In the wake of the passing of Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, and ahead of Studio Ponoc’s Mary and the Witch’s Flower, out for a limited release this week, here at Film Enthusiast we wanted to celebrate the work of Japan’s master anime directors throughout the years. Although it must be stated that no anime is a bad anime, many carry different themes and are valuable to spectators for various reasons, whether sentimental or aesthetic. These, in our view, are ten of the best Studio Ghibli feature films you can find.
- The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, 2013)
Takahata’s swansong is a carefully crafted story based on 10th-century Japanese folklore. It tells the story of a tiny girl who is found in a bamboo shoot in the mountains – nicknamed ‘Little Bamboo’, she grows into a beautiful princess and moves to the capital, but soon discovers that the constraints of her regal lifestyle are more than she can bear. The film was widely acclaimed as a masterpiece on its release, owing to its charcoal-like drawings, fine colours and sympathetic characters. At nearly 140 minutes, Princess Kaguya requires patience, but it pays off: after all, it received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature in 2015, and bears all of Takahata’s sensitivity to mankind, nature and spiritual life that hallmarks his work.
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1984)
Nausicaä is the story of a princess with a social conscience, who is forced to take arms against an invading threat in order to save humanity. Accompanied by a feisty creature companion and guided by her own courage and resourcefulness, Nausicaä braves the post-apocalyptic conditions of Earth in an effort to bring peace between warring kingdoms and between man & nature. An early Studio Ghibli film with a strong ecological message, Nausicaä shows that Ghibli was already full of unique ideas and arresting visuals even at their genesis. While computer-aided design has greatly assisted animation in the years since its release, the hand-drawn element still lives on in Ghibli films today, and is reminiscent of the manga series that the film was originally based on.
- Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)
Widely regarded as one of the most imaginative works of Hayao Miyazaki, this film teaches us to look beyond appearances and appreciate people for who they truly are. Plain, hardworking Sophie, who toils in her parents’ hat shop, is one day cursed by a witch and forced to seek out help from Howl and his companions in the mysterious moving castle. The narrative at times seems a little convoluted, incongruous with the easy, comical characters that inhabit the magical kingdom. However, it is an entertaining and visually spectacular film which is satisfying as a children’s fantasy.
- My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
Everyone loves Totoro. It’s a seminal work of the Ghibli catalogue and instantly recognisable for its loveable Totoro figure, adored throughout Japan and the face of the Studio Ghibli museum in Mitaka, Tokyo. It is the story of two young girls, Satsuki and Mei, who live in the country with their father. who is taking care of them while their ailing mother has an extended stay in a faraway hospital. Mei one day discovers Totoro, king of the enchanted creatures of the wood, and their friendship develops. Widely regarded as the film that has propelled Ghibli to the status of an international brand, Totoro is essential viewing.
- From Up On Poppy Hill (Goro Miyazaki, 2011).
Taking on his father’s mantle, Miyazaki Jr. produced this film with all the sensibility of the company’s previous work. It tells the story of two high-schoolers in 1963, who hatch a plan to save their clubhouse from demolition ahead of the 1964 Olympics. It has been described as a coming of age romance but has as much to do with family, war, pacifism and diplomacy as it does the giddy first-love storyline. Don’t be put off by the melodramatic elements: at its heart, this is a look back at simple high-school days with some fantastic scenery both on land and at sea.
- The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, 2014)
To describe this film as “touching” doesn’t quite do justice to the layers of pathos it’s built on. Set in the 1920s, its pre-war era setting lies as a backdrop to a romance that runs its course over many years, as it loosely follows the life of Jiro Horikoshi, an aerospace engineer. More than once it makes reference to the interplay of the worlds of art and science, and amid the attentively researched, hand-drawn machine blueprints there are visual homages to Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse in the easel-painting scenes. The wind signifies not only the physical force but the rush onwards of historical events, and it is one of the most delicately handled films produced under the Ghibli name. There is also the added bonus of the John Krasinski and Emily Blunt team working on the English dub — known for their collaborative work on A Quiet Place, released this month.
