A few months ago, I resolved to watch every single feature-length mainline Studio Ghibli film from start to finish. I posted Part 1 a couple of months ago, which covered Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to Princess Mononoke. I finally finished this project yesterday, and here are my thoughts on My Neighbors the Yamadas to When Marnie Was There.

Two disclaimers: 1) This piece contains spoilers for all the films discussed! 2) Unless otherwise stated, when I write “Miyazaki” by itself, I’m referring to Hayao Miyazaki and not his son Gorō.

Alright, let’s dive in!

12. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
Director: Isao Takahata
Writer: Isao Takahata
Composer: Akiko Yano
Version watched: English dub

My Neighbors the Yamadas feels like the exact opposite of its immediate predecessor, Princess Mononoke. Whereas that film was an epic fantasy drama drawn in traditional anime style, Yamadas is a series of comedic sketches with an art style recalling the comic strip on which it was based. The fact that Takahata wrote and directed both this and Grave of the Fireflies is a testament to his versatility.

Even though the film is based on realistic situations, Takahata’s penchant for the surreal is evident. He doesn’t shy away from using daydream sequences, including a lengthy one where the family’s patriarch imagines himself rescuing his wife and mother-in-law as the Moonlight Rider.

The vignette format doesn’t allow the film to tell a complete story, and as a result, its 100-minute running time feels about 30 minutes too long. Still, it’s a unique concept, and it’s nice to see Studio Ghibli branching out from their bread and butter.

13. Spirited Away (2001)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Composer: Joe Hisaishi
Version watched: English dub

I’m not sure that Spirited Away is particularly coherent. It’s basically two hours of trippy shit, and to be frank, it gets by on sheer imagination rather than its ability to relate a story to the viewer. But Miyazaki’s strength has never been in plotting – at least not in his films; I haven’t read any of his manga. What Miyazaki excels at is engendering emotions in the viewer. He’s a master of fright and revulsion, and Spirited Away is basically carte blanche for him to shove all the scary stuff he can think of into one movie.

But Spirited Away isn’t just about scaring viewers. Miyazaki has a knack for showing us that the things we thought were scary aren’t really all that frightening after all. Take the stink spirit, for example, who is introduced to us as a revolting, foul-smelling beast. But after Chihiro bathes him, he reveals himself to be the guardian of a river, and to show his gratitude, he gives her a gift that will prove to be useful later in the story. There are no good guys and bad guys in the story, even if some characters initially appear villainous. If Spirited Away has a message, it’s that first impressions can be wrong.

14. The Cat Returns (2002)
Director: Hiroyuki Morita
Writer: Reiko Yoshida
Composer: Yuji Nomi
Version watched: English dub

This is the first Ghibli feature film not to be written or directed by Miyazaki or Takahata. (As a TV film, Ocean Waves doesn’t count.) As a result, its art style is a little different from previous Ghibli efforts, though not as different as Yamadas. The Cat Returns does some subtle things with its art and animation that make it really work as a film. When the cats are in the human world, most of them are given no anthropomorphic traits aside from walking on their hind legs. But once they’re in the Cat Kingdom, they appear more human-like; many of them are given clothing and makeup. This helps give the impression that the Cat Kingdom is a hidden world that is barely concealed from us; if only we were observant enough or looking in the right places – or maybe if we could shrink down to the right size, like Haru does when she enters the Cat Kingdom – then we could discover entirely new secret dimensions.

The other way in which Returns differs from Miyazaki’s work is in its sense of humour. Yoshida and Morita are fond of physical humour. (Takahata is too, though not to the same extent.) Pratfalls and crashes are their stock in trade. Yoshida also puts a lot of bickering in her script, filling what would normally be dead air or silence in a Miyazaki film with dialogue.

For these reasons, Returns feels less like what one would expect of a “Ghibli film”; it seems like the kind of movie that could have been produced by any studio with a lot of talent. Perhaps that’s true, but that’s not a knock against it. It’s a wonderful, funny, lighthearted film, and I’m glad to have watched it.

15. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Composer: Joe Hisaishi
Version watched: English dub

After a detour with films influenced by culture of his own country (Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away), Miyazaki returns to making European-influenced films. In fact, Howl’s Moving Castle is based on the book of the same name by British author Diana Wynne Jones. Other Miyazaki staples return, such as black sludge monsters and a young female protagonist.

