The Ultimate Ranking of the Studio Ghibli Universe

The Ultimate Ranking of the Studio Ghibli Universe

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Miyazaki, Takahata and gang
The beloved Studio Ghibli has made more than just movies. Every film, short, music video, direct-to-DVD feature, pre-Ghibli Film, and spin-off ranked.

Page navigation: #50-30, #29-20, #19-11, #10-6, #5-1

Studio Ghibli: worldwide, few movie companies attract even close to the consistent love and critical acclaim as the little Japanese studio who could. Formed in 1985 by the dream team of master animation directors Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao, along with producer/publicist extraordinaire Suzuki Toshio, nearly every single one of their 22-ish canonical films has been both critical darling and a major box office success.

The films of Miyazaki Hayao, in particular, are some of the most beloved of all time in Japan and beyond. Characters like Totoro, Kiki, Ponyo, No-Face, and Nausicaa are wildly iconic. The very name “Miyazaki” has become synonymous with immense creativity, gorgeous animation, fantastical worlds, deep ecological themes, and strong, plucky female heroes whose characters develop throughout the course of their films.

Beloved the World Over

In Japan, Hisaishi Joe’s Ghibli soundtracks are almost a fact of life, played over school loudspeakers throughout the country during clean-up time; the theme song from Castle in the Sky is sung at school recitals; children practice Princess Mononoke on their recorders. Ghibli movies are shown annually on television, attracting huge viewership shares; tickets for the internationally famous Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo sell out a month in advance. Japan’s top box office success of all time is Spirited Away, and half of the top-ten Japanese movies in the same box office are also by Miyazaki. Almost every single Ghibli film between 1989 and 2013 was the biggest Japanese film the year it released. Multiple times, the most simultaneously tweeted phrase of all time was a quote from Castle in the Sky. Miyazaki is consistently rated as one of the most recognizable figures in-country.

Beyond Japan, too, Ghibli is a cultural giant. Long beloved in other parts of East and Southeast Asia, in the US and Europe, Ghibli films moved from underground art-house popularity to major critical acclaim and finally mainstream popularity throughout the late 1990s and early-mid 2000s. Spirited Away remains the only anime film to win a major Oscar, and A-list actors jostle for the right to play even small roles in English Ghibli dubs. In the US, Miyazaki and Ghibli film festivals play to joyous crowds in theaters the country over. Children are now being raised on Studio Ghibli movies much like they’ve been on those of Disney in years past. In terms of the amount of consistent critical acclaim attached to a film brand, only Pixar can compete with Ghibli.

What makes this the “Ultimate” Ranking List?

Despite the multitudes who truly love Studio Ghibli, many never actually watch beyond the most recognizable Miyazaki films – Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo, Totoro, and Kiki’s Delivery Service. These films are all incredible, but the universe of Studio Ghibli offers many more masterpieces and works of creative genius to explore than just its most well-known films. Takahata, the studio’s co-founder, made five features for Ghibli that are often considered among the best animated films ever made. Other directors have made their mark on the studio as well, producing beloved and engaging movies well worth watching. Altogether, the “canonical” Ghibli films (including Nausicaa, technically made before the studio’s founding) comes to 22 separate features — all of which deserve to be seen.


The well goes even deeper, though — Studio Ghibli has also created a wealth of short films and direct-to-DVD features. Among the former are the rarest Ghibli creations of all: the Ghibli Museum short films. Created specifically to be shown at, and only at, the Saturn Theater inside the museum itself, these eleven films have the same production quality of full-on Ghibli theatrical features. Scores are fully orchestrated (often by Hisaishi Joe), the animation is a theatrical quality; yet they’re only played one at a time on a monthly rotation at the museum. Even if you live in Tokyo, catching each one can prove very difficult. I’ve been lucky enough to see seven out of the eleven; for the remaining four, I’ve still written up some general information so you can learn a bit about these pieces of almost frustratingly elusive media.

There’s even more, though! Co-productions, music videos, the list goes on. For anyone who wants to understand the genesis of the studio, the Pre-Ghibli Films, theatrical pictures directed by Miyazaki and Takahata before they founded Ghibli, are a must-watch. Then there’s the output of Studio Ponoc, essentially a Ghibli successor studio made up of former staff. All told, my version of the Ghibli Universe currently makes up 46 fascinating entries in total.

(We could go even deeper, investigating the television shows Takahata and Miyazaki directed before Ghibli, many of which are classics — but at hundreds of episodes in total, it might be a bit much. Still, these are very much worth seeing too – look into them if you’re interested!)

Before We Start

Studio Ghibli has been a major part of my media landscape since I was in late elementary school, and has had an indelible influence on me. I’ve spent way too much time watching, reading, discussing, and writing both academically and professionally about the studio. I, like many, consider many of these films to be near high-art — often in a class of their own. As such, most of these entries rank from “quite good” to “among the best films, animated or otherwise, ever made.” There’s only a few I come close to disliking. Still, there is a range — and experiencing that flow of often intense quality is a part of the joy of watching these pictures!

We’ll start off with the four museum shorts I’ve never managed to see, since I can’t in good faith rank these. From there, we’ll count downwards from most disappointing to most revelatory. These are, of course, my own opinions. Every film here is someone’s favorite; they’re also likely another person’s least. Truthfully, once we’re in the top fifteen or so, each entry could easily be argued as somehow “the best.” I treated this project seriously, so the write-ups are somewhat detailed, but hopefully contain some insight into the films themselves.

I’ve included relevant production information and brief plot introductions with each piece. You can also use each starting image to reference release order, category, and other important information. In general, however, I’ve avoided discussing any major spoilers unless directly relevant. So feel free to use this list not only as a ranking but as a guide to your personal path through the Ghibli Universe. Welcome, and may your journey amongst these films be as magical as has been mine!

Ranking: NA – The Whale Hunt

Whale of a Good Time?

In Inokashira Park, on the border of the Tokyo neighborhoods of Mitaka and Kichijoji, there exists a very special museum. The Mitaka no Mori Ghibli Bijutsukan, known in English as the Ghibli Museum, is the brainchild of Miyazaki Hayao. With architectural designs and floor plans drawn up by Miyazaki himself, the museum holds the dual purposes of celebrating the medium of animation and of inviting guests into a storybook world. Amid artful exhibits held amongst whimsical spiral staircases and indoor bridges to nowhere, the structure also hosts the room for which it is perhaps most well known: the Saturn Theater. This is the only place in the world where one can see the famed Ghibli Museum short films – a series of 10-15 minute long animations with similar production values to Ghibli’s theatrical films. The vast majority of these shorts are directed by Miyazaki himself.

