The Ultimate Ranking of the Studio Ghibli Universe: #5-1

The Ultimate Ranking of the Studio Ghibli Universe: #5-1

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Miyazaki, Takahata and gang
Our Studio Ghibli countdown wraps up with a bang. Find out which films from Miyazaki and Co. made our reviewer's top five!

Every Ghibli Film, Short, Music Video, Direct-to-DVD feature, Pre-Ghibli Film, and Spin-Off Ranked

Page navigation: #46-30, #29-20, #19-11, #10-6, #5-1

We’ve covered almost every aspect of the Ghibli Universe, from its still-memorable lowlights to many of the best animated films ever made. All that’s left is my top 5 – each an utter masterpiece.

#5 – Castle in the Sky

It’s Levitation, Holmes

Here we have the first film actually produced under the Ghibli brand. We also have, I believe, one of that brand’s most memorable films. It’s honestly a joy to be able to put the earliest true Ghibli film this close to the top.

Miyazaki followed up Nausicaa with another fantasy epic. This film, however, is of a different mold. Whereas Nausicaa was a serious fantasy film geared perhaps towards a somewhat older audience, this film finds Miyazaki aiming more directly towards children. The end result, however, is far from childish.

The story follows protagonists Pazu and Sheeta. The latter is a young girl with a mysterious necklace that allows levitation. Captured by shadowy government figures and sought after by pirates, she falls from a dirigible – only to be saved by the necklace in question. When Sheeta happens to float down to the mine where young Pazu is working, the two form a fast friendship, setting off to uncover the mysteries of the necklace’s origins in the floating kingdom of Laputa. Along the way they have to dodge government spies, air pirates, and rogue robots.

This movie’s merits are numerous. It’s the perfect combination of setting, character, pacing, action, emotion, and music. Perhaps what most sets it apart, at least personally for me, are the incredible locations featured in the film. (This rewatch has reminded me anew of just how important a sense of place is to Ghibli’s success.) Ever since I first watched Castle in the Sky, there’s been something about the world presented that tugs at my heart. It’s almost a sense of wistful nostalgia, a longing for a place that’s already ceased to be within the film’s own universe. The derelict mines of Pazu’s hometown, entire valleys given over to rusting tin shacks, with buildings clinging to cliff sides; the grimy warmth of Dola’s ship, the Tiger Moth; darkened caves lit up by gently glowing stones. Laputa itself contains scene after scene of incredible imagery. A single shot of a small pond, hundreds of feet deep and full of inundated passageways and buildings, says more than most movies do in their entire runtimes. The images also tell of an incredible history we’ll never know – in the depths of Laputa, the very sight of bulky, almost petrified robots speaks to centuries of Laputan technology and history lost to time. We move through a mind-blowing array of unique, memorable set-pieces, yet we’re allowed enough time in each to linger, to appreciate.

Hisaishi Joe’s score is the perfect complement to this imagery. His music has always had an incredible, heartwrenching bitter-sweet quality. Here, it’s used to perfection for grand scale as well as small, personal moments. It’s as ideal a pairing for the images of abandoned mines and ancient cities as it is for minecart chases and desperate rescue missions.

Such adventure scenes are part of what makes the movie so exciting. There’s a purposiveness here to the action that even outdoes that of Cagliostro, the only other Miyazaki film with a similar sense of action. Miyazaki does destruction so well; when Dola’s car careens into a small shack, smashing it to pieces, the animation makes you feel the impact. There’s explosions and mass chaos, and the animation truly coveys the power of such destruction.

The final piece of the puzzle is the characters. This movie is full of memorable personas. Pazu and Sheeta are both wonderfully innocent, yet tough; their immediate friendship is heartwarming to behold. The pirate Dola is one of my favorite Miyazaki creations, so incredibly capable, strong, and sly. Her “sons,”  so much weaker, are hilarious in their own right. Muska, the villain, is far from deep, but his comportment and endless quotability make him extremely watchable (there’s a reason almost every line he says has become a meme in Japan).

