The following is a review of all the feature films produced by Studio Ghibli since its founding in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, with the omission of three: two by Takahata and two by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. The reviews are presented in chronological order, with the omitted films noted in brackets. I have also included two films by Hayao Miyazaki which were done before the founding of Ghibli. I hope you enjoy.
The Castle of Cagliostro – Master thief Arsène Lupin III searches for the source of some counterfeit money, only to end up embroiled in a dastardly scheme involving forced marriage, ancient treasure, and international conspiracy. This was the first film Miyazaki directed, and while it has little in common with the rest of his corpus, it is reasonably enjoyable to watch. (Extremely silly, lots of heist-themed slapstick, no real substance to it.) Best watched in the original Japanese, with subtitles.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind – Nausikaä is the princess of a small community living in an unpolluted valley, one of the last strongholds against the toxic jungle which has taken over the planet. Despite its dangers, Nausicaä has a certain fondness for the toxic jungle and its creatures, and recognizes that the poisonous plants are actually slowly purifying the land of human pollution. She gets caught in an international conflict emanating from one woman's desire to destroy the guardians of the toxic jungle. It's an odd film, but with an original plot and an interesting set of subtexts. I greatly enjoyed it.
Laputa, Castle in the Sky – A kidnapped princess escapes from her captors and falls in with a young engineer and a group of air pirates, as they try to understand the lost power which had once made cities fly. Very whimsical. As with Nausicaä there is a lot of flight in the film, but this time not much of a "moral" to the story. It's gripping, though, and the imagery is pretty cool. The English version has Mark Hamill as one of the main voice roles.
[Grave of the Fireflies]
My Neighbor Totoro – The most iconic film from Studio Ghibli. A professor and his two young daughters move to a country house while their mother is being treated in a nearby hospital. The excitement of the new environment, anxieties over their parents, and the magic of the land provide a series of adventures involving a gigantic forest spirit (or totoro) which the younger sister discovers in a patch of forest next to the house. The film has made such an impact, I think, because the adventures of the girls with the totoro suggests the vitality of the world and the magic of ordinary, disconnected childhood experiences—experiences still rooted in the difficulties of daily life (and not some distant fairytale land), but nonetheless full of wonder.
Kiki's Delivery Service – Kiki is a young witch who flies away from home (as is traditional for young witches) to spend a year on her own developing her skills. She leaves with her pet cat, Jiji, who is dour and provides comic relief throughout the film. Without any real magic skills aside from her ability to fly, Kiki ends up starting a delivery service. She meets a number of interesting people around town while working, including a boy who dreams of flight (note the theme again), but is not magical. Halfway through the film, Kiki loses her magic powers and falls into a depression. I will not give away the ending. Highly enjoyable movie, which I think portrays people as being good and generous, and gives some good moral advice about confidence and the pursuit of perfection in a trade.
Only Yesterday – Isao Takahata wrote and directed this film about a woman in her late twenties named Taeko, who travels to a country farm during a week off from her Tokyo desk job. The trip is an occasion for a cascade of memories from early adolescence—memories of embarrassment and disappointment, related to her family, her school life, and puberty. Takahata integrates the memories with the present day narrative wonderfully, showing Taeko interacting with people on the farm and sharing vivid accounts of her childhood with them. Taeko is an extraordinary character, and possesses that beautiful self-awareness and cheerful humility that one can really only call honesty. An incredible film. Watch it with the original Japanese vocals, and make sure you watch it all the way through the end credits.
Porco Rosso – Marco is an Italian fighter pilot who ditched the Italian air force after WWI, and now (in the 1920s) flies around the Adriatic as a bounty hunter trying to catch pirates and smugglers. He is also (strangely) a pig. No one else in the film is a pig, by the way. Why Marco is a pig is the great mystery of the film. And it's an interesting film, because the question is never settled directly, nor is it resolved completely at the end. This isn't really a children's movie, despite the silliness of many of its characters and the whimsical plot. I think it has something more to do with the cynicism and despair that can accompany a great loss. Anyway, very enjoyable, highly original plot, good animation, interesting main character, and excellent themes.