Alas, because these fleeting movies can only be seen at the museum and nowhere else, and because even then only one of the films is shown per month on rotation, it can be extremely hard to see all of these movies (even if you live in Japan). Personally, I’ve made it to the museum a fairly hefty nine times over seven years in Japan, and there’s still four I haven’t managed to see. Sadly, this means these four films are beyond my ability to rate.

The first film released in the Saturn Theater at the time of the museum’s opening in 2001 was this adorable looking feature. A group of kindergarteners creates an imaginary ship in their classroom, but soon find themselves at sea encountering a huge blue whale. The children have to decide amongst themselves how to react while trying to get back to shore – and their classroom.

Ranking: NA – Imaginary Flying Machines

Pigs in Flight

Originally part of the second round of Ghibli Museum exclusive short films, Imaginary Flying Machines uses a brief six-minutes to grant its audience a tour through the history of aviation and beyond. Miyazaki himself voices the narrator represented by a Porco Rosso-esque pig (the director often portrays himself piggishly when in cartoon form). The film was later bought by Japan Airlines in order to be shown on JAL flights as part of its “Fly the Skies.” project (空を飛ぶ。プロジェクト). Sadly, showings of the short film on airplanes ceased in 2009. As it no longer plays at the museum, and JAL has no current plans to revive it in-air, I consider this to sadly be a lost piece of Ghibli media. Hopefully, someday Ghibli or JAL will revive it in some form.

Ranking: NA – The Day I Bought a Star

Word-Building — Literally.

Part of the 2006 batch of museum shorts, The Day I Bought a Star (alternately called The Day I Harvested a Planet in English) is the story of a young boy (and dead ringer for Howl/Haku) named Nona. The youth has found himself in a strange desert landscape, where he’s taken in by a mysterious woman. One day, while going into town for vegetables, he ends up trading his produce to a mole and a frog in return for a “star seed.” Back at the woman’s house, he plants the seed in a flowerpot – and it begins to grow into a tiny planet.

Of all the Ghibli Museum shorts, this has always been the one I most wanted to see. The visuals look gorgeous, and the entire production has the same appealing style as the other Miyazaki films of the era (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and especially Howl’s Moving Castle). The story takes place in the world of Iblard, a creation of Inoue Naohisa whose fantastical buildings and cityscapes can be seen in Shizuku’s imagination in Whisper of the Heart (and in the direct to DVD feature Iblard Time). All this combines to make something that looks incredibly appealing. Sadly, I’ve never had the chance to go to the museum while this feature was showing. One day, I’ll make it there during the correct month. For the time being, I’ll have to continue looking at the scant few images we have of it while listening to its pleasant soundtrack.

Ranking: NA – Treasure Hunting

Friendly Rivalry

A simply-drawn short based on a children’s book, one which Miyazaki apparently immediately wanted to animate after reading. A young boy and his rabbit friend find a walking stick and compete in various ways to claim said stick as their own. This was the last short released until 2018, the longest drought in museum short production since its founding. Sadly, it’s another short which I’ve never had the chance to see.

#44 – Ghiblies

Test Run

In 2000, Studio Ghibli decided to animate a series of shorts poking fun at their own staff and daily life, to be aired alongside a TV documentary about the studio. The result is “Ghiblies” (pronounced ギブリーズ, with a hard “G,” unlike how the name is usually pronounced). Basically, this is a 12-minute collection of disjointed scenes introducing us to various characters who supposedly resemble real personages at Ghibli during that time period. Like the sole Ghibli TV film, Ocean Waves, this project was used as a way to let lower-level creatives at the studio stretch their working abilities.

None of the well-known Ghibli creators are spoofed, and since we don’t know who any of these people actually are, it can honestly feel like one big in-joke. This episode is also pretty limited in terms of both content and animation, and much of what we see here was put to better use in the higher-budget and somewhat higher-concept episode 2. There is one cute sketch about the staff copyright manager’s first crush that actually makes you feel something, but that’s the only part that really has that “Ghibli” quality. Honestly, not required viewing unless you’re a completionist. Ghiblies Episode 2, however, is a bit of a different story.

#43 – The Night of Taneyamagahara


Oga Kazuo is one of Japan’s great background artists. Known as “the man who painted Totoro’s forest,” his painterly attention to nature and architecture has long been a boon to Takahata and Miyazaki – he first worked with the duo back in 1973 on Panda! Go, Panda! After doing background work on several Ghibli features and working as art director on Totoro, Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, and Princess Mononoke, it was decided that Oga would helm a short direct-to-DVD feature celebrating the 120th anniversary of the birth of famed Japanese author Miyazawa Kenji. The result is the 28-minute long The Night of Taneyamagahara.

The story here is a faithful presentation of the short play by the same name, written by Miyazawa when he was teaching agricultural science at the Hanamaki Agricultural High School in the author’s native Iwate Prefecture. Four grass cutters sit around a fire of a night, discussing the weather and local going-ons. When they hear a mysterious horse neighing in the distance, they leave behind one of their number, Ito, to guard the fire as they search out the horse. Ito falls asleep and dreams of an encounter with the spirits of trees and grass, who play pranks on him and try to convince him to stop cutting down trees on a property he hopes to purchase. Dancing with spirits, he accidentally steps on a sleepy thunder god, who angrily hurls Ito around. Finally, he wakes up.

This short shares a fair bit in common with the other Miyazawa adaptation on this list, Takahata’s Gauche the Cellist (1982). Both are faithful renditions of classic Japanese stories that will likely greatly please those who are already familiar with them. Both, however, can be a bit perplexing to those who haven’t grown up on the author’s work. What’s more, this isn’t really an animated film. It features beautiful paintings by Oga, but this is essentially a semi-animated slide show. The lack of actual animation hampers any broader appeal this might have.

What’s interesting about the original play and this adaptation is how locally-oriented it is. Miyazawa was a native of northern Iwate Prefecture, and the dialogue here makes use of the incredibly thick Tohoku dialect from that region and that time. As someone who lived in Tohoku myself for some years, I loved hearing the dialect – the dialogue was thus a major draw for me. If you don’t speak Japanese, however, this aspect will be lost on you. And even if you’re a native speaker, the dialect is honestly so strong that you may find yourself completely at a loss as to what is being said. Add to that the fact much of what is said is nonsensical dream-speak, and this “film” just isn’t very approachable. Unlike Gauche, which has off-putting elements but also features likable, cute animal characters, this reads as just a straight, humorless folktale. It’s a beautiful, slow retelling of a dreamy night on a northern plain, with some wonderful voice-acting and music, but if you’re not already familiar with this sort of story you’ll likely come away bored.

