A couple of months ago, I realized that I had never seen a single Studio Ghibli film. I decided to rectify that in the most extreme way possible: watching all the Studio Ghibli films. I’m about halfway through the experience, and I’d like to jot down some thoughts about the movies I’ve seen so far.

Warning: This piece contains spoilers for all the films discussed!

1. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer:
Hayao Miyazaki
Composer:
Joe Hisaishi
Version watched: 2005 English dub

Technically, Nausicaä predates the official founding of Studio Ghibli, but the people who worked on it went on to found the studio, so that’s where I started. Being a product of the ’80s, it doesn’t have the beautiful animation for which the studio later became known. What it does have, however, is strong world-building. The post-apocalyptic world in which the film is set feels real and lived-in. Nausicaä, the titular character, is a truly wonderful protagonist – one of my favourites of all time. She’s strong and fearless, but also compassionate and emotional. However, she’s not unbelievably flawless; she occasionally acts too rashly, and this makes her a well-rounded character.

Where Nausicaä stumbles somewhat is in its plot, which is told in a confusing manner. The movie suffers from trying to condense two manga volumes (also written by Miyazaki) into a single film. In particular, Kushana’s shifting motives aren’t clearly explained. Miyazaki would retreat to simpler plots in his later films, perhaps as a reaction against trying to do too much with this movie. However, two hallmarks of his films, young female protagonists and environmental themes, would remain.

2. Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Composer: Joe Hisaishi
Version watched: English subtitles

Ghibli’s first official film is notable is notable for its sparseness; there are long stretches of near-silence, and the score often drops out entirely. At times, this works to the film’s advantage, creating a sense of awe of wonder. But other times, there’s silence when there should be the sound of rushing wind in the background, and it honestly sounds like a sound mixing mistake.

As with Nausicaä, Miyazaki creates a world with a rich backstory, but the story he tackles in this movie has a much simpler plot. Still, it seems like he doesn’t know to complete it. The movie ends with the titular castle in the sky being destroyed, the villain dying in the destruction, and the heroes escaping (like in every Uncharted game!) Just once, I’d like to see a film where people find paradise and actually stay there. Miyazaki would retreat to even simpler stories in his next two films; they’re basically plotless.

3. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Director: Isao Takahata
Writer: Isao Takahata
Composer: Michio Mamiya
Version watched: 2012 English dub

Grave of the Fireflies is often described as “the best movie you’ll never want to watch again.” I can see why: it’s depressing as hell. It’s basically Everybody Dies: The Movie. But it is a beautiful story that skillfully illustrates what happens when children fall through society’s cracks.

A semi-realistic wartime drama might seem like odd subject matter for an animated film. In fact, there have been two live-action adaptations of the same source material, a semi-autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka. But upon further reflection, animation is actually the ideal medium for the way Takahata tells the story. In live action, the air raid scenes would require a lot of special and practical effects to look believable, and the ghost effects would just look silly. I haven’t seen the live-action adaptations, so I can’t judge how they deal with those issues, but I don’t know if I can stomach seeing a different version of the same depressing story again.

4. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Composer: Joe Hisaishi
Version watched: 2005 English dub

Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro were originally released as a double feature, even though the two films could not be more different from each other in tone or subject matter. But this double billing actually makes sense: Totoro is the perfect pick-me-up after the relentless misery of Fireflies. (Okay, that’s uncharitable to Fireflies, which actually has quite a few moments of joy… that make the misery hit even harder.)

Totoro basically doesn’t have a plot. It’s easy to see this plotlessness as Miyazaki retreating from the ambition he had earlier in his career. But Totoro ends up working better than his previous films, mainly due to its simplicity. Miyazaki’s main talent is his vivid imagination, not his writing skill, and that imagination shines through in a film where everything is filtered through the viewpoint of young children.

Also, Catbus is awesome.

5. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Composer: Joe Hisaishi
Version watched: 1998 English dub

European influences have always seeped into Miyazaki’s work – Nausicaä was heavily influenced by the work of Jean Giraud – but Kiki’s Delivery Service is the first of his films where the setting is distinctly European. Kiki takes place in a city that’s best described as “Mediterranean Germany,” if such a location actually existed. It represents a sort of idealized European life, full of cafés and bakeries and curious little shops – Europe through rose-tinted glasses, if you will.