Miyazaki’s interpretation of the world of Howl’s roughly approximates a steampunk version of Victorian England. It’s a gorgeously animated film, with the titular castle looking at once terrifying and comforting. Miyazaki had been playing with the duality of terror and comfort since at least My Neighbor Totoro, and he continues to do so here.

Howl’s is one of Miyazaki’s most criticized films, and with good reason: it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The plot becomes almost totally incoherent in the second half of the film. In particular, how Sophie’s mom ended up under Suliman’s control is never explained. As for Sophie, her character motivations are a mess. Why does she not ask for help from Howl in changing back to her youthful state? And aside from being saved from creeps, what reason does she have to fall in love with him?

One thing that Miyazaki gets right about Sophie, however, is her behaviour in her aged form. She’s a mixture of young woman and old lady, free-spirited but saddled with a sense of responsibility. Terror and comfort, youth and old age; Miyazaki has a knack for juxtaposing contradictory elements against each other and making their coexistence seem like the most natural thing in the world.

16. Tales from Earthsea (2006)
Director: Gorō Miyazaki
Writers: Gorō Miyazaki & Keiko Niwa
Composer: Tamiya Terashima
Version watched: English dub

Tales from Earthsea is notorious for being known as Studio Ghibli’s worst film. (In actuality, that dubious honour belongs to Ocean Waves.) It famously won both Worst Director and Worst Movie at Japan’s Bunshun Raspberry Awards (the equivalent of the United States’ Golden Raspberry Awards). It’s not a good movie, but its biggest sin is that it’s incredibly boring. It’s actually far more coherent than its predecessor, Howl’s Moving Castle, and is probably a better film overall.

The younger Miyazaki seems to have inherited many of his father’s filmmaking quirks (and sins). Earthsea is no less plotless than a Hayao Miyazaki film, and Gorō seems to share his father’s love of black sludge. And just like Hayao’s work, Earthsea occasionally feels careless, ill-considered, and sloppy. It treats patricide hilariously casually, and it’s totally implausible that nobody recognizes the Prince – a wanted fugitive – just walking around. It spends quite a bit of time hammering home the idea that life is meaningless without death, a notion that seems profound at first but is actually kind of vapid. And aside from foreshadowing dragons and Arren’s dark self, the introduction has nothing to do with the rest of the film.

One thing the younger Miyazaki nails, however, is the animation. Its fluidity recalls Pom Poko or The Cat Returns more than his father’s work. He also has a great deal of skill when it comes to using horror imagery to engender fear and dread in the viewer. It’s too bad that his skill is largely wasted on such a disappointing film.

17. Ponyo (2008)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Composer: Joe Hisaishi
Version watched: English dub

Ponyo is simply adorable. I had a big goofy grin on my face the entire time I was watching it, mesmerized by the colourful visuals and lush soundtrack. It’s a captivating film, from its wordless opening to its visually stunning conclusion.

The film’s plot bears many similarities to The Little Mermaid’s, but unlike that movie, Ponyo is actually a story about parenthood in disguise. What starts off as seemingly another Ghibli film with an environmental theme turns into a story about parents accepting that they sometimes have to let their children go and give them independence, as Fujimoto does with Ponyo at the end of the movie.

One interesting thing that works in the film favour is how easily its characters accept the fantastic and the supernatural. Lisa in particular is almost comically accepting of being left to care for a fish-turned-girl. This lends Ponyo a sense of carefree whimsy and joy that permeates the entire experience.

18. Arrietty (2010)
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Writers: Hayao Miyazaki & Keiko Niwa
Composer: Cécile Corbel
Version watched: 2012 English dub (American)

Like its predecessor, Ponyo, Arrietty is a movie built on simple charms and a sense of wonder. It succeeds in making travelling through a house feel like a grand adventure. It does this by playing with space and scale in really interesting ways. A short drop off a counter top is a deadly fall for the Borrowers, but an icky pill bug is a cute animal to play with and cradle in one’s arms. Arrietty repurposes common household items as useful tools: earrings become climbing axes, and a sewing pin becomes a makeshift sword.

Arrietty also bears some similarities to the equally charming The Cat Returns. Both films are about fantastical things hidden in plain sight, and both provide fanciful explanations for mundane questions. The Cat Returns ponders where stray cats go when we can’t see them, and Arrietty explains why things go bump in the night.