Oga never directed again, but his wonderful art has continued to grace any number of animated films. Most recently for Ghibli, he provided art direction for Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

#42 – Chie the Brat

Too Bratty to Handle?

To be honest, I did not have very good memories of this movie. I recalled it as mean-spirited, visually ugly, and vulgar – a word I rarely feel the need to employ. However, I was at least a bit interested in revisiting it, as I’ve since had the ability to experience more of the Japan this movie is about – namely, the culture of Osaka – since I first saw it as a 20-year-old exchange student in Tokyo.

So, did I come away liking it more this time?

Well, sort of.

Jarinko Chie was a manga by Etsumi Haruki that ran from the late 70s to the early 90s, taking place in the slums near Osaka’s Shin-sekai district in the late 1960s. The eponymous brat is the elementary school-aged daughter of a local good-for-nothing, gambling-loving tough named Tetsu. While Testu goes about carousing, Chie is left to manage Testu’s small horumon-yaki restaurant. (Horumon cuisine makes use of the usually unwanted offal of pork and beef by grilling it up, yakiniku-style, and is associated with Osaka.) Chie is tough and often frustrated by her father, who loves her but whose rough (actually, violent and anti-social) actions embarrass her. Chie takes in a supernaturally strong alley cat and has various misadventures involving the yakuza. Meanwhile, she hopes her beloved mother, who has left Testu, will return home soon.

I’m a bit sad to have to put a movie by the otherwise genius Ghibli co-founder Takahata Isao so low on this list. This is his first stab at taking a generally meandering, episodic manga about everyday life and adapting it to something at least a little more weighty. While he’d manage this with flying colors in both Only Yesterday and My Neighbors the Yamadas, the mix of crude slapstick and understated pathos just doesn’t gel here. Part of the issue is that large sections of this film are simply off-putting.

The problem remains how gross it all is, from its ugly character designs with oversized teeth and George Bush ears, to obnoxious voice-acting, to the attitudes of its principles. Chie is essentially the subject of abuse, much of which was never really funny to begin with and has aged even more poorly. Just because she’s tough doesn’t mean that this is any less disconcerting to see. Of course, the rough-and-tumble aspect of life in Shin-sekai is the point, but this doesn’t help with how perturbing this can be as a source of slapstick. The cruelty and “humorous” violence on display just leave a bad taste in the mouth. It feels especially strange next to the gentle scenes between Chie and her mother, which reveal Takahata’s eye for subtle human emotion and characterization.

I also usually dislike this criticism, but the movie is overlong. There isn’t that much of a through plot, and it’s not consistently funny or engaging enough to sustain the length. By the time we get to the singularly drawn-out, anti-climactic ending, the movie has overstayed its welcome.

Still, Chie does show Takahata’s keen grasp on the particulars of his native country, both via the specificities of Osakan culture and dialect and his trademark references to Japanese folklore in the opening montage (which joyfully features reoccurring motifs of the bush warbler and Heian era princesses, as would be later seen in Yamadas and Kaguya). The animation itself is actually quite good, with some very beautifully animated motions and nuanced movements from the characters. (When a cat is about to show off his strength, he first takes a surreptitious glance at his audience to make sure he’s being watched.) Various scenes are well played, and I did enjoy the general story about Chie and her relationships. I just wish so much of it wasn’t so mean-spirited.

All-in-all, this remains my least favorite Takahata outing. I’d much rather spend time in the real Shin-sekai eating Horumon-yaki.

#41 – Gauche the Cellist

Gross Gauche feat. Tanuki Hoss

Two Takahata pre-Ghibli movies in a row near the very bottom of the list? I swear, I’m actually a huge Takahata fan, as the latter portion of the list will certainly bear out. Trust me.

Here we have the last of the founders’ films previous to Nausicaa and the subsequent birth of Studio Ghibli. Gauche the Cellist finds Takahata going to the well of classic Japanese literature. Originally a 1934 short story by evergreen Japanese favorite Miyazawa Kenji, this simple story is often found in elementary school textbooks in Japan. Takahata worked with an independent studio over the course of six years to complete this relatively short film. (Such extended production timelines would prove a hallmark of the director’s work.) The end result is often considered one of the best filmic Miyazawa adaptations.

The story takes place at the turn of the century. Gauche, a determined but mediocre country cellist, is having his sense of self-worth challenged by his orchestra masters’ scolding. Preparing for a major concert, he finds himself visited each night by local animals who wish to hear or participate in his music. Each visitation brings with it a lesson that helps Gauche improve as a musician (and, seemingly, as a person).

Stylistically, the animation here is somewhat crude, and the human designs simplistic. Backgrounds are rough but pleasant enough. The animal designs are much more winning; each bears a great deal of personality.

It’s Gauche, our protagonist, who’s this film’s real stumbling block. Although he improves over the movie’s short sixty-minute run time, he’s essentially a cruel, self-important weirdo. The way in which he treats his first visitor, a somewhat presumptuous cat, is especially difficult to watch. With the appearance of each animal, his attitude somewhat improves – but it’s not until the very last moments of the film that he approaches being sympathetic. His voice actor does the character few favors, as his constant self-pleased laughter quickly grates.

Of course, the whole point is that Gauche is an ass, but having almost the entire run-time focusing on an unlikeable character is problematic. Unfortunately, this central problem scuttles a good deal of enjoyment this otherwise-cute morality tale could contain. There are good aspects here, however. The use of music as a source of parable is well played (as we might expect on a retelling of one of Miyazawa Kenji’s most famous stories). The animals are all cute and likable, presaging other great Takahata animal personalities. And, to be honest, the entire film is worth watching just for the tanuki scene alone. The animal in question is so charming and cute, and the scene plays out so pleasantly, that I’d love to cut out that part of the movie to return to in future re-watches. The film as a whole, however, I won’t need to watch again for some time. As an adaptation of an admittedly very short story, it succeeds – as a film by itself, perhaps not so much.

#40 – Koro’s Big Day Out

Perfectly Pleasant Puppy

The second short film to be released exclusively at the Ghibli Museum’s Saturn Theater. This cute but otherwise slight feature stars a puppy named Koro, who manages to get lost in the suburbs near his home in Koganei, Tokyo (the real-life location of Studio Ghibli, and my own home in Tokyo for two years). The story is pleasant, and the animation is of high-quality. Koro, as you might expect, is very cute, and you naturally root for him to find his way back to his young owner.