Castle in the Sky has a familiar message to other Miyazaki fare: the destruction humans bring upon nature and themselves through the thoughtless use of technology. However, the environmental message, even if clearly present, is a bit muted compared to its predecessor, Nausicaa. One message, however, shines out just as brightly. Radical kindness and selflessness is a characteristic Nausicaa, Pazu, and Sheeta all posses. In the end, that’s a major part of what I take away from this movie.

When I started this re-watch, I didn’t expect to rank Castle in the Sky quite so high. However, for all the reasons above, I can’t help but think of this first Ghibli film as one of their most perfect. This is such a big, bold adventure. It’s just a joy to behold.

#4 – Princess Mononoke

Imminent Emishi Eminence

I have to admit a tiny bit of bias when it comes to ranking this film. More than any single piece of media, Princess Mononoke has had an indelible effect on my life. When my parents brought home the dub VHS copy from Hollywood Video back in 1999, I was already interested in Japan and Japanese media, but it was this movie that solidified that interest into what became a true passion. Something about Mononoke got to me in a way no other film had before. It was epic, melancholic, complex, romantic, beautiful, and striking. It drew me completely into a mythical Japanese world of primordial forests, hulking animal gods, and mounted warriors. It managed to both thrill me and make me incredibly whistful, granting a sense of the melancholy for a lost world I’d never known. I watched the movie maybe 40 times over the next year; it helped create the enduring fascination with Japanese culture, history, and language that has essentially guided my life ever since.


However, even divorced from any personal connection, Mononoke is a film unlike any other with Ghibli, and perhaps unlike any other created in Japan. In terms of tone and scale, none can best it. This is the grandest of Ghibli epics, and could easily be called Miyazaki and Ghibli’s very best.

The plot goes as so: deep in northern Japan lives a tribe of the vanishing indigenous Emishi people. One day, the settlement is attacked by a tatarigami, a corrupted god, its flesh turned to putrid, miasmic worms. Ashitaka, the tribe’s prince, defends the village, but during the battle his right arm is grasped by the tatarigami’s corrupted flesh, and becomes cursed. The demonic mark on his arm will slowly kill him, and he is expelled from the village. Ashitaka heads to the west, hoping to find the forest of the gods from which the cursed being fled. There, he encounters the wolf girl San (the titular Princess Mononoke), a foundling adopted by the great wolf god Moro-no-okami. Ashitaka becomes embroiled in the titanic battle between the gods of the forest and the encroaching early industry of Japan.

Princess Mononoke is one of the first movies people think of when they hear the name “Miyazaki.” It’s a bonafide masterpiece and a titan of its medium (and was even briefly the highest grossing film in Japanese box office history). As such, there’s little I can write about here that hasn’t been said before, so here’s a few points that stuck out on this latest viewing:

I can never say enough about Hisaishi Joe’s score. This is maybe his best work; epic, evocative, emotional. This was the first film soundtrack I ever sought out and bought, and even today the sounds of The Legend of Ashitaka, Mononoke-Hime, or Ashitaka and San just make me feel something. To me, this is one of the best scores ever put to film.

Next thought: Even for a Ghibli movie, Mononoke is surprisingly subversive. Our main character, Ashitaka, is an Emishi — a member of a non-Yamato indigenous group whose origins and exact make-up remain a mystery, but who were likely related to the ancient Jomon people and the still-extant Ainu. This is perhaps the only media I’ve seen which makes use of the extinct Emishi in this way, and feels like the continuation of Takahata and Miyazaki’s attempts at portraying the Ainu in Horus, Prince of the Sun. In a country where the reality of non-Japanese ingenious groups is often forgotten, having Ashitaka be such an outsider is almost radical. Additionally, the fact that the average Japanese people in Iron Town are essentially unaware that an emperor even exists (and the fact that the unseen emperor isn’t portrayed in the best light, which is quite rare for Japanese film – although something Takahata would repeat two decades later) implies a Japan that is far from the unified, single culture that goes back to time immemorial as is so often touted. Add to that the feminism at play — women are portrayed as smarter and more capable than their surrounding men, and Iron Town ruler Lady Eboshi is a liberator and empowerer of her fellow women (as well as the disabled) and you have what is secretly a rather radical film on your hands. And that’s without getting into the obvious environmentalism.

