My quest to acquaint myself with the work of Studio Ghibli, has so far seen me discover Spirited Away, Arrietty, Nausicaä of The Valley of The Wind, Howl’s Moving Castle, Whisper of The Heart, The Cat Returns, and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Some I’ve loved, some not so much, and you can read what my thoughts on those films here.
Now, my journey into the wonderful world of Ghibli continues, with a number of films that I have been looking forward to seeing for quite some time.
My Neughbour Totoro (1988)
At last, I’m finally introduced to who could be considered the face of Studio Ghibli. Totoro, the forest spirit at the centre of My Neighbour Totoro, graces the Studio Ghibli logo that appears at the beginning of each film. As the poster boy for the company, I had high hopes for his big screen debut, and I wasn’t let down in the slightest.
My Neighbour Totoro is utterly magical – an animated joy, that is good for the soul. Set in rural Japan, the film in itself is lovely to look at – you can almost feel the warmth. and inhale the fresh air.
A story abouth childhood innocence, it’s filled with wonderous creatures that include little house spirits, a giant cat-shaped bus, and the extremely huggable Totoro itself. It’s hugely imaginative, dramatic, funny and warm.
Like Pixar did with Finding Nemo, Ponyo sees Studio Ghibli go underwater – and it’s beautiful. There’s a huge amount of creative genius that’s gone into the creation of this world under the sea, that’s evident in almost every frame.
Goldfish that turn into humans, waves that turn into giant fishes, and a city of boats that rest precariously on a giant wave are amongst some of the film’s most striking, and crisp visuals.
Much like My Neighbour Totoro, Ponyo radiates innocence, with a good natured, honest, and simply lovely story at its core. It’s warm hearted, and often hilarious family fun, that I just fell totally and completely in love with.
From Up On Poppy Hill (2011)
From Up On Poppy Hill has more in common with last week’s Whisper of The Heart, than the other films I’ve seen this week. Like Whisper, it tells the story of young love and coming of age, but isn’t quite as charming as the former.
Too often it drifts into the realms of melodrama for my liking, and it lacks the charm and spark of the much better Whisper of The Heart. It’s not awful, and it’s nice to see Ghibli do another humanist story – but that doesn’t stop From Up On Poppy Hill from being instantly forgetable.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Princess Mononoke is a triumph. This, as well as Nausicaä of The Valley of The Wind, are what I now consider to be Ghibli’s finest work. Thrilling to the point where I was yelling at the screen in excitement, this fantasy film is surprisingly mature.
People’s heads are cut off, limbs fly through the air in battle, and there’s a lot of blood. The film may boast a princess as the lead heroine, but this is unlike one you’ll ever see in a Disney film. Mononoke is mentally and physically strong, and proves to be one of Ghibli’s most memorable characters.
Again, it’s essentially a story of nature vs industry, as prince Ashitaka becomes embroiled in a war between forest spirits and a mining colony. Extremely imaginative and action packed from the opening sequence, Princess Mononoke is Ghibli at its most adult, and most wonderful. I loved it.
Porco Rosso (1992)
Porco Rosso has a bizarre but brilliant concept. Set in 1930’s Italy, it tells the story of former WW I fighter pilot, now anthropomorphic pig, who battles sky pirates over the Adriatic Sea. The actual film doesn’t do the concept justice though, and is at the best of times uneven.
It is at its best when it self-acknowledges its own absurdity, or playing to its own ridiculousness. However, I found the film to be constantly at battle with its various tones of romance, comedy, and action.
I didn’t particularly care for the characters and found the constant use of the word pig, to be very annoying. Seriously, Porco Rosso must hold the record for the most uses of the word in a film, ever. But then what do I know? I’m just a pig.
My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)
A series of vignettes, My Neighbours the Yamadas is made up of comedic hors d’oeuvres that are considerably hit or miss. Made by Isao Takahata, director of the recent The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, its a mixed bag of relatable real life observations, flights of fancy, and at times genuinely witty humour.
It’s the animation that really makes the film stand out though, with a rough, sketch-like quality to it – much like Princess Kaguya – which makes it unique when compared to the majority of Ghibli’s work.
It has its moments, but as a whole My Neighbours the Yamadas isn’t quite as successful, or as memorable as some of the other Studio Ghibli films that I’ve seen so far.
Grave of The Fireflies (1988)
The final film I needed to watch in the Studio Ghibli season, was Grave of The Fireflies – I’m still putting my heart back together now. From Isao Takahata, this is an absolute heart breaker of a film, which took me aback with its brutal honesty and real poignancy.
Another story about the horrors of war, the story is set during the closing months of World War II, and essentially revolves around the relationship between a brother and a sister. From the opening scene, it’s made clear that Grave of The Fireflies will be a sombre affair.
Told in flashback, as the characters travel through the afterlife, the film packs a massive emotional punch. I had to fight back the tears all the way through it, as the sorrow-laden story deeply affected me.
The animation is instrumental in portraying the horror of war. The scene in which Seita visits his injured mother is nothing short of harrowing, and the way in which you can see the physical thinning of our lead characters over the course of the film, is subtle but powerful.
There’s still magic in the misery though, and Takahata’s image of the afterlife is stunning. Grave of The Fireflies is an appropriately bittersweet ending to my Ghibli marathon.
So, now that my time in the various worlds of Studio Ghibli has come to an end, what have I discovered? Well first and foremost, I’ve discovered a number of animated films that I consider to be amongst some of the best ever made. My favourites amongst this selection are Nausicaä of The Valley of The Wind, Princess Mononoke, Ponyo, and Grave of The Fireflies.
One of the best things about this filmic journey that I’ve been on, is seeing how my naive expectations of the studio’s body of work have been, for the most part, wrong. What I thought I would get, were strange films, set in fantastical places, filled with witches and monsters. In a way, that’s what I did get, but that forms only part of what Studio Ghibli are all about.
As well as telling stories rooted firmly in fairytale and fantasy, they tell stories that are human and relatable. Much like how nature and industry seem to be in a permanent battle of balance in Ghibli’s films, so is reality and fancy. Miyazaki seems fascinated with planes, ships and all things mechanical, with intricate detail going into brining the machines to animated life.
The animation in general is hugely impressive. Whilst other companies have pursued computer generated images, Studio Ghibli have remained rooted in the traditional style of the hand drawn image. This proves that despite technological advancements, the key to an animated feature’s success doesn’t rely soley on the tools. Not only are each of Ghibli’s films beautiful in their own way, but they are usually textured with poetic undertones, political subtext, and human drama.
Above all else, I’ve discovered that pre-judging a film, or body of work, can mean missing out on something special. I can’t believe that it’s taken me this long to fully appreciate Ghibli, but I suppose it’s better late than never. I’ve fallen in love with their works, have discovered some truly wonderful films, and best of all, I’ve still got lots of other films to discover. I can’t wait.