To be honest, of all the Ghibli content out there, this might be the least creative. It’s good, but nothing about Koro’s Big Day Out stands out as something only Ghibli, or indeed Miyazaki, could have made. It’s straightforward and pleasant enough, but strangely forgettable (especially compared to the highly creative, almost experimental shorts usually created for the museum). I’ve seen it twice; that’s more than enough. Out of everything Miyazaki has directed, this is the one I’d say warrants the least attention.

#39 – Iblard Time

Be Still My Heart

Impressionistic painter Inoue Naohisa (井上 直久) is one of many highly talented creatives in the Ghibli orbit. If you’ve seen Whisper of the Heart (1995), you’ll doubtless remember the striking surrealistic landscapes that Shizuku imagines as the setting of her novel; somehow both futuristic and completely fantastical. Such images are Inoue’s bread and butter. Inoue formed an unlikely relationship with Ghibli when he went out on a limb and sent an invite for Miyazaki to attend an art gallery. He never expected the famed director to actually show up, but show up he did, and he loved Inoue’s utopian world of Iblard so much he invited him to collaborate on Whisper of the Heart. Since then, Iblard was made the setting of the Ghibli Museum-exclusive short The Day I Bought a Star (2006), and Inoue was invited to direct his very own direct-to-DVD short film– Iblard Time.

Admittedly, calling this a “film” might be setting up people for disappointment. Essentially, this is a short journey through static shots of Inoue’s fantastical, multi-hued landscapes. It invites us to catch glimpses of this evocative, familiar-yet-fantastical world, and to perhaps imagine what stories are taking place there. Alas, that’s all this short “film” does – there is no actual story or specific theme. It’s just a series of beautiful, fascinating images with a degree of animation, where people and animals occasionally emerge and interact with the environments. (Interestingly, this means there’s still more actual animation on display than Ghibli’s other direct-to-DVD short film, Night of Taneyamagahara.)

So, if you’re looking for anything resembling a Ghibli story, or any story at all, this may not be the feature for you. However, as an introduction to Inoue Naohisa’s art and the incredible world of Iblard stored in his imagination, it’s actually quite a pleasant experience. The gentle, ethereal music by Matsuo Kiyonori perfectly matches the mood of the art as well. Honestly, despite the lack of narrative, I found myself more pulled into Iblard than plenty of media with a so-called “plot.” At the very least, these images of locations we’ll never truly know give off that special Ghibli feeling of “place” so inherent in its best films. Still, your mileage (and patience) may vary. At the very least, this makes for something beautiful, both in terms of visuals and audio, to put on in the background while doing something else. Here’s hoping Inoue and Ghibli have the chance to collaborate again in the future.

#38 Panda! Go, Panda!

Pippi Longstocking Meets Totoro?

At first glance, you might be forgiven for mistaking the giant grin on the above panda for some sort of Totoro knock-off. In fact, it’s rather the opposite – Papa Panda is a sort of forerunner of Miyazaki’s most famous character, and these two short films are in some ways a dry run for My Neighbor Totoro as a whole.

Panda! Go, Panda isn’t actually a single entity; rather, it’s two short films, only a bit over 30 minutes each, that Takahata and Miyazaki created to be shown in front of two separate Godzilla features. After Toei purposefully scuttled the theatrical release of Takahata’s film Horus four years earlier, the director had been demoted, never again allowed to direct for that company. He jumped ship to A Production Studio in order to help helm the sagging first season of Lupin the III, and later his young friend and protégé Miyazaki came to join him. Together, the two began planning a Pippi Longstoking feature, but when the creator of that property balked at the idea of two unknown Japanese animators handling her work, they decided to repurpose some of their ideas for a separate film. Chinese “Panda Diplomacy” was all the rage in the early 70s, so a short, Pippi-ish film about Pandas seemed the ticket. The result was popular enough to warrant a sequel the following year.

The story, such that is, goes like so: Little Mimiko, a rambunctious Pippi stand-in, sees off her grandma to the train station. Returning home all alone, she finds a baby panda near her home. When the baby’s giant papa emerges and greets her in polite Japanese, the three then decide to become a family. However, the pandas turn out to have escaped from a nearby zoo. Hijinks ensue. In the second film, hijinks continue with a baby tiger from a visiting circus.

These are perhaps the simplest theatrically released films made by either creator. In fact, Panda feels more like a product of the anime of its era than any other film on this list. Part of that is due to the animation quality, which is firmly standard for the time. The music doesn’t help either – it’s not bad, but it almost sounds like an episode of popular comedy sci-fi TV anime Urusei Yatsura (although the second film, Rainy Day Circus, does have some strangely 70’s esque music going on). The plots are cute and harmless, with very little characterization or anything save a series of charming scenes for children to enjoy.

The first of the two movies is incredibly basic in terms of structure and events. The pandas show up, and few simple hijinks ensue. There’s really not much to it. The second movie is still simple, but much more inventive in terms of its use of the animals and settings. There’s more of the creativity you’d expect, in terms of both scenario and visuals, from the dream team of Takahata and Miyazaki. It shows a wonderful sense of place, of the contours of firelight, water, and shadow, although the first film only does this in very limited amounts. Indeed, the second movie even features a flooded landscape reminiscent of those from Ponyo and Spirited Away. Everywhere you look, you can see forerunners to scenes and concepts used in Cagliostro, Nausicaa, Totoro, Spirited Away, Ponyo, and more.

(Speaking of Cagliostro, there’s an early scene where Mimiko talks to the local police office, who jokingly asks if she’s afraid of burglars, to which she replies there aren’t any around — ironic, since she’s talking to the voice of Yamada Yasuo, voice actor of renowned anime thief Lupin the 3rd.)

All in all, the first movie is harmless, and the second one is actually quite inventive and fun. The sheer basicness prevents me from really recommending Panda, Go Panda, but it’s certainly worth checking out to see how many ideas used in future Ghibli films you can pick out. And yeah, the pandas are cute.

#37 – House Hunting

Gives New Meaning to “Voice Actor”

I swear I didn’t mean to rank two Pippi-clones in a row.

In the early 1970s, Miyazaki Hayao, then working for studio A-Production, flew to Sweden with the intention of asking author Astrid Lindgren for the rights to use her character Pippi Longstocking in a new animated film. Miyazaki and Takahata had already invested a great deal of time prepping the project, something the remaining storyboards attest to. However, arriving in the Scandinavian country, Miyazaki came in for some major disappointment. Lindgren has never heard of Miyazaki (still decades off from being a household name even in Japan) and knew next to nothing about Japanese cartoons. She rejected the offer for a meeting, and the Pippi movie idea died on the vine.

