We’ve already covered some pretty great stuff from the Ghibli Universe. From here on out, we’ll be heading deep into the Ghibli theatrical canon — which means we’ll soon be firmly in masterpiece territory.
#20 – From Up on Poppy Hill
After making my way through so many outright masterpieces to get to this late point in the Ghibli catalog, I was a bit worried that I’d be let down by Poppy Hill. Sure, I’d really liked the film when it came out in 2011, and it’d had a pretty special place within my circle of friends at the time, but I remembered it as a very good film – but not quite among Ghibli’s best.
I should have known better. This re-watch has reminded me of how dang good even lesser Ghibli fare is. While Poppy Hill isn’t an out-and-out masterpiece, it’s a thoroughly likable and involving movie all its own.
This is Miyazaki Goro’s second time at bat, and this time he had his famous father actually supporting him. The result is a much tighter (although still somewhat imperfect) script and a much more lively viewing experience than Goro’s derided freshman outing, Tales from Earthsea.
The story, based on an 80s shojo manga of the same name, goes as such: It’s 1963. In Yokohama, high school 2nd year Matsuzaki Umi lives at her grandmother’s boarding house. Umi’s sailor father passed away during the Korean War, but she still raises his old nautical signal flags every morning, praying for safe voyages. A mystery admirer has noticed and publishes an anonymous haiku about her in the school newspaper. At said school, Umi becomes involved in a student movement to save a grand but dilapidated clubhouse called Quartier Latin. While doing so, she finds herself becoming closer to the movement’s leader, Shun – but the two may already be closer than either of them realize.
The first thing you notice here is a great sense of the beauty of the normal — of breakfast, miso soup, rice and egg on ham. Umi acts as caretaker for a boarding house, and her meal prep is animated in loving detail, combining the dual Ghibli loves of mouth-watering food and accurately portrayed period items. The film has a true love for the forgotten objects of the era – wringing the water out of wet laundry through a mechanical vise, rolling ink on a mimeograph. The entire world of Yokohama in the ’60s is portrayed in intense and beautiful detail. Period songs like Sakamoto Kyu’s famous Ue o Muite Aruko (known by the ridiculous title Sukiyaki in the USA) and emotive school chants help set the scene.
No place receives more love than the Quartier Latin, a Ghibli location if ever there was one. This mere school building feels almost as magic as Howl’s castle thanks to its precarious club shacks, each devoted to a different colorful school club, and levers and pullies dangling about. The scenes showing the mass efforts to clean the building make such labor an adventure.
“Mass efforts” is a theme here, as the film shows us a studentry very unfamiliar to anyone who’s experienced modern Japan – one that’s politically active. The 60s were a socially tumultuous time in Japan, as elsewhere, and marked a high point for student involvement in mass movements. Thousands of university students shut down campuses via sitdowns; hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest the Red Scare and the reversal of hard-won citizen freedoms. Goro shows these high school students at their most idealized, holding mass debates full of passion and bombast. (It makes sense his father would put this in his script, given his direct experience with the protests of the time.)
It’s interesting that both Poppy Hill and Only Yesterday portray a detailed version of metro Tokyo in the 60s, but Takahata’s version feels more down-to-earth and realistic – Goro’s is a bit more idealized and very much more colorful. While Only Yesterday’s version certainly feels deeper, this one is perhaps more visually exciting.
Between the school scenes and the lively harbor town of Yokohama, this movie just feels so much more alive than Earthsea, with much more complicated blocking and layered imagery. It’s a major step up for Goro.
Still, it’s not an entirely perfect movie. A bit of spoiler territory here, but the whole “siblings or not siblings” storyline is a bit convoluted and can honestly be a bit hard to follow. It’s only this past watch where I really felt the thematic heft of linking Umi’s blossoming love to her late father, but I’m embarrassed to say that this took me rewinding and making sure I listened to every word said during the (somewhat incongruous) flashback scenes. I think it all works out well enough, but it feels like it could have been given more room to breathe. The cast is also large, and while colorful, we hardly get any time with most characters. This helps the world feel lived-in but doesn’t really help the storytelling.
Either way, though, this is a very good movie and a worthy Ghibli film for Goro. If anything, it really makes me wish he’d been given a third film. (In fact, my wish may be close to being granted…)
#19 – The Cat Returns
Nine Lives? More Like Nine Rewatches
By 2002, Studio Ghibli had officially been around for over a decade and a half. In all that time, only two films (only one if we just count theatrical outings) for the studio had been directed by anyone not named Miyazaki or Takahata. Kondo Yoshifumi, a potential heir to the founding directors, had sadly passed away only a few years after helming Whisper of the Heart. The studio needed to give younger talent a chance to prove itself.