Coming to said environmentalism, this film is famously about the never-ending clash of man and nature. Some may know that Mononoke is in many ways Miyazaki’s attempt at re-examining his themes from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, a movie which this film shares much in common with. Both feature industry and humanity in constant strife with the environment, personified by giant godlike creatures. Both pattern their beautiful, primal forests on the untouched woodlands of Yakushima island in Japan’s Kagoshima Prefecture. Both feature a morally perfect protagonist who attempts to find a middle way for man and nature and tries to protect every aspect of both realms. Indeed, Ashitaka is almost Nausicaa reborn, only gender-swapped and slightly more self-serious. Interesting that Ashitaka is almost the sole male Ghibli character to fit within the pattern of strong female characters.

Of course, most interesting is that unlike Nausicaa, the demonically-empowered Ashitaka is not a messianic figure. Miyazaki was long disappointed in the messianic ending he gave Nausicaa (something brought on by having to give a conclusion to a film based on a manga series he was less than a third of the way through completing). Princess Mononoke implies something more bittersweet, more mature than Nausicaa: that man and nature will never live in pure harmony. The forest will continue to be destroyed, and the old gods will pass from our world. However, via hard work, something can be conserved. We can revitalize the natural world around us if we come together, even if it’ll never be the same as it once was. In the meantime, we must survive.

Much has been made of how violent this movie is compared to other Ghibli fare (although it is much bloodier than any other film in their roster, Grave of the Fireflies remains more disturbing). It’s worth noting how the violence comes in quick bursts, how the action – although thrilling – is somewhat restrained. Still, I can’t help but point out how badass both Ashitaka and San are. Both have crowning moments of glory (San’s assault on Iron Town, Ashitaka blocking arrows with his blade and catching a bolt in mid-air, sending it back at his attacker). The action is so well choreographed, and looks like nothing else Miyazaki ever did.

I could keep on writing here, about character themes, about how iconic and complex Lady Eboshi is as a respectable feminist antagonist, how militant monk Jigo-bo can represent the violent use of religion in Japanese history, about how Ashitakata’s role as an imperiled indigenous minority meshes with his portrayal as someone closer to nature but still drawn to the power and population of the industrial town,  etc. etc. Maybe one day I’ll do a full article on Mononoke; lord knows it deserves it.

For the time being, I’ll say that if there’s one drawback to Princess Mononoke, it’s that if you first come to Ghibli, anime, or Japanese film via it, you may be somewhat disappointed to know that there’s really no other movie like it. It’s unique for many reasons, and uniquely powerful. It may well leave you wanting more; not just for more movies of its quality and style, but for more of the world of Princess Mononoke itself. Like all the very best Ghibli films, it leaves you wanting more — and brings you back again, year after year.

#3 – Only Yesterday

Safflower Empowerment

For the past few years, if you asked me what the best Ghibli film was, I’d have told you “Only Yesterday” without skipping a beat. Sure, there are Ghibli films I prefer rewatching or which I might consider more of a personal favorite, but in terms of sheer strength as a film, Takahata’s sophomore Ghibli effort is difficult to beat. If, during this re-watch, it’s slipped a few rankings, that’s not because it isn’t worthy of all my previous praise; rather, it’s just that there are so many Ghibli masterpieces. Only Yesterday still remains among highest ranking. I’d even venture to call it one of the best animated movies ever made.

The story goes as such: Taeko is a office worker in Tokyo. At 27 years old, Japanese society sees her as a strange outlier for not yet being married, but meeting someone is still the last thing on her mind. Rather, she’s excited by an upcoming trip to the northern countryside in Yamagata Prefecture. As she sets off to the farm where she’ll be helping out with the safflower harvest, she begins reflecting on her life in the 60’s as a 5th grader. Memories of her youth intertwine with the present as she comes to grips with the little traumas and experiences of childhood that shaped who she is.

Despite being nearly three decades old, Only Yesterday was one of the final Ghibli films released in North American theaters or to receive a regional home video release. The story goes that Disney simply thought the movie, being essentially an animated piece of mature cinema verite, was unmarketable. Beyond that, though, is that an entire segment of the film focuses on knowledge of periods spreading in a Japanese elementary school and the embarrassment young girls go through as a result; it’s assumed Disney thought this was too “controversial” for an animated film in the US.