Miyazaki still managed to implement aspects of the planned film into other movies, like the above Panda, Go Panda! Some of the city sights he saw in Sweden impacted how he would design the town of Koriko in Kiki’s Delivery Service.

And here, in this short, we once again see the clear Lindgren influence: a long-legged, spunky girl with red pigtails.

This is one of the more experimental museum shorts. Essentially, it’s about Pippi-esque protagonist Fuki looking for a new home. Along the way, she encounters various creatures and spirits, offering up an item in respect to each. What makes the short stand out, however, is the use of human voices for sound effects. Japanese famously has an extensive list of onomatopoeiae (something any reader of manga will have made note of). Words that represent a variety of sounds abound, and this movie uses these to engaging effect. The only soundtrack here is those onomatopoeiae, spoken with gusto by two voice actors. The written sounds appear on screen as well, written in the katakana syllabary. These almost become characters themselves. This combined with the fanciful animation provides House Hunting with a unique feel of whimsy.

This is Ghibli at their most experimental, something which the high budgets and short run times of the museum shorts are perfect for.  While the story, such that it is, isn’t incredibly memorable, this is still a creative, wild ride. Miyazaki would return to the idea of sound effects provided by human voice in his theatrical film The Wind Rises and in his latest creation as of this writing, the museum short Boro the Caterpillar.

#36 – Ghiblies episode 2

Second Time’s a Charm

In 2002, Ghibli producer extraordinaire Suzuki Toshio decided to append a brief pre-film to the release of the admittedly short theatrical movie The Cat Returns. This would be another chance to allow lower-level staff to stretch their creative muscles – appropriate since The Cat Returns itself had been created to serve the same purpose. Director Momose Yoshiyuki, a long-time animator and important creative with Ghibli who’d worked on many of their best features, decided to continue the studio-lampooning Ghiblies series, started two years earlier with a TV short. Armed with a longer running time and much higher production values, Momose was able to both expand and re-vamp aspects of the cheaper first entry.

We basically get four main skits here. The first is a creatively animated look at Ghibli staff taking on a spicy curry challenge at a local eatery; the second features bespeckled Ghiblies mascot and staff copyright manager Nonaka dealing with the trope of having a pretty stranger fall asleep with their head on your shoulder on the train; the third, which could be called the centerpiece skit, is a re-make of the best part of episode 1, where Nonaka gently reflects on his first crush back in elementary school; the fourth – which can hardly be called a skit – features a sketchy staff member heading out from work early.

Like the first outing, Ghiblies episode 2 strides a thin line between being funny/interesting for the layperson and essentially being one big inside joke. Here, at least, the animation is worth the price of admission. The curry skit is beautifully animated, energetic, and funny, especially if you’ve ever been to the sort of place represented here. The re-vamp of the first crush story is also well-told and involving, and really brings home that Ghibli beauty. The other parts, however, are nigh-on experimental. As an animation test, they look good and can be enjoyed on a technical level.

Honestly, though, there still isn’t that much here, and at times it can be strange seeing such a high budget and quality animation go to such middling skits. In all, it’s certainly more worth the watch than episode 1 (which can honestly be ignored in favor of episode 2), and I genuinely like two of the four sketches. Still, the only part that really sticks in my mind is the curry sketch.

Overall, not bad, but probably the most forgettable thing Ghibli ever made on such a high budget.

#35 – Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Faltering Magic

In 2014, to the sadness of many (myself certainly included), Ghibli president Suzuki Toshio announced that “Ghibli’s production department will be going on hiatus.” (「ジブリの制作部門の休止。」) Soon after, Suzuki announced the complete restructuring of said production department; almost the entire staff, many of which had for years been salaried workers, were let go. There followed an exodus of higher-up Ghibli talent: Yonebayashi Hiromasa, director of Arrietty and Marnie, joined producer Nishimura Yoshiaki to lead a team of former Ghibli employees to form a spiritual successor company: Studio Ponoc.

 (“Ponoć” is the Serbo-Croatian word for “midnight,” in answer to “Ghibli,” an Italian word for the hot winds that blow off the Sahara.)

For those saddened by the idea of a world without new Ghibli films, this studio represented a real hope that similar films by former Ghibli creatives would still be coming out.

What we have here is Ponoc’s launch film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

Based on the British novel 1971 The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, the story finds young, red-headed Mary moving in with her great-aunt in an English town. Mary, who hates her hair and who’s haplessly clumsy, ends up following a neighbor’s cat into the woods where she discovers a glowing blue flower and, later, an old broom. When the flower bursts, covering Mary in a strange blue aura, she gains magical powers – and the broom comes to life, whisking her off to a magical college for witches located in the clouds. Mary, newly empowered, is quickly hailed as a prodigy, but not all is right in this newly-discovered magical world…

The first thing one notices about this movie is how much it looks like a Ghibli movie; for the first twenty minutes or so, it almost feels like one, too. It starts off with a bit of atmosphere, seemingly biding its time. You start to notice how closely some ideas mirror previous Ghibli films (a girl following a cat to discover a magical world, a plucky girl on a broomstick). What first feels like homage quickly turns to something closer to weak mimicry (not only does the flying look a bit too much like that from Kiki’s, Mary is even chased by flying creatures who take bites out of her broom’s straw – the exact same thing that happened to Kiki). This ends up making the movie feel like any number of Ghibli-clones out there, especially in the weak middle section.

Things really lose cohesion once Mary gets her tour of the magic college. This location is emblematic of the whole film: a bit too haphazard, a bit too Harry Potter. Even the music when Mary first arrives is almost a straight rip of John Williams’ famous Harry Potter theme, making the movie feel like it’s double-dipping in creative plagiarism.

The school, while beautifully animated and full of interesting ideas, just doesn’t feel “alive” like Ghibli film locations do. There’s just a bit too much thrown at you all at once without much rhyme or reason, which feels more in line with other non-Ghibli one-off anime fantasies. It’s more of a standard run-of-the-mill magic school anime on a higher budget. The animation is quite beautiful (we even get some Ghibli-level food), but the dearth of cohesion means Mary lacks the atmosphere of either of Yonebayashi’s films for Studio Ghibli.

There’s also a real character problem here. Despite a fairly slow start, we just aren’t given enough time with most characters or locations to feel deep enough connections. In specific, Peter, Mary’s friend and an important McGuffin, is completely undeveloped (and that character design – woof). Speaking of design, our antagonists both seem to come from the school of “forgettable filler Dragonball Z movie villains”. They make villain maid Haru from Arrietty feel like a great antagonist in comparison.

