What sets this Japanese animation company apart from most other studios is their ability to perfectly capture the precious moments in life; like good food, affection between friends and family, and respect for neighbors and nature. If you are into movies or animation, then most of these films I saw this summer are must-sees, all drawn in the most enchanting animation style!
This summer, I got introduced to Studio Ghibli’s anime films; I ended up watching nearly all of them too fast because they were so good! Even the overrated ones displayed some of the most beautiful animation. I want to bring more attention to these movies, so I’ve compiled single paragraph thoughts on the ones I’ve seen below. They are presented in the order I watched them and are spoiler-free! I’m also incredibly proud of this post as it took about a month to create, write and design! I don’t do this for everything, so consider this a demonstration of how strongly I feel about these movies (many of which I now own on DVD!)
A strong shout out and thank you needs to be said to my best friend, James, for suggesting I give Studio Ghibli a try and for recommending Whisper of the Heart so many times. ;) Ghibli has definitely been a big highlight of my 2014 summer! The studio definitely changed how I look at anime and animation in general and greatly expanded my film world (and Top 100 Favorite Movies list!) Thank you so much, James!
Notes: The only Ghibli films I haven’t seen include Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves, and Tales from Earthsea. I have seen Nausicaa, but since it’s technically not Ghibli, I opted to leave it out. Just a personal choice on my part.
The Secret World of Arrietty || 2010 || G
“Human beings are dangerous. If we’re seen, we have to leave. My parents said so.”
My first Studio Ghibli film. It appealed to a childhood love of mine for tiny people, so it turned out to be perfect starting point. Arrietty was whimsical, breathtakingly beautiful, and quite endearing. I found it very enjoyable, even though it wasn’t a rousing epic or a heart stopping adventure. It was a very sweet tale that elevated your boring objects like sugar cubes and sewing pins to a completely new perspective within the hands of a Borrower. Everything was just very delightful, from endearing heroine Arrietty (many of Ghibli’s films are filled with some of the most wonderful female leads!) and her unique little family, to the most gorgeous animation. A highlight for me was the original score that was a very gentle Celtic. It definitely lifted the story to special heights as it guided the emotion of the story. Overall, this is personally special to me because it was my first Ghibli film, so I give it an extra half a star. :)
Final Comment: A Whimsical Wonder || 5/5 stars
Whisper of the Heart || 1995 || PG
“Take me home, concrete roads!”
This was highly recommended to me, a beautifully told coming-of-age story. Set at the point when the libraries were preparing to computerized their systems, Shizuku’s interest in piqued by seeing a familiar name on all her checkout cards-she eventually meet the person and their stories become entwined. The atmosphere of Tokyo’s neighborhoods, antique shops, apartment complexes, and the people who pass by them, made for a very comforting backdrop for the story to unfold and one that I was fascinated to watch. The film handles young romance exceptionally well, never once feeling awkward or weird–a gigantic plus! I loved Shizuku as a female lead and would certainly love to revisit her life in a sequel if it could be handled well. At times, Whisper of the Heart can feel rather slow at the beginning but do not let your impatience get in the way of the perfect character handling and atmosphere. By the end of this movie, I was in puddle of tears from happiness and I’m still trying to figure out how they made such a small ending feel so monumental.
Final Comment: Sneak Attack On The Emotional Zone|| 5/5 stars
The Wind Rises || 2013 || PG-13
“Airplanes are beautiful, cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up.”
This is one of Ghibli’s most beautiful films to date! I consider it almost a “sin” that Frozen took the Oscar this past year instead of The Wind Rises, especially when I saw how the Academy voted. A loose biopic, the film beautifully depicts the a life of Jiro Hirikoshi, who helped develop aircraft for the Japanese right before World War II and how his life’s passion was taken and used for harm. Airplanes have never been so interesting to me as they were throughout the running time of this film. The romance that developed during the second half was so heartbreakingly beautiful that I ended up crying from the pure emotion. The animation in and of itself was basically flawless (especially character designs; for the most part, Ghibli creates some of the most pleasant and innocent looking characters I’ve ever seen that’s refreshing to the eyes!) A surprise was hearing John Karinski’s voice in this film (Jim Halpert of The Office, people!) and I actually liked Joseph Gordan Levitt’s acting too! The highlight of this film was simply the entire story and how it was presented. It was incredibly enjoyable and moving to behold in it’s entirety. Personally, I am still battling my temper that this film is so unknown compared to Disney’s very lacking ice and princess flick.
