In the 32 years since Studio Ghibli was formed, the output has been nothing short of exemplary. When ranking the Japanese canon, the point that flips from “recommendation” to “bad film” is very low indeed. The vast majority are superior to the many functional animated films that are churned out of Hollywood each year. Only the one at the bottom of the list is, possibly, the only flawed film. As the rogue outsider, it then becomes a curiosity; the misshapen fruit that cannot help but beg for a taste. Everything else delivers on the promise of quality, the top half becoming thorough recommendations that prove how expert designs, vivid characters and layered stories are the holy trinity of vibrant, animated movies.
Inevitably, there will be – and have been – disagreements. My Neighbour Totoro is suspiciously low on the list, while The Tale of Princess Kaguya may appear a little too high considering its recent release date. The reality is, as so many Ghibli offerings are exceptionally strong, it is difficult to definitively rank the entire collection. In another year, after another watch, they will surely change. Having said that, those who have yet to unwrap the joy of Howl, Totoro and Haku can always see this as a good starting point. Working your way from the top of the list is a fine way to begin. And so, without further ado we finish our entire ranking of Studio Ghibli.
5. Only Yesterday
A lesser-known personal tale, Only Yesterday simultaneously tells us the coming-of-age and adult reflection of a single woman travelling from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo to the rural farms of Yamagata. With the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, now is the time to watch it as a recent English-dub features Daisy Ridley in the leading role. She couldn’t be better suited to the character and Dev Patel, as her new friend in Yamagata, is equally endearing and likable.
Taeko is 27 years old. She has yet to settle down and truly isn’t sure what she wants from life. One thing she has enjoyed is in the journey, and ritual of picking of safflower, in Yamagata. As she travels and experiences the customs, told in exquisite detail, she is reminded of her younger years. In a subtle change in animated form, we see her memories in watercolour. Her first love; her first period; the first – and only – time her father hit her. It culminates in a dreamlike meeting of the two worlds and will leave you in a tear-stained mess, reminiscing your own childhood and the time that has passed.
Sensitively handled, honestly told, Only Yesterday is a hidden gem. It is a humble story and, arguably, has few high stakes. But this only makes the journey that much more impressive. You are swept into this woman’s life and it is a joy to get to know her. Only Yesterday, rather than the epic scale of so many of Miyazaki’s movies, it poignant and insightful, with themes that linger in your mind long after the credits have rolled.
4. Grave of the Fireflies
Released in a double-bill with My Neighbour Totoro, it is difficult to imagine how audiences felt watching this dark, critical anti-war animation in combination with the charming, cheery Totoro. Sequences include a mother, burned so bad she cannot be saved; a child dying from a lack of food and, to top it off, an opening that immediately makes your heart sink: “This is the day I died” says a teenage boy.
Seita is the teenager and, after the aforementioned passing of their mother, he is tasked to raise and take care of his younger sister, Setsuko. It is in the middle of World War II and to survive, unskilled and inexperienced, he desperately tries to find a way to make it through wartime. Turning to a distant relative, he is treated harshly by his domineering Aunt. There is hope that their father is still alive but it is fading fast. Leaving the home, they try and survive in an isolated cave. But the struggle forces them to turn to theft and a hunger that only makes matters worse.
When Seita’s body drops and passes, in the opening scene, his ghostly presence follows us through his short, tragic life. You won’t see Disney or Pixar take on such a bold position and, as a World War II story told from the civilians of Japan, it is a far cry from the gun-toting Americans and British fighters that dominate mainstream cinema. Grave of the Fireflies is often considered among the greatest war movies of all time – and this is not a surprise. It is the polar opposite to the playful innocence of My Neighbour Totoro but it is incredibly ambitious. A masterpiece, Grave of the Fireflies showcases Isao Takahata at his finest.
3. The Tale of Princess Kaguya
While Grave of the Fireflies is a tragically all-too-real story, The Tale of Princess Kaguya manages to be as heart-breaking, but with a dreamlike quality that makes it softer and more inviting. Takahata spent years refining and developing this allegorical myth that seems to mysteriously change its meaning on every watch. The Tale of Princess Kaguya manages to tackle the dated expectations of gender, the conflicts of affluence and poverty and then, to finish, sensitively explores loss.