Like Totoro, Kiki is largely plotless, and that works to the film’s advantage. Kiki is more interested in engendering a feeling of warmth than in telling a story. It’s pure cinematic comfort food.

6. Only Yesterday (1991)
Director: Isao Takahata
Writer: Isao Takahata
Composer: Katz Hoshi
Version watched: English subtitles

One of the oldest debates among cinephiles and nerds is whether Miyazaki or Takahata is a better filmmaker. Miyazaki’s supporters rightfully point out that he has been far more influential and is far more recognized, especially by non-Japanese audiences. On the other hand, Takahata’s supporters merely point to Only Yesterday and say that Miyazaki never created a film as impressive or well-received. Only Yesterday is one of the few films to hold a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and with good reason. It’s a fantastic movie – my second favourite Ghibli film so far.

Takahata had lightened up considerably since Fireflies. Only Yesterday is still very much a drama, but without the spectre of death looming over its story. It’s also one of the most intelligently written dramas I’ve seen. To give an example of its insight, just when the audience starts thinking that Taeko’s appreciation for the country life is phony, Taeko’s inner monologue acknowledges that there’s an element of artificiality to it. But Toshio helps her realize that her feeling of belonging is genuine, and so in the end, her decision to remain in the countryside rings true (even if I’d personally have preferred a bit more ambiguity, but more on that in a bit).

7. Porco Rosso (1992)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Composer: Joe Hisaishi
Version watched: English dub

With Porco Rosso, Miyazaki inched back towards telling stories with actual plots. The film doesn’t shy away from common tropes: the reluctant hero (Porco); the spunky sidekick (Fio); the love interest (Gina); and the arrogant villain (Curtis). Again, the European influence is undeniable; the movie explicitly takes place in Europe!

Porco Rosso resembles a typical English-language animated film more than Miyazaki’s earlier work, even in its gender politics. Whereas Miyazaki’s previous films featured female protagonists in settings where their gender wasn’t particularly important – a kind of implicit feminism – Porco Rosso is explicitly feminist, calling direct attention to women performing work typically done by men. Perhaps this is to compensate for having a male protagonist; it’s hard to tell.

In the days since I watched Porco Rosso, I’ve often thought that it and Only Yesterday should have swapped endings. Porco Rosso doesn’t really benefit from leaving the status of Porco and Gina’s relationship up in the air (no pun intended), and Taeko’s end-credits reunion with Toshio in Only Yesterday feels rushed. I think I would have preferred the ending of Only Yesterday if it had finished with Taeko on the train, content with the knowledge that she could return to the countryside next summer, perhaps more permanently that time. But far be it from me to rewrite classic movies to fit my preferences.

8. Ocean Waves (1993)
Director: Tomomi Mochizuki
Writer: Kaori Nakamura
Composer: Shigeru Nagata
Version watched: English subtitles

People don’t typically include Ocean Waves in the Ghibli canon. After all, it was a made-for-TV movie. But I think the real reason is that it was Ghibli’s first legitimately bad movie, and people would rather forget about it. The problem is that Ocean Waves has all the trappings of a good movie. It’s got cute humour, beautiful art, and a wonderful score, but the story is complete nonsense. Taku’s character arc makes no sense. Why is he in love with Rikako, when all she does is mistreat him and lie to him for the entire movie? Overall, I’d describe Ocean Waves as a bad story beautifully told.

9. Pom Poko (1994)
Director: Isao Takahata
Writer: Isao Takahata
Composers: Shang Shang Typhoon
Version watched: English dub

Ah, my favourite Ghibli film so far. Pom Poko is simply delightful, and it’s proof that Takahata can be just as inventive, imaginative, funny, and charming as Miyazaki. There are so many interesting visual flourishes, like drawing the raccoon dogs in anthropomorphic form when they’re interacting with each other but drawing them in more realistic form when they’re wandering through nature or walking near humans. The ghost parade sequence is one of the coolest and most visually stunning sequences I’ve ever seen in 2D animation.

