Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli

There is a part of our brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, a fascinating piece of meat shoved immediately above our eyes, the best seat in the house. Its most predominant function is decisions-making, and as a result, has been credited as the catalyst for obsessive-compulsive disorder. I broke mine when I was about seventeen years old. I turned on my television and found myself surrounded by otherworldly creatures who crawled into my frontal lobe and made themselves at home. Spirited Away was its name, and even though the doctors assured me it was the ants I’d been snorting which had damaged my cortex, I am still convinced that this film is solely to blame for the mess I have become.

Ghibli grew into an obsession, and I felt compelled to watch every single one of the studio’s offerings, often forgetting to eat and sleep in the process. But I persevered despite family interventions, and am proud to announce that I did eventually see them all, and here we are. However, it only seemed appropriate to write this article now, especially due to the recent English release of The Wind Rises coupled with the announcement of Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement. While there is more than one talent behind the company, Miyazaki is unanimously agreed upon as the master of everything, and so it is only fitting that this piece lands at this very moment, mourning his abandonment and honouring the disfigurement he brought onto my mind. Furthermore, The Wind Rises marks the 20th of the Ghibli films (including Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Ocean Waves, excluding The Tale of Princess Kaguya as the English dub is yet to bless our eyeballs), which is such a lovely round number, I’m sure you agree.

However, before I begin my shamelessly over-gushing adoration for the so-called 'Walt Disney of Japan', please note the following:

THIS IS A WARNING: I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers at all costs, and I think you’ll be ok. I’d never give away the endings, and any specific details are kept vague enough as to only make sense once you view the relevant films. That said, there is always a small chance one or two minor details may slip through the reeds, softening some intended surprises or introducing characters you would have rather met yourself. And so if you are tempted to attempt the same mission I did, perhaps tiptoe through these pages a little more cautiously than usual.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 20. Whisper of the Heart

20. Whisper Of The Heart (1995)

Directed by Yoshifumi Kondō
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

When examining how everyone in the whole world adores this sentimental piece surrounding a 14 year old bookworm struggling to balance her writing passion with maintaining her grades (whilst reluctantly falling in love at the same time), it’s difficult to defend this definitive “worst” position. For despite reports that this realistic portrayal of young bittersweet romance was exclusively aimed at a female audience, Whisper of the Heart went on to effortlessly seduce all genders regardless of intent, an impressive feat for the first Ghibli to be directed by someone other than Miyazaki or Takahata (note: this was also Kondō’s only Ghibli, as he died of an aneurysm shortly afterwards). But personally ... it underwhelmed me. The plot never seemed to go anywhere, I felt no incentive to invest in the characters (except, of course, for the Baron, but that’s a different story...), and it lacked the fantasy elements which I have come to depend on the studio for (which should become even more evident as we go on). That said, perhaps its cute storytelling and safe execution will be your taste exactly (many claim this film as their favourite) but unfortunately it left me with nothing but boredom, resulting in my least favourite Ghibli ever. Sorry.

Key Scene: The fantasy sequence where Shizuku flies through floating land with the Baron is a lot of fun.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Young love. Coming of age.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 19. My Neighbors the Yamadas

19. My Neighbors The Yamadas (1999)

Directed by Isao Takahata
Written by Isao Takahata

Now this is a weird one. For starters, it was Ghibli’s first 100% digitally animated film, yet was rendered to look more hand drawn than anything else in the studio’s catalogue, the purpose to mimic the style of Hisaichi Ishii’s newspaper comic strip (on which it was based). Furthermore, there isn’t really much of a plot here per se, rather a collection of humorous sketches revolving around everyday family situations and domestic affairs, such as losing a child in the department store or wrestling for the remote. In that regard, it is relatable as well as memorable in its differences, Takahata deserving much respect for risking the envelope’s expectations in the way he did so on this film (and others). But in the end, it is so far removed from the usual Ghibli magic that it hardly feels like a Ghibli whatsoever, even the best moments producing nothing more than a chuckle, and the characters (while quirky) falling as two-dimensional as the presentation itself. So my advice is to expect very little and then perhaps you will be entertained enough, but for the most part, it’s for completists only.