I said this could be considered Ghibli’s best film. Admittedly, your mileage may vary. Of all their sundry films, this is one of the most grounded, only losing out to Ocean Waves in terms of staid realism thanks to young Taeko’s occasional flights of fancy. The extremely day-in-a-life aspect of Taeko’s memories may read as “boring” for those not looking for the subtle depth hidden in each scene. It’s also an intensely Japanese film (though not quite as much so as Takahata’s next outing, Pom Poko), with so much of Taeko’s past and present placed very firmly within standardized Japanese settings and harkening back to nostalgia for the mid Showa era. Indeed, some aspects of the film will be outright missed by those who don’t speak Japanese, specifically the heavily-accented dialect spoken by the farmers in Yamagata.

Another potentially challenging aspect of the movie is its conceit of moving back and forth between the present in late 80s Yamagata and Taeko’s childhood memories in the 60s. Despite a general air of realism, these sections are quite different in tone (and even in visual appearance, to a degree). Part of this stems from the nature of the film being based on an episodic, nostalgic manga of the same name. The original Omoide Poroporo manga is a simple nostalgic look at 11-year-old Taeko’s life in the 1960s; Takahata, finding this structurally difficult to adapt into a cohesive film, invented the idea of an older Taeko looking back on her youth. The scenes of young Taeko are visually simpler, adopting a pastel color palette and faint backgrounds that seem to fade into white on the borders. The scenes set in the present are brighter, more realistically drawn; they even feature mouth animation that’s drawn to match pre-recorded dialogue, a true rarity in Japanese animation. At times, the exact relation each memory has to Taeko’s current situation can appear difficult to grasp; examining the meanings by yourself is part of the challenge the film presents.

Don’t let that scare you away, though. At its heart, this is an intensely universal film. It’s about life’s little abuses, its little disappointments. It’s about how seemingly innocuous, everyday moments can effect us so much, especially when we’re young.

Taeko’s memories subtly show how she was punished for wanting things, for being particular in her likes and dislikes. Those things she was skilled at were pushed aside for the sake of conformity and in order to bring about a more bland version of what was expected of her. It’s not that her family was incredibly cruel to her, or that she hasn’t found success — it’s just that she was never allowed to quite be herself or follow her actual passions. This is a movie about someone looking back at their past and coming to grips with the sources of their disappointments. Ultimately, it’s about a woman taking control of who and what she is, and finding the ability in herself to make the choices she knows will make her happy – regardless of what society tells her.

For these and more wonderfully observed moments and subtle messages, I can’t help but name Only Yesterday as one of the best animated movies ever made. There are so very few films like this in animation. Slice of life exists, sure, but rarely in this form — layered, subtle, nuanced, unforced, deep. Despite its realism, the animation gives the film so much additional color and life. When we see Takeo run her finger over the petals of a safflower, the simpleness of the moment is so much more significant for having been animated so carefully. It’s simply a masterful film the likes of which we’ll likely never see again.

Honestly, between this and Kiki’s Delivery Service coming out two years earlier, it’s incredible that Ghibli put out two very different feminist masterpieces in a row. It’s a rare example of Miyazaki/Takahata synergy that only existed one other time in Ghibli history, when Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies both tackled similar themes of childhood and innocence in incredibly different ways.

Whatever the case, if you’re a fan of great film or of great stories of women’s lives, check this one out. And make sure to stay for the end credits. Not only is Only Yesterday one of the best animated films of all time, it also has one of my favorite endings in any film.

#2 – Spirited Away

No Face? More Like (almost) First Place

This is it: the big one, the seminal Studio Ghibli film. It’s the only full-length anime film to win an Oscar, the highest-ranking anime film on IMDB (currently ranked as the 23rd best film of all time), consistently touted as the best animated film ever made on list after list. Very nearly two decades on from its release, it remains the biggest box office hit of all time in Japan (no, despite what you’ve read, Your Name didn’t even come close to dethroning it in its home country). It’s the name that immediately comes to the minds of millions of people across the globe when they hear the name “Miyazaki.” It’s the one, the only, Spirited Away.