When a theme park hired Ghibli to create a short of the topic of “cats,” Miyazaki decided to incorporate the popular imagined fantasy aspects from Whisper of the Heart – namely, the character of the Baron and the stray cat, Muta. Morita Hiroyuki was chosen to direct. Morita had gained experience on many of the classic anime movies of the 80s and 90s, and proved his skills as an animator on Takahata’s My Neighbors the Yamadas. After the theme park canceled the project, Miyazaki decided to continue with it anyway. He was impressed enough by Morita’s treatment that it blossomed into a full (albeit somewhat short) theatrical film, and Ghibli’s only released semi-sequel, seeming to perhaps take place within one of the stories written by Whisper’s protagonist Shizuku.
The plot goes as such: Haru is a young high school student, somewhat frustrated by her boring lot in life. One day, she saves a cat from being hit by a car; the cat, it turns out, is the prince of the magical Cat Kingdom. In thanks, the Cat King himself starts a troublesome campaign to repay Haru with live mice, catnip, and so on (this is the Returns in the title, 恩返し, meaning to do something for someone in return for kind deeds). When this culminates in an unwanted engagement to the cat prince, Haru enlists the talents of Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, the charismatic cat figurine from Whisper of the Heart, in order to help extricate her from her cat-related woes. An adventure in the Cat Kingdom commences.
The Cat Returns is interesting as a Ghibli film. It’s unquestionably the slightest of all their output in terms of theming and length. In many ways, it doesn’t even feel or look like a Ghibli movie. The designs are simpler, the color palate brighter but lacking in shading or detail. This makes it appear like a more generalized anime outing. Besides a basic “be confident in being yourself” message, there’s not much depth to be found here. All this is in stark contrast with the movie it follows up, Whisper of the Heart, which was a studied, deep portrait of real themes about growing up and self-doubt.
Despite all that, The Cat Returns is some of the most simple fun you can have with a Ghibli movie. It’s effortlessly charming, full of energy and humor. The cat motif is used perfectly here – we have secret service cats whose spots give them the appearance of wearing black suits; military cats with green camo fur; mysterious royal cat processions playing shakuhachi flutes. The characters are all highly likable, endearing themselves to us in ways that are quite impressive for such a short film. Haru is your affable goodhearted clutz, Baron is all charisma and steadfast morality, and the Cat King is the height of hilarious sketchiness. Muta, the large, trollish cat from Whisper, is the butt of some fat jokes that don’t quite bear the test of time, but he’s a loveable, powerful curmudgeon. Together, they go on an adventure that packs a surprising amount of thrill and excitement for something that’s so unserious and slight on the face of it. Their chemistry perfectly blends with the movie’s humor, creativity, and sense of gently propulsive action.
This combination makes for a movie that is hard to classify. It’s basically the perfect version of kid-aimed fluff; fun, bright, engaging, and – while not deep – not dumbed down. It’s the perfect movie to show the kids on a Sunday or just relax by yourself. Because it’s so accessible, I’ve actually watched it more than some other, weightier Ghibli films. The Cat Returns was actually a mainstay for my friend group in high school and college for just these reasons.
In the end, the movie does do one thing that feels very Ghibli – it leaves you with a slight sense of loss when it ends, wanting to return to its character and world. That bittersweet quality is something all the best Ghibli films have, and something impressive in such a light movie. Essentially, The Cat Returns punches above its pay grade. It really makes me wonder why Morita hasn’t had much director work since – he deserves it.
#18 – My Neighbors the Yamadas
No, It’s Not “Sort of Like the Japanese Simpsons“
“Rather than imprisoning us in another world via the expression of the minutia of the mere outer appearance of reality, like one does in ‘fantasy,’ I want to sketch out everyday humanity with simple tools, calling to mind the fleeting nature of our real world.” –Takahata Isao, from the theater pamphlet of My Neighbor’s the Yamadas.
If there’s one Ghibli film that’s criminally under-watched, it’s My Neighbors the Yamadas. After all, this was the sole theatrical film the studio made between 1989 and 2013 that wasn’t the top domestic film of its year. Admittedly, it isn’t hard to understand why. Takahata chose to adapt a yonkoma newspaper comic strip, and rather than shift the simple character designs into something more theatrical, he decided to employ digital painting to give the film a sparse, watercolor palette. The result is a Ghibli film that looks nothing like what we expect Ghibli to look like. It’s also essentially a series of vignettes about normal family life. Combine the style and the structure, and you have something that just doesn’t look all that appealing to your average Ghibli fan.
Appearances, of course, can be deceiving. This is a wonderful little movie, both genuinely funny and surprisingly meaningful. (Only surprising if you don’t already know it’s Takahata directing, but still.) Impressively, given the simple animation style, it’s also a beautiful movie.
The “plot” goes as such: The Yamadas are your typical Japanese nuclear family. Takashi, the pater familias, is your workaday salaryman. Matsuko is a mother and housewife. Shige, her elderly mother, lives with them. The couple has two children, 13-year-old Noboru and 5-year-old Nonoko. There’s a seldom-seen dog as well, Pochi. The film takes a humorous focus on the daily events and misadventures of family life.
