But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Our exploration of the works of Studio Ghibli is complete.
That took quite a little bit longer than a month. I’ve gained a new respect for film critics and reviewers, as I found it much more difficult to give an overview of movies than video games. As I previously mentioned in another post, I guess I severely underestimated the power of the holiday season, the draw of new games given to me as gifts, and the time I would devote to family so there are a multitude of reasons why this series ran long. And maybe I just needed a little bit of a break from writing as well.
In any case, what was originally intended to be a month-long series turned into a month-and-a-half-long series. Heck almost a two-month-long series. It’s the first time I’ve seriously invested so much energy into reviewing films and I’m deeply grateful to everyone who went along for the ride, took the time to read my thoughts, and left so many respectful, thoughtful, and heartfelt comments. Sharing your experiences with these films with me inspired me to think in new ways. Is there anything more valuable? Thank you.
I can only say, now that the adventure is over, that these films have become more a part of me and more important to me. Well, most of them have, anyway. For those of you craving for more, I suggest watching the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. It’s on Netflix yet.
Studio Ghibli was so named because its founders wanted to breathe new life into the anime industry. “Ghibli” is a word which evokes a hot desert wind, like a sirocco. It’s also the name of an Italian aircraft. They have indeed been a breath of fresh air, creating some of the all-time greatest animated films and helped to spread the art of anime across the world, but with the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, the future and legacy of the studio remains uncertain.
I’ve tried to give each film its due and get into the respective minds of their creators to do them justice, but at the end of the day I’m just a red mage. I’m not a movie critic, professionally or unprofessionally speaking. My opinions are my own as is whatever level of enjoyment I took from each respective film.
That being said, you’re completely free to disagree with any and all of my assessments of these beloved films (of course). I fully expect you to disagree. I’m going to rank the twenty-one theatrical Studio Ghibli films in order of weakest to greatest. Prepare for controversy! These are just my takes on these films and as such they are my personal perspective on art. All I ask is you be careful where you tread. If you disagree, let’s do so in an orderly and respectful manner and I’ll try to reply in the same vein. If you would, please demonstrate your own ranking of these movies in the comments below!
Ranking the Ghibli films (those to receive the same score are ordered by my preference):
#21. Tales From Earthsea (2006) – 4.9
“A dull fantasy”. Dead on arrival, Tales from Earthsea was Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro’s first attempt at directing for his father’s studio and it turned into a boring, lifeless, trod-fest full of familial strife during development. It embarrassed the author of the book it was adapted from. Rage Mage fodder.
#20. The Cat Returns (2002) – 6.6
“A bland spin off”. Hiroyuki Morita’s The Cat Returns is a spin off of Whisper of the Heart but this short film of terrible animation lacks the heart of its predecessor, as if it failed to use any of the resources of the studio that created it. Neither Takahata nor Miyazaki had practically anything to do with it. Passingly funny but only as a forgettable novelty, you can miss this one without missing much.
#19. When Marnie Was There (2014) – 7.4
“A story with something missing”. When Marnie Was There IS missing something. Once I figure out exactly what it is I’ll get back to you. Even with a twist ending, this second film by Hiromasa Yonebayashi is one which seems less than appropriate for the Ghibli name somehow. It’s a strange movie to have the honor of being Studio Ghibli’s last. That doesn’t dismiss it as an outright terrible movie, though, as it still packs a punch in the visual department and has a few moments which may conjure lumps in throats, especially for those who can relate to its protagonist.
#18. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) – 7.4
“A family sitcom”. Don’t judge a movie by its animation. Takahata’s My Neighbors the Yamadas is a genuinely funny comedy but its episodic structure will undoubtedly put many off from its laughs. If you can accept the minimalist art style and dry humor, you may just enjoy this obscure Ghibli title.
#17. From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) – 7.4
“A period piece romance”. From Up on Poppy Hill was Goro Miyazaki’s second attempt at directing for Studio Ghibli and it turned out much better than Earthsea. A simpler, smaller, period piece story about two young lovers who just might be siblings… gross. The movie may make you a little uncomfortable in moments but it captures the nostalgia and charm that makes Ghibli films so special.
#16. Pom Poko (1994) – 7.5
“A modern folk tale”. Studio Ghibli’s weirdest movie to date. Isao Takahata’s comedic take on Japanese myth and folklore is unlike anything else the studio has produced. You may have a “What the heck am I watching?” moment. Yet the characters and the themes are as endearing as ever, if you can get past the tanuki balls.
#15. Ponyo (2008) – 7.6
“A film for five-year-olds”. Ponyo is a strange adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. I suggest that it is the weakest film in Miyazaki’s career with Ghibli. As such, I gave it the lowest overall score out of any of the films he directed. It’s gorgeously animated but not even that can save it from a meandering and nonsensical plot. Maybe it would’ve been better received if Miyazaki churned out more films more often.
#14. Only Yesterday (1991) – 7.6
“The lost Ghibli film”. It is the only one to finally receive an English dub 25 years after its original release. Takahata’s reverie about childhood and growing up is an extremely ponderous and contemplative film with very slow pacing. Still, it juggles dual art styles and is undeniably beautiful. I’ve never seen another film that animates a morning sunrise with such elegance and care.
#13. Secret World of Arrietty, the (2010) – 7.8
“A tiny film about survival”. First film for Studio Ghibli by director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Arrietty is a gentle fairy tale with the pace and sweetness of a summer afternoon. It’s straightforward plot is unusual among Ghibli’s works and it is a small, personal movie with a big message about the value of life.
#12. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya – 8.2
“A poignant tale about the brevity of life”. This sad and joyous film is Isao Takahata’s last directorial work, and fittingly so. It reminds us that life is short, that time does indeed have wings. Princess Kaguya will endure as a perennial retelling of an ancient Japanese folktale. Though it is as inaccessible as Takahata’s work has ever been to wider audiences, it is undeniably one of the most artistic films in the Ghibli canon.
