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TBTS Top Five Studio Ghibli Movies

August 1, 2012
Top 5

Studio Ghibli is the Japanese animation powerhouse that’s been making top-notch animated films since the early-80’s. Leading directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, and producer Toshio Suzuki, have made about 20 feature films as well as countless short films, commercials, and music videos. Their feature films are known for their use of bright color, fantastic actions and setting, and simple yet intelligent themes of right and wrong. In my humble opinion, they are responsible for some of the most imaginative and emotional storytelling the medium has ever seen. Here, in no particular order, are my top five Studio Ghibli films.

NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind

NausicaƤ is widely regarded as “the one that started it all,” even though it is not technically a Studio Ghibli film. (It was produced in 1984, one year before the studio was founded.) In the story’s post-apocalyptic world, humanity has been reduced to pockets of warring settlements dotted around a vast and exapanding toxic jungle. Giant mutant insects protect the jungle and react violently to any tresspass. The titular character is a young, tomboyish princess who learns the secrets of the jungle and is able to avert a catastrophe that threatens her people. The story has a pretty obvious anti-war message, but I don’t find it preachy. The visual style is typical of early 80’s Japanese animation. Some of the insect and weapon designs are pretty fantastical and creative. Mostly this one gets points for being “the first.”

Princess Mononoke

This was actually the first Ghibli production I ever saw. Released in 1997, it’s the supernatural story of Ashitaka and his search for a cure to a curse placed on his arm by a boar-demon. He travels through a forest inhabited by a deer spirit and various animal-gods and comes across Iron Town, a human settlement that regularly clears forest lands in order to make weapons. The titular princess is San, a warrior who protects the forest with the help of giant wolves. The details of the story are pretty dense, but essentially Ashitaka and San have a complex relationship based around their differing attitudes toward Iron Town. Eboshi, the leader of Iron Town, seeks to eliminate the forest spirits so she can secure legal protection from the local government and continue to make weapons. When Ashitaka and San lead Eboshi to the Forest Deer Spirit (seeking to have Ashitake’s cursed arm healed), Eboshi shoots the deer spirit’s head off, changing it into a “mindless god of death.” The only way to stop its destructive powers is to return its head. It all sounds pretty dark and obvious, but its actually a very powerful allegory for environmentalism. Not the myopic, anti-industry environmentalism we often see today, but a kind of environmentalism that believes industry can behave ethically and responsibly toward the natural world that it depends on for resources. Furthermore, Ashitaka is a very complex hero who forced to do something “wrong” in order to protect his village. (I won’t spoil it here. Just watch the movie.) Mononoke was made using mostly traditional cel animation, with added elements of CGI to create “demon worms” that infest Ashitaka’s arm. Fun fact: the English dub of the film was adapted by Neil Gaiman who helped convert some of the culturally-specific Japanese concepts into things that could be understood by other audiences.

My Nieghbor Totoro

Totoro is probably Studio Ghibli’s most popular film. It is the utterly charming story of Satsuki and Mei, ten-year-old and four-year-old sisters who move to a rural house with their father to be closer to the hospital where their mother is recovering from an unnamed, long-term illness. Soon, the younger Mei follows a strange creature into a nearby briar patch and discovers the home of Totoro (a “keeper of the forest” of sorts). Later, Mei and Satsuki are waiting in the rain for their father’s bus and look up to see Totoro waiting with them. The simple, kind gesture of offering to share their umbrella ingratiates Totoro to them. Thus, when Mei eventually fears for their mother’s health and runs away to the hospital, Satsuki is able to call upon Totoro’s help to find her little sister. The story is about how not every unknown must necessarily be scary, and how simple acts of kindness and friendship are repaid. This movie is praised for its realistic portrayal of the two young sisters, and its adeptness at explaining its themes using relatively simple situations rather than a convoluted plot. Roger Ebert includes it in his list of “Great Movies.” Totoro himself is the de facto symbol of Studio Ghibli, appearing in various iterations of their logo. The shot of Totoro standing next to Satsuki in the rain at the bus stop has become iconic, and Totoro even appears in the background of one scene in Pixar’s Toy Story 3. (Disney, Pixar’s parent company, has official distribution rights to most of Studio Ghibli’s modern releases.)

Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl is another much-beloved Ghibli production. Sophie, a young hat maker, is cursed with old age by a jealous witch. The witch is jealous because Sophie seems to have caught the eye of the wizard Howl, whose steam-powered castle marches about the countryside. Seeking a cure for her curse, Sophie takes up a job as Howl’s housekeeper. She confounds Howl’s young assistant Markl and humors Calcifer, a fire demon Howl has captured and put to work keeping the steam going. A pacifist, Howl often changes himself into a bird to frustrate the story’s two warring nations, but with each transformation it becomes more difficult for Howl to return to human form. Meanwhile, Sophie learns to embrace her old age as “a liberation from anxiety, fear and self-consciousness.” Eventually, Sophie reveals her love for Howl and saves the day. One of the few Studio Ghibli productions not based on an original story, Howl’s Moving Castle is based on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones. The visuals are striking to say the least. Howl’s castle moves in a comical yet strong gait, lumbering along like a chicken-legged giant. The witch’s henchmen are masterfully animated as fluid gobs of black ooze in vaguely-human form, and Howl’s transformations from human to bird really convey the effort and pain required to accomplish them. Howl’s Moving Castle also features, in my opinion, the best voice cast for the English dub, including among others Christian Bale as Howl, Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste, and Billy Crystal as Calcifer.

Spirited Away

I’ve saved my favorite for last. Spirited Away has been Studio Ghibli’s most visually ambitious film to date. Everything in this movie is grandiose, colorful, fantastical, and eye-catching. It is the story of 10-year-old Chihiro, whose parents are transformed into pigs by Yubaba, the proprietor of a bathhouse for spirits. In order to free her parents, Chihiro seeks employment from Yubaba who accepts in exchange for Chihiro’s true name. Chihiro, now Sen, begins her arduous work cleaning the various rooms of the bathhouse and catering to its spirit customers. Meanwhile Sen has befriended Haku, Yubaba’s right-hand-man who has the appearance of a young boy but is really a dragon and river spirit. Sen has a few adventures involving the bathhouse’s customers, but ultimately goes on a journey to seek forgiveness for Haku from Yubaba’s sister Zeniba for stealing a gold seal. It sounds very confusing, but it’s really not. The seemingly convoluted plot is just a vehicle for themes of responsibility, kindness, coming-of-age, forgiveness, and lifelong friendship. Nearly every character and location is dazzlingly imaginative, and the movie’s presentation of its themes is simple and sincere; comparisons to Lewis Carroll and Pinocchio abound. Spirited Away won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003 as well as a number of international film awards. The English dub was supervised by Pixar’s John Lasseter, who also provides a foreword on DVD and Blu-ray copies of the film.

Honorable Mention:
Honestly, the worst Ghibli film is better than some of the best traditionally animated fare out there. They’re all good. Some, while not my favorites, deserve mention for their accomplishment in storytelling. One of the earlier Ghibli films, Castle In the Sky, provided a unique twist on some well-known fairy tale themes mixed with a sort of “ancient lost city” myth. Grave of the Fireflies is definitely the most moving (depressing, really) Studio Ghibli film, dealing with family perseverance through tragedy, the consequences of war, and death in a very straightforward way. And finally, although I have not yet seen it, I’ve heard Ponyo, the story of a goldfish who wishes to become human, is quite good.

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