Again, this might sound a shade boring, but this is Takahata we’re talking about. His previous movie, Pom Poko, proved the director’s comedy chops, something Yamadas follows up on. Both movies showcase Takahata’s mastery of comedic timing. Although I actually find the aforementioned film about tanuki more laugh-out-loud funny, Yamadas maintains a consistent humor that honestly keeps me smiling throughout. A great example is a quick gag in which Takashi and Matsuko, quarreling over who gets access to the TV, duel; Matsuko wields the remote, while Takashi blocks with his newspaper.
Despite the simple animation, every character action is imbued with subtle verisimilitude. What’s incredible here is how Takahata is able to convey the reality of human motion in the realism of Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday, the anthropomorphic tanuki of Pom Poko, and even in this cartoony feature. And despite the down-to-earth tone, there are a few flights of fancy where the animation is allowed to show us some impressive sights (such as an incredible scene towards the beginning where Nonoko, shocked at the thought that her parents had lives before she was born, imagines a dramatic pathway towards marriage and children for them).
The voice acting, at least in the Japanese, is similarly on point, perfectly conveying each emotion and the nuances of well-worn family relationships. Theming, too, is great. Interestingly, Nonoko – a character so popular in the newspaper comic that its title was eventually changed to “Nono-chan” – is hardly in the film. Noboru has some great scenes and lines (I especially like his failing attempts to exhaustedly soldier on with his homework), but the movie is really more about the adults. Aging, personal disappointments, feelings of self-worth, feeling out of touch with your kids – all these are examined in a relatable, gentle way. The end result is a movie that says a lot more than the sum of its disparate, humorous parts would imply.
Oh yeah, and the music, much of it supplied by Yano Akiko, is really great. So yeah, par for the course for Ghibli.
While I’d probably put this at the bottom of the list of Takahata’s movies for Ghibli, it’s still a wonderful look at life in your standard Japanese household. Like much of what Takahata does, it’s both singularly Japanese, while still being impressively approachable and universal. Don’t be put off by the style; this is another great Ghibli film.
(Sadly, it would take a staggering 14 years for Takahata to make another movie – one that would be his last.)
#17 – The Boy and the Heron
A decade is a long time. When Miyazaki’s supposed swan song, The Wind Rises, came out in 2013, it felt final, addressing so many themes related to the director’s life and ethos. It dealt with the idea of creation, of the power and danger of living a life devoted to bringing your ideas into the world – perhaps at great price. It also had something to say about the end of creativity, and the limited time in which a person can produce their best work. It felt both unique to Miyazaki’s catalog of films, and like a true capstone. I was sad to see Miyazaki’s career end, but it felt like the right note to go out on.
So, I won’t deny a little trepidation going into his first film in ten years, now titled The Boy and the Heron in English, although known pre-release by the translated title “How Do You Live”. With the supposed final word already said, would going back to the well ruin some of the fullness of Miyazaki’s career? A minor worry, compared to the joy of watching a completely new film by one of the world’s foremost directors, but still.
The Boy and the Heron turned out to be more of a coda than a new ending. The Wind Rises is about the pursuit of creativity and its end results. This film is about the legacy of a created world, and the new generation. Does the next generation take up the mantle? Does it choose a new path? Does it matter?
The plot (and, indeed, visuals, soundtrack, cast, crew, and more) of this film were kept tightly under wraps until its first day of release, and even after. When I reviewed it on day 1, I chose to avoid describing the plot in any detail to help keep some of that mystery alive. Now, I’ll go a little farther, and at least discuss the main plot, as many other outlets have already.
Mahito is a pre-teen boy living in war-torn Japan. His mother dies in a firebombing; he tried to save her, but could not. Mahito and his father, who leads a team working on fighter planes, move to the countryside to escape the bombings. Their new domicile is Mahito’s mother’s family homestead; Mahito’s father is now betrothed to his younger, former sister-in-law. Mahito has difficulty adjusting – made worse by the presence of an otherworldly grey heron, who speaks in threatening riddles and seems to have a humanoid entity living within it. As strange things continue to occur around his new home, Mahito is drawn towards an abandoned tower – and into another world.
Miyazaki is known for certain trademarks: flight, planes, pigs, slime, what have you. Many Miyazakian visuals appear throughout the breadth of his films. That said, Heron feels more like a mish-mash of his previous movies than we’ve seen before. The first forty minutes hew close to The Wind Rises, being similarly autobiographical – something that feels a bit strange, comparatively hot on the heels of Miyazaki’s last wartime Japan-set film. From there, the movie becomes a bit like a darker Spirited Away. It never quite achieves the same level of storytelling cohesion as either film.
But what it does achieve is an almost unapparelled sense of visual wonder. As the setting consistently shifts, the world’s center barely holding, we’re treated to innumerable striking images, all so very “Miyazaki.” These powerful images have stayed with me long after seeing the film. While the movie lacks the truly memorable characters (save perhaps the Grey Heron) or expertly structured plot of previous works, the atmosphere is incredible. It’s like a fever dream of Miyizakian images, like he’s trying to get out as many of his visual ideas as possible in the time he has left. It’s almost overwhelming, and it’s certainly wonderful.