The English dub has a couple of idiosyncrasies. First off, it just refers to the raccoon dogs as “raccoons.” Secondly, it refers to their scrota as “pouches.” Presumably this latter change is to make the film more palatable to English-speaking audiences, but let’s not beat around the bush (pun intended): magic testicles are magic testicles.

10. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Director: Yoshifumi Kondō
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Composer: Yuji Nomi
Version watched: English dub

At first, it was hard to know what to think of Whisper of the Heart, because I don’t feel like I was raised in a cultural environment that would make it possible for me to judge it fairly. The movie’s plot isn’t really about the romance between Shizuku and Seiji, but about Shizuku’s quest for self-improvement, with the goal of making herself “worthy” of Seiji. And that, to me, is kind of odd, because in none of the stories I read or watched growing up did anyone ever set themselves a specific goal they had to accomplish before they would consider themselves worthy of romance. Sure, there are plenty of stories about heroes who avoid relationships because they have some great evil to defeat, but those have to do with external forces rather than internal ones. The closest North American equivalent I can think of is a commitment to a certain weight loss goal or level of fitness before “putting oneself out there.” Viewed through that lens, I can understand Shizuku’s motivations much better. Her decision to commit to writing makes a certain kind of sense, especially since she’s a young teenager trying to define herself.

Does that mean I think Whisper is a good movie? Not necessarily. It’s certainly not a bad one, and it covers much of the same narrative territory as Ocean Waves with far greater skill. Whisper‘s characters are given a lot of depth, and it’s immediately clear why Shizuku and Seiji are drawn to each other. But it also has a weird sense of sloppiness. For example, the subplot about Yuko’s love life is mysteriously dropped halfway through the movie and then semi-resolved only in the end-credits montage. The ending itself feels rushed, with Shizuku and Seiji committing to far too much too soon.

I will give the ending points, though, for making Shizuku and Seiji commit to staying in school. “Stay in school” is a pretty good moral for a movie; I can’t dispute that.

11. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Composer: Joe Hisaishi
Version watched: English dub

After a string of films with simple plots, Miyazaki finally makes another epic film. It’s arguably his first since Nausicaä (Laputa was more of a transitional film). Unlike Nausicaä, however, the villains are more interesting than the protagonists this time around. Ashitaka is much more of a blank slate than Nausicaä, whereas Lady Eboshi seems like a better-written version of Princess Kushana. In some ways, this doesn’t help Mononoke – it’s not exactly exciting to follow Ashitaka around – but it other ways, it works to the film’s advantage. By doing a better job of characterizing its villains, Mononoke helps us understand their motivations. We spend a lot of time in Irontown learning about all that Eboshi has done for her followers, and so her actions actually feel morally grey.

Fittingly for an epic film, Mononoke is almost cartoonishly violent. Limbs go flying off like corks from a champagne bottle. There are more decapitations than I can count on my fingers. And there’s blood. Oh so much blood. This contrasts with the more realistic violence of Grave of the Fireflies, which used blood and gore sparingly for dramatic effect. Mononoke’s looser approach allows it to mine violence for tension during action scenes, but also for comedy. For example, there’s a scene where a samurai’s headless corpse continues riding a horse for a few seconds before falling off. It’s a weird bit of slapstick, but it works.

Miyazaki the screenwriter has never been great at endings – see: Laputa, Kiki, Porco, and Whisper – and Mononoke is no exception. Unlike the aforementioned films, Mononoke’s ending isn’t abrupt, but it does feel like a cop-out. Ashitaka is convinced that humans can live in harmony with the forest, and Eboshi pledges to forge a different path for Irontown. But how? The film never suggests that there’s another way to produce iron that won’t harm the forest, nor does it suggest that there are other economic activities in which the residents of Irontown could participate. This lack of explanation makes the ending feel oddly hollow and a bit deflating.


That concludes the first half of my Ghibli watch. So far the movies have been mostly good: Ocean Waves was the only bad one of the bunch, and Only Yesterday and Pom Poko were amazing. I have my issues with Miyazaki as a screenwriter, who has a tendency to either bite off more than he can chew or just write plotless films, but he’s undeniably a talented, imaginative director. Takahata is fantastic at both writing and directing, but unfortunately he’s been much less prolific than Miyazaki. Next up is actually his second-last film for the studio: My Neighbors the Yamadas. I’m pumped.

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