I won’t be completely negative here, though; Mary does start to feel more like its own thing in the last forty minutes. Yoneyabashi does know how to ramp up the tension towards the end of his movies, and I finally found myself being sucked in during this last section. Here the animation really shone (a detailed herd of hundreds of animals being a high-point) and things started to feel less Ghibli-light. The conclusion still lacks that oof effect or emotional pay-off because of how little groundwork is done in the first two acts, but I ended up enjoying myself during these parts.

Also, the music (sans attempts at being John Williams) is actually very charming.

In the end, this movie looks like Ghibli, but it doesn’t really feel like Ghibli. The biggest failure is in its writing (which makes Ghibli’s worst theatrical film, Tales from Earthsea, seem like a strong script). It’s disappointing coming from Yonebayashi, but maybe even more so from his co-scriptwriter Sakaguchi. She helped Takahata write The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which is so structurally strong – I really wonder what happened here. Producer Nishimura did say that he wanted to push Yonebayashi away from slow, atmospheric films into a more fun, adventurous direction – maybe that’s where the blame lies.

Mary is worth a watch, but if it was actually Ghibli, it would easily be their worst. Thankfully, Ponoc’s next outing showed much more creative promise.

#34 – Earwig and the Witch

Text box featuring information on Earwig and the Witch, including poster.

Miscast Spell

Ghibli may have shut down its famed production department in 2014, but the studio was back at it again sooner than many realized. According to director Miyazaki Goro, by 2016, Ghibli was already trying its hand at something new – something completely new, in fact: its first CG animated feature. With Goro at the helm, production moved full steam ahead, with the experimental Earwig and the Witch premiering on Japanese TV channel NHK in 2020. I was watching with rapt attention as it aired; after all, it had been six years since Ghibli’s last in-house film.

Earwig automatically has a few points working against it. Firstly, its animation style represents a major departure from one of the intrinsic qualities most viewers love Ghibli for: beautiful, “traditional” 2D animation. This represents a major hurdle for most fans of the studio to get across. Second, it’s a film with Miyazaki Goro’s name on the poster. Goro’s reputation is spotty at best, though how much he deserves his negative associations is debatable. Thirdly, this is a relatively short TV movie, sitting at only 82 minutes in length. Only two Ghibli films are shorter – The Cat Returns, at 75 minutes, and the other Ghibli TV film, Ocean Waves, at 72 minutes. In the end, the most impactful might just be the length, as we’ll see.

Earwig (Ayatsuru in the Japanese) is a precocious, conniving ten-year-old orphan. As a baby, her witchy mother left her at an orphanage following a motorcycle chase in the rain; she’s grown up to love the orphanage, finding it easy to control her peers and even the adults at the institution. (Despite her devious ways, she does still have affection for the people around her.) One day, two mysterious strangers appear, hoping to adopt Earwig. One is Baba Yaga, blue-haired and mean-spirited. The other is the imposing, devil-eared Mandrake. Earwig is brought to their home and put to work, where she is told that Baba Yaga is in fact a witch. As she adjusts to life in this magical house, the connection between Baba Yaga, the Mandrake, and Earwig’s mother is slowly revealed.

Earwig and the Witch is, undisputedly, the most reviled Ghibli movie of all time. This is saying something, given the vitriol with which some used to speak of Tales from Earthsea (unsurprisingly, also directed by Goro). It’s also saying something, given Ghibli’s near-spotless record prior to Earthsea itself. But while Earthsea is often simply considered, well, bad, Earwig is outright hated. And, well, it’s not too hard to see why. Worldwide, Ghibli is known – correctly or otherwise – as the last bastion of traditional, hand-drawn animation. (Even though most Ghibli films of the past two decades were drawn and colored on a computer, with My Neighbors the Yamada’s in particular being heavily computer reliant.) Even Earthsea is praised (rightly) for its beautiful animation. Earwig’s rather stilted, sometimes uncanny-valley-level CG animation flies in the face of something people love about the studio. It’s a major mark against the film.

Then there’s the unpleasant characters. Earwig’s domineering personality does her no favors; worse still, the movie doesn’t really teach her to be less manipulative. Rather, it’s a story about how she adapts and learns to manipulate within a new environment. Next we have Baba Yaga, assumedly “the” witch of the English title. She’s more than a little abusive. So, not a super enjoyable character either. The film’s saving grace is the Mandrake, memorable in both a visual and atmospheric sense. He’s the only part of the movie most viewers seem to like.

But, really, the true nail in the coffin is the film’s third act – in that there is none. The movie speed runs its ending, jumping from what would make for a fine 2nd act climax into a truly unsatisfying finale. Ghibli films are often willing to leave the viewer with unanswered questions, which add a sense of the unknowable, or enhance the appeal of the cinematic worlds’ they create. Earwig isn’t like that; rather, it feels like it just stops. Core plot points are missing. Did Baba Yaga know who Earwig was before adopting her? How will the mother interact with her old friends, turned enemies? Who are the “twelve witches” chasing Earwig’s mother?

So much is left unconcluded that Goro has spent the past three years hearing people ask when he plans on making the sequel:

“I’ve heard a lot of people who’ve seen this film saying, ‘Are you making a sequel?’ And that’s a little troubling for me… It took four years to make this film, and when you think of spending your next four years doing a sequel, while it’s appealing, I’m not that young.”

So, likely not happening. Which means we’re left with something ultimately unsatisfying.

But, here’s where I make a personal admission. I actually kind of enjoy this movie. I think Earwig is more “Ghibli” than its reputation suggests; there is still great attention to sense of place, to movement, to the uniqueness of individual, everyday items. There’s even the appetizing Ghibli food everyone on the internet loves so much. Earwig and talking cat Thomas are pretty cute together. Thought of as a low-key TV movie, it has its appeal.

Said talking cat does remind one of the strange similarities between this movie and Ponoc’s equally disappointing Mary and the Witch’s Flower, released three years earlier. Mary has the leg up in the animation department, being a truly beautiful work of 2D animation. It also has the superior finale, no question. But I have to admit to coming away a bit more charmed by Earwig’s little word; there is more magic in Baba Yaga’s filthy workshop or the Mandrake’s organ-playing abode of solitude than in Mary’s copy-paste magic school. That, for me, pushes Earwig just a bit above Mary in the rankings.

But Earwig’s charm can only go so far. I like this movie more than most do, but it is, unquestionably, the worst Ghibli film. It lacks the emotional highs, the moments of deep insight, present in almost every other film by the studio. Even Earthsea has moments that take my breath away. Earwig manages to get me invested enough until it simply stops; and, to be honest, there’s a part of me that hopes that’s what’s happened to Ghibli’s CG department as a whole.

