Ghibli Reflections ~ Part IV: The 2010s and Beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Ghibli Reflections ~ Part III: The 2000s

For Studio Ghibli, the 2000s belonged to Hayao Miyazaki. He was responsible for three of the five films produced that decade, and by this time he had already retired (and unretired) from making movies a few times, and he would continue to retire after each film he directed in the 2000s, only to come back and do another. Japanese animation fared all the better for his inability to stop creating.

This is part three of a four part series.

Spirited Away

Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away was the first Ghibli film released after I had become a fan of the studio, and I even saw it (in dubbed form) on its initial run at an arthouse theater two decades ago (this was long before the annual Ghibli screenings we have today became a thing), so it’s only natural that I have a strong sense of attachment and nostalgia for this film. For many years after seeing it, Spirited Away was my favorite Ghibli film. Only recently did Kiki’s Delivery Service overtake it, but it’s a very slim margin. Spirited Away is top shelf Miyazaki, and a nearly perfect film. The story of a girl’s transformation from spoiled to appreciative is accomplished with a uniquely Japanese fairy tale, supported by Joe Hisaishi’s amazing soundtrack. As a bonus, the sootballs from Totoro reappear in the film as well. Hayao Miyazaki showed no signs of slowing down with Spirited Away, and he would unsuccessfully retire again after making this film. (Bonus fun fact: The film’s full title is actually The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro.)

The Cat Returns

The Cat Returns (2002)

One thing Ghibli does not do is sequels. The Cat Returns is the closest thing you’ll find to one in the Ghibli catalog, as it has links to Whisper of the Heart. I still am not sure of the “official” status of The Cat Returns (I’m sure after all these years I could easily look it up in five minutes on the internet), but in my mind, this is a story that Shizuku from Whisper of the Heart writes after she has rediscovered her inspiration. The link between the two films is The Baron, a dapper talking cat who walks upright and wears a fancy suit. While he was brought to life through Shizuku’s imagination in Whisper of the Heart, in The Cat Returns he is a character as real as Haru, the girl who is the focus of the story. This is not only probably the most lighthearted of all the Ghibli films, but it is also the shortest, clocking in at a mere hour and fifteen minutes. The movie may not be very long, but it is full of fun and adventure, and a few things you probably never thought you’d see in a Ghibli film.

Howl's Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Howl’s Moving Castle holds the distinction of being the first Ghibli film for which I read the source material first, namely the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones. This wasn’t the first Ghibli film based on a book, nor would it be the last, but Ghibli has a way of taking source material and adapting it, yet still making it their own. Hayao Miyazaki works his magic here, retaining the essence of Jones’s novel, yet giving the story a spin which is unmistakably his own. The main character of the story, Sophie, breaks the Ghibli tradition of a young woman being the protagonist, but not entirely. She is eighteen years old, but thanks to a witch’s spell, she actually spends most of the film as an eighty year old woman, and a feisty one at that. Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t miss a step in his eighth Ghibli film as director.

Tales from Earthsea

Tales from Earthsea (2006)

If there is such a thing as a controversial Ghibli film, this is it. Tales from Earthsea had a very rocky history on several fronts. Goro Miyazaki makes his directorial debut with this film, something that at the time, his father Hayao was not too thrilled about. Then there was also the matter of Earthsea author Ursula Le Guin not being entirely happy with the film adaptation. Despite these strikes against it, Tales from Earthsea manages to hold its own and be a perfectly capable film… though to me it feels more like Dungeons & Dragons than Studio Ghibli. Goro goes all in on the Western Fantasy worldview, which makes the film feel much different than the rest of the Ghibli catalog. Despite this uneasy first step, Goro Miyazaki would go on to prove himself as a fine Ghibli director in the years to come.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008)

Hayao Miyazaki returns once more to close out the first decade of the twenty-first century with what is surely his cutest film. If you thought Totoro was adorable, wait until you see Ponyo. This tale of a little fish who wants to be a girl is another film guaranteed to brighten your day. And if you thought Totoro‘s ending theme song was an earworm, Ponyo‘s will be stuck in your head for twice as long. Visually, Ponyo is a stunning film, with backgrounds that look like watercolors. And despite the film’s cuteness and whimsy, Miyazaki still makes a subtle environmental statement, as he does in most of his films. But make no mistake, Ponyo is a bright, colorful, and cheerful film, and it is one of my favorite Miyazaki works.