Final Comment: Oscar Worthy || 5/5 stars
The Cat Returns || 2002 || G
“Always believe in yourself. Do this and no matter where you are, you will have nothing to fear.”
As this film is loosely connected to Whisper of the Heart, which I loved terribly, I ended up watching this sooner than later. Sadly, it does not live up to what Whisper of the Heart delivered. The cat, The Baron, who originated in Whisper, was the best part; sadly, the rest of the film I didn’t enjoy half as much. It was a decent kids film, it simply tasted different from the previous three Ghibli films I’d seen. It wandered into more children’s stereotypical territory in a hit and miss type fashion. Overall, it was alright but I probably won’t watch again. (I should note that it is still better than some of America’s extremely cheesy and crude kids movies.)
Final Comment: Meh, Kids Will Like It || 3/5 stars
Howl’s Moving Castle || 2004 || PG
“Here’s another curse for you – may all your bacon burn!”
Very imaginative and fantastical, Howl’s Moving Castle is one of Studio Ghibli’s more popular films with a very large fan base, which at points has caused me to scratch my head to a degree. Frankly, I think it’s rather overrated but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an enjoyable watch. I did love the fantasy elements a lot; for example, the magical walking castle was really neat. The cast of characters was great; the fire demon Calcifer (English voice done by none other than Mike Wazowski’s voice, Billy Crystal!) was an imaginative fantasy creature and entertaining without being too silly. Christian Bale was great as the wizard Howl too! The film starts out quite strong, but gets too busy with different story threads during the final half, ultimately failing to resolve a major problem set up in the beginning. So, sadly I was left rather disappointed when the film ended. Still, it’s a good watch, especially for fantasy lovers.
Final Comment: Fantastical but Overrated || 4/5 stars
My Neighbor Totoro || 1988 || G
“There was a great big Totoro!”
Easily one of Ghibli’s most recognizable films, this is one of the best animated films I have ever seen in my life. Not only is it a timeless classic, but it’s depiction of family and sisterhood was pulled off better than in nearly any Disney film I’ve ever seen. This is by far the best and most realistic set of fictional sisters ever and that definitely made the film for me–they were so endearing! Little moments in the girls lives as they moved into a new house, settled into a new community, and glimpsed the forest spirits, was what made the film so monumental in heart and soul–it’s a quiet movie with massive heart. It’s also very entertaining, as little Mei is incredibly adorable and says and does some humorous things. The animation is a little old but it doesn’t hurt the film at all–in fact it has a charming, timeless quality to it that adds to the film’s quaint, sweet atmosphere of childhood. I’ve rewatched this film many times now with my seven year old brother and have teared up nearly every time by end. In short, this is a must-see.
Final Comment: Definition of Your Timeless Classic || 5/5 stars
Ponyo || 2008 || G
“That’s the most boring goldfish I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”
I fell in love with this movie almost instantly and I would rank it highly among one of my top favorite Studio Ghibli films. The animation of the water blew me away, as it looked so fluid and soft! The world of and above the sea, and their meeting together, was captured in perfect detail, charm, and awe through the story of two little children. Title character Ponyo was enthusiastic and strong willed without being obnoxious, while the little boy Sosuke was adorably mature, bright, and kindhearted for his age; with such lovable leads, it was very hard not to adore this film! I absolutely loved the flow of the story’s plot and the level of emotion it took me to. The cast of characters was relatively small but also incredibly enjoyable and memorable; Ponyo’s wizard father and Sosuke’s spunky mother were both especially fun characters. In many ways, words fail me to describe how beautiful this movie was. From the combination of thrilling adventure, heart-tugging moments of joy, breathtaking animation, and a beautiful score, this was simply a masterpiece. Talk about going above and beyond for a children’s movie!
Final Comment: Favorite Tale From The Sea || 5/5 stars
Spirited Away || 2001 || PG
“I finally get a bouquet and it’s a goodbye present. That’s depressing.”
Boy, this movie is loved to insane heights but I didn’t click with it on the first watch. While I was sick, I gave it a second try. While I still hold to my opinion that it’s kinda overrated, I did enjoy it more the second time through. It is a great feat in the animation universe. Incredibly bizarre yet solid, we get to follow human Chihiro as she becomes stuck in the nighttime world of a bathhouse for spirits, separated from her parents. Yep, this film is your classic fantasy adventure! Although some of the characters are a little ugly to look at, mostly the animation is fascinatingly interesting and hard to look away from. Spirited Away also manages to communicate emotion that gives the adventure some gravity, which overall helped it while on my second watch. I did have a problem with a poorly presented back story of one character, but I cannot go into detail without spoiling things. Overall, it’s… an interesting movie; it will probably grow on me a little bit at a time with each rewatch.
