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 (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 (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 (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 (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 (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.