Key Scene: The sudden style change when Takashi confronts a motorbike gang is worth the watch alone.
Trademarks: The only Ghibli without any.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 18. Only Yesterday

18. Only Yesterday (1991)

Directed by Isao Takahata
Written by Isao Takahata

Primarily written for adult female audiences, Only Yesterday was a surprise box office success, attracting an even amount of attention from both sexes, and it’s easy to see why. The nostalgic flashbacks detailing the pains of growing up; the melancholy which comes with self realisation; and the desire to escape city life, were enough to warm hearts no matter which part of your age or gender related to these common emotions. It was about the simplicity yet significance of past memories, while discovering the depths of oneself which can only come to blossom within the soil of maturity, all realistically animated into magic without being magical, a technique only Ghibli has perfected so well. But even when taking this admiration on board (as well as appreciating that Disney refused to dub the film due to some menstruation dialogue), I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was nothing more than your typical Ghibli offering. It’s the blueprint of the studio’s coming of age love stories at its bare minimum and most transparent, and even though I genuinely enjoyed it, it refused to stick in my memory, and in that regard, fell far shorter than what I’ve come to expect from the team.

Key Scene: That pineapple bit is a defining moment of Ghibli’s subtle genius.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Young love. Coming of age.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 17. Pom Poko

17. Pom Poko (1994)

Directed by Isao Takahata
Written by Isao Takahata

On paper, this is everything I love about Ghibli. Based on East Asian folklore, Pom Poko tells the whimsical tale of shapeshifting racoons, who utilise their powers for reasons of mischief whilst stomaching as much food as possible, satisfied to just laze around and have fun. That is, of course, until us humans threaten their land, and they are forced to use their special abilities to fight back. As predicted, it’s a humorous ride with a deep message, tripping you out whilst never settling on an animation style, ultimately resulting in a bizarre yet serious journey with an even more serious conclusion. It’s a traditional Japanese offering, a fairy tale-esque story, and did I mention it has BALLS? Like, seriously. Testicles everywhere, it’s weird. But even these testicles could not save Pom Poko’s dark preachiness from falling somewhat unfocused, as there are far too many characters to develop properly, and the whole thing feels a touch too slow. Of course, we must once again commend Takahata’s fearless attempts at doing something different, completely against Ghibli reputation (much more than Miyazaki would dare, anyway) but without some previous knowledge on the mythology, it’s a jumbled mess made up from eye candy and stretchy genitalia.

Key Scene: The mindblowing ghost parade is an achievement of modern animation.
Trademarks: Ecological/Man vs. Nature.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 16. The Wind Rises

16. The Wind Rises (2013)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

Telling the fictionalised biography of aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, this bittersweet tale of triumph and loss echoed the end of Miyazaki himself, as this offering came with the announcement as his directorial finale. And, don’t get me wrong, as such a typical Hayao creation, it concluded his career poetically, presenting detailed imagery in his trademark dreamlike style, keeping the explosions gentle and the surreal humour accessible, all the while conveying the message of chasing one's dreams and keeping faith in love despite the odds. But even if everyone appreciated the sober and historical tragedy for what it was (winning many awards and much acclaim as it did so), I couldn’t escape the dark cloud of Miyazaki’s retirement overshadowing the film, leaving the disappointment of “is that it?” when the credits rolled. The characters are annoyingly thin (Jiro hardly exists), and all the overhyping neglected to mention the slow pace, challenging length, and perhaps the one film where Miyazaki’s aviation obsession went too far. The simpler style may have brought joy and the underlying darkness may have intrigued, but for his final say, I really wish the legendary director had said a little more.

