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…

Princess of the Wind Valley

official art by Hayao Miyazaki

In the early 1980s, before there was a Studio Ghibli, there was Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a Topcraft film which paved the way for the legendary Japanese animation studio to launch in 1986 with Laputa: Castle in the Sky.

All the soon-to-be-Ghibli hallmarks were already there for Nausicaä: high animation production values, a Joe Hisaishi score (peppered with 1980s synthesizers in this case), and a self-sufficient girl as the lead. Miyazaki’s environmentalist themes were also leading the way in this allegorical fantasy. Nausicaä was a lot darker than I remembered it, but Miyazaki would double down on these themes more than a decade later with Princess Mononoke.

Which brings me back to the heroine of the story, Nausicaä. She serves as a model for many of Ghibli’s future lead characters, and perhaps has the most in common with San from Princess Mononoke. Given the similarities between Nausicaä and Princess Mononoke, that’s not too much of a surprise.

So Princess Nausicaä, who has the ability to communicate with nature, is the first in a long string of Ghibli leads who are among my favorite anime characters.