There already exists a wealth of high-quality literature on Spirited Away, and I’m not going to be able to add much to it in this short (ok, not that short) capacity in a rankings list. Needless to say, this film is the masterpiece everyone says it is. Like Princess Mononoke, it’s Miyazaki somehow operating on a level even beyond his usual (already masterful) filmmaking, creating an entire vibrant world populated by highly memorable characters that instantly become iconic the moment you see them. It’s a down-the-rabbit-hole story that takes the viewer to a place unlike any other, that despite slight resemblances to Alice’s journey feels completely unique and immersive. It’s a singular viewing experience.

The premise (for anyone who doesn’t know): Grade-school aged Chihiro is unhappy to be moving away from her old home and classmates. On the drive to her new home, her father attempts to take a backroad through the woods, and the family ends up smack-dab in front a mysterious tunnel fronted by an elaborate red gate. Against her petulant protests, her father leads them through the tunnel; on the other side, they encounter a mysterious town that her father takes to be an abandoned theme park. Enticed by succulent scents emanating from an unmanned nearby stall, Chihiro’s parents begin ravenously feasting on unknown foods. Distressed, Chihiro wanders away, and catches sight of a huge, crimson-colored bathhouse across a bridge. A young boy in traditional clothing appears, and warns her that she must quickly leave before night falls – but when she returns to her parents, they’ve been turned into pigs, cursed for consuming the food of the gods. The town quickly comes alive with shadowy spirits as Chihiro flees. The young boy, Haku, finds her, and tells her that this is the bathhouse of the spirits – and her only way to survive and save her parents is to take up work with the bathhouse master, the witch Yubaba. Chihiro ventures into the vast bathhouse, where her mysterious time amongst the gods begins.

The first thing that must be said here is how incredible the setting of the bathhouse is. It’s truly one of the great iconic film locations of all time; someplace magical, evocative, yet a place whose arcane rules we somehow understand. It’s a living, breathing place, from its grungy boiler room to its workers quarters, to the grand baths of the gods, its ornately painted banquet halls, and the highly decorative personal rooms of Yubaba herself. The place is both magical and real; like any real-life high scale tourist facility, its gorgeous façade hides grimy, practical inner spaces where the staff go about their business. The fact that even this grand, otherworldly building has a base made of cracked concrete, its non-customer facing side unadorned, dotted with blackened piping, grounds the setting as both ethereal and understandably down-to-earth. Its eccentric staff and customers only serve to help bring this space even more to life. This setting, as well as the strange town that surrounds it, the train that runs over the shallow waters below, the green fields dotted with alien stone heads, feels wholly unique. The viewer is completely sucked in, experiencing life here just as Chihiro does, learning the ins and outs of quotidian work life in such a remarkable place.

Chihiro finds herlself surrounded by intriguing, strange, and sympathetic characters. The cast, too, is instantly memorable; grandfatherly-but-put-upon boiler room manager Kamaji, sarcastic but caring bathhouse worker Rin, stoic but conflicted Haku. No-Face (カオナシ), a spirit of loneliness and wanting who Chihiro takes pity on, is one of the great Miyazaki creations. Yubaba, strict master of the bathhouse, is famously a great Miyazaki antagonist who, despite cruel antipathy, is not entirely evil.

A major theme of all these characters, and many of the background workers, is how their constant labor and endless responsibilities within their work at the bathhouse has hardened them. Chihiro, at first a petulant child, is initially unworthy of their kindness or attention – their lives are tough, and she’ll only get in the way. This indifference is not shown as good, but as a fact of life; Chihiro can only rely on the kindness of strangers for so long, and needs to grow up and prove her worth to be acknowledged by working society. While I hate to get essentialist, this is a surprisingly “Japanese” attitude towards work for Miyazaki to take, but one that’s highly understandable within his own society. It also fits in, even if subtly, with Miyazaki’s attitude towards labor as outlined by his socialist history. Labor itself has great benefits, but cruelty, greed, and autocratic leadership from the top results in suffering. This labor-oriented aspect of Chihiro’s coming-of-age is one part of what sets this film apart from other similar stories of growing up.