In the end, the movie does leave us with some deep concepts to mull over. The impact of the final scenes is something else, helped along by Hisaishi Joe’s somewhat understated but, finally, haunting score.
It all makes for an amazing experience, perhaps more than a fully amazing movie. That’s why, currently, I have to rank this at the bottom of my personal list of Miyazaki’s Ghibli films. But I have the feeling that as I return to The Boy and Heron – especially as I grow older, and have more time to consider the passing of generations – I’ll only come to appreciate it all the more.
#16 – Ponyo
Fish are Friends
Ever since I first saw it way back in 2009, Ponyo was always the Miyazaki film to which I felt the least attached. I think this was for the same reasons some consider it his weakest film – it isn’t as deep, its plot is pretty much entirely inconsequential, and it doesn’t have that deep bittersweet pull I think so many of us associate with his work. In a word, it feels a bit more “kiddy.” Of course, that’s exactly what Miyazaki was going for – this is a movie aimed explicitly at five-year-olds.
Here’s the story: Brunhilde is the tiny human-faced goldfish daughter of an underwater wizard and the Goddess of the Sea. (Just your everyday family, really). One day, she escapes the ocean depths by hitching a ride on a jellyfish. Approaching a Japanese port city, she finds herself trapped in a discarded bottle. Sosuke, a five-year-old boy, finds the struggling goldfish and quickly acts to save her. As he bonds with the fish, renaming her Ponyo, the goldfish decides to become human. The two children make every effort to stay together despite the intervention of Ponyo’s father and the fury of the ocean unleashed on the town as Ponyo’s magic upsets the balance of the Earth.
I think part of the reason I’ve felt let down by Ponyo in the past had to do with when it came out. After the heavy themes and generally mature presentation of Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo can look and feel slighter. If you’re comparing it to what came before, Ponyo lacks pathos. Every previous Miyazaki film had a degree of somberness to go along with its fantastical imagery and sense of fun; the fairytale world of Ponyo makes the horror of tsunamis and flooded towns look adventurous. When this was the latest Miyazaki film, it was easy to worry if we’d ever get anything as deep as the previous movies again.
We shouldn’t have worried. The Wind Rises debuted five years later, marking a return to heady theming and serious storytelling. Now that Ponyo is one film within a canon of 13 Miyazaki and 23 Ghibli films, I find myself letting go of my hangups and enjoying this movie for the (thematically) simple wonder it is.
Truthfully, this is a joyful movie, filled with some of the most breathtaking and technically beautiful animation ever put to film. The animation, all hand-drawn, is a pure marvel. Miyazaki has never focused so much on the sea (besides the surface of the Adriatic in Porco), and he truly allowed his imagination to run wild here, inhabiting every frame with innumerable sea creatures. The screen is alive at all times, moving with hundreds of graceful fish and personified waves. It’s like a storybook come to improbable, heightened life.
Ponyo herself is wonderfully cute and endearingly obnoxious. She pairs quite well with Sosuke, a pure-hearted kid as any Miyazaki protagonist. He’s completely willing to love and accept Ponyo in any form. Similarly, he’s willing to comfort his slightly manic but loving mother, Lisa, and is admirably competent for a five-year-old, but never precocious. Fujimoto, Ponyo’s eccentric, harried wizard father, is a hilarious joy and a personal favorite. Other characters, like the old women at the retirement home where Lisa works, are more great Ghibli elders (and are played by none other than Betty White, Lily Tomlin, and Cloris Leachman in the almost overly star-studded dub).
Despite marveling at the animation and thoroughly enjoying Ponyo overall, even with my improved outlook, I can’t quite think of this as a perfect film. The first two-thirds chug along excitingly, but the last third flounders (fish pun!) somewhat, and the film hardly has a climax to speak of. There are great themes briefly explored (the terrible pollution of the harbor, care for the elderly) that serve as second fiddle to a more generalized story of love and acceptance. Structurally and thematically it can’t hold up to other Ghibli fare. This can seem a bit strange since Totoro – also aimed at young children – accomplishes all the things that Ponyo doesn’t quite manage (or even really try to do). Totoro speaks to the truth of childhood; Ponyo entertains children.
But that doesn’t really matter that much. This is an incredibly spritely, unbelievably beautiful, exceedingly likable movie. It shows and celebrates the intrinsic connection between Japan and the sea like few movies ever could. And overall, it’s just a joy to watch. Honestly, I’ve been giving Ponyo short shrift for too long. No longer!
#15 – Porco Rosso
“The true meaning of ‘cool.” Has any Ghibli tagline ever been more accurate?