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
The first anime to receive an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, it is no exaggeration to say that Spirited Away was groundbreaking. It is almost impossible to have imagined the twists and turns that this film takes, as it follows the adventures of ten-year-old Chihiro, attempting to save her parents who have been turned to pigs in a magical land. It induces all the panic of a young girl left to her own devices in a strange country, but Chihiro is incredibly resourceful and learns to be confident as her own person throughout her mishaps – with the help of a few friends. The vision of the film is highly ambitious and it pays off: as well as leading us through comic episodes, there are poignant moments where Chihiro is forced to examine her own identity and fight for those she loves. All lovingly hand-drawn, as per the Ghibli tradition, Spirited Away is a tour de force and it’s no wonder it has been remembered as one of the best Studio Ghibli films to date.
3. Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991)
The passing of the late Isao Takahata has been documented and lamented worldwide: one of the best films in his legacy is Only Yesterday. It recalls the childhood of Taeko, a 27-year-old Tokyo office worker who takes a summer holiday to the countryside and is met with waves of deep longing for her past. Bathed in a warm, nostalgic light, this film is a glorious work of art that is self-conscious but never overbearing: it invites spectators to consider their own pasts and that of the country around them. Throughout Taeko’s stay, she develops a strong bond to the countryside around her, and the film is a refreshing look at agriculture, farming and the harmony between man and nature that can be achieved when one takes the time to reflect. Later Takahata films like The Tale of Princess Kaguya similarly refer back to the past, but Only Yesterday is a unique look at humanity’s relationship with its surroundings.
- Kiki’s Delivery Service (Hayao Miyazaki, 1989)
One of the best films, not just within the Studio Ghibli collection, but perhaps of all time. At surface level, it’s a coming-of-age story about a young witch who leaves home to pursue her calling and grow as a person, but it is an endearing, hopeful and comical instalment. Overlooking the fact that Kiki’s eager to go at 13, there are few characters who so excellently and realistically portray the conflicting emotions present in leaving home, making one’s own way in life and developing one’s character along the way. The visual design is flawless, with bright blue skies punctuated by soft white clouds, a town modelled on Venice or a similar pre-war, pre-Fascist European idyll, and colourful outfits, buildings and props. Kiki takes up residency in a bakery and learns to use her skill of flying to the advantage of the jovial shopkeeper, who hires her as a delivery girl. As with many Ghibli films, the workplace is where young women find their purpose and can grow as people, an industrious ideological view that encourages autonomy. Coupled with the free-spirited artist Ursula and a sarcastic and infinitely comical black cat Jiji, this film is classic Ghibli at its best.
- The Red Turtle (Michael Dudok de Wit, 2017).
Released last year, this Ghibli feature used no words, yet had the power to leave spectators speechless. It is rare to find a film so truly captivating that it causes you to ponder the very processes of life itself, but that it what Ghibli have achieved, and it is magical. A man is shipwrecked on an island and his escape attempts are thwarted by the eponymous red turtle – what transpires is a tender, complicated look into humanity and what it means to experience life. The visuals are gorgeous, with great breaking waves crashing above an intricately-drawn island, but they are also very simple: characters’ features are left almost as if unfinished in post-production, giving them a universal quality. The simplicity of the score also plays a fundamental part, as it doesn’t detract from the main events but tugs on our heartstrings at just the right moments. If you see one Ghibli film, make it The Red Turtle: it’s unlike anything else, a perfectly executed and beautifully crafted feature with a quiet, gentle force running through it.
Bonus film: Your Name (Makoto Shinkai, 2016)
This isn’t a Ghibli film, but for the most part, it follows the tropes of one and is just as fantastical, arresting and spectacular that it deserves to be ranked among the best. Like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Shinkai’s earlier work, it follows the dual-narrative of Taki and Mitsuha, two teenagers from starkly different Japanese backgrounds, who find themselves mysteriously linked through time. It is the story of their search for each other, a body-swap comedy with rich, underlying pathos and a respect for Japanese ancestral traditions. It is difficult to do justice to the way that this film portrays a deep longing for the past, especially in the wake of the 2011 Japanese earthquake, and one almost wishes it could be seen for the first time again. Shinkai was widely heralded as the new Miyazaki on its release, and while the two directors have diverged somewhat in their craft, they both retain an unparalleled aptitude for storytelling and entrancing audiences.
What are your favourite Studio Ghibli films? Do you have any comments on the films mentioned here? Let us know below.