#33 – The Red Turtle

Like its Namesake, Graceful but Slow

Honestly, I considered not including this movie in the list. Sure, it starts with a Totoro screen (red instead of the usual blue) and has been advertised as a Ghibli film, but this co-production is really the creation of Michaël Dudok de Wit and his Dutch animation team with Wild Bunch. The Ghibli connection comes from assistance with funding and production, and specifically Takahata’s advice and supervision of storyboards. It’s hard to gauge how much this supervision affected the film, but I don’t personally feel too much of the Takahata or Ghibli style here. That’s fine, because this is a unique film all its own. In some sense, though, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence is just as much of a Ghibli co-production. (Now that would have been fun to include here.)

Anyway, for the sake of thoroughness, here this is. The plot: a man survives a shipwreck and washes up on an abandoned island covered in bamboo. Desperate to get back home, the man builds a makeshift raft, but every time he attempts to sail off into the blue his ship is destroyed from below by a large red turtle. Enraged, the man eventually strikes out – but later, as he comes to feel guilt for what he has done, the turtle transforms into a woman. Life on the island goes on…

This movie is very much stylistically its own thing. It even has backgrounds that look similar to the storybook art of Chris Van Allsburg (Jumaji, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi). While beautiful, this style lacks the depth of field of Ghibli-style animation. Character designs (all three of them) aren’t particularly expressive (somewhat unfortunate, given that this movie is essentially dialog-less), but body language is used to pretty good effect.

There are some well-played, tense moments (the castaway nearly drowning while trying to swim through a narrow passageway gives me major tsuris). There’s also some dreamlike imagery here – like when the castaway does in fact dream of a silvery bamboo bridge across the ocean which he flies gracefully across – and there is some of the observation of natural movements a la Ghibli, like baby turtles being pushed back by small waves when they first enter the surf, then speeding up to break through the waves into the ocean.

There is much to admire here, from a real sense of artistic vision to an effective soundtrack. Still, I have to admit something that may not make me all that popular with some: it just doesn’t work all that well for me as a whole.

Maybe this is a problem of expectations. This is a restrained, observed, and naturalistic work of 2D animation — something we’re very lucky to have these days. It’s just that with the name Studio Ghibli attached, there’s a few things you expect (despite all the diversity of film genre and mood within that canon). You expect deep character studies, a meticulously crafted world, and a certain joie de vivre. Red Turtle observes three people, who we do care for, and does have a beautiful (if small) world all its own, but it doesn’t really have “characters” or the intense energy of basically any other theatrical film on this list. That doesn’t mean it’s bad — many would certainly call it very good— it just means that, of course, it doesn’t feel very “Ghibli.”

Also, and I truly hate to say this, but the movie really feels overlong. It moves very gradually – even glacially in many parts, like its namesake when on land— in no rush to get to one point or tell us exactly this or that. Usually, I appreciate that in a movie, and Ghibli films famously eschew normal animated film structures, but the pacing is languid enough here that I honestly thought this was a two-hour-long film. It’s actually only 81 minutes long.

There’s another place where this doesn’t feel very “Ghibli”: the somewhat short shrift given its one female character. The red turtle in question is honestly less of a character once she’s in her human form, her desires and personality given much less time than either her husband or son. The strength of the film lies in the family dynamic, but if this were Miyazaki or Takahata, you know she’d be more central.

I honestly think this would have been better as a 35-minute short film. Even the themes (family, being happy in what you have where you are) aren’t really enough to sustain the movie’s length.  As it stands, it’s atmospheric, emotional, but just too overlong. I do, however, look forward to seeing where De Wit’s career continues to take him.

#32 – Boro the Caterpillar

You’ll Believe a Caterpillar can… Poop?

After Miyazaki announced his seemingly final retirement back in 2013, he quickly found himself bored. (Boro-ed?) Many could have anticipated this for the famous workaholic director – that he would never put down his pencil until literally physically incapable of holding it. Still, Miyazaki didn’t want to come fully out of retirement or take on the incredible commitment that is the production of a new film. As such, Suzuki Toshio recommended he return to his old idea for a film about a small caterpillar, something he’d been thinking of since the production of Mononoke, and make that into an animated short for the Ghibli Museum. Miyazaki decided he’d use the opportunity to create his first completely animated-by-computer piece. The result is currently the last complete Studio Ghibli production.

And it’s a wonderful and weird one. Boro is a tiny, new-born thing, capable of sensing (and on-screen, visibly seeing) air bubbles. He goes about experiencing his scaled-down world, unaware of the dangers and chaos waiting for him. It’s all quite cute, but also strange – one scene is centered entirely on watching bugs poop.

Additionally, this is Miyazaki’s third go at his human-voice-for-sound-effects concept, following House Hunting and The Wind Rises (which used the idea more sparingly). The result is both hilarious and a little overdone, in my opinion – but certainly memorable.

While I wouldn’t call this my favorite museum short, it’s still creative and has plenty of charm. The CG aspect is fine, and not overly intrusive, but I still believe the heart of the studio is its hand-drawn animation – I hope this isn’t the new standard, just as I hope Miyazaki finishes his current film project. This is a nice museum short, but as a swansong for the entire studio and Miyazaki in particular, it wouldn’t be much.

#31 – Tales from Earthsea

Ghibli’s Black Sheep…er, Dragon

Here you have it: the one and only Ghibli film which, on the whole, is considered “bad.” Tales from Earthsea, the first directorial effort by Miyazaki Hayao’s son Goro, is a bit of a punching bag. Does it deserve all this abuse? In certain aspects, yes. Honestly, though, it’s far from a “Cars 2,” an essentially indefensible stinker that brings down an entire studio’s ranking by its presence. Rather, Earthsea is passionate, flawed, and even confused, yet still a beautiful film by a novice filmmaker who by all rights should have done much worse.

The plot, a combination of aspects from the first four Earthsea novels by Ursula K. Le Guin and part of Miyazaki’s 1983 graphic novel The Journey of Shuna goes as so: in the world of Earthsea, dragons and humans were once one. Now, long years later, dragons are again seen in the open. Magic is fading from the world and disasters strike one after another. Arren, prince of the kingdom of Enland, stabs his own father in order to gain his magically-forged sword; escaping into the desert, he is saved from death by the wandering Archmage Sparrowhawk. The wizard, hoping to help the conflicted boy find balance, encourages him to travel with him as he searches out the reason for the world’s tumult. They encounter Tenar, an old friend of Sparrowhawk, who has taken on a young burn victim, Therru, as her ward. However, Sparrowhawk has attracted the attentions of an old enemy: the sinister Cob.

