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Studio Ghibli Retrospective—Volume Three

Welcome to the third and final part of our Studio Ghibli retrospective, covering the last nine films of the prolific studio’s catalogue! Here, we’ll examine more of their greatest triumphs and underrated gems. With the death of Isao Takahata and the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, the studio’s future looked uncertain, until Miyazaki once again announced he was directing a new film. For now, we shall assume Studio Ghibli will remain in operation. Let’s take our final journey through their wondrous movies.

Pom Poko (1994)

On the surface, Pom Poko is a very weird movie in its premise and humour. For all of its silliness and manic energy, it utilises an environmental message more successfully than other Ghibli films. It is able to blend together moments of comedy and serious drama through rich, often warped animation. It was directed and written by Isao Takahata.

Pom Poko is about Japanese raccoon dogs, known as tanuki, who can mythically shapeshift with remarkable skill. That, and having very notable scrotums. It’s a little hard to miss, but the tanuki have very large balls (referred to in the Disney dub as “raccoon pouches”). The initial screening for Disney and Pixar must have been quite the experience.

The tanuki of Tama Hills find their forest being slowly urbanised into a new Tokyo neighbourhood and try to stop the advancement. The tanuki are portrayed in three distinct ways: as realistic animals when near humans, as anthropomorphic critters in clothes, and as silly cartoon-like figures based on the art style of manga surrealist Shigeru Sugiura. The large cast are a fun-loving, gluttonous, lazy bunch, but their commitment to saving their homeland is where the film’s heart lies. The tanuki try many different methods to chase off the humans through the use of their shapeshifting. This includes sabotage, pranks, superstition, and even flat out murder in some cases.

Pom Poko is not just a pure comedy, but doubles as a drama, with high stakes that forever linger over the fun and games. At one point, the youngsters are warned not to mate, due to decreasing land and sparse food. Sure enough, the young can’t resist and get jiggy. This causes them to scrounge for food in the human world, leading to several rather grizzly deaths. In a bitter sense of irony, whilst the tanuki vow to rid themselves of humans, they become increasingly immersed in their enemy’s culture to subvert man’s progress.

Spirited Away (2001)

I always find it difficult to express what makes a masterpiece so great. Spirited Away is my favourite Miyazaki film, not to mention the best to come from the studio. Accompanied by a superb score by Joe Hisashi, beyond beautiful animation, and a pretty stellar cast of characters, it well and truly deserved its Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It is a one of a kind movie, guided by a coming of age story in a fascinatingly bizarre world.

Chihiro (Daveigh Chase), a young girl non-too-thrilled with moving house, gets lost with her well-intentioned parents. By happenstance, a wrong turn leads them into what resembles an abandoned theme park and bathhouse facility. They have in fact stumbled into the spirit world. Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs for eating forbidden food and Chihiro must find work within the bathhouse, ruled by the wicked sorceress Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette). Yubaba steals Chihiro’s name, giving her the new name of Sen. Chihiro is supported by Haku (Jason Marsden), a young man serving Yubaba, who can transform into a dragon.

Very much like Alice in Wonderland, Spirited Away adopts such a weirdly, unapologetically strange realm. In truth, a lot of it is drawn from Japanese Shinto and Buddhism folklore. Amongst the colourful characters includes the spider-like boiler man Kamaji (David Ogden Stiers), the snarky cleaner Lin (Susan Egan), Yubaba’s giant infant son Boh (Tara Strong), and the stand-out No-Face (Bob Bergen), a mysterious phantom who is corrupted by the bathhouse’s temptations. The bathhouse itself is its own character, based on an onsen Miyazaki knew in his childhood. The characters are all well-explored, and much like other Studio Ghibli films, there are no purely antagonistic characters. Yubaba is a greedy, identity-stealing witch, but is a loving mother, appreciating hardworking employees.

In a way, the film is a workplace drama, Chihiro experiencing the hardships of the bathhouse. There are moments of blatant racism, sexual harassment, and a clash of classes. Yubaba is implied to have stolen the identities of all her workers, explaining why they have simplistic names that translate to their jobs. This may or may not have reduced the workers to having animal-like physiques; the men resemble frogs, whilst the women have pudgy, near-identical faces.

Miyazaki’s traditional themes of innocence and environmentalism are present. A polluted river spirit shows up for a bath, mutated beyond appearance by junk and dirt. No-Face’s exposure to the bathhouse’s luxuries causes him to become a gluttonous monster. Chihiro has to draw him out of the bathhouse to pacify him. This represents the innocence in the film, and how Miyazaki to preserve innocence within children as they mature naturally in the adult world. Most of the adults in Spirited Away are greedy, corrupting those around them. Chihiro removes No-Face and Yubaba’s son Boh from the building, preserving their innocence, allowing them to mature individually.