Porco Rosso occupies a strange place within Western public consciousness towards Miyazaki films. Coming in at about halfway through Hayao’s oeuvre, Porco is just a bit too late to be a childhood 80s classic and a bit too early to be part of the Mononoke–Spirited Away–Howl’s–Ponyo goldilocks period wherein Miyazaki made his name outside of Japan. Its strange central conceit (a WWI flying ace turned into an anthropomorphic pig) also seems to turn some away. As such, it’s not uncommon to encounter Miyazaki fans who’ve never seen Porco, or to see it somehow placed at the bottom of Miyazaki ranking lists.
(An especially egregious rankings I recently saw placed it at the very bottom for all Ghibli films… while ranking Earthsea at #11).
Which is all a shame, really. Porco, a movie more after its own creator’s heart than perhaps any other, is full of classic Miyazaki charm. It has wonderfully funny and energetic characters, beautifully animated flying sequences, a strong female supporting cast, a nicely-played anti-fascist message, and a pitch-perfect soundtrack by Hisaishi Joe. Where I feel Porco really stands out among Miyazaki’s catalog, however, is in two aspects: setting and tone.
Porco Rosso is set in the interwar period in the Adriatic, the sea which lays between the Italian and Baltic Penninsulas. The turquoise waters, white sand, blue skies, and burnished cliffsides of the Adriatic are where the majority of the action takes place; they are the pigments with which Miyazaki paints this moving picture. The focus on Miyazaki’s beloved aviation grants the film a sense of freedom; the relaxed island hideaways, calm seaside docks, aging Adriatic architecture, and general Mediterranean atmosphere give Porco a unique sense of peace amidst the almost-zany action of its plot. The portrayal of these soothing, somehow nostalgic settings on Italian islands and Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast are unique to Porco within the Ghibli canon.
Its this deep sense of aforementioned nostalgia, of longing for bygone days and long-lost friends, that is this film’s enduring legacy. This tone fits with the unique purpose this film had for Miyazaki as a director. While most Ghibli films can be enjoyed by just about anyone, Miyazaki’s films tend to be made with a specific audience in mind. Totoro is for young children; Ponyo was made specifically for five-year-olds, Spirited Away was made for a ten-year-old daughter of a Miyazaki acquaintance. Even the films that don’t skew young (Princess Mononoke) are still for a general audience. Porco, however, is the sole film Miyazaki made with his own contemporary age bracket in mind: middle-aged men. Thus, despite in some ways being the most “cartoony” of Miyazaki’s films, it’s laced with the wistful melancholy of someone who’s experienced love, loss, and disillusionment. It longs, romantically, for a time that perhaps never was.
Porco himself is the embodiment of this. A romantic cynic, he’s become so disenchanted with mankind that he’s become a pig. The fact that he takes this transformation completely in stride adds massively to his cool factor; and yes, despite being a pig, Porco is cool. He’s an early-’90s middle-aged man’s version of cool: taciturn, strong, no-nonsense, hard-smoking, and hard-drinking. He lives on an isolated island hideout, lounging by the beach, drinking red wine and smoking cigarettes. He captures the hearts of two women, but Bogart-esque, he resists, isolating himself. He’s full of machismo, but that’s part of the nostalgic charm.
Of course, it wouldn’t be half so charming if Miyazaki didn’t dismantle such tropes by countering them with female strength. There are two women in Porco’s life. One is his longtime friend, the elegant, legendary sea-bound restaurateur Gina. The other is Fio, a spunky, genius airplane designer. Both defy Proco’s idea of gender roles; both are strong, memorable characters. On this theme, a scene where an airplane workshop staffed entirely by women takes to building an airplane while Porco sits by, essentially useless, is one of the most exhilarating and fun scenes Miyazaki ever conceived.
And did I mention the music? Alongside perfectly melancholic, meditative tunes, we have those full of cartoony bombast, the almost mournfully nostalgic ending theme, and a piece that is secretly one of Hisaishi’s best-ever action tunes. It’s another case where the Hisaishi-Miyazaki pairing proves to be perfection.
So, do yourself a favor and check this one out. On steady reflection, it may not be the most perfect of Miyazaki’s films, but it’s still its own unique, irreplaceable experience of joy and melancholy. As Porco says, “farewell to freedom in the Adriatic and to the days of wild abandon.”
*A special note – it’s worth taking a listen to this film in various languages. While I always go with the original Japanese track, Michael Keaton is quite good as Porco in the English, and even more interesting is Jean Reno in the French – which, it’s said, is Miyazaki’s preferred version of the film.
#14 – Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
One With the Ohmu
This really is the film that started it all. While not Miyazaki’s first or even technically a Ghibli feature, it’s Nausicaa who cemented the director’s style and made his name; it’s also the film that lead directly to the founding of Studio Ghibli.
To be honest, this was never my favorite Ghibli film. That’s likely because of the order I originally saw these in. Nausicaa was one of the later Disney releases in the US, and as a teenager, the movie felt rough and unfinished compared to my other Ghibli experiences. The occasional electronic synth employed by Hisaishi also took me out of the story; it felt so different from his usual orchestral themes. Add to all this that Miyazaki would re-use similar storytelling themes in a more polished form in his future movies, and Nausicaa just felt somehow less-than to my younger self.
