but kind Haku. Susan Egan who plays Lin was Meg from Hercules. I bet you won’t be able to get their faces out of your head now, right?
The story is uniquely weird due to its setting, but it is an entertaining one as well. There is never a dull moment in this movie, even though it is very long. If you’re not touched by the character struggles, you’ll be sucked into the animation, bewitched by the soundtrack or entertained by the weird wacky life of the Bath house and it’s inhabitants. Spirited Away concludes in a bittersweet manner, one that is both satisfying and mysterious. You get the sense that Chihiro has become more able to cope with setbacks, and respond to situations in a calmly manner rather than throwing a tantrum like at the start of the movie. With a combination of fantasy, funny family moments and endearing friendships, Spirited Away is a magical film which is easy to recommend to anyone for its wide appeal. Even after watching Ponyo, Arriety, Tales of Earthsea and Howl’s Moving Castle, this is still my favorite of all the 00’s Ghibli films, for its solid, interesting story and likable characters.
For those who are wondering what happened to the other titles, Whisper of the Heart was runner up on this list. Compared to similar children orientated films like Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro with the least focus on fantasy, Whisper of the Heart has the strongest story and soundtrack, which fits best into its running time. Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind wasn’t on here because it felt like it was cramming too much information into one movie and the characters are hard to connect with because of it. Out of the newest 00’s Ghibli films, Arriety has been the most well paced with likable characters, but it wasn’t good enough to be on this list. I hope this list has helped anime newbies and veterans alike something new to watch or something old to revisit.
What do you think? Leave a comment.