Animania turns towards the East as Craig O’Reilly & Laura Coppin pick their Ghibli favourites.
When we think of feature length animation it’s hard not to jump straight to Pixar, Dreamworks, Disney. At least in the Western world.
There is however a larger name in other parts of the globe, one that eclipses the achievements of our most familiar studios and is almost unfathomably successful.
Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki. The directors had already had respected careers in Japanese film and television, but the success of 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, convinced them to create their own studio.
Over the last 30 years, Studio Ghibli has arguably defined Japanese animation. A whopping 8 of their releases have gone on to be Japan’s highest grossing films of their respective years. Not highest the highest grossing anime film; the highest grossing films full stop.
We could probably make the argument that, within the industry, Ghibli is the most revered animation studio in the world – responsible for not only some of the most gorgeous available animation, but for integrity.
Ghibli will never compromise themselves for the market. In fact, in a move that arguably makes them the greatest people on Earth, when Harvey Weinstein suggested making cuts to Princess Mononoke to make it more marketable to an American audience, they reportedly sent him an authentic Japanese sword with the message “No cuts“.
So if Studio Ghibli is just as iconic as Disney, or Warner, or Pixar in the East, it is only fair that we include them in Animania.
So, in the spirit of that, here are our Top 10 Studio Ghibli films.
10. The Wind Rises (2013)
Strangely, aircrafts can generally be remarkably boring despite their impressive defiance of nature, a statement that makes the next all the more surprising.
The Wind Rises somehow manages to put the design of an mechanical aircraft at the heart of this historical drama that sees main character Jiro Horikoshi struggle not only through failure, illness and war but also internally due to the nature of his creation.
In receipt of huge critical acclaim upon release The Wind Rises continued in its predecessors footsteps, becoming the highest-grossing Japanese film of the year. A movie that gives new weight to animation as emotion, conflict and beauty shine through in a unexpectedly human way.
9. The Cat Returns (2002)
One of the more bizarre offerings on our list, The Cat Returns is a genuinely hilarious and pretty madcap film in which follows Haru, a young woman who can talk to cats.
After saving one kitty in question from becoming roadkill, it is revealed that he is, in fact, the Prince of the Cat Kingdom. Somehow the pair end up engaged, much to Haru’s distress, and the rest of the film chronicles her attempts to escape.
It’s completely ludicrous, of course. But in the most wonderful way.
8. Ponyo (2008)
As one of Ghibli‘s most recognisable characters, Ponyo takes centre stage in this magnificent fantasy underwater adventure that in part channels both the Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo with a cute as hell cast of characters and magical scenes of jellyfish riding, toy boats and mystical bubbles.
It’s as sweet as it is funny, with gloriously simple humour including our favourite line “You can’t be busy – you’re five!”
It took an astonishing $200 million worldwide. Not bad for a fish.
7. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Released under the 15 year distribution partnership between The Walt Disney Company and Studio Ghibli, Kiki’s Delivery Service went on to win over a dozen awards upon release.
As an adaptation of Eiko Kadono‘s 1985 novel of the same name the film tells the story of a young witch, Kiki, who moves to a new town and uses her flying ability to earn a novel new living.
The story aims to highlight the gap between independence and reliance in teenage Japanese girls of the time, well, according to Miyazaki anyway.
6. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Before you get all picky with us, yes, technically this was made before the creation of the ‘official’ studio, however it is generally considered a Ghibli production, it being a Miyazaki led venture.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a striking film that once again provides a stark warning about humanity’s treatment of nature. Set in a post-apocalyptic world destroyed by a horrible war, the remaining humans contend with a toxic jungle full of gigantic mutant insects.
The eponymous Nausicaä struggles to prove that humans can get along with the jungle’s inhabitants, as the threat of another war looms. Visually it’s one of Ghibli‘s most stunning, particularly the vast jungle landscapes.
5. Laputa: Castle In The Sky (1986)
The studio’s first film (legally), it is full of absolutely gorgeous imagery and once again shows Miyazaki’s love of nature that will flow through all his future creations.
The mythical floating city is beautifully rendered and half overgrown by plants and roots – something straight out of legend. Similarly the Laputan robot who assists the two main characters is the same – covered in growth and looking like a forgotten relic.
Even from the off the visual style of the studio’s films are set, a style that would very quickly become unmistakable across the world.
4. My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
This charming tale of friendship and the magic of childhood is undoubtedly one of the studio’s most famous films, the most famous if memorabilia is anything to go by, as Totoro has become a global phenomenon in the past 20 years.
One of the more lighthearted offerings, My Neighbour Totoro features some truly iconic and adorable characters in a tale that follows two young sisters, Satsuki and Mei, as they move house, soon to discover that their new home is filled with spirits, eventually meeting the lovable titular giant Toroto.
It’s a very gentle watch, but that’s no bad thing. If Toroto doesn’t win over your heart, the centipede-esque Catbus is sure to.
3. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Often cited as Miyazaki’s own favourite Howl’s Moving Castle has the potential to be one of the greatest Ghibli films for pure enjoyment, so long as you can disconnect it from the book it’s based on.
Dianna Wynn Jones’ book is a childhood classic, and the petulant, spoiled, dandyish Wizard Howl is a truly magnificent creation. Studio Ghibli strip him of his voluminous silk sleeves and floppy blonde hair through his transformation to a dark-haired man of mystery who seems to know exactly what he’s doing.
Nonetheless it’s a wonderful film, and many of the funniest elements remain – he still throws a tantrum and covers himself in a horrible, viscous slime that nearly destroys the castle, and Calcifer, the fire demon powering it through the air, is still a wisecracking cynic who brings plenty of humour to proceedings.
2. Princess Mononoke (1997)
We love almost anything that features an abundance of animals and forests, so naturally fell hook line and sinker for this.
Ashitaka, a prince who’s the last of his line, is injured by a demon who’s taken over the corrupted body of the boar god Nago. His only hope of survival is to seek help from the Great Forest Spirit.
The array of forest gods and the world they inhabit are truly spellbinding, and the film manages to at once be a pretty journey through myth and folklore and a cautionary tale, warning of the grave repercussions of man’s mistreatment of nature.
Hayao Miyazaki adores the natural world, even opening his own 10,000 square metre sanctuary to try and reconnect Japan’s children with nature, a life long passion that is clear to see through the magical worlds his films brings to life.
1. Spirited Away (2001)
Spirited Away is a hauntingly beautiful morality tale that winds its way along a path that at first seems gleefully whimsical, but soon becomes incredibly sinister.
The studio’s most famous film (grossing over $250 million worldwide), the story follows a neglected young girl called Chihiro as she unwillingly moves with her parents to a new rural area. All doesn’t go to plan with the journey however and they instead stumble upon a doorway to the spirit realm.
It’s a tale that is at times funny, heart-wrenching, and stunningly beautiful, with an array of outlandish creatures that are a delight to behold. The spidery bathhouse boiler-man Kamaji is a particular treat, though there’s a number of hideous transformations which are as impressive as they are disturbing which too deserve praise, Chihro’s parents and No-Face topping the list.
Honourably Notable Exception – The Red Turtle (2016)
A Studio Ghibli production, but written and directed by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit.
Had it been a true Ghibli film it would be very high on the list indeed. Relying on an exquisite score throughout, being free of any dialogue, it does pose a more challenging viewing than others on our list but is well worth the time, portraying an incredible moral tale that leaves you unable to think about much else long after watching it.