And what is the movie’s best scene? Surely, it is Chihiro’s melancholic train journey to find Yubaba’s twin sister Zeniba to save Haku’s life. There is no dialogue here, just music and visuals. Chihiro, No-Face, Boh, and Yubaba’s pet bird travel across a vast ocean that feels very lonely, where all the spirits are shadowy, faceless wraiths. All the while, Chihiro gazes out the window in melancholic calm. Hisashi’s score only adds to the sequence. If such a scene played out in a western animated film, it would be much shorter, and be a more comedic montage twinned with a pop number.

Spirited Away is the only international animated film to win its category at the Oscars to date.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

The first Studio Ghibli movie I owned on DVD was Howl’s Moving Castle. For a time, it was my favourite, but as I watched more of Miyazaki’s films, it went further down the list. There isn’t anything particular wrong with it, aside from being a little overstuffed. It tackles themes of compassion, a fresh, positive outlook on age, and the need to enjoy life.

The movie is based on the 1986 novel by Diana Wynne Jones. It takes liberties with the story and characters, making certain figures more sympathetic and ambiguous. Set in a fantasy world of magic and steampunk technology, several kingdoms are threatening to go to war with each other.

Sophie Hatter (Emily Mortimer) works a dull life in a tacky hat shop, fearing mediocrity in comparison to her extravagant mother. Her life is turned upside down when she crosses paths with the dashing wizard Howl (Christian Bale), and then the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), who is in pursuit of Howl. When Sophie slights the witch, she is transformed into a 90-year old woman (played brilliantly by Jean Simmons). Sophie winds up in Howl’s titular moving castle, hoping to find a cure, befriending the misfits inside.

Howl is a complicated bloke, coming off as vain and narcissistic, but is good-natured and kind, trying to put an end to the war by fighting against all sides. There is a hilarious scene where Howl freaks out when his hair turns orange after Sophie organises his bathroom potions. It is hilarious hearing Batman having a mental meltdown over his hair. Howl dislikes conflict, refusing to participate in the war, but willingly transforms himself in a giant bird monster to torment all sides.

Sophie’s transformation allows her to be much more vocal, honest, and outgoing, shedding her fears of mediocrity. Her physical aging slowly reverses as her confidence grows.  The transition between Mortimer and Simmons’ dialogue doesn’t always work, though both give wonderful performances. The rest of the main cast, who are either cursed or outcasts in their own ways, are pretty likeable.

The usual anti-war themes are very prominent here. Miyazaki claims he made the movie to deliberately unnerve Americans in protest to the Iraq War. As said before, there is quite a lot going on in the film; each character has their own problems, the war subplot comes and goes intrusively, while some subplots lack focus and build up. Still, it is a very enjoyable movie.

Ponyo (2008)

After adapting two English novels into films, Studio Ghibli took a stab at adapting The Little Mermaid. A very different kettle of fish to the Disney classic, Ponyo is a very contrasting film. At heart, it is a very innocent, fun, slightly more childish film than others, yet tackles the expected environmental messages, in an absolutely barmy way. It is certainly appealing to young children and a great family picture.

Ponyo (Noah Cyrus) is an aquatic princess who lives with her father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), who wishes to bring about a new evolutionary era of the sea, at the cost of mankind. Ponyo has other ideas, going to the surface, befriending a young boy Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), falling in love with him. Licking his blood allows her to transform into a human. Although Fujimoto retrieves Ponyo, she escapes again using her own magic. She accidentally mixes with Fujimoto’s own magic, causing an enormous storm and tsunami to change the very landscape of the world. You didn’t see Ariel doing that!

The film is played with a bubbly, giggly sweetness to it, but has a darker edge. Ponyo’s actions have dire consequences on the land, even if it isn’t directly addressed in the film. It is surprisingly upbeat, and could be considered the most happiest disaster film ever. This is where the environmental theme truly comes into play. Ponyo represents nature in human form, and her union with Sosuke leads to balance in the world; a union between nature and mankind.

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

Goro Miyazaki, Hayao Miyazaki’s son, did not have the best start to his directing career. Tales From Earthsea was met with poor reviews, Hayao regarding his son’s inexperience as a filmmaker being a reason for its failure. His second film, From Up on Poppy Hill, is a vast improvement over Earthsea, tackling a more humble romance drama set in 1963 Yokohama. The film is a very low key story, firmly set in the real world, has a few interesting ideas, but is not without some problems. It is based on a 1980 manga by Tetsuo Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi.

Umi Matsuzaki (Sarah Bolger) is a 16-year old living in her family’s boarding house in Yokohama. The year is 1963, the Tokyo Olympics are just around the corner, and Japan’s culture is changing, throwing out the old for the new. This doesn’t stop Umi from raising a set of naval flags every day in honour of her late father. She discovers a fellow student Shun Kazama (Anton Yelchin) had responded to the flags with an article in the school paper.

