Thursday Ten – The Best Studio Ghibli Films

Today, the Gene Siskel Film Center marks the conclusion of their Studio Ghibli programming, with a screening of The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. The film, a comprehensive examination of Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki and the creative brain trust that shapes the organization, serves as an open door study on the arduous yet visionary process that has composed some of cinema’s finest films, animated or otherwise.

To commemorate the retrospective’s conclusion and the Chicago premiere of what’s to be the final Studio Ghibli film, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There, I look to compile what I consider the studio’s ten best features – a cadre of erudite films that will outlast us all.

(Hayao Miyazaki, 2008)

Dubbed upon its release as “minor”, Ponyo is an astutely reserved film from Hayao Miyazaki. Perhaps anticipating the more grounded realism that was to come in Miyazaki’s final film The Wind Rises, it’s in Ponyo where Miyazaki’s penchant for solemnity begins to truly define his latter work. Composed with as much lapidary delicacy as any of Miyazaki’s prior work, it’s in the threshold between reality and the supernatural that the director contends with grand truths of aging and childhood. This retelling of The Little Mermaid confronts truths of life that the Disney film could barely harbor a thought on – that there’s magic in childhood which escapes us upon entering adulthood. In Ponyo, it’s in that simple observation that reveals a film that’s anything but minor.

Grave of the Fireflies
(Isao Takahata, 1988)

Often found on any list of the most depressing films ever made, Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies is disserviced by the misleading honor. Yes, it is a notably tragic film about two children who attempt to survive in Japan during World War II. Its study on alienation, on the oppressive forces that make victims out of the innocent, and the ties that bond brother and sister echo with such humanistic urgency that to not be moved is an exercise in futility. But those concerns are grounded in a truth, in a reality submitted through the realm of animation. What’s so enchanting about the film and why Grave of the Fireflies is so often revered as a classic, is that it separates the preconceived idea of animation as a vicarious exercise. It amplifies its drama to force its audience to confront these historical realities. It’s depressing, yes, but more accurately, it’s confrontationally human. In Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata exposes a harsh historical reality through a Ludovico technique of therapy – forcefully and with attuned dramatic energy. The fact that the film is animated is ancillary.

Princess Mononoke
(Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)

With Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki mounts his version of an Akira Kurosawa war film, offering a medieval fantasy epic that could only live in the realm of animation. Anfractuous to a fault, Princess Mononoke makes no concessions toward simplicity – in this symphony of world building, we encounter rampaging boars, nature spirits, and competing environmental and political ideologies. All this wrapped up in what’s essentially an action film, where those competing ideologies of industrialism and environmental consciousness come to a head. Miyazaki has never been more ambitious with his scope and scale since, and though he has gone on to produce more evocative and complex films, Princess Mononoke represents the unassailable advantage that animation has over live-action; its capacity to visualize the unseen and represent the spirit.

The Wind Rises
(Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)

The films of Hayao Miyazaki, despite the painstaking details of every composed frame, have been matters of the heart. In The Wind Rises, the renowned Japanese director asks his audience and himself: are you designing from the heart? In his decades of output, it’s undoubtedly the question he has asked of himself and of his Studio Ghibili compatriots. Notwithstanding its immaculate construction, The Wind Rises is quite unlike any of Miyazaki’s other films. It involves a male lead, a departure for a director known for his strong female characters. It’s also based on real events, a true change of pace given the fairy tale fables that Miyazaki has made a career on. But while the subject of The Wind Rises may suggest that being set in 1920s Japan would anchor it in reality, we do see escapes to fantasy, where our protagonist escapes from the war, famine, disease, death, and natural disasters through his capacities to dream and design. The Wind Rises asks of its audience to continue to strive for their dreams, though acknowledges the perilous personal toll it may take in order to achieve them.

Only Yesterday
(Isao Takahata, 1991)

This delicate and underseen effort by Isao Takahata affirms the oppositional harmony found within the confines of Studio Ghibli’s closed doors. As you’ll note that this list is largely composed of Miyazaki and Takahata’s pictures, their work often complements the other. Miyazaki’s more plosive and esoteric ruminations rarely deal with the plights of day-to-day living, a concern that Takahata is certainly game for. In the case of Only Yesterday, Takahata’s follow-up to Grave of the Fireflies, the director tones down the dramatic tenor in favor of something more quiescently pristine. We follow a woman as she takes the train to visit her family; a return home. Gazing out the fenestrated view of her train car, she reflects on her childhood: a first crush, a family vacation, and her loneliness as a kid. Yet within these grounded, inherently universal reflections, Takahata is not averse to deploying a bit of magical realism, where his sparing and sensitive use gives way to a profound statement on youth, memory, and childhood.

