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 (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 (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 (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 (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 (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.