As Ghibli celebrated a quarter century of bringing breathtaking animation to Japan and the world, they showed no signs of slowing down. All five films produced in the 2010s find themselves high on my list of favorites from the studio. But all was not to be smooth sailing, as a few big events punctuated the decade as it drew to a close and the 2020s began…
This is part four of a four part series.
The Borrower Arrietty (2010)
This is the film which inspired me to write this series of posts. The Borrower Arrietty (retitled The Secret World of Arrietty for North America by Disney when they held the license) is one of my top favorite Ghibli films. Hayao Miyazaki personally chose Hiromasa Yonebayashi to make his directorial debut with Arrietty, and it was a resoundingly successful choice. An adaptation of the famous children’s book The Borrowers, Yonebayashi gives Arrietty a vibrant and colorful world to explore. Another impressive feat was how they captured the sense of scale perfectly. You can tell that Arrietty and her family are tiny people in the human world, and not humans in a giant world. Arrietty herself fits quite well into the Ghibli heroine mold, with a fearless and independent personality, yet not without her flaws. The soundtrack is also wonderful and fits the visuals of the film, going outside Japan and bringing in French harpist Cécile Corbel to compose the score and songs. “Arrietty’s Song” is not just one of my favorite Ghibli themes, but one of my favorite songs in general. I may be in the minority, but for me this is top shelf Ghibli.
From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
Goro Miyazaki may have gotten off to a rough start in his Ghibli debut, but his second film erases all doubt of his skills and the question of if he was “worthy” of being on the roster of Ghibli directors. Even the tension between Goro and Hayao had subsided by now, with Hayao providing the screenplay for this film which Goro directed. It’s also a complete turnaround for Goro, going from the pure fantasy of Earthsea to From Up on Poppy Hill which is a character drama with no fantasy elements. The result is a joy to watch and brings you fully into the characters’ stories. I have only watched it once so far, and that was a couple of years ago, so my memory of the film’s details are a bit hazy. I wish I could go into more detail, but I do remember how much I was taken in by it, and I’m definitely overdue to watch it again.
The Wind Rises (2013)
The Wind Rises is Hayao Miyazaki’s
final tenth film for Ghibli, and he ends his directing career with what may be his best work. Miyazaki really was intending to retire after this film, but he just can’t put his pencil down. More on that later. The Wind Rises finds Hayao Miyazaki paying tribute to aviation once more, and also classic cinema. To the point where the film has a mono soundtrack to replicate the moviegoing experience of the early 1900s, when the film takes place. In a departure for Hayao Miyazaki, this is a pure drama with no fantasy elements. Long past the point where he needed to prove anything to anyone regarding his skill at filmmaking, Miyazaki was free to make a film that he wanted to. Ironically, he had to be convinced to make The Wind Rises by Toshio Suzuki (another of the studio’s founders), but once he began the project, he put all of his effort into it, and the results show resoundingly in the completed film. This would have been a fine swan song for the then seventy-two-year-old Hayao Miyazaki, but once again, he would come out of retirement a few years after this film to begin working on another.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
This gorgeous animated woodblock print would be Isao Takahata’s final film for Ghibli. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was released the same year as Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, though unlike in 1988, this time their films were not a double feature, but released a few months apart. However, both of their films released in this year would prove to be masterworks. Princess Kaguya is an adaptation of the famous Japanese folktale The Bamboo Cutter’s Tale. Fitting for a story of Japanese legend, Takahata animates it as if it were a moving woodblock print, with lots of visible brushwork, and sparse backgrounds. It’s an absolutely stunning film which pulls you in for its nearly two hour and twenty minute running time, making it the longest film in the Ghibli catalog. A fitting finale for a legendary animator’s career.