Final Comment: Crazy but Worth The Time|| 4 /5 stars
Kiki’s Delivery Service || 1989 || G
“You’d think they’d never seen a girl and a cat on a broom before.”
Kiki’s Delivery Service perfectly captured what a family film should feel like, hitting a well-balanced mark that some animated films miss; it was not too silly yet also not too serious. It was deliciously delightful and quaint, thoroughly soaked in a nostalgia for a simpler time. Kiki was a fantastic character to get behind as her simple journey of becoming an independent young adult unfolded through adventures, mishaps, and lots of heart. Her talking cat Jiji was adorable and funny without being ridiculous or weighing down the film with too much silly dialog. In fact, the whole cast of supporting characters were great! Kiki herself was a big highlight; I really wanted my younger brother to watch this film as she displayed an optimistic, strong will to work hard for herself, without seeming perfect or unrealistic. The film continues to grow on me with each rewatch, of which I’m very happy!
Final Comment: Wonderful Family Film || 4.5/5 stars
Laputa: Castle in the Sky || 1986 || PG
“Oh, no! There goes my crystal!”
Laputa: Castle in the Sky is Ghibli’s first film and it’s a great children’s fantasy adventure, packed with space pirates, a lost civilization, a magical necklace, puzzles needing solving and a roller coaster of adventures that almost never stop. However, in some ways, it felt a little young for me, so I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as, say, Kiki (my brother would LOVE this film though, and I need to show it to him soon!) There was just a tad more silliness mixed in–not in a bad way; it just felt a little hit and miss to me personally. However, for Ghibli’s first official film, it’s pretty decent! Lead characters Sheeta and Pazu are easy to get behind and were fun to follow throughout the story. Mark Hamill’s voice acting as a certain character was a pleasure to hear, too! I’m probably ranking this a little too long but until I can give a proper rewatch, I’ll have to stick with how I feel right now.
Final Comment: Decent Kids Adventure || 3.5/5 stars
Princess Mononoke || 1997 || PG-13
“You cannot change fate. However, you can rise to meet it, if you so choose.”
The versatility Ghibli has to tell so many different types of stories is amazing–from children’s adventures to bizarre fantasy to heartfelt drama. Ghibli is a master at their craft of storytelling! This versatility is especially evident in this rather mature epic, Princess Mononoke. Although the environmental theme became so overpowering that it felt more a sermon than a plot theme, the film still delivered a solid fantasy epic. Led by the likable but doomed Ashitaka, we get to watch as he’s caught up in a battle over the forest, some fighting to keep it safe and others wanting what it can give them, with little regard of the spirits that live within it. A extremely fascinating part of this film was that there practically no ‘bad’ side. Nearly all the characters were cast in shades of grey, each having good and bad motivates that gave a very large, telling image of humanity. I hope to revisit this film in the future, to form a more solid opinion of it, and to enjoy the animation, of course.
Final Comment: Preachy yet Epicly Beautiful || 4.5/5 stars
From Up on Poppy Hill || 2011 || PG
“There’s no future for people who worship the future and forget the past.”
This made me think of Whisper of The Heart, in a small ways. Poppy Hill, for some reason, isn’t that popular, so I’m among the few who really enjoyed this movie. As a high school attempts to save their clubhouse, we get to peek into the private lives of a couple of students in particular and their budding relationship; all with the backdrop of Japan’s struggle to move forward after WWII without loosing touch with their heritage. Like most Ghibli films, it handles the sweet beginnings of romance wonderfully. As a period piece, the bits of drama throughout the film were enjoyable to watch, as was the look into the Japanese culture. My only complaint was that the end felt a bit abrupt–but only because I wanted see more! Like Whisper, I could have sat for hours watching the lives of these characters if the movie had kept going! So, overall, this was a very pleasant animation!
Final Comment: A Precious Throwback to What Was “Whisper” || 4.5/5 stars
Porco Rosso || 1992 || PG
“I’d rather be a pig than a fascist.”