A major subplot in the film involves an old school clubhouse, the Latin Quarter, where most of the boys hang out. When the school threatens to tear it down, Umi and Shun rally the student body to save the clubhouse. The Latin Quarter is a character in itself, like a fusion of Howl’s castle and Yubaba’s bathhouse. The passion and commitment of the teenagers to save the clubhouse makes up for their lack of individuality.

Umi uses the signal flags as way to form a connection with her dad, wishing to cling to anything related to her missing parent. Her mother Ryoko (Jamie Lee Curtis) is studying abroad, only appearing towards the end of the movie. The movie heavily leans on respecting and preserving the past, and stay relevant in a changing society. Student protests became an increasingly common occurrence in the 1960s, which could turn violent, and were disregarded by the authorities and police. From an outside perspective, it is fascinating watching an eastern culture deal with social changes, the politics and culture clashes that come with them. There is an equally fascinating if minor conflict of respect and contempt between generations.

If there is one glaring problem with the film, it is a soap opera level plot twist, that really feels arbitrary and unneeded to provide a wedge between Umi and Shun. The movie doesn’t carry the standard anti-war themes of most Ghibli films, but rather deals with the people left behind at home, specifically their attempts to find a connection to those lost.

Umi and Shun’s wish to find a connection to their fathers truly resonates thanks to the collaboration between Hayao and Goro Miyazaki. Whilst there was a sense of contempt during Tales From Earthsea’s production, From Up On Poppy Hill shows clear signs that father and son found common ground.

The Wind Rises (2013)

Miyazaki’s love and fascination with flight is a staple in his films. To him, flight equals freedom. In what was announced as his final film, The Wind Rises celebrates the craft of airplanes in a fictionalised biopic focused on Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi. It follows his successful career in the wake of World War II, but incorporates plot elements from the unrelated novel The Wind Has Risen by Tatsuo Hori.

The film was met with controversy, with critics accusing Miyazaki of glossing over Japan’s wartime atrocities, and glorifying the aircraft that killed millions. However, the film doesn’t sidestep and ignore what the planes were used for, but rather focuses on the innovation and imagination Horikoshi sought to utilise to fulfill his dreams.

The movie openly expresses regret at how creativity is used for destructive purposes. It asks the audience if they would rather live in a world with or without certain inventions, knowing their process or purpose was controversial (i.e. the pyramids). Horikoshi (voiced by Joseph Gordon Levitt) is humanised beyond being the man who created bomber planes, focusing on pushing the envelope of Japanese engineering. He expresses both admiration and disgust towards Nazi Germany, and has to go into hiding when the secret police come looking for him. His determination, ambition, dorkiness, and kind heart make him a compelling character.

The film’s major flaw may be in its romance. The Wind Has Risen has nothing to do with Jiro Horikoshi, but is about a character whose wife is dying from tuberculosis, staying at a remote sanatorium. These plot elements are incorporated in Horikoshi’s wife Naoko Satomi (Emily Blunt). They first meet during an earthquake as teenagers, and then again years later at her father’s hotel. There is a lot of sweetness to their romance, but the real Naoko did not have tuberculosis, and the two characters don’t have much screen-time together to fully feel like their union is genuine.

Despite its controversies, The Wind Rises could be a contender for Miyazaki’s magnum opus. It creates a compelling, moving tale of a man trying to achieve his dreams of creating planes, despite knowing of their intended purpose. In a way, it reflects Miyazaki’s own career, enjoying what he loves and pushing the boundaries of what is possible.

When Marnie Was There (2014)

The last major film to come out of Studio Ghibli in recent years, When Marnie Was There is adapted on the 1967 novel by Joan G. Robinson. The film was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a long-term animator at the studio, until he left to found Studio Ponoc, directing its debut film Mary and the Witch’s Flower. It is the final film of animator Makiko Futaki, who passed away four years after the film’s release.

The promotional trailers depict the film as a potential romantic awakening between two young girls. While the film plays along with this at first, the story soon unravels itself to be something entirely different, creating a bittersweet tale of finding friendship, understanding, and personal growth.

Our heroine is an unusual diversion from the usual empowered girls. Anna Sasaki (Hailee Steinfeld) is a prickly, self-loathing 12-year old introvert, resenting her foster mother Yoriko (Geena Davis), under the belief she took her in purely for financial gain. Anna stays with her mother’s relatives in a seaside town. Her foster uncle and aunt (John C. Reilly and Grey DeLisle) are quite nice, helping Anna to open up.

Anna expresses herself through painting. On the look for a good subject, she stumbles across an abandoned mansion in the marshes, home to Marnie (Kiernan Shipka), a golden-haired girl, who seems to disappear and reappear without explanation.