Really, the story of this movie’s production is worthy of an article all its own. (Hey, think I’ll write that.) Essentially, producer/Ghibli president Suzuki Toshio went over Miyazaki’s head and pushed for the director’s son, Goro, to helm a new film in the continued Ghibli search for successors. Hayao was completely against this – he’d spent well over a decade in the animation industry before directing a theatrical film. Goro, although someone with good artistic intuition and a capable director of the Ghibli Museum, had never been involved in film or animation production. He was too green. The disapproval of son by father was so strong that the two essentially never spoke over the course of the film’s production – although the final product did elicit this unexpected, fully Miyazakian praise:


“It was made with frank honesty, so it’s good.”

I think that “frank honesty” is quite correct. The film essentially opens with the main character, Arren, seemingly killing his own father. Standing in his father’s long shadow, Arren struggles with his self-worth; this father-son dynamic is a major theme of the movie. Given Goro’s own issues with his incredibly famous and renowned father, these feelings seem to have been adapted straight into the feature. This and other themes about the value of life and the meaning of death are all told with equal straightforwardness. Sadly, while the themes are good, they become a bit jumbled in the telling.

A perfect example of this is the two opening scenes, which are essentially both just set up to the main story. The first is an incredible tangent showcasing two glowing dragons battling in the skies over a heavy sea, as sailors watch on, helpless to calm the waves as their wizard’s magic fades. The second introduces us to the king and his capital, showing us beautiful details of his castle while his counsel explicates the evil going-ons in the world. A long upward tracking shot introduces us to the queen, who seems as though she will be an important character. However, within minutes this entire setting and all its characters are thrown away; we never come back to them. 

Both these scenes are quite engaging and well-staged by themselves, but end up feeling like filler as the film moves in a completely different direction. This is sadly quite normal in this movie, which introduces characters willy-nilly only for them to never be seen again or do anything important. Scenes and plot feel woefully disjointed as a result.

There’s also the problem of how empty the film feels. The villain, Cob’s, castle is huge and foreboding – a stereotypical fantasy lair if ever I saw one. Yet he seems to have a total of eight lackeys living there – it feels empty, almost unfinished in its portrayal. Perhaps the point is empty devastation, but outside of the bustling port town the entire world feels like it’s occupied by less than ten people. This contrasts mightily with so many Ghibli films, from Kiki to Mononoke to Spirited Away to Goro’s own From Up on Poppy Hill, which all feel fully peopled and alive.

Much of what occurs simply happens with little explanation. The film’s ending, though visually impressive and even somewhat thrilling, is essentially left unexplained. This lack of attention to plot, or the proper integration of the theming into it, are the movie’s greatest flaws. (Unless you’re a Le Guin fan, in which case the poor adaptation is likely the most egregious aspect.)

These are glaring problems, and I can understand them ruining the film for many. Personally, though, I have to admit a soft spot for Tales from Earthsea. A major part of the reason for this is the film’s wonderful atmosphere. The animation, especially in terms of use of color, is breathtaking. While perhaps not Ghibli’s best technical animation, the vast, unpeopled landscapes are among the studio’s most spectacular. Then there’s the soundtrack, by Terashima Tamiya, which is simply one of my favorites in film. Epic, mournful, and just perfectly suited to the stunning imagery on screen. It’s long been a road trip favorite in my family.

As a fairly standard hero’s journey story, the plot is both too simple and too convoluted to be worthy of the Ghibli name, and yet I actually enjoy the chance to see good, bad, dragons, and fantasy shown in such glorious animation. And while said plot isn’t up to snuff, the film still allows itself to move at a slow pace, to experience every vista, to spend time in farming the land. That, at least, feels Ghibli. The characters, too, have standouts: Sparrowhawk is another wonderful, morally just Ghibli badass grandfather; Therru, if not quite as full of agency for most of the film as other Ghibli heroines, is memorable and strong (and her song, Therru’s Song, sung by Teshima Aoi is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement). Seeing Arren and Therru act together is a thrill. The presentation is good enough that I actually feel something when the action takes place, which is pretty incredible for a movie that often doesn’t make sense. I end up feeling happy by the end, yet still wishing I could spend more time in Earthsea.

So, I actually find myself more drawn to Earthsea and to more rewatches than I do with some other, technically better films on this list. It’s not a terrible film or an embarrassment – it’s a highly flawed but beautiful movie, perhaps the most expensive learning experience a new director could ask for. I’m glad it exists.

#30 – Monmon the Water Spider

Does Whatever a Good Short Can

As you enter the Ghibli Museum through its lower floor and are ushered into a room with a tall, vaulted ceiling and crisscrossing mid-air bridges, you’ll most likely walk to the right and enter through a pair of large doors. Inside you’ll find one of the museum’s permanent exhibitions: “The Beginning of Movement,” a dimly lit room focusing on the mystery and magic of animation. If you walk past the zeotrope of uncannily dancing Totoro figures and make your way to the back of the room, you might spot a series of illuminated dioramas recessed into the wall. Each has a glass frame followed by layers of painted transparent material, each creating a sense of depth in otherwise two-dimensional art. One of these shows life in a small pond, where a water spider navigates his watery environment.

This diorama is the origin of the character of Monmon the Water Spider (mizugumo). Starting off life as a mere diorama, Monmon was lucky enough to get his own 15-minute short at the Ghibli Museum via the direction of Miyazaki himself. The eponymous arachnid spends his days avoiding larger predators while collecting bubbles to use in order to safely submerge himself in his pond. One day, our shy hero spots a beautiful water strider. He’s immediately smitten and goes about trying to win her affection. However, in nature, danger can lurk around every corner…

It’s been a decade since I saw this short, yet I can still remember how charmed I was by the character of Monmon and how beautiful the watery world he inhabited was. This is one of my favorite shorts from the museum; it manages to convey wordlessly the character and emotions of both Monmon and his object of affection, the water strider. One of the scant few reviews I’ve seen for this short compared it to Pixar’s Wall-E, something I consider quite apt. The two leads of both films share similar characteristics which are artfully conveyed through action alone. Speaking of which, there is even some action in this film, which I remember being quite exciting.

Essentially, this is a wonderful little short; beautiful, exciting, even emotional. It displays all of Ghibli’s best skills within the medium of animated storytelling. I’d love to see it again someday.

We’ve made our way through some rougher but still interesting material — next up, the Ghibli Universe starts shifting into the good and the great! Head to the next page for the continuation!

Page navigation: #50-30, #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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