Drenched in playful romanticism of yesteryear and accompanied by sea planes, air bandits, big Italian families, hidden coves, lost loves, and oh! a man cursed to have the face of a pig? Yes, you read that right; while that part felt random, somehow it still managed to work. Porco was an endearing yet serious character; I found myself drawn into his story and really enjoyed the stay, watching him handle pirates, his delicate sea plane, and eventually fight for honor. The plot, once it got going, was a fantastic ride and beautifully delivered. A special highlight was the smart and optimistic young engineer Fio and I consider her one of Ghibli’s most underrated characters. She was an absolute joy to watch, but I never see her mentioned by most fans. Overall, except for a less than satisfactory last ten minutes, I was pleasantly surprised by this film and almost instantly in love!
Final Comment: Yes! The Pig Thing Does Work!|| 5/5 stars
My Neighbors The Yamadas || 1999 || PG
“The reason the Yamadas get along fine is because all three adults are nuts. If one of you were normal it would unbalance the rest.”
Very different from Ghilbi’s other films, this film was a comical commentary on your regular, middle class family. Although it’s almost two hours, it plays out like a bunch of shorts, rather than your typical, single overarching plot. It was a sweet film, with some fun moments and some wonderful watercolor-like animation, perfectly capturing each family member’s perspective of life. Although I wouldn’t consider it a favorite of mine, I would consider it worth watching if you consider yourself a Studio Ghibli fan or an animation buff in general. It had a very unique feel to how it’s told and how it looks and even it’s own sense of humor. Being an animation geek myself, I did make the effort to watch this one.
Final Comment: Had Some Good Moments || 3.5/5 stars
Pom Poko || 1994 || PG
“I have no face!”
Of all the Studio Ghibli films I’ve watched, this is the one I’ve liked least of all, and I think it’s almost universally unpopular. Following shape shifting raccoon-dogs fighting for their forest, those shape shifting moments were pretty much the only enjoyable parts for me. Sadly, I didn’t like the rest, as it was unbelievably strange and weird to say the least. You would not believe what part of the male anatomy they decided to animate in this film–I did not care for that part. 8O The all-too familiar environmental message was quite in-your-face, which I always find intrusive of my mental personal space–if that make sense? Overall, the film felt very odd. It’s the only Ghibli film I actually completely dislike.
Final Comment: I Shoulda Skipped It || 2.5/5 stars
Grave of the Fireflies || 1988 || NR
Once again, Ghibli’s ability to deliver a variety of stories is shown by this epicly devastating yet somehow beautiful piece of animation. Following two siblings and their will to survive after their city is bombed near the end of WWII, the price of war is depicted very clearly through their struggles, nothing sugarcoated to say the least. The two main characters are breathtakingly realistic, endearing, and well balanced. Little Setsuko is a heart-stealer, unbelievably cute and sympathetic. Seita, the older brother, is also an easy hero to get behind as he attempts to shelter his sister from the effects of war. On an overall scale, everything is fantastic in this film, from voice acting, to animation, to story flow. However, I must note that the film got so depressing that I had to stop near the end before finishing it later. The fact that I never want to watch this film ever again lowers the score just a little bit. I think everyone should see this at some point in their lifetime but it should not be expected to be an easy watch and rightfully so. Well done, Ghibli, well done.
Final Comment: The Definition of a Tear-Jerker || 4.5/5
Shall we tally the scores? Out of sixteen movies, there are four that were marked under 3.5 and two the acceptable 4. With the remaining ten films all being above average/raising the bar of the animation genre, with four gaining near perfect 4.5, and six claiming 5 out of 5 stars, I say, where have you been all my life, Studio Ghibli?! Sure, they’re not perfect, just like every other film, but that’s not why they’re marked so high. What they are is genuine. Imaginative. Relate-able. Gorgeous. Touching. In the end, to me, they’re priceless and well worth the time sharing.
This summer will definitely be one I’ll remember as the year I realized I could watch anime and love it. I now happily own (yes, I put my money where my mouth is) My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, Porco Rosso, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Whisper of the Heart, The Secret World of Arriety, and even Howl’s Moving Castle on DVD. I hope to buy The Wind Rises, From Up On Poppy Hill, and maybe even Spirited Away in the near future! That’s how much I love them and need them accessible, right at my fingertips!
If even one of these films piqued your interest, I strongly recommend you find a way to watch it! Hopefully Studio Ghibli can bring happiness to your life as it did mine! If you’ve already seen some (or all!) of these films, what did you think of them? Did you like them as much as I did? I surely hope that you did!