My Top 5 Studio Ghibli Films
Since the mid 80’s Japanese animation studio, Studio Ghibli has been turning out consistently brilliant and imaginative features year after year.
The films in their canon often fall into two catagories, the expansive epic fantasies of films like Princess Monoke which shows the conflict between man and nature in a fantasy feudal Japan, to smaller drams usually centred around young children like the powerful Grave of the Fireflies that shows the devastation Japan suffered during WWII.
Studio Ghibli has that magical Pixar quality where seemingly everything they touch turns to gold whether it be original stories or adaptations of novels and manga. Like Pixar they bring hard work and dedication to all aspects of their films, the worlds are fully fleshed out, characters realistic and the storytelling delicate and emotional. They’re responsible for not only some of the greatest animated features to come out of Japan but also some of the best animated features full stop,
This is my top 5 films in the Ghibli canon, it’s my personal favourites so don’t worry if your fave isn’t on the list. I know a lot of people love fantasy Ghibli and others like their smaller films but hopefully I’ll have a good mix and there’ll be something everyonecan enjoy.
So let’s get going, here’s my top 5 Studio Ghibli feature films…
5: Howl’s moving castle (2004)
When I first heard that Ghibli would be adapting Howl’s moving castle I was, surprised to say the least. Based on the fairly obscure book by English novelist Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s moving castle tells the tale of Sophie, a young girl transformed into an old woman by a witch who seeks the help of the notorious scoundrel the wizard, Howl.
The novel makes use of various fantasy tropes in a manner not dissimilar to discworld and is presented with some comedy. The film is a straighter fantasy film but in my opinion all the better for it as the world Miyazaki crafts is too beautiful to be a joke. The cities have a French feel to them and the characters and creatures have that distinctive Ghibli flair.
The script manages a subtle blend of the epic and mundane, alternating seamlessly between scenes of the war that engulfs the nation and homely scenes as Sophie cooks breakfast for the family and tidies up Howl’s colourful array of spilled potions.
If I had one complaint, it’s that the film misses my favourite scene from the novel, where Sophie steps through Howl’s magic door, out of the fantasy land and into modern day Wales, where it revealed that Howl is not a wizard…..and his name is Howell. (Spoilers: Highlight to see)
4: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
As I mentioned in my introduction, Studio Ghibli films generally fall into one of two catagories. The massive fantasy epics, and smaller more intimate storieswith a magical twist. Kiki definitely falls into the latter category and tells the story of young witch Kiki who leaves home shortly after turning thirteen to learn her trade in the city.
It’s hard to imagine any other studio handling such a story and not cramming it with clichés like evil villains that Kiki must vanquish and end of the world risks. Instead, Ghibli make a far more humble story and have her start a cake delivery service, flying cakes to customers on her broom. It’s an adorable concept and one that feels wonderfully fresh.
Kiki briefly loses her powers, including the ability to talk to her cat Gigi, played in the English dub by Phil Hartman in one of his final roles, before regaining them to save her aviation obsessed friend from a plane crash at an air show.
It’s a sweet, simple film that tells you a story you wouldn’t expect of something in this genre.
3: My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
Another in the intimate genre on Ghibli films is My neighbour Totoro, which tells of a father and his two daughters who move to the country to be able to live in a pollution free environment to help the girls’ Mother who is in hospital.
While playing around in the vast garden, the youngest girl Mei, discovers a small cat-like creature and follows it into the woods where she discovers a larger creature that she names Totoro.
Again, this sounds like the sort of plot you might have heard a hundred times but again it goes in a completely different direction. The Totoro creatures rarely engage directly with the children instead preferring to wander the garden at night, helping the plants grow.
The film lovingly portrays daily life in rural Japan and allows the magical elements to take a back seat. The workers in the rice fields and daily chores are given as much of a showing as any of the creatures. It’s this limited focus on magic that really sets the Ghibli canon apart from the pack and makes them something truly unique and wonderful.
The film was something of a failure upon its release and actually took a few years to find its audience. Now however, it is not only Ghibli’s most famous film but also one of Japan’s most famous cultural icons which has given it’s name to a cultural preservation project, a meteor and a species of worm as well as making cameos in everything from South Park to Toy Story.
2: Spirited Away (2001)
Spirited Away was the first Ghibli film I (and, I imagine, many others in the west) ever seen after Pixar handled the English dub and distribution. I was fortunate enough to see this film in the cinema and I was instantly blown away. This film is beautiful. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an animated film so vibrant, with such rich colours and utterly unique characters.
The story sees a young girl trapped and forced to work in a bathhouse for spirits in an attempt to guarantee the release of her parents who have been transformed into pigs.
I love everything about this film but in particular it’s the characters that drawn me back time and time again. From the eight armed boiler man Kamajii to the silent and mysterious No Face, the massive headed owner of the bath house Yubaba, the dragon Haku, the sludge ridden river spirit, the three severed heads that transform into a giant baby and the giant baby that transforms into a tiny bird. Every single character, wheter in the main spotlight or simple background decoration, oozes with originality and helps build a world that feels so real you’ll swear you could almost smell the perfumes of the baths.
Spirited away is a film completely unlike any other you’ll ever see and is a must watch. I’ll leave you by saying this, I’ve watched this film several times and felt genuinely miserable upon finishing it because I wanted more than anything to step through the screen and into the world of the film. It’s a masterpiece.
1: Whisper of the Heart (1995)
As much as I adore Spirited away, It can’t top my list, for all is luxury and splendour, it still can’t compare to the small, heart warming tale of Whisper of the Heart.
Whisper of the Heart tells the story of a young girl, Shizuku, spending her summer vacation engrossed in books and making frequent trips across town to the library to seek new volumes. As she reads she realises that many of the books she reads have already been checked out by a boy named Seiji.
One day she finds a cat on the train and follows it to an antique shop run by Seiji’s grandfather.
At it’s heart, the film is a coming of age story and captures the awkward panic of first love and the dread of not knowing where you want your life to head. Shizuku is torn between novels and studying for her high school entrance exams, eventually giving up studying entirely to write a novel.
Seiji meanwhile is torn between his love of Shizuku and his desire to learn the art of violin making in Italy.
It’s in equal measures heartwarming and heartbreaking and I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve shed a tear or two over some scenes.
The film is much straighter than most Ghibli fare, there’s no magic here, other than what magic can be found in real life. Towards the end we are given glimpses into the fantasy novel Shizuku writes about the Baron (a statue of an anthropomorphic cat in the antique store) but these brief dream sequences are the only break from reality. This is fine though, there’s no fantasy element needed here, the story is perfect without it.
There was a pseudo sequel made in 2002 called The Cat Returns, which made the Baron into a real character, teaming up with the cat from the train Muta. The two must help a girl who is being forced to marry the cat prince in the kingdom of cats. It’s an enjoyable enough film but for a film filled with magical elements, lacks any of the genuine magic of the original.
I adore this film and would recommend it to anyone, for Anime fans it’s a must and for those who shun anime, this film will give you a great alternative to the clichéd manga tropes. It’s a beautiful piece of work and deserves to be seen.