The most striking scenes are between Anna and Marnie when alone, where their relationship is somehow blazing, passionate, warm, and calm at the same time. Their bond is the heart of the film, and even when Marnie’s identity is unearthed, it evolves in something heartwarming and very moving. Another great sequence is when Anna and Marnie explore an abandoned silo during a storm. This sequence resembles The Old Mill, an atmospheric 1930s short from Disney, which was one of Miyazaki’s major animation inspirations.

If this had been Studio Ghibli’s final film, When Marnie Was There would’ve been at least a good one to go out on. It captures all the essentials and nuances that make their library so beautiful and great. Guided by magnificent animated detail and a moving story, it is overlooked, yet is a lovely piece of art.

As of 2020, there are two new films in development: Earwig and the Witch, the studio’s first computer animated movie, directed by Goro Miyazaki; and How Do You Live?, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, who has once again come out of retirement. The more, the better!

The Red Turtle (2016)

I wondered whether or not to include The Red Turtle on the viewing list, but it is labelled as a Studio Ghibli film, done in collaboration with German film studio Wild Bunch. It was directed by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, who won an Oscar for his animated short Father and Daughter in 2000. The movie was co-produced by Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata.

An unnamed man is shipwrecked on a deserted island. Instead of talking to a volleyball, the man immediately builds a raft to escape. However, repeated attempts are thwarted by an enormous red turtle. When the turtle comes ashore, the man angrily beats it to death, only to regret his actions, trying to revive it. Days later, to his surprise, the turtle transforms into a woman and they start to co-exist together.

It manages to feel both very much like a Ghibli film, and yet so different. The usual themes of the studio’s films are absent, and the animation style is western in design, similar to that of Hergé. It is a minimalistic dream, relying on the visuals and ambience to tell the story. The island itself is a hive of activity, with the wildlife themselves acting as characters. On occasion, there is a use of dialogue from the characters, limited to singular words, shouts, and cries. The film entirely relies on the physical actions and responses of the characters to tell the mood. It is very refreshing seeing an animated film rely on visual storytelling.

The movie refuses to directly explain what is going on, and what the story of the red turtle is. Its key subtext is to embrace life, take on the unexpected challenges, and to try to live hand-in-hand with nature. The Red Turtle was nominated for an Oscar, though fell under the radar. At least it was nominated, unlike the equally brilliant Your Name, or  A Silent Voice.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Our final film is Grave of the Fireflies. The movie is not available on Netflix, likely due to established licensing rights. Out of all of Studio Ghibli’s films, this was the hardest to watch, being a powerful, beautiful and tragic look at the fickleness of innocence. Although director Isao Takahata and others denied the film being an anti-war film, it can be analysed as one, showing the cruelties and misery that comes from warfare. For all of the politics, battles, and bloodshed, it is the innocent civilians who often suffer, which the film exposes with raw, often painful emotion.

As a war film, it may be one of the most powerful and moving of its kind. It follows the survival and eventual deaths of two wartime children, ninth grader Seita and his little sister Setsuko. The first shot of the film reveals the fate of the two children, with an emaciated Seita dying in a train station. His ghost then materialises outside, reuniting with Setsuko, journeying together on a train through their own memories as phantoms. It is in this first scene that sets the mood and theme on the film; one of desperation, the short life of innocence, and the struggles that the population endure during a war. Upon seeing Seita’s body, he is ignored or insulted by the adults, one gives him a piece of food out of pity, and then his body is dragged to a corner by a worker, revealing other dead children.

At first, it appears that all of the adults in the film are cruel and dismissive of the children. Their aunt is quite haughty and snobbish, grumbling about how Seita and Setsuko are freeloaders. A doctor is dismissive to Seita when Setsuko becomes malnourished. A kindly police officer listens to Seita’s woes and starvation, but his only offer of help is a glass of water. Every single person is dealing with an overwhelming war, a shortage on food, the fate of their loved ones unknown, and the constant threat of being killed. They are merely trying to get by on a day-to-day basis, having little time to deal with the misfortune of others.

The film is based on a short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, who was a child in World War II, and lost a sister to starvation. Several live actions adaptations have been made, though they primarily take visual cues from this animated masterpiece. It is a film of many feelings, thoughts, and ideas that are so raw, compelling and moving; such masterful crafting of a story are rare in animation. This had to be Takahata’s masterpiece. It could be considered the most humane animated film ever made.

Animation is often labelled as being strictly for children, but it is a medium and art that can be used to tell stories of all kinds. Most western animated films have moments of sadness, but you know they are going to have a happy ending, because it is expected. Japanese films have a more looser sense on what animation is for, able to tell fantastic stories for movies and television. That, amongst other reasons, is why Studio Ghibli is one of the greatest film studios, and has one of the finest filmographies in animation, if not, cinematic history.

Which Studio Ghibli films are amongst your favourites? Should animation be treated more than just for children and families? Leave a comment below or on our Twitter feed!

About the author

Mark Russell