Whisper of the Heart – This film was written by Miyazaki, but directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, a collaborator at Ghibli. It is a brilliant portrait of early adolescence. Like Only Yesterday, this story is told in a completely realist fashion. Even when we expect the fantastic to break into the storyline, it never does. Instead what we get is a drama about ambition, hard work, romance, the love of reading, and school. A wonderful story. Best viewed in the original Japanese with subtitles.
Pom Poko – Miyazaki was not involved in this film at all, to my knowledge. It was written and directed by his mentor Isao Takahata. It tells the story of the construction of the Tama Hills housing developments in Southwest Tokyo in the 1960s, from the perspective of a colony of tanuki or raccoon dogs native to the area while it was still forest and farmland. The development is gradual and takes years, and the film is constructed as an annual chronicle, charting out the raccoon dogs' gradual awakening to the problems surrouding the destruction of their habitats, and various strategies they employ in order to stop the development from proceeding. The episodic structure of the film and its gradual development make the later portions especially poignant. It is silly, and the dialogue is sometimes stupid, but on the whole it's a brilliantly constructed portrayal of urban expansion which potently illuminates the ecological side of things. Definitely worth seeing. The Japanese original is preferable to the English dubbed version.
Princess Mononoke – Like Porco Rosso, this is not really a children's film. In fact, this is much less of a children's film than even Porco Rosso. The action takes place in medieval Japan, when spirits still roamed the forests and so on. The protagonist is struck by a curse after slaying a possessed boar-god, and goes off to find answers before the curse kills him. His quest leads him to "Iron Town", a settlement made up of prostitutes and criminals who are doing battle with nature to make money by forging pig iron for export. He also meets Mononoke, a young girl who has been raised in the forest with the wolf-gods. All the characters end up playing different parts in the scheme of a greedy buddhist monk who wants to kill the chief forest spirit and capture its head. The film is extremely intense and dark.
My Neighbors the Yamadas – Another Takahata film. This one employs impressionistic, sketch-like animation to illustrate the lives of a small family, the Yamadas: a grandmother, husband and wife, and their son and daughter. The film has no plot, but consists entirely of a string of sketches (I would estimate somewhere between 60 and 100) showing random incidents illustrative of family life. The film begins and ends with speeches about marriage, given at weddings. Both are excellent, and together they capture the flavor the whole film. The opening speech, given by the husband's mother, focuses on the importance of children as the uniting goal which holds a marriage together, because "children are the best reason for riding out life's storms". She also warns against the complacency of the easy times, because "if in the calm you selfishly please only yourselves, you may lose each other." The concluding speech focuses on forgiveness. In between, we see a lot of the little dramas of family life, many examples of the frustrations and petty faults of different members, but the whole thing is beautiful and pleasing. The film doesn't really invite a viewing straight-through, because it has no plot. Perhaps it would be best divided into several viewings. Wonderful nonetheless. Best watched with the original Japanese and English subtitles.
Spirited Away – Princess Mononoke brought Miyazaki onto the international stage, but Spirited Away really made him famous (at least in the US). This great film follows the adventure of a young girl who is trapped in the spirit world and deprived of her identity as she struggles to win back her parents, who have been transformed into hogs. She maneuvers the politics of a large spa for the spirits, and has a series of interesting and bizarre encounters with various characters. It's a must-see film, if only because it's the one he's known best for.
The Cat Returns – This is a bizarre spinoff of Whispers of the Heart, in which a high school student, who is undergoing some sort of minor identity crisis, is selected to marry a cat prince, and carried off into the world of the cats. She is on the verge of transforming permanently into a feline concubine when the cat doll from Whisper of the Heart helps her escape. By far the weirdest Ghibli movie, with the most inane "moral" driving it.
