A legitimate case could (and assuredly has) been made that Studio Ghibli is the single most consistently brilliant production outfit in the history of motion pictures, animated or otherwise. Founded in 1985 by directors / living legends Isao Takahta and Hayao Miyazaki (whose films are commonly synonymous with the company itself), Studio Ghibli has become a veritable institution in its home country -- it’s tempting to call them the “Pixar of Japan,” but doing so would vastly underestimate Ghibli’s contributions to Japan’s cultural identity, and the ubiquity of Miyazaki’s characters on their shores (I snapped this photo the last time I was in Kyoto, in a shop that’s immediately adjacent to the city’s most famous shrine).
Ultimately, the biggest difference between Pixar and Studio Ghibli might be that Studio Ghibli doesn’t make bad movies. Once upon a time, Pixar was justifiably famous for their track-record (until “Cars” ran over that legacy like roadkill), but Ghibli endures as a force in the industry in part because even their oddities and lesser works are obviously created without a shred of cynicism. Perhaps the studio’s reputation is furthered by their strictly hand-drawn approach, or maybe they just don’t hire Larry the Cable Guy to provide the voice of a special needs tow-truck. Whatever the case, Ghibli’s commitment to quality is unparalleled.
Nevertheless, Ghibli’s image is uncharacteristically vulnerable these days, as the aging (but still creatively engaged) Miyazaki has only directed one of their four most recent films, while the emergence of new contributors -- such as Miyazaki’s son, Goro -- has naturally threatened to dilute the brand. Hayao Miyazaki will always be regarded as the Steve Jobs of Studio Ghibli, but some of the films produced by his company now seem to bear the stamp of his influence more than they do the hand of his involvement.
The latest Studio Ghibli film, “From Up on Poppy Hill” (which opens today in limited release), feels vaguely emblematic of the company’s future. Written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son (a veritable passing of the torch), the modest but wistfully nostalgic romantic drama tells the story of two teenagers trying to save their school’s clubhouse against the backdrop of the 1964 Olympic games. It’s hardly one of Ghibli’s strongest films, but neither is it one of their worst. Ultimately, it suggests that our most beautiful days may be behind us, but the future is bright all the same.
With that in mind, we ranked the seven best Studio Ghibli films so far -- they've only made 18, so listing 10 would have forced us to include more than half of their output. Consider this a reminder of what Ghibli has accomplished, and how important their continued success is to the world of hand-drawn animation as a whole.
7.) ONLY YESTERDAY (1991)
Isao Takahata’s low-key 1991 charmer is one of Ghibli’s most criminally under-seen gems, an unusually wistful animated film that reconciles childhood dreams with adult frustrations. The story of a 27-year-old woman named Taeko hops the bullet train from Tokyo to her family’s rural home, and loses herself in the memories of her youth while on the way. Her nostalgia trip only deepens when she actually arrives, though the film almost never makes an overt argument as to why it had to be drawn. Of course, what Takahata understood was that filters, props and set design can only contribute to a patina of the past, whereas creating history from the ground up allows Taeko’s memories to become a place every bit as real as her present.
On a slightly more controversial note, I’d go so far as to say that “Only Yesterday” almost completely negates the need for Yoshifumi Kondo’s similar (but more fantastical) Ghibli film, “Whisper of the Heart”.
6.) CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986)
Studio Ghibli’s most unfortunately titled movie (the film was originally named after the floating fortress Laputa, which literally translates to “the whore” in Spanish) is also their most fun ... as you might expect from a project that was originally called “The Whore.” Okay okay, Laputa is also a reference to a giant flying landmass from “Gulliver’s Travels,” which Miyazaki has repurposed as a fabled land to which a strapping young lad named Pazu must deliver a young lady named Sheeta who literally falls into his life from the clouds.
“Castle in the Sky” is probably the lightest film that Miyazaki has ever directed (even “Ponyo” alludes to the apocalypse), a fleet adventure yarn that moves with a rare kinetic energy -- Ghibli films deploy a seemingly unique ripple effect when characters move at a high speed (you guys know what I’m talking about?) and “Castle in the Sky” whips hair and fabric through the wind like Miyazaki’s pen is rolling its “R”s.
Bonus: Disney’s English-language dub stars both James Van Der Beek and Cloris Leachman.
5.) MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988)
Perhaps the film that’s most synonymous with the Studio Ghibli brand, “My Neighbor Totoro” is among the most iconic films of the last 30 years. A simple story that feels slightly overextended at 86 minutes, Miyazaki’s watershed classic follows two young sisters in the days after their father moves them to an old rural house in order to be closer to their mother, who is hospitalized with a vague ailment (most likely cancer). Each of the girls copes with their mother’s illness in their own way, but both find some relief in their burgeoning friendships with the strange beings that inhabit their local forest.
Among them is Totoro, Ghibli’s most famous creation -- imagine a single character who combines the enduring relevance of Buzz Lightyear, the zeitgeist appeal (and adorability) of Grumpy Cat and the formative impact of Mickey Mouse and you’d be close to understanding this fluffy beast’s stature in the Land of the Rising Sun. In a way, Totoro is like the Japanese version of The Beatles, if The Beatles were giant rabbit-like creatures that rode a bus shaped like a cat and let you sleep on their bellies.