So ends the decade of (mostly) Miyazaki, be it Hayao or Goro. With Ponyo, Ghibli gave itself a great launching point for the next decade, which would be one of great change for the studio. Wither Ghibli? Nay! More greatness still lies ahead. The final installment of my journey through the Ghibli timeline is only a week away.

Ghibli Reflections ~ Part II: The 1990s

With the 1980s over, and Studio Ghibli having established itself as a force to be reckoned with in Japanese animation, the 1990s would find them reaching even greater heights, releasing seven films in ten years!

This is part two of a four part series.

Only Yesterday

Only Yesterday (1991)

The 1990s begin with Isao Takahata’s second Ghibli film. While Miyazaki has opted for tales of fantasy to this point, Takahata stays in the realm of human drama with this introspective film about a woman moving to the next stage of her life with a new career, but the changes bring back all kinds of memories from her childhood. This is the film that Disney refused to release when they held the license for it, which was for quite a few years. Fan theories ranged from the ‘no edits allowed’ policy of the license which forbade Disney from cutting a certain “sensitive” scene which they presumably didn’t want to include in a North American release to simply not knowing how to market an animated film where children were not the target audience. Kids would be bored out of their minds watching this film, because it wasn’t meant for them. Only Yesterday is a film for adults who can relate to the changes in life from one phase to the next. Thankfully, once GKIDS got the license for it, North American audiences were finally treated to this wonderfully told slice of life story.

Porco Rosso

Porco Rosso (1992)

In this high flying adventure, we are introduced to another of Hayao Miyazaki’s favorite topics: aviation. This is another fun film in a historical setting, and did I mention that the main character is literally part pig? There’s a reason for it, and it brings a little bit of fantasy into the story, but Porco Rosso is more of an adventure than anything else. It also has one of my favorite Ghibli characters in the form of Fio, a seventeen year old girl who just happens to be an ace engineer. It is with her expertise that Porco Rosso can fly the way he does. If you’re looking for another fun film in the Ghibli canon, it’s hard to beat Porco Rosso.

Ocean Waves

Ocean Waves (1993)

The first Ghibli film not directed by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata is this made for television film. Don’t let the fact that it was made for TV deter you; the production values are every bit as high as Ghibli’s theatrical works. There is one area where this film differs from those that preceded it (and which would follow, for that matter): the scale of the story. When one thinks of Ghibli, grand fantasy epics come to mind. Ocean Waves is as far removed from this image as you can get; it’s a high school drama. Again, don’t that that deter you. This may be a much smaller scale film, but the Ghibli magic is still there, and their approach to filmmaking shines through in this film which helped to expand their repertoire beyond grand cinematic experiences. If you enjoy good character dramas, this is a hidden gem in the Ghibli catalog you can’t pass by.

Pom Poko

Pom Poko (1994)

Isao Takahata’s third film for Ghibli is a change in pace… for him. Pom Poko is an environmentalist allegory told through a story about tanuki. It sounds more like something Hayao Miyazaki would have done, and one could argue that Takahata beat Miyazaki to the punch when it comes to making a film with a major environmentalist statement, as it shares thematic similarities to the film Miyazaki would complete some three years later. But I digress, and there will be more to say about the other film shortly! Pom Poko is a film about the environment, but Takahata remainins true to form, focusing on the tanuki tribe first and foremost, and how they are affected by the situation around them. Most anime fans are quick to recognize the impact of Hayao Miyazaki’s environmentalist magnum opus, but Pom Poko makes a statement every bit as forceful and is also well worth a look!