Then there’s the pure atmosphere of this film. Along with the incredible setting comes one of Hisaishi Joe’s most incredible soundtracks, which sets the mood in a way no one else could. So many of these tracks have become incredibly recognizable in Japan and elsewhere, but I particularly love both The Dragon Boy and The 6th Station, with both accompany some of the most memorable scenes in a film where essentially every scene is just that: memorable. The scene which the latter track is known for, where Chihiro, No Face, and her entourage silently ride a ghostly train over an endless flooded plain, ephemeral towns and people appearing and disappearing in the windows besides her, is one of the great scenes of cinema. It’s rightly touted as the perfect example of Miyazaki’s ability to let the story slow down; to let scenery, atmosphere, and music tell us a tale deeper than words or bombastic action could ever portray. The scene pulls at you, granting this intense, bittersweet sense of “sonder,” of realizing worlds and people exist and have existed of whom we will never know more than a passing glimpse. It’s incredible.

The last point I want to mention is this movie’s near-universal appeal. What’s interesting is that it’s so specifically Japanese – draped in Shinto-esque imagery and Japanese-specific cultural ideas (although it isn’t as literalist in its interpretation of such folklore as Takahata’s Pom Poko, which honestly draws even more directly from a wealth of Japanese tradition). As I mentioned, so much of the movie struck such a deep chord with its huge Japanese audience because of its relationship to cultural ideas about work. Yet it’s this very cultural specificness which draws in foreign viewers, for whom the imagery is even more otherworldly – even more, for lack of a less problematic word, exotic. Unlike Pom Poko, whose cultural specificity can be a detriment to those not well versed in Japanese lore, Spirited Away is just Japanese enough in its spirit world to be intriguing and mystifying. It’s incredible in that it works perfectly for both audiences in different ways.

So, is this the best Ghibli film? I think a huge amount of reviewers, critics, and fans would say so. It’s a near pitch-perfect fantasy masterpiece and I could easily have placed it at #1, and it would be deserving. I haven’t even been able to get into a variety of other points which help make it so special. It’s only the incredible quality and varied merits of so many Ghibli films that lead me to select another film. Still, if you claimed it was the best anime film or even best animated film of all time – I wouldn’t say “no.”

#1 – The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Saving the Best for Last

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya marks the final film by Takahata Isao, ending a legendary directorial career spanning close to half a century. Coming after a 14-year hiatus from direction, Takahata’s return to filmmakings is so graceful it’s like he never left. Sadly, Takahata did in fact leave us behind five years later – making Kaguya the definitive piece of his legacy.

But what a fine note to leave on it is.

On the face of it, the story here is a faithful adaptation of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (竹取物語), Japan’s oldest extant folktale. The bamboo cutter in question, an old peasant villager, walks into his nearby bamboo grove to discover a shoot growing at unnaturally fast rates. The bamboo unfurls, revealing a diminutive girl dressed in immaculate kimono, an almost holy light emanating from her. The bamboo cutter takes her home to his wife, where the two decide she’s been sent from heaven. Within moments, the tiny girl has transformed into a normal-sized baby. The couple, childless, raise the baby with love and devotion. The child grows rapidly, and she’s soon named Lil’ Bamboo by the local children. She joins them on romps around the countryside, in love with nature and her life of freedom. But when the bamboo cutter is granted incredible sums of gold and fine brocades from the same bamboo grove in which he found the child, he assumes heaven is telling him that his foundling deserves more out of life. Buying his way into the Kyoto aristocracy, he moves the family to the capital, where the child – now named Princess Kaguya – becomes the object of desire for the country’s highest officials, despite her wishes. But her secret origins and heavenly nature lie in wait to change everything…

When I started this re-watch, I honestly never expected to put this movie at the top of the list. I saw Kaguya twice after it came out, both times showing it to groups of friends and family. I’d perceived it as very good but also overlong, a bit downbeat, and stylistically challenging, and for some reason it didn’t fully tug at my emotions. Maybe it’s just being seven years older (and hopefully more mature), or maybe it’s watching the movie without worrying about how others are perceiving it – but this time was different. Kaguya left me emotionally devastated (in a similar way to Grave of the Fireflies, even), but also filled me with hope and appreciation – for life, for love, and for Studio Ghibli.