While some of these complaints still hold true, I found in my more recent viewing that I had much greater respect for Nausicaa than did my younger self. First of all, this is a fantasy film that truly deserving of the word “fantastic.” The imagery here is extremely strong. Nausicaa on her glider; hulking aircraft exploding in flames; hordes of detailed, giant insects; and most of all, the wonderful Ohmu. Whoever thought that monstrously-sized bugs could be so charismatic?
If the plot surrounding all this seems somewhat less in-focus than other Miyazaki outings, it’s likely because it is. Miyazaki’s Nausicaa manga, which was only two volumes in at the time the film released, is a vastly more complex epic. The film is only able to scrape its surface, which leaves a somewhat sketchy plot involving the machinations of the great powers surrounding the Valley of the Wind. This bothered me when I was younger; not so much now. Perhaps I’m now better at grasping such plotlines from the little information we receive.
The most important and enduring aspect of the film, however, is its protagonist and namesake. There’s a reason why Nausciaa still regularly tops Japanese surveys about most beloved female anime characters. She’s essentially the perfect, idealized Miyazaki heroine. Unquestionably idealistic, startlingly strong, unwaveringly kind, incredibly empathetic, in touch with herself, her people, and the land and all creatures upon it; Nausicaa is almost too perfect. She’s almost Gandhi-like, willing to threaten her own safety for the good of her followers. But herein lies her genius; she can be both supremely bad-ass and completely sympathetic. If you want an idealized hero, you can’t do much better than Nausicaa.
It’s hard to ignore the gendered aspect here, too – mostly in that there is no gendered aspect. The post-apocolyptic world of Nausicaa isn’t bound by gender roles. Both the protagonist and the antagonist exist as powerful, competent figures whose status is never doubted on the basis of gender. Nausicaa is the poster-girl for Miyazaki’s famed female characters, but the whole world shown here can serve the same purpose.
I have to return briefly to the music now; I said earlier that I disliked how the score was presented when I was younger. Now, more appreciative of all things synth, I no longer have this problem. It’s interesting to hear Hisaishi’s synth era melding in with his grand opratic scores, and while it helps date the film, that isn’t all bad. And as for the main theme? This is one of Hisaishi’s greatest efforts in his long, storied career. Hisaishi often starts off concerts with the bombastic, mournful, epic sounds of Nausicaa. This is for good reason.
In the end, this film has risen in my estimation. Some aspects remain rough, but overall, this is classic filmmaking. The story is meaningful and satisfying. Most of all, the sheer morality of it all – the morality of the idealized Nausicaa, who cares for friend and foe alike, and even the morality of the earth itself – is spellbinding.
(Worthy of note is that Miyazaki found the ending frustrating. Hew would return to the same themes in a less-messianic way with Princess Mononoke some 13 years later.)
#13 – Howl’s Moving Castle
Howling for More
Howl’s Moving Castle is an interesting Ghibli movie to try to rank. On the one hand, its story is a little slip-shod. It has what is possibly Miyazaki’s weakest ending. Thematically, its mish-mash of anti-war themes, portrayal of the meaning of being old, and “love conquers all” messaging doesn’t segue quite as well as some of the director’s other work. At the same time, there’s no denying it: this movie is a true Miyazaki tour de force, one of his most beautiful films, and simply engaging as all get-out. As part of what I envision as the Miyazaki “big three” that helped bring the director to mass popularity in Europe and the Americas, Howl is perhaps not as perfect as Mononoke or Spirited Away. For all that, it’s still pretty dang great.
In 2001, fresh off Spirited Away‘s mega-success, Miyazaki selected a novel by beloved British author Diana Wynne Jones as inspiration for the next big studio project. Originally, the director was to be Hosoda Mamoru, who would go on to fame for such films as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children. This would have been another major non-Miyazaki/Takahata picture, moving the studio away from its dependence on the old masters – but Hosoda strained under Ghibli expectations. When he dropped out in 2002, Miyazaki decided to take over the film himself.
The plot, which is mostly loosely based on that of the novel, goes as so: Sophie is a hatter in a magical kingdom that resembles Alsace-Lorraine during the Belle Époque era. She’s a bit of a wallflower but is generally content with her life. One day, while out on an errand, she encounters the infamous magician Howl. For daring to receive his attentions, the evil Witch of the Waste curses Sophie with old age. Undeterred, Sophie sets out to find Howl’s enchanted moving castle in the wastes in order to get him to break the spell. From there, she begins a domestic life in the castle, experiences first love, and helps Howl on his quest to end a ruinous war with a neighboring country.
This movie came out when I was in high school, and was a mainstay for my friend group. I have strong memories of seeing it in theaters and how magical that communal experience was. Many of my friends held crushes for Christian Bale’s version of Howl.(For good reason – has Ghibli ever produced a prettier character?) Later on, I recognized its flaws – particularly, that the movie somehow felt shallower than other Ghibli movies. The war story felt tacked on, and the abrupt ending just felt a little preposterous. For a long time, I set it aside. I probably hadn’t seen it in half a decade before re-watching it for this list.