Whisper of the Heart (1995)

The first theatrical Ghibli film not directed by Miyazaki or Takahata is one of my favorites from the studio. Whisper of the Heart is a slice of life story about a girl named Shizuku who likes to write, but loses her inspiration and tries to find it again. Shizuku’s story actually mirrors Kiki’s in Kiki’s Delivery Service in some ways, which is probably why she became another of my favorite Ghibli leads. Not a lot “happens” in Whisper of the Heart, but it is a story about a girl going through her daily life just trying to recapture the things that are important to her. It’s another of the rare Ghibli films that isn’t based in fantasy, but the presentation is still nothing short of excellent. If you enjoy slower paced stories and character drama, this is a Ghibli film you can’t miss.

Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess Mononoke needs no introduction. Most people with even a passing knowledge of Japanese animation are familiar with it in one way or another. An intense and dark environmentalist allegory, Princess Mononoke is an expertly crafted story with a clear message, and Miyazaki’s direction is confident and unforgiving. In some ways, Hayao Miyazaki has refined and doubled down on the themes he explored thirteen years earlier in Nausicaä. What strikes me the most each time I watch Princess Mononoke is just how much San commands the screen with an intense presence whenever she appears. A princess of the forest, raised by wolves, San is almost feral, with no apologies for her actions. It’s only after she meets Ashitaka that she begins to question her hatred of humans, wondering if perhaps there are some who are not evil. Also not to be overshadowed is the role of the film’s soundtrack. Joe Hisaishi is as integral to Studio Ghibli as Miyazaki or Takahata, and his score for Princess Mononoke gives the visuals even more gravity with its expressive and majestic themes. This film is surely the introduction to Ghibli for many people, and hopefully some will explore beyond it to discover just how diverse the studio’s work is.

My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)

The 1990s end as they began for Ghibli, with a film by Isao Takahata. With three films within these ten years, it would be his most prolific period as a director for the studio. Not content to follow the common path, this time he brings an anthology of sketch comedy with an experimental animation style. My Neighbors the Yamadas is a collection of vignettes about a typical middle-class Japanese family, and all of the ordeals they experience in their day to day life. Each story is marked by a poem describing its theme. One thing that doesn’t change for Takahata is his focus on the human element of the story. The film may be a collection of mostly comedic scenes from daily life, but running underneath is a sentimentality which pulls it all together, with family bonds being the most important element of the film. There is no other film like My Neighbors the Yamadas in the Ghibli catalog.

So ends another decade. The 1990s were a time of impressive growth for Ghibli, showing the scope of what they were capable of, along with setting a new high-water mark for anime as a whole. But they weren’t done yet; not even close! Next time, the turn of the century brings even more innovation and changes, and the 2000s get off to a grand start, with no signs of slowing down.

Ghibli Reflections ~ Part I: The 1980s

I recently had an inspiration for a new blog post, so it’s time to dust off the keyboard again and get writing! A couple of weeks ago, I watched one of my favorite Ghibli films again, and it got me thinking “If I was forced to decide, how would I rank all the Ghibli films from most favorite to least favorite?”. I then decided this was an impossible task, so I abandoned that idea. But I still liked the idea of writing about Ghibli films.

In another dimension, I reviewed a bunch of them, but I wanted to do something a little different this time. Ranking them was out, but there are still twenty-three films I want to talk about. This is going to take more than just one post! I finally came up with a plan to tackle this gargantuan task: I will go through each and every Ghibli film chronologically, with brief comments for each one. I figured the best way to break up something this lengthy was to do it by decade, with no concerns about ranking them. A journey through the years of Studio Ghibli with a little bit about each film and my thoughts on them. So gather ’round with your kodama and sootball companions, and over the next few weeks I’ll share my condensed thoughts on each and every Ghibli film. I hope you enjoy it.

