When I pledged to watch every mainline Studio Ghibli movie (plus Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Ocean Waves) back in February, I expected to be taken on a 22-film journey of magic and wonder. That didn’t happen. Some of the films were mundane. Others were just dull. Disappointment was frequent and often sustained.
But some of that magic and wonder did eventually appear, and it was in those moments that I understood why Studio Ghibli is such a beloved institution. Like any studio, they’ve had their ups and downs over the years, but the quality of their best output is undeniable. To gain some more perspective on how the studio functions and why it produces the kind of movies it does, I decided to watch the recent documentary about the studio, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.
Let’s be frank: Kingdom is a bad documentary. Ostensibly about the simultaneous production of The Wind Rises and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, it’s in fact a mundane look at Hayao Miyazaki’s daily routines, peppered with his crankily-expressed opinions on various Japanese political issues. Isao Takahata barely appears, and viewers learn almost nothing about how movies are actually made.
But the documentary does provide some insights into why Miyazaki’s films are the way they are. It reveals that Miyazaki doesn’t write scripts in the traditional way. He doesn’t plan out his scripts in advance, and he actually starts with the storyboards. He claims his films “write themselves through him.” Production begins long before the script is done; studio staff sometimes don’t even understand the films as they’re being made. This explains why many of his movies (especially Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away) have such a plotless, meandering quality.
Miyazaki is a liberal with a strong pacifist streak, and this comes through in his films. The Wind Rises, in particular, was produced at a time when the right wing was experiencing a resurgence in Japan. (The centre-left Yoshihiko Noda went on to lose the following election to the right-wing Shinzō Abe.) The Wind Rises’ ambivalence towards war, despite being a film about the production of combat planes, can be seen as a reaction to that resurgence.
The documentary also provides a glimpse at how some aspects of how the studio work. The studio’s building has a green roof, a cat, and wooden interiors; it’s as if the themes of their films are reflected in the studio’s design. It also gives a frank depiction of the commercial side of the studio; it doesn’t shy away from showing longtime producer Toshio Suzuki discussing merchandising, for instance. (My Neighbor Totoro merchandise is a hot seller!)
I didn’t really get a sense of where the supposed “Ghibli magic” comes from after watching the documentary. Perhaps that’s because The Wind Rises isn’t actually a great film, and focusing on its production was doomed to be underwhelming. But maybe it’s because most of the studio’s “magic” comes from other directors, such as Takahata and Hiroyuki Morita. I get the sense that Takahata is a meticulous planner in a way that Miyazaki is not. Both are perfectionists, but only the former has the vision to go along with it.
Finally, I conclude my Ghibli watch with a ranking of all the films I watched.
22. Ocean Waves: A beautifully made film with terrible characters and plot; the female lead is wholly rotten, but the film bizarrely treats her like an angel.
21. Howl’s Moving Castle: Starts off with a lot of potential, but completely falls to pieces in its second half.
20. Tales from Earthsea: Not as awful as its reputation would suggest; just thoroughly dull.
Movies that I Could Take or Leave
19. Whisper of the Heart: Sloppily plotted and mostly unremarkable, but has a few good scenes.
18. Laputa: Castle in the Sky: A somewhat interesting film that unfortunately devolves into cliché and is often too sparse for its own good.
17. Porco Rosso: A potentially great film undone by odd storytelling choices and thematic shallowness.
16. Spirited Away: Contains a lot of effective imagery and beautiful animation, but is ultimately too directionless to have much impact.
15. Princess Mononoke: Has a lot of interesting elements, but is oddly hollow and undone by its cop-out of an ending.
14. The Wind Rises: It’s a biopic. That tells you all you need to know.
13. Kiki’s Delivery Service: Simple and charming, if a little slight.
12. My Neighbors the Yamadas: Consistently cute and funny, but overstays its welcome.
11. When Marnie Was There: Paradoxically, it’s both Ghibli’s most standard and most bizarre film. I’m still not sure if it’s utterly unremarkable or brilliantly subversive. Let’s just split the difference.
10. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind: Probably overstuffed and definitely hard to follow, but has one of the most wonderful protagonists of all time in its titular character.
9. Grave of the Fireflies: Though it occasionally veers into tragedy porn, it’s an affecting look at the lives of those left behind by society.
8. My Neighbor Totoro: Proof that not every movie needs a plot; sometimes joy and cuteness are enough.
7. Arrietty: Not just an interesting exercise in space and scale, but also a charming story in its own right.
6. From Up on Poppy Hill: One of the studio’s more underrated films, it succeeds admirably where Ocean Waves and Whisper of the Heart failed at depicting teenage issues.
5. The Cat Returns: Ghibli’s funniest film. A thoroughly amusing romp from start to finish.
4. Ponyo: Hayao Miyazaki’s only truly magical Ghibli film. A wonderfully moving tale about learning to let go. Also contains some of the studio’s most gorgeous animation.
3. Only Yesterday: Cleverly weaves disparate narrative threads into a coherent thematic whole.
2. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya: From its watercolour aesthetic to its lush soundtrack, everything about this film is simply beautiful.
1. Pom Poko: Studio Ghibli’s best film, and also probably its most underrated. A pure delight with one of the most memorable sequences in all of cinema (the ghost parade).
It’s no surprise that my top three Ghibli films are all Takahata creations. Takahata was never as prolific as Miyazaki, the man he mentored, but his willingness to keep experimenting right up until his retirement makes him one of my favourite filmmakers.
And with that, my Ghibli watch comes to a close. I hope you got something out of it. I sure did. Studio Ghibli’s films have been a great gateway to Japanese animated cinema, and I’ll be going through Mamoru Hosoda’s and Satoshi Kon’s filmographies next.