But now, after not watching it for so long, Howl has once again filled my heart with wonder. Unlike most Miyazaki movies, which I’ve watched many times over the years, I was able to re-acquaint myself with a wonderous feeling: coming to a fully-fledged feature film by the maestro with fresh eyes. It really was a joy to behold, and I felt myself becoming completely swept up in Sophie and Howl’s world.
This is perhaps the truest “fantasy” film Miyazaki has yet made. Sophie’s world is a shockingly vibrant, perfectly portraying a pre-war Europe filled with magic and color. The rules may not be set as well as in Spirited Away, but the setting is still a wonder. I’d forgotten just how incredible a creation the titular moving castle itself is; it’s another filmic setting for the ages. It’s interior, strangely inviting for having such a monstrous exterior, is the sort of place you just want to spend more time in. As Sophie becomes a member of Howl’s household, we’re taken in along with her, a sense of comfort coming over us. And what a fantastic place it is – in particular, my imagination has always been excited by the door which opens on different locations depending on how one turns the doorknob. When the nob turns, and the color of the sky outside the window briefly changes to that of the new location, the movie takes on the feeling of the best sort of stage play. We’re allowed to imagine something incredible just via the power of this small visual cue.
Speaking of visuals, everything here looks incredible. This is simply a gorgeous movie. Perhaps even excessively so – spaces like Howl’s bedroom, full of innumerable sparkling gold knick-knacks, magical items, and jewels, are almost overwhelming in their beauty. It feels like Miyazaki pulling out all the stops after his incredible success with Mononoke and Spirited Away. I’m not sure any Ghibli movie ever possessed this sort of overwhelming visual beauty before or after Howl’s. (Well, Ponyo is a contender, but stylistically very different.)
Sophie is the star here, and she’s just a great, classic Miyazaki heroine. In attitude, she doesn’t much resemble Nausicaa or San, but her complete willingness to get to work and do what’s right, almost immediately embracing her newfound age, is inspiring. As a symbol of how to age gracefully, and how age can even grant freedom of expression, she’s another great feminist Ghibli icon. She shares a love story with Howl that’s one of Ghibli’s best as well, aided by how charismatic and flawed the pacifistic, vain love interest is. The surrounding characters are all a joy as well, especially cantankerous fire demon Calcipher and the haughty Witch of the Waste.
It almost goes without saying that Hisaishi Joe’s score here is exemplary. But I’ll say it anyway: this is another masterpiece of a soundtrack, perfectly creating an atmosphere that goes along with the film’s quirk, magic, melancholy, and bombast. The main theme remains one of the great Ghibli tracks, but I also absolutely love the wistful sound of “The Boy Who Swallowed a Star“.
As Howl progressed, I was completely swept into its world. Much of the picture is on par with the best of Ghibli. Sadly, the ending (save for the gratifying final few frames) is among in the weakest in the studio’s roster, making this a movie that’s truly about the journey rather than the destination. But for a film that has so much to do with the importance of found family, it makes sense that you’d be left wanting to return for another stay at Howl’s moving castle.
#12 – My Neighbor Totoro
The Ideal Neighbor
Totoro is the very symbol of Studio Ghibli, and while other films may have eclipsed him in sheer popularity (mainly Spirited Away), in terms of beloved characters it’s hard to beat out this big, furry guy. Totoro, however, is far from merely good branding.
The story here is simple: Young Satsuki and her even younger sister, Mei, move out into the countryside with their professor father. The move is done in order to be close to their mother, who is in the hospital for an unnamed reoccurring ailment (implied to perhaps be tuberculosis, a disease Miyazaki’s own mother suffered from). Their new home is a wonderful old rambler, constructed mostly in traditional Japanese style save a strange, abutting western-style section. Satsuki and Mei take to their new country environs with great abandon, eventually coming into contact with the friendly forest spirits who inhabit the woods around their home.
In what had to be one of history’s most challenging double-features, Totoro was released on a single ticket with Takahata’s epically tragic Grave of the Fireflies. As you might expect, audiences reacted to this very differently depending on which film was shown first. Interestingly, the two movies – despite major tonal difference– do contain similar themes. Fireflies takes place in ‘45, perhaps the most traumatizing year in Japanese history. Totoro picks up in the mid-’50s, a decade and a world away from the war. Fireflies is childhood as it never should be; Totoro is childhood allowed to flourish. It shows children thriving and healthy only a scant few years after the horrors shown in Fireflies. It’s almost an antidote to the incredible sadness that film brings on.
Famously, Roger Ebert called Fireflies one of the very best war movies ever made; he also called Totoro one of the best family films ever created. That two of Ebert’s “great films” would appear under one billing is fairly amazing.