“My Neighbor Totoro” is a nearly plotless film (though this is only felt in hindsight), with most of the running time devoted to the girls exploring the brave green world that surrounds their house -- while the story culminates in a pronounced set-piece, a typical sequence in the film finds one of the girls offering Totoro her little red umbrella as they wait at a rain-soaked bus stop (when the bus arrives, it’s a giant flying cat whose ribs morph into seats, because why not?). For all of the fantastical things they come across, their mother’s illness remains the girls’ most inexplicable mystery, the magical world they encounter helping them to understand the world in which they live. Part of growing up is learning that life doesn’t always make the sense you need it to, and everyone grapples with that on their own terms. “My Neighbor Totoro” suggests that, young or old, that it’s better to find peace than to look in vain for answers.
4.) PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997)
“Princess Mononoke” holds a very special place in the Ghibli oeuvre, as Miyazaki’s most epic and muscular film may be single-handedly responsible for alerting a generation of American cinephiles to the wonders of Japanese animation. Centering around the eponymous warrior princess, a fierce and feral huntress who could make mincemeat of her docile Disney equivalents, “Mononoke” introduces us to a verdant world in which giant forest gods are being tainted and weaponized by the humans of Iron Town, whose lust for industry is choking the area’s natural resources.
More than 20 years in the making and running 133 minutes (well-earned, but unusually long for animated film), Miyazaki’s masterpiece may be his most articulate statement on the delicate relationship between civilization and the environment, an idea that resonates across the full span of his career. Powerfully told, lushly animated and broadly accessible, “Mononoke” became a watershed moment for anime when Miramax picked it up for American distribution (Miyazaki famously sent Harvey Weinstein a terse letter that simply read: “No cuts”). Neil Gaiman was hired to smooth over the dub, Keith David was brought onboard to voice a giant boar-god, and both of those things were awesome. The film’s domestic run may have been a dud, but every Miyazaki film since has enjoyed a robust release on our shores.
#3.) GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (1988)
Not many people know this, but the literal translation of Isao Takahta’s soul-scorching “Grave of the Fireflies” is “Give Us All Your Tears, Puny Humans” (please update the Wikipedia page accordingly). Why Ghibli decided to change the title for the film’s American release is a mystery lost to the sands of time, but the devastating effect of Takahata’s work is hardly diminished by its poetic handle.
“Grave of the Fireflies” is the kind of movie that validates an entire mode of filmmaking, proving once and for all that animated films can resonate with the same humane power as live-action fare. The sparse story of a teenage boy and his young sister trying to survive after being orphaned by the 1945 firebombing of Kobe, Takahata’s tragedy is a neo-realist fable of the highest order, combining the spartan detail of Vittorio De Sica with the appeal to children of Vittorio De Sica. Takahata may not have intended to make an anti-war film (he claims that the movie is a plea for inter-generational sympathy), but “Grave of the Fireflies” is one of the best.
#2.) PORCO ROSSO (1992)
The two best films that Studio Ghibli has ever made both involve people being transformed into pigs, both only “Porco Rosso” has the courage to give that pig a mustache. An endlessly endearing cross between “Top Gun” and “Babe” (inevitable, if you think about it), the only thing stranger than the fact that “Porco Rosso” exists is that it works so damn well.
The year is 1929, the world is between wars, and pirates rule the skies. When we first meet the eponymous man-swine, an ace fighter pilot, he’s a stout but soft bounty hunter, hunting down bad guys in his open-air plane (a “Piccolo”) above the wide blue waters of the Adriatic Sea. From this unusual premise, Miyazaki develops a relatively simple story about debt, dependence and survivor’s guilt, never allowing the backdrop of brewing global unrest distract from the intimacy of the tale’s modern stakes. Nevertheless, this particularly zesty bit of animation is a rip-snorting adventure, loaded with indelible characters and a central romance so sweet that you find yourself actively rooting for beastiality (hooray?).
The film soars on the strength of its meaty hero -- Porco revealing himself to be a tender homage to Jean Gabin and his ilk of flawed heroes -- and the dogfights are some of the most exciting ever realized on film (and Miyazaki’s animation is better than that of “Flyboys”). Last but not least, it’s worth noting that even Miyazaki’s most ostensibly male-driven narrative makes a point of empowering its female characters -- in the world of “Porco Rosso,” the best mechanics are all women, and nothing flies right without them.
#1.) SPIRITED AWAY (2001)
I’d like to come right out and call this the best animated film ever made, but such a claim might seem a bit premature, given that “The Croods” is set to hit theaters next week. “Spirited Away” is first and foremost a work of supreme alchemy, stirring all of Miyazaki’s defining themes into a wild fantasia of bitter witches and fomenting spirits, exploring the unknown terrors of maturation through a bathhouse for the spirits, to which the young and perfectly plain Chihiro is transported after her parents are turned into pigs. A magical place that’s structurally concise but suffused with an infinite sense of wonder, the bathhouse is nevertheless a tainted business, polluted by evil and hungry to consume whatever purity it can find. Chihiro’s identity is literally at stake, as she engages in the fight of her life while her (well-meaning) parents remain utterly oblivious to their daughter’s struggle to make sense of a strange new world.
“Spirited Away” isn’t quite as clean and compact as some of Studio Ghibli’s other great films -- Chihiro’s experiences are dense, sometimes inexplicable, and eventually touched with an impossible sadness. The immortal ghost train sequence is the great moment in Ghibli history (and that’s just a fact), but it’s also so damn sublime that thinking of it invariably takes you to a better place that you’re free to draw in for yourself.