This is part one of a four part series.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Strictly speaking, Nausicaä is not a Ghibli film. It was produced by Topcraft, an animation studio whose roots can be traced back to the cel-animated Rankin Bass Christmas specials of the 1970s, believe it or not! That bit of trivia aside, this is of course the film which laid the foundation for what would become Studio Ghibli soon afterwards. A dark environmentalist allegory by Hayao Miyazaki, it is certainly a foreshadowing of what was to come. Much of what would come to define Studio Ghibli (or Hayao Miyazaki, at least) can be found in Nausicaä: an independent young girl protagonist, environmental themes, and a world of fantasy. Not every Ghibli film would have all of these elements, but they would become common in many of the studio’s works. In all, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind sits comfortably next to its successors, having since been retroactively accepted into the Ghibli canon of work.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

The first formal Ghibli film gets the studio off to a great start with Hayao Miyazaki’s fast-paced fantasy adventure. I have only seen Castle in the Sky a few times so far, but the last time I watched it, I had forgotten just how much fun of a film it is. It’s also a film which several future Ghibli films would reference in later years. One of the suits worn by one of the characters would be found again on The Baron in Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns. There’s also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in one of the villages with a little girl in the street who bears a striking resemblance to human Ponyo. But back to Castle in the Sky itself, it’s a great adventure with a bit of an Indiana Jones or Lupin III vibe to it, the latter of which wouldn’t be surprising at all, since Miyazaki did do The Castle of Cagliostro in his pre-Ghibli career.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Enter Isao Takahata, co-founder of Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki. The studio had only gotten started, but right away, Takahata showed that he was going to forge a different path with his works. Grave of the Fireflies is a human drama of brutal realism telling the story of an orphaned brother and sister in the aftermath of the atomic bomb being dropped on Japan in World War II. It is by far the darkest film in Ghibli’s catalogue, yet there is also a glimpse of hope seen through the children’s eyes, despite their harrowing situation. Grave of the Fireflies is an excellent film, but is not the kind of film one watches for entertainment value. The emotional impact is so profound that some may never wish to watch it more than once. It is an anti-war film of the highest caliber.

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Wherein Studio Ghibli creates an icon. Literally. Totoro, of course, is the lovable giant creature who graces the familiar blue Studio Ghibli title card which precedes each of their films. One of the studio’s most popular films, My Neighbor Totoro is Hayao Miyazaki’s tale of childhood wonder, guaranteed to put a smile on your face and improve any day. The importance of Joe Hisaishi’s music to Miyazaki’s films also rises another level with this film, and it contains one of my favorite pieces of his: “The Path of Wind”. Curiously, the promotional poster as seen above was created before the film was finished, as the girl in it does not appear in the film. She was the original character Miyazaki had in mind, until he split her into sisters Satsuki and Mei for the final draft. Another curiosity is that Totoro‘s theatrical debut in Japan was as part of a double feature with Grave of the Fireflies. There was no set sequence for the films, however, so some audiences got Totoro first, and others got it second. They should have made it a fixed sequence, since watching Totoro as a followup to the somber Grave of the Fireflies gives much needed relief, and a happy feeling when leaving the theater. To-toro Totoro!

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

I know I’m not ranking the Ghibli films in this series of posts, but I have to give a nod to Kiki’s Delivery Service, as it holds the distinction of being my favorite Ghibli film. It’s a close margin though, as Spirited Away held that title for quite a while until a number of years ago, when Kiki overtook it. I also think of Kiki’s Delivery Service as the perfect place to start for anyone new to Ghibli. The story is neither too dramatic nor too light, and Kiki is a character you can’t help but root for. She is charming as she learns to make her way in the world. Kiki is a prime example of a Ghibli lead, as a girl who relies primarily on herself as she goes on her journey, literally and figuratively. And of course, you can’t go wrong with Jiji, Kiki’s wisecracking cat.

And that brings the 1980s to a close. In just five short years, Studio Ghibli was born and quickly made a name for itself with the talents of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, along with all of their talented staff, and one giant Totoro. In the next post, it’s a trip through the 1990s, when one of the most noteworthy films ever to emerge from Japan would be created. Stay tuned…