Like many early Ghibli films, there are two English dubs of Arrietty. The 2011 dub was intended for a UK audience, and the 2012 dub for an American one. The American dub has a strange quirk; it Americanizes a couple of the characters’ names: Shō becomes Shawn, Maki becomes Jessica, and Haru becomes Hara. (That last one doesn’t even sound like an Americanization.) While Ghibli dubs have occasionally made concessions for international audiences – the Pom Poko dub infamously referred to tanuki scrota as “pouches” – this change feels unnecessary. However, there’s nothing particularly “Japanese” about Arrietty – it’s actually based off a story by the English author Mary Norton – so the change doesn’t feel too out of place.

19. From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
Director: Gorō Miyazaki
Writers: Hayao Miyazaki & Keiko Niwa
Composer: Satoshi Takebi
Version watched: English dub

Despite dealing with what some might consider more serious subject matter than his previous film for Studio Ghibli, Tales from Earthsea, Gorō Miyazaki’s From Up on Poppy Hill feels like a lighter, bouncier, more enjoyable affair. That’s partly because of Satoshi Takebi’s jaunty soundtrack, a mixture of big-band swing and classic jazz. But it’s also because Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa’s script recognizes the importance of humour; little jokes and goofy banter are peppered throughout, lending the film a sense of buoyancy.

Poppy Hill imbues its location with a lot of character. The interior of the clubhouse is drawn to look cluttered and claustrophobic, and the way the balconies jut out over the central hall make it look like the building is about to collapse in on itself. On the other hand, Umi’s home is drawn with clean lines and right angles, making it look neat and proper.

One might fault the movie for having an obvious resolution; it’s clear that the movie is never actually going to deal with incest. But Poppy Hill doesn’t treat its audience as if they’re stupid; it wisely steers away from the actual question of incest and instead deals with the complicated mixture of emotions that Shun and Umi feel. Thus, the movie neatly avoids devolving into the very melodrama that Shun compares his and Umi’s situation to. Huh, it looks like Studio Ghibli’s going meta!

20. The Wind Rises (2013)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Composer: Joe Hisaishi
Version watched: English dub

The Wind Rises is really two films: the story of a talented engineer; and the Japanese A Walk to Remember. That sounds like an odd structure for a movie, but think about how many biopics follow the same formula. Romance is almost a prerequisite for telling the story of someone’s life, or so Hollywood would have you believe.

I bring this up because I’m not sure that The Wind Rises needed romance to be one of its foci, at least not in the way that the movie handled it. The real Jiro Horikoshi’s wife didn’t die young of tuberculosis. But the romance is surprisingly sweet and well-drawn, once you get past the stilted dialogue. Jiro and Naoko’s playful scenes together at the resort do a wonderful job of convincing the audience of their love for each other in a short time frame.

However, I’m uncertain how well it meshes with the story of the talented engineer. For a movie about an airplane designer, the movie gives precious little insight into what Jiro’s process is. We know he takes inspiration from nature, as demonstrated by his admiration for the shape of a mackerel bone, but we know little else. More than that, though, it’s not exactly clear where Jiro’s passion for flight comes from. There’s never a moment where Jiro vocalizes why he loves airplanes so much.

Perhaps that was a deliberate choice. In order to maintain the illusion of Jiro’s genius – the audience is the regular moviegoing public, not a bunch of aeronautical engineers – the film needs to keep Jiro at a distance from viewers; if we could peer inside his head, we would expect to be able to understand what he’s doing. And let’s face it, even if we could, who would want to watch a movie about differential equations?

It’s because of this that The Wind Rises doesn’t transcend the typical biopic formula. That’s not really a criticism of the movie, per se, but it does illustrate the limitations of the genre. A lot of biopics, with their passionate protagonists and romantic drama, end up feeling like Oscar bait, and The Wind Rises is no exception. That probably comes off harsher than I intend. The Wind Rises is far from being a bad movie; it’s actually pretty good! But there’s really not much to it: Boy makes planes, boy falls in love with girl, girl gets sick, girl supports boy, boy succeeds, girl dies; I’ll have my Oscar now, thank you very much.

I will say this, however: The Wind Rises feels like the film Hayao Miyazaki has always wanted to make. It’s one of his most gorgeously animated films, rivalling Ponyo in its sheer beauty. More than the rest of his oeuvre, The Wind Rises feels like the work of the singular vision of an auteur. I can’t think of a more fitting swan song for him.

21. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
Director: Isao Takahata
Writers: Isao Takahata & Riko Sakaguchi
Composer: Joe Hisaishi
Version watched: English dub

Before The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the last film Isao Takahata directed for Studio Ghibli was 1999’s My Neighbors the Yamadas. However, during his more than decade-long hiatus, he didn’t lose his touch; Princess Kaguya is one of his best films, and a fitting swan song for a director who remained experimental until the end.

Like his previous film, Princess Kaguya eschews the typical anime art style. However, instead of the comic-strip aesthetic of Yamadas, Princess Kaguya employs an art style that makes every frame look as if it was drawn with charcoal and painted with watercolours. It’s a gorgeous style, and it allows Takahata to use some neat visual flourishes, like making the charcoal lines messier and more jagged during moments of chaos or distress. Sonically, Princess Kaguya is also a joy; Joe Hisaishi delivers possibly the best soundtrack of his career, a mixture of orchestral music and traditional Japanese instrumentation.

Princess Kaguya also acts as a sort of summary for the themes of Ghibli’s prior output. Takahata and Miyazaki are known to be social progressives, and their previous films for Ghibli have reflected these stances. Princess Kaguya is first and foremost a film that warns against the dangers of stifling childhood creativity, but it is also an anti-classist film, and it has environmentalist undertones. However, the film is never preachy, and it has a refreshingly nuanced take on these issues. For example, the movie doesn’t shy away from depicting the consequences (i.e. death) of the mind games that Kaguya plays with her suitors, thereby demonstrating that childish impulse not properly regulated can manifest itself in dangerous ways.

Speaking of the suitors, Princess Kaguya finally made me realize exactly why I prefer Takahata as a writer to Miyazaki. One of Kaguya’s suitors makes a lengthy speech to her comparing her beauty to a flower on the roadside and imploring her to return to nature with him. It’s later revealed that these are just rehearsed lines which he also delivered to his current wife. The speech is something that probably would have been played straight in a Miyazaki film, but Takahata acknowledges their ridiculousness and artificiality. (It’s entirely possible that this was one of Riko Sakaguchi’s contributions to the script, though.)

Overall, Princess Kaguya is a wonderful film, even if its third act sort of comes out of nowhere. (Moon people? Seriously?) I can think of no better film with which Takahata could have ended his career.

22. When Marnie Was There (2014)
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Writers: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Keiko Niwa, & Masashi Ando
Composer: Takatsugu Muramatsu
Version watched: English dub

When Marnie Was There is a bizarre film. To understand why, it’s worth discussing a common misconception that many people had about it before watching it; they thought the trailer made it look as if it was about a teenage lesbian romance. Spoiler alert: it’s not, though there are still many who cling to the the idea that it’s an incestuous intergenerational lesbian ghost story. It’s actually the story of a young girl trying to make sense of her place in the world, and if she needs the ghost of her dead grandmother to help her along the way, then so be it.

Marnie‘s closest influences are other Ghibli films. Like many of the studio’s films, it features a young female protagonist. The summer vacation in the countryside is lifted from Only Yesterday or My Neighbor Totoro, and the seaside setting calls to mind Ponyo or From Up on Poppy Hill. However, it differs from other Ghibli films in a few key respects. Firstly, the main character, Anna, has an inner monologue, which is a first for a Ghibli film. Secondly, the movie employs a clean, “realistic” animation style; it doesn’t play with perspective, scale, or colour the way Takahata and the Miyazakis do.

This art style is actually a smart move for the film. It makes the viewer unsure whether they’re watching a ghost story or not. Since so much of the movie hinges on the revelation that Marnie is a actually Anna’s dead grandmother manifesting herself as a projection of her subconscious, it’s worth keeping the audience guessing until the end. All this contributes to making Marnie feel like a very odd film, and it’s understandable that viewers attached a queer interpretation to it in order to fill a narrative void. If Marnie is truly Studio Ghibli’s final feature-length movie, it’s a strange note for them to go out on. It’s such an understated film, and finales usually require spectacle. But Marnie also feels like a celebration of Ghibli, with gorgeous animation and subtle drama that pay tribute to the studio’s past. For that reason, it’s the perfect way for the studio to say goodbye.

That concludes the second half of my Ghibli watch. I actually liked this half better than the first. There were obvious improvements in animation, resulting from technological advancements, but I think Studio Ghibli improved in the storytelling department as well. I’ll post some concluding thoughts in another entry after watching the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a documentary about the studio.