Through nearly thirty years of filmmaking, guided by the hands of six different directors, Studio Ghibli has exhibited a remarkable consistency of purpose. Each film speaks to a nation experiencing spectacular technological change and rapid urbanization, with the cataclysm of World War II setting everything in motion. Even when the films are set in feudal Japan, they connect allegorically to current events via the subjects of industrialization and the rift between humanity and nature. This includes the films adapted from Western novels; the focus remains on the Japanese concept of mono no aware, a gentle sadness at the transience of things. The natural world, with its seen and unseen life, is always preferred to the cold, mechanical modern world. On the other hand, Hayao Miyazaki loves machines, particularly the flying ones. A balance is desired, where past traditions are not allowed to disappear from a quickly changing world. This theme became most pointed in the 90s, with Pom Poko and Whisper of the Heart (which end and begin, respectively, with the same image) making specific references to the Tama Hills residential development. After the economy took a hit, Spirited Away explored the ghost of an amusement park, memorably commenting on the effects of pollution and cleaning up the mess beautifully.
For some of the studio’s films, particularly the later ones, the theme generally becomes more metaphorical and intimate, although From Up on Poppy Hill explores it at the community and national levels as well. The key to a character’s identity or calling can sometimes be found in that character’s ancestors. In both Castle in the Sky and The Secret World of Arrietty, a dead forebear was able to see something miraculous, but people believed he was only imagining things. The descendants in these stories take it upon themselves to rediscover the magic and vindicate their families. Sometimes, the “past” that needs to be reconciled with the present is merely a character’s younger self as she passes some temporal threshold or other. Taeko in Only Yesterday relives her childhood, while Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle experiences old age ahead of time. The most common Ghibli story, of course, is the “coming-of-age” of a pre-teen girl. These characters, from Kiki to Shizuku to Anna, all struggle with the question of what kind of people they’re going to be. Often, this requires them to look deep inside themselves and find out what’s there. The concept of a character’s “true name” shows up in both Spirited Away and Tales from Earthsea, a guarded treasure without which all is lost.
In the year 2015, with Miyazaki and Takahata both apparently done making feature films, the output of Studio Ghibli looks even more old-fashioned. Of all the traditions these films try to preserve, hand-drawn animation shines the brightest, as the rest of the industry has been taken over by CGI. Miyazaki’s meticulous style dominates, with Takahata being the only bold experimenter at the company. Fog-shrouded landscapes, sad rainfall, quiet children riding trains, the solace of a good umbrella: it all adds up to a serene alternative to American animation. But that observation’s been made countless times. As an export, Ghibli has been very successful. I’ve come to the conclusion that the original language versions feel more authentic than Disney’s dubs, although hearing Jean Simmons say “Up we go!” is worth every moment of culture clash. Experiencing all twenty films (nineteen of them twice) in the span of thirty-three days has admittedly caused a bit of fatigue to set in. Perhaps a more leisurely pace would have changed my reaction to seeing the umpteenth instance of characters spontaneously taking flight (in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya). At this moment, I find that I didn’t love nearly as many of these films as I’d hoped. After seeing Castle in the Sky, I remarked that it was quite good but that the coming masterpieces would probably make it recede in my mind. As it turned out, not until the very last film did it get knocked out of my top five. I now present those five, a tremendously beautiful group of films.
5. Only Yesterday (1991, Isao Takahata)
This is, arguably, the studio’s first masterpiece to dive deep into a young woman’s mind. Its stylistic bravado in creating two distinct time periods, then subjectively blending them together, is more fascinating to me than most of the magical mumbo jumbo in both Japanese and American animation. Takahata has a clear agenda (country life is better than city life), but for once the visual, aural, and personal details enrapture me enough to fall for it.
[This film will be shown in U.S. theaters for the first time next year, by the by.]
4. When Marnie Was There (2014, Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
Here, the next generation of animation filmmakers conjures up the previous one to try to make sense of a world in flux. The cri de coeur for honoring the past is unmistakable and poignant. But again, I respond to this film because I respond to its protagonist. This is, quite possibly, the studio’s last masterpiece to dive deep into a young woman’s mind. I certainly hope Yonebayashi can get more films made, even if Totoro doesn’t grace the opening logo for them. He has an astounding gift for crafting evocative spaces. See also…
3. The Secret World of Arrietty (2010, Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
It might be the Celtic-tinged music that seals the deal for me, but this is just a wondrous experience from beginning to end. If the prevailing mission statement of Studio Ghibli is to put a face on nature so that we see the value in things we like to distance ourselves from, Arrietty took on the most challenging task of all. What other group of artists could make household pests this sympathetic, without needing to paint the humans as ogres? (Ratatouille is the only other film that comes to mind.) On top of that, I could spend a lot of time studying the details of that miniature household.
2. Spirited Away (2001, Hayao Miyazaki)
If my own estimation of this film is less enthusiastic than the critical consensus, well, that’s just because the consensus calls it the single greatest animated film since the early 40s. A vitally imaginative work with a heart that exemplifies the feeling of mono no aware, Spirited Away combines the magical and the mundane: one of its most memorable scenes is about scrubbing the slime off a god. The heroine, Chihiro, is animated with brilliant expressiveness. She’s one of the great characters of twenty-first century film. Her plight is as dark as the fairy tales of old, but Miyazaki honors her innocence.
1. Princess Mononoke (1997, Hayao Miyazaki)
This is one of Fantasia‘s only rivals in the “animated epic” category. Its scope causes some to admire rather than love it, but I can do both. The forest armageddon, with richly developed characters on every side (and there are more than two, of course), is entirely engrossing. The spiritual realm remains unknowable, but opposing it leads to self-destruction. Miyazaki gets this point across without sacrificing even the least bit of entertainment value. Still, oddly enough, the political message is probably my favorite thing about the film at this point in my life. Princess Mononoke makes the greatest argument of any film I’ve seen, after Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, for being a wishy-washy moderate. I hope I find more like it.