Really, Totoro deserves all the accolades it gets. As an example of its simple, immersive power, allow me to relate one of my earlier childhood memories: I was maybe four or five years old, and my friend Adam had invited me over to play. Entering from the garage to his basement, we saw his little sister watching a movie: on the CRT, two small girls explored through shimmering green grass. My friend wanted to go upstairs, but something in the film had caught me, and so we sat down to watch it. Adam soon became bored; I, however, was enraptured by the comforting atmosphere and mysterious promise of Totoro’s world. My friend went upstairs while I remained in the basement, watching the film until the credits rolled. It would be seven years before I had the faintest idea about Ghibli or Miyazaki, but even then I knew I had seen something special.
Watching the movie as an adult, it still has the power to put you in that same mindset. More than anything, Totoro, both the film and forest spirit, are gentle. His world is one where magical secrets could lurk behind any corner, yet the world itself is so real, so recognizable in form and feeling, that it perfectly encapsulates the incredible experience of being a child. Childhood is a time when magic does feel real, and so it does in Totoro. Combine this with realistically and likeably portrayed children, a father who actually nurtures imagination and trusts his progeny instead of doubting, and an incredibly fun and atmospheric score by Hisaishi, and you do indeed have one of the best children’s films ever made.
#11 – Kiki’s Delivery Service
Broom Sticks the Landing
It truly boggles the mind how many classic films Miyazaki and Ghibli managed to put out in their first decade of existence. Kiki’s Delivery Service, released in the same year of my birth, is one among a series of such great films. However, it by no means deserves to be lost within this embarrassment of riches. Kiki is a wonder all her own.
Based on a children’s novel by Kadono Eiko, the film is the coming-of-age tale for the titular witch. Kiki is from a long line of witches; her mother settled in a small town, providing magic potions for her neighbors. Kiki has recently turned thirteen, and as is tradition, she now has to take off on her broomstick and find a new town to call her own for a year. So she heads off to find her independence, her father’s transistor radio and her beloved talking black cat Jiji in tow. Settling in a beautiful town by the sea, she makes use of her flying abilities to set up a delivery service. However, isolation, depression, self-doubt, and more soon set in. Kiki has to figure out how to flourish in a new setting despite these emotional hardships. In other words, she needs to learn how to grow up.
Kiki released in 1998 in the United States, and many Americans around my age will remember the Disney VHS release of the movie. This was before the strict no-cuts rule for Ghibli foreign distributors that started with Princess Mononoke, and although no scenes were removed, the American release had noticeable differences: Yumin’s classic opening and ending songs were replaced with new pop music, goofy sound effects were added, the late, great Phil Hartman ad-libbed in new jokes for Jiji, etc. Despite the attempts to kidify the movie, the film still struck a chord with young viewers across America. It became a sleeper hit on American CRTs, just as a decade earlier in Japan it had become Ghibli’s first box office smash (started the studio’s nigh-unbroken annual record of top Japanese films).
Kiki deserves these dual successes. On the surface, like Totoro, it appears to be a gentle children’s film: no real villain, no real (external) conflict, just a beautiful, somewhat fantastical setting and the generally kind characters that inhabit it. Kiki, however, is a bit more grown-up. Although the joy of flight and the beautiful, inviting nature of the port city of Koriko (part Lisbon, part Stockholm, part San Francisco) are major draws, its Kiki’s oh-so-recognizable internal struggle that cements the film’s greatness.
She arrives in her new city excited and ready to start a new life, only to discover how cold and distant new surroundings can be. For anyone who’s experienced moving to new places, you’ll instantly recognize the scenes of Kiki’s excitement and trepidation as she comes to understand her new environs. She makes major strides, meets new friends, experiences indifference, kindness, and being an object of curiosity. Most interestingly, she also endures a bout of very real depression brought on by self-doubt; a sort of magical writer’s block. The fact that an ostensible children’s film would deal so honestly with feelings of imposter syndrome is quite amazing.
This is also another wonderful female-viewpoint film for Ghibli. Almost every major figure here is female, including all of Kiki’s mentor figures. The only major male character is the affable Tonbo, an aviation geek smitten by Kiki’s levitation abilities. Their love story is gentle, perhaps even more about friendship than anything else.
I actually made use of the English dub of this film to introduce young students in Japan to the idea of watching films with subtitles; as a result, I watched Kiki multiple times in a very short period as I showed it to my various classes. I never got tired of it, and each time I found myself immersed in its warm world and Kiki’s surprisingly deep character arc. It’s a testament to this film that I enjoyed it again day-after-day. (I also entertained my students by doing impressions of the cute, high voice of the original Japanese Jiji versus Phil Hartman’s much more masculine, jocular voice.)
Kiki is one of Miyazaki’s most well-known and beloved films, and yet I feel like it’s somehow underestimated. It’s simply wonderful. I’ll leave this section with Kiki’s last words in the film, which I feel so encapsulate it:
“There are times when I feel depressed, but I really do love this town.”
Next up, we enter the top-ten! From here on out, every single film is a classic. Join us tomorrow to check them out!