Based upon the folk tale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, it begins with the aforementioned cutter finding a small baby hidden inside a bamboo stick. Taking it home, he and his wife decide to raise the child as their own and realise that she is growing faster and wiser than they could have ever anticipated. His belief that she is of divine origin is confirmed when, again, inside a bamboo stick he finds gold and fine cloth – enough to raise her in a traditional, noble lifestyle. Much to her disappointment, Princess Kaguya, believes life should be about happiness and is forced to contend with the trappings of her formal lifestyle including, choosing a Prince to wed.
Why you may find yourself weeping in the film’s final moments, it is due to Takahata’s confident direction, expressive animation and uncompromising narrative. A selection of stories is bound within this film, each with a different moral to take away. His previous film was My Neighbours the Yamadas, so to follow it up decades later with this glorious triumph is simply unbelievable. Among the greatest of Ghibli’s creations, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is as deeply profound as it is wonderfully mythical.
2. Spirited Away
Spirited Away is Miyazaki at his surrealist peak. Miyazaki has always included a refreshingly weird, slightly-odd dynamic to his films, but Spirited Away is an example of a tale that is equally personal as it is completely barmy.
Chirhiro is a 10-year-old girl, travelling with her parents when they stumble upon an abandoned park. Her parents, taking a seat at an enormous banquet gorge themselves on food and they turn into pigs. It is a scary start, and only begins the exciting story that follows. Transforming dragons, multi-legged Dr. Robotniks (He does look like the Sonic the Hedgehog villain!) and strange little black dusts pockets; you are forced to let go and immerse yourself into Miyazaki’s dreamlike world. Akin to Alice in Wonderland, Chihiro is the young girl venturing into a new world alone. Haku, a teenager with a magical ability, is her friend and protector. Her journey takes her to an enormous bathhouse and she has to find a way to escape. Spirited Away is crammed with memorable scenes that will haunt your memories. The thick gloop that needs to be cleaned off the visitors of the bathhouse; the train journey with no-face; the intense dragon-ride, high in the sky. Each moment is full of immense wonder and awe, as Chihiro herself feels when the events take place.
Her innocence and kindness is the heart of the tale. The arc of No-face, and his mysterious purpose of fear and protection is particularly poignant. Only an expert in storytelling can craft such a blissful, beautiful tale and Spirited Away delivers on so many fronts. This is a perfect film to introduce Ghibli and Miyazaki to others, but Spirited Away also showcases how unique international cinema truly is – Dreamworks and Disney could never make such a powerful film and it is only by exploring further that you can find such beauty.
1. Howl’s Moving Castle
An adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ childrens book, Howl’s Moving Castle is an ambitious, innovative and out-of-this-world masterpiece. Between the exquisite detail on Howl’s steam-punk, monster of a home through to the magical, immersive world-building that exists beyond the mysterious door of the castle, Howl’s Moving Castle remains among the greatest animated stories of all time.
Sophie is a hat-maker and she is transformed by a witch into an old lady. Desperate for a cure, she manages to jump aboard Howl’s Moving Castle. It is like a rubik’s cube of delight, as doors change in different worlds and between the personal, private tale of Sophie through to the worldwide war that takes place outside, this film seamlessly toys with both and effortlessly weaves in magic and mystery, as if this type of universe actually exists.
It feels as if it exists too. Miyazaki’s precise eye picks out details that truly lift the film to another level; The mute turnip-head, who becomes an immediate ally and charming presence; the sleepy-eyed dog; the character of the castle itself. In the English dub, Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer and Billy Crystal, as the memorable Calcifur, provide voices that are inviting and warm. It is a joy to be in their company and means that Howl’s Moving Castle is always worth a revisit.
Above all, Howl’s Moving Castle reigns in Miyazaki’s surrealist and aeroplane obsessions and softly adds them into the details in the background (such as in the castle itself and flying machines). The story is much more than a character achieving the goal and winning the day – bad guys are more complicated; good guys are more complex. We just need to relax and let Miyazaki tell us the story, and enjoy the world the surrounds the intriguing and intricately layered characters