A big part of this comes from some truly great theming. Takahata takes what is literally the most time-worn Japanese folktale and finds in it a completely universal story of protest. There’s a strong focus on the tragedy of gender and class assumptions, as well as the fragility of privilege and the ridiculousness of said class distinctions. Takahata has been making political films since Horus back in 1967, and here that strong sense of societal critique mixes potently with his feminist inclinations (see: Only Yesterday, only ranked two films back).

This strong social commentary is married to a story of striking human emotion. There’s Kaguya’s natural embrace of life and nature, coupled with the naturalistic love she and her adoptive parents share. We see incredible depictions of simple parental love, all the stronger for their unadorned nature (these bring to mind the similarity devastating portrayal of love in Takahata’s own Grave of the Fireflies, where young Setsuko rubs her face up against her mother’s kimono with an expression of pure contentedness.)

Both parents are fantastic characters; her father, who inadvertently destroys Kaguya’s own simple contentedness by doing what he thinks society and heaven say will make her happy. The pure love he shows for the baby Kaguya brought me to tears, just as his sadly misguided actions later on pained me. Pain, not anger, because he too is a victim of class and gender expectations. He ignores his wife, who quietly understands Kaguya in a way he simply can’t. He sees what should make Kaguya happy, not what actually does. Kaguya’s mother is just as great a character, portrayed with a true economy of dialogue that showcases her strong support and perception towards her daughter. Together, the three make up a perfectly naturalistic family, flawed but brimming with subtle emotion.

Their trials, tribulations, and quiet moments of happiness are all enhanced by Hisaishi Joe’s sole score for Takahata – which just so happens to be one of his best, mixing quiet piano tunes and the traditional Japanese sounds of the koto. In one unforgettable scene, he unites joyous music with the utter tragedy on-screen, creating a complicated internal conflict like no other. The animation, like a grown-up version of that from Yamadas, is a sumi-e ink painting come to life. Deceptively simple, in times of deep feeling it morphs form, the entire world becoming an intense mire of rage and grief, of stark, sharp brushstrokes drawn in anger. This is animation used to its fullest extent; a vehicle of pure emotion and storytelling.

Kaguya herself is one of the great Ghibli heroines. Free-spired in a way that feels real, not forced, she reacts to the world with a deep internal wisdom and vivid feeling. She has to maneuver through a world of artificial boundaries and invisible cages, bristling against constricting roles foisted upon her with neither rhyme nor reason. Her supernatural aspects help empower her, at least somewhat, yet she never stops being completely human.

Yet within class-bound society, this human, Kaguya, is literally reduced to an item. She becomes a prize for powerful men to covet and attempt to claim. Even her very name is decided upon by a powerful man. Kaguya resists in all the ways her skills and abilities can muster, but eventually the violation is simply too much even for her strong soul. Reaching out for escape, she’s brought too close to the edge – and awakens the inescapable path to the end of suffering.

(One of the few flaws is the sudden revelation of Kaguya’s origins – something present in the orginal folktale, but which could have used a little more build-up.)

But Takahata, in his final film in this earth, rejects the value of that final rest, that last beatific nirvana. With this movie, he, and Kaguya, cry out for all that is beautiful in this pain-ridden, imperfect, retched world. He proclaims, to the film’s last gasps, that life is for living; that life is all we have; that we must treasure it even as we fight against injustice, as we push back the dying of the light. As a final message from one of our greatest directors, it could hardly be more perfect. Now that Takahata has himself left us, the message is felt even more keenly. Kaguya is pure human emotion; sadness, fear, boredom, righteous anger, but most of all, love. It’s one of the great movies of the century thus far, and easily one of Ghibli’s very best.

Thank you, Takahata Isao. And thank you, Studio Ghibli.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our journey through the Ghibli Universe. I’ll be back with some more Ghibli-oriented content soon!

Page navigation: #46-30, #29-20, #19-11, #10-6, #5-1

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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