Howl's Moving Castle – This is Miyazaki's (very loose) adaptation of the young adult novel of the same name. The story as told by Miyazaki has only a vaguely linear plot, and is best viewed as an evolving series of experiences in the life of the protagonist, a young woman made magically elderly by a witch's curse. The animation is excellent, the characters are enjoyable, and the scenes and conversations which make up the film make it a peaceful cinematic environment to which to return over and over again. I have seen Howl's Moving Castle more times than any of the others on this list.
Tales from Earthsea – Goro Miyazaki, (Hayao's son) directed this adaptation of Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books. The film compresses the events of multiple books into one, with Goro's own spin, but the main plot of the story is taken from The Farthest Shore (the third book in the series). A young prince runs away from home and aids the wizard Sparrowhawk in his attempt to uncover the evil force which is stripping the world of its magic. They trace the decay of the world to an un-dead wizard named Cob, who is sucking the marrow out of reality in order to sustain himself because he is afraid of death. I found the film very dark and disturbing, and the ultimate message for viewers was not a good one. It's mildly successful as a cinematic object, but not recommended.
Ponyo – This is Hayao Miyazaki's spin on the tale of the little mermaid. A sea-princess named Brünnhilde loves a little boy playing in the water by the cliffs. After being tracked down by her father and forcibly taken home with him, she runs away, releasing a massive storm which she rides back to little Sosuke's cliff by the sea. In the process she becomes (gradually) a human girl, and pledges herself to the little boy. The second half of the film is highly unmemorable, perhaps because the magic gradually goes out of it (literally), but the first half is brilliant and delightful. The voice acting in the English version (starring Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, and Matt Damon) is very good.
[The Secret World of Arietty]
From Up on Poppy Hill – Another film directed by Goro Miyazaki. This one is much more successful than Tales from Earthsea. We are introduced at the beginning to a young girl, apparently orphaned, who helps her grandmother run a boarding house out of the family home. Our protagonist raises a flag every morning to signal to her father (a sailor), as was their custom when he was alive. The story primarily involves her life at school, and the drama surrounding a partially abandoned club house which is used by various student associations for their meetings. As she becomes more closely acquainted with the leaders of the club house group, a romance develops, and then is cut short. The story is well-written, and well-animated, and portrays intellectual organizations as something exciting and valuable that adolescents are ready to fight for.
The Wind Rises – Hayao Miyazaki's last feature film (or so he says) is designed to be an implicit commentary on his own work as an animator. It tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the engineer who designed the famous "Zero" fighter planes in WWII. The core of the film is Jiro's pursuit of his dreams, and dreams play an enormous role. Frequent transitions are made from dreamscapes, in which Jiro discusses airplane design with his Italian hero and the real world. The title is taken from a Paul Valery poem, which says "The wind is rising; we must try to live." The poem frames the relationship between Jiro and his wife, whom he first meets on a train as she is reading the poem. Separated for years, they reunite at a mountain resort where she is staying while recovering from tuberculosis. Their relationship is paralleled by Jiro's own awareness that the "beautiful dreams" he is designing for Mitsubishi are destined to be tools of war, and he has a running (imaginary) conversation with his mentor about this paradox: that the creativity of modern men is always cursed, and every beautiful thing he invents seems destined to become a source of death. Everything about this film is incredible. The animation is beautiful, Jiro's character is written with subtlety and depth, and the whole is suffused with incredible cinematic effects, which give as much life and drama to drafting tables and slide rules as to tragic romance and war. I cannot praise it highly enough. And the interest of the film is only magnified once we begin to replace drafting table with artist's desk, and airplane with anime, and consider what this means for Miyazaki's understanding of his own work in the context of Japanese animation. I hope that this proves not to have been the end of his career, but if it is, I can't think of a better way to conclude it.
[The Tale of the Princess Kaguya]
[When Marnie Was There]