#11. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) – 8.2
“A magical coming of age story”. Kiki’s Delivery Service is Miyazaki’s tale about growing up told with characteristic heart. Beneath the kiddie image of a little witch riding her broomstick is a complex thematic undercarriage which may defy most expectations. A bright and happy film with a lot to say about finding one’s independence and inspiration.
#10. Whisper of the Heart (1995) – 8.3
“A movie about what it means to be a writer”. From an animation studio renown for their fantasy, Whisper of the Heart may seem like a passable high school melodrama but don’t be fooled. Without showcasing the best in visuals, this is one of the best “ordinary” films by Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki’s writing and the wonderful direction of the late Yoshifumi Kondo make for a surprisingly endearing movie. Best of all, Whisper of the Heart is a profound exploration of the nature of art and artists. It’s an inspiration for writers and artisans everywhere.
#9. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) – 8.3
“A visually spectacular fantasy”. With some of the best animation in the entire Ghibli canon, Howl’s Moving Castle is a juggernaut of a film like its quadrupedal namesake. Unapologetically magical and mystifying, the film is bound to captivate the eye. No wonder it’s become one of Miyazaki’s best known fantasy films. Unfortunately, the legendary director’s storytelling process of using storyboards over scripts teeters too far toward the disjointed and even the messy to be truly classic, however lovable the film may be. Unique!
#8. Castle in the Sky (1986) – 8.4
“A soaring and majestic adventure”. Castle in the Sky has the honor of being the first official film by the newly formed Studio Ghibli. It is a true family adventure film. Innocent, brave, wondrous, grand, it helped to set in stone many of the storytelling principles which the writers at Ghibli would focus on for the next three decades. It’s such an enjoyable movie, I challenge you to watch it without smiling. If only the casting of the two leads in the English dub was a little more inspired!
#7. Porco Rosso (1992) – 8.9
“A funny action flick about an Italian pig”. I love this movie so much. Miyazaki described his hilarious action-comedy as a foolish film since it was made for children but has very adult themes. Perhaps that’s what makes Porco Rosso so affecting. It is my favorite movie after all. I believe it achieves a balance between heavy ideas and lighthearted entertainment, talking about war’s tragedies in one hand and then swaying toward the cartoonish in the other. One of the most distinct films in the Ghibli canon.
#6. Spirited Away (2001) – 8.9
“A supernatural wonderland”. Undeniably one of Miyazaki’s greatest for its complexities and imagination. Of course, there’s also the fact that it won him an Oscar. Sometimes a little frightening, Chihiro’s stay in the spirit world has evoked many varying interpretations. Perhaps that’s because of the nebulous way which Miyazaki came to tell his stories at this point in his career, leading some (like myself) to consider it disorderly. A flawed masterpiece is still a masterpiece. Perhaps art is even better for its imperfections, cracks through which the sunlight shines.
#5. The Wind Rises (2013) – 9.0
“A final word on war and art”. This is undoubtedly a controversial spot for The Wind Rises, but it’s my opinion that this is a significant film with a powerful message. In true Miyazaki fashion, it has some pacing and editing issues and nobody is claiming it’s a perfect film, but I say it’s a broken finale to an epic career. It’s a film about loss, the wonder of flight and achieving one’s dreams… at any cost? In it, Miyazaki says everything he has always wanted to say, not with explosions and special effects, but with gentleness and meekness, with restraint.
“Dystopian, environmental science fiction”. The unofficially first Studio Ghibli film is one of their best in my opinion. It is insanely creative, noble and dignified, painstakingly beautiful given its age, and it achieves the kind of world-building that modern day film universes crave. Sci-fi doesn’t have much of a presence in Ghibli’s works without it. Nausicaä is a film which proves Miyazaki has talent for the fantastic, a film which has strong themes about his feelings of environmentalism. All of Miyazaki’s recurring ideas begin here.
#3. Princess Mononoke (1997) – 9.3
“A dark epic”. This is without a doubt Hayao Miyazaki’s most frightening film, shedding the thin label of “family entertainment” which Studio Ghibli has never truly evaded. At its core, Princess Mononoke is a film about anger and hate and I sense the powerful feelings of its director at the heart of the themes of pacifism, violence, and environmentalism. With this film, Miyazaki set out to speak on his most important issues as powerfully as he possibly could. It is a film which is markedly different from so many others and it is one which cannot be missed. It frequently tops the list for many Ghibli fans and rightfully so.
#2. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) – 9.6
“A profoundly sad look at the victims of war”. Isao Takahata’s very first film for Studio Ghibli is the most moving in the entire collection. It demonstrates his skill as a storyteller, which he had honed long before crafting this film, which I consider his best. No one can watch Grave of the Fireflies without being changed, without being affected down to your very core. You will rail against the injustice of it all. Even the most unfeeling viewer cannot hope to be impacted in some way. Strangely, it is not an anti-war film, by its director’s own admission. It takes a long, hard look at the tragedy of humanity’s inability to peacefully resolve conflicts.
#1. My Neighbor Totoro (1988) – 9.6
“A masterpiece that captures the heart of childhood”. There is no other film which can top this list. Coming in at number one is the film which launched Studio Ghibli’s image since 1988. No other film has since realized the wonder bound up in the heart of a child. No other film has crystallized the dreaminess, the haze, the magical outlook of the world which belongs solely to children. This will forever remain at the center of Hayao Miyazaki’s legacy to the world. My Neighbor Totoro will always be a beloved film.
Yada da da daaa dann, that’s all, folks! How would you rank the Ghibli films you’ve seen?
-The Well-Red Mage