Whisper of the Heart
(Yoshifumi Kondô, 1995)

Matters of the writer’s struggle hit a particular soft spot in my heart and in Yoshifumi Kondô’s Whisper of the Heart it’s that struggle that’s realized in a tranquil and intelligent way. Our central protagonist is a young woman with a flavor for reading and writing. Meeting a young man who constructs violins with passionate fervor, she looks to match his passion through her writing – to produce something that captures the writer’s spirit. The sole film on this list not directed by the Miyazaki/Takahata brain trust, Kondô’s directorial flourishes are palpably felt. Kondô’s stylistic tendencies lean toward Miyazaki’s teachings (though this may be a reflection of the script, which was written by Miyazaki), but the more reserved elegance of the storytelling implies that perhaps Miyazaki felt ill-prepared to direct something so entrenched in reality. Released in the mid 90s, Whisper of the Heart reality-based musings would be a precursor to much of Miyazaki’s latter day work. In Kondô’s hands, Whisper of the Heart takes on the influences of Takahata’s Only Yesterday – with its subtle and sparing use of fantasy – but with the elegant and busy frames of a Miyazaki composition. Kondô’s untimely death would rattle Studio Ghibli to its core, though his legacy lives on through his singular directorial effort.

Spirited Away
(Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

It’s in Spirited Away where we see a young girl’s parents transform into gluttonous pigs and where she doesn’t necessarily combat the evil spirits around – she survives them. In this enigmatic and quizzically abstract sendup to Alice in Wonderland, we see Chihiro come to terms with adolescence through fantasy. The film’s dimensions don’t reveal themselves within one viewing – the literary allusions are obvious to most literate Westerners, but other spheres of its contents are unveiled when reading in on Japan’s generational divide, whereby significant portions of their cultural heritage are lost with each passing decade. Moreover, the film likely speaks to concerns that Hayao Miyazaki had regarding the generational divide between him and his colleagues. The film was initially intended to be the director’s last; he would have left behind a studio that has grown dependent on him, with a younger generation failing to grab the brass ring. My major takeaway from Spirited Away  - one of many – is not to mistake youth for entitlement. The world is a cruel one where the distinctions between good and evil are rarely, if ever, in plain sight – one does not vanquish or triumph over a perceived ill, but instead survives it.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
(Isao Takahata, 2013)

A gift from heaven, a young girl is found blossoming from a bamboo tree. Taken in by poor farmhands, she grows, and grows, and grows at an alarming rate. She has no name, but her parents, at awe with the gift of a child, believe in her divine right to the throne. She’s given a name – and her agency is stripped of her. The beauty and splendor of her parent’s farmland is replaced by the rigidity of society. While based on a 10th-century folktale, Isao Takahata’s adaptation is deceivingly more contemporary than its origins suggest. In The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, we see a young woman ridiculed and subject to display as men attempt to court her favor. While once harmoniously at peace with the nature around her, we now see a woman confined because of social convention. The film, realized with brilliant visual flourishes in what may just well be the most gorgeous Studio Ghibli production ever released, is as much pleasing to the eye as it is punishing to the soul. When Kaguya, overhearing remarks from men in a parallel room as they objectify her, storms out the castle in passionate fervor, we witness a disintegration of spirit, where the image becomes a blend of charcoal color that loses its structure. The absences of clear lines don’t conceal the film’s clarity, but rather amplifies it. Within the realm of animated filmmaking, it’s rare to see such an expressed and measured use of form and theme working conjointly. To see Takahata do so with such immense proficiency puts him in the same league as Miyazaki as far as being one of the best filmmakers, not just animators, in the world.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
(Hayao Miyazaki, 1984)

Decades would pass before any female character would develop any sense of agency in an American animated film. Yet in spite of filling in a princess trope, Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä is characterized by her bravery, her perseverance, and her intellect. In Nausicaä we see a more complex female character than the cumulative traits found in Disney’s entire cinematic catalogue. She leads the peaceful feudal community of the Valley of the Wind as it and surrounding kingdoms contest over growing environmental concerns. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, in its essence, is where it all begins: the strong female characters, the environmental concerns, the insistence against black and white but shades of gray, the emphasis on the poetry of motion over narrative, etc. And it’s in Miyazaki’s eloquence that we see these concerns not reveled in sermonizing, but interlaced within the poignancy and action of the narrative – this film is remarkably exciting, a sumptuous piece of action filmmaking that also operates as a touching human portrait of a woman looking to defend her community.

My Neighbor Totoro
(Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)

Mollified of overactive fantastic qualities and lacking in any of the typical science-fiction qualities that defined his earlier and subsequent work, Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro was, for a time, the most un-Miyazaki work in his oeuvre. Yet it possesses many of cinema’s most indelible images, with the eponymous Totoro serving as Studio Ghibli’s Mickey Mouse. It’s the film that at once we associate with the studio yet also differentiates itself so significantly from all of their other films. The contrast is felt immediately – there are no overt dramatic cues in the film. Rather the film takes place in a grounded world where drama is extracted from the pageantry of the mundane. Here, two girls live on the countryside with their father. The children’s mother is sick and resting in a nursing home. What I outlined are distinct aspects that are largely foreign to American animation; adults are not immune to the tragedy of illness or the plights of single parenthood, and two girls can be lead characters. The fantasy elements of the picture are a consequence of the girl’s imagination – they’re not used to motivate the plot in one direction or another, instead, the giant Totoro is utilized as an observer as opposed to a plot point. There’s no need for embellishing on the crises of the human condition. My Neighbor Totoro is Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki’s most significant achievement because it understands this fundamental cinematic quality, rivaling not just the totems of humanistic filmmakers like Ozu or Bresson, but also the titans of any art.