When Marnie Was There (2014)
Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s second Ghibli film is another favorite of mine. It is a character drama with a few interesting elements to it that are best seen for yourself so you can enjoy how the story unfolds, too. When Marnie Was There is another of the many Ghibli films based on books, and I have since gotten the original novel this is based on, but I have yet to read it. Like many Ghibli films, this one is about a girl trying to figure out her place in the world. Yonebayashi creates a calm and peaceful world for Anna to inhabit as she meets the enigmatic Marnie and tries to understand what brings them together. The themes explored in the film through Anna are some that will be relatable for many, so that may give some an extra connection to the film as they watch Anna’s story. When Marnie Was There contains another of my favorite ending credit songs: “Fine on the Outside” by Priscilla Ahn. Like “Arrietty’s Song”, not only is it one of my favorite Ghibli themes, but it’s also a favorite song of mine in general. Yonebayashi knows how to pick them! When Marnie Was There would be Ghibli’s final film, sending the studio out on a surprisingly low-key note.
…Or would it be?
Endings and Beginnings
Now is a good time for an intermission, since that is also what happened at Studio Ghibli around this time.
In 2014, Ghibli and POLYGON co-produced the cel-shaded CG anime series Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter, directed by Goro Miyazaki.
After When Marnie Was There, and with Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement finally official for real this time (though it wouldn’t last, once again), Studio Ghibli announced that they were closing up shop. With Ghibli closing its doors, Yonebayashi went to the fledgling Studio Ponoc along with other Ghibli alumni and directed their first film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, released in 2017.
In April of 2018, Ghibli founder member Isao Takahata passed away.
And yet, in spring of 2017 Studio Ghibli would rise from the ashes as Hayao Miyazaki had begun working on another new film. Goro Miyazaki was also working on a new film, and it would see Ghibli doing something they had never done before…
Earwig and the Witch (2020)
Ghibli makes its return in an unexpected way: with their first computer-animated feature film. They had always steadfastly stuck with traditional cel-based animation, only using minimal CG to supplement certain scenes as the technology became available. With Goro Miyazaki’s Earwig and the Witch, Ghibli’s familiar character designs make the jump to 3D. Goro had some familiarity with working in a 3D medium as he directed the studio’s co-production of the Ronja television series a few years earlier. Ghibli didn’t do the actual animation that time, but now it was Ghibli’s turn to give it a try. The results actually work pretty well, too, with everything having the proper Ghibli “look” to it. It won’t be mistaken for PIXAR animation, but that isn’t what Goro was going for. As for the story of the film itself, Earwig and the Witch is based on an unfinished novel by Diana Wynne Jones, who also wrote Howl’s Moving Castle. Unfortunately, the unfinished nature of the source material leaks into the film adaptation, as it’s a rather short film with a fairly quick ending. It may be one of the weaker stories as far as Ghibli films go, but for me Earwig’s feisty attitude makes up for much of that, which still makes this a fun film to watch. The soundtrack is also worth noting, as it’s based heavily on late 1960s or early 1970s British rock music! Drums, electric guitars, and organ all give the film a distinct sound. Earwig and the Witch may not be the grand return of Ghibli that some were hoping for, but it’s still worth a look.
…and that brings us to now. Earwig and the Witch will soon have its theatrical debut in Japan, delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, having premiered on television last year instead. The theatrical release features some new scenes, so we’ll have to see if North America gets a re-release of the film with those new scenes in it. Hayao Miyazaki continues working on his next film, How Do You Live?, with a tentative release date set for 2023. Now aged eighty, one wonders if this will be his final work. As long as he has the desire to create, I don’t think anyone would say no to a new Hayao Miyazaki film. With the return of Studio Ghibli, what will the 2020s hold?
Looking back at their body of work, Studio Ghibli has earned its place in animation history. Their production values and animation style also give their films impressive longevity, as even the films from the 1980s and 1990s don’t feel dated at all when watching them today. The synthesized soundtracks of Nausicaä and Castle in the Sky may date those particular films a bit, but other than that, it’s hard to tell that they are more than thirty-five years old.
So ends my journey through the film works of Studio Ghibli. I tried to cover each film from a few different angles, showing not just where they fall in Ghibli’s own history, but also my own thoughts on them. It was fun and challenging to write about so many different kinds of films, and I hope you enjoyed my perspective on them.