Key Scene: The earthquake caused me much panic.
Trademarks: Aviation. Young love. War.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 15. From Up On Poppy Hill

15. From Up On Poppy Hill (2011)

Directed by Gorō Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa

Standing as the first (and potentially only) true father and son Miyazaki collaboration, this simple yet heartfelt offering is all too often overlooked. But why? Let’s speculate. Perhaps it’s because Poppy Hill isn’t as fancy and mysterious as many of Ghibli’s superior works, maintaining a relaxed pace whilst masking the magic within regular emotions. Or perhaps it’s because it lacks any real conflict, as every (often bland) character is essentially a good person and there is no legitimate enemy for the audience to conspire against. Or perhaps, it’s because the entire storyline is based around incest. That’s right. Incest. And yet somehow, this incest seems okay. It doesn’t ruin the vibe and you find yourself almost rooting for it, which brings up far too many personal questions and once again proves the mastery of this studio’s ability to control you. Yet even when considering said incest; the ability to recognise wonders in mundanity (the whole film is about repairing a clubhouse); the clean atmospheric animation; the sadness; goals; hopes; and dreams ... it is perhaps a little too slow and empty as whole, and probably best enjoyed by true Ghiblis only.

Key Scene: When Umi first enters the haphazard eccentric clubhouse.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Young love. Coming of age. War.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 14. Kiki's Delivery Service

14. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

I am a little hesitant to admit that, on many levels, I consider Kiki’s to be the centerpoint of the Ghibli Universe. As a unique premise about a 13 year old witch who uses her skills to deliver baked goods, it ticks every box, from the fantasy elements to the coming of age lessons and all the warm young love squashed between. And despite being intended for a more child orientated audience, it still has enough adult appeal lightly sprinkled over the top to amuse all of us, analysing the hardships of adolescence without shying from the imagination only a fiction world could grant, and (perhaps the most impressive aspect) not relying on Kiki’s powers to mystify or carry the tale alone. But even if the characters are charming, the storyline is cute, and the conservative Christian group boycotted its screening based on witchcraft themes, it fell perhaps a touch too far over the kiddie line for me. The plot felt a bit harmless and safe to be completely memorable in my leaky mind, and as a result, the rare 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes serves only to overrate the thing a little higher than Kiki can carry it. But watch it anyway.

Key Scene: The heroic blimp save.
Trademarks: Aviation. Strong female lead. Young love. Coming of age.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 13. Porco Rosso

13. Porco Rosso (1992)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

All things considered, Porco Rosso is fairly cheesy. Its lesson-less execution relies heavily on energetic action-packed sequences and in that regard, is impossible to work out just who the target audience is supposed to be. But even when considering these flaws, the thrill is carried by the main character alone, Porco himself. Once an Italian World War fighter ace, now a freelance bounty hunter, Porco lives on a desert island awaiting contract jobs to chase air pirates, all the while having to deal with a pesky curse which has transformed him into an anthropomorphic pig. Surreal enough for you? But even if this spell is never explained, Porco is hardly ashamed of his disfigurement—on the contrary, he works with it, maintaining just enough charisma and smugness to keep the ladies falling head over heels for him, and his reputation badass. It may be an exercise in indulging Miyazaki's obsessions (feminist ideals, anti-fascist undertones, aviation overload) but nothing detracts from the overall sense of humour which rides high right until the very end where questions are left unanswered and talks of a sequel have run wild ever since. When pigs fly though, am I right, guys?

Key Scene: The final duel is fantastic.
Trademarks: Aviation. War.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 12. Ocean Waves

12. Ocean Waves (1993)

Directed by Tomomi Mochizuki
Written by Saeko Himuro

What’s most interesting about this realistic classroom drama is how hardly anyone even knows it exists, Ghibli fanatics included. However, if you are one of the guilty parties, don’t feel too bad, as it was never a large cinema production, but rather a straight to television film created by the studio’s younger staff members, armed solely with the instruction to make something “quickly, cheaply, and with quality”. The fact that it ran well over budget and schedule probably didn’t please the masters, but what I will commend the students on above all else is this: they managed to depict one of the most memorable female leads in a company famous for their female leads. Telling the flashback tale of a love triangle between two buddies and a self entitled young lady named Rikako, it is this girl alone who steals the show, with her arrogant spontaneity and disregard to destroying the boys’ friendship, somehow as likeable as she is unlikeable. Just focus on the complex high school politics she drags behind her, ignore critics who call it ‘aimless’, and then perhaps you’ll understand why this is my favourite coming of age Ghibli above them all.

Key Scene: The spoilt brat manner in which Rikako treats Taku after he slept in the bath all night.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Young love. Coming of age.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 11. Arrietty

11. Arrietty (2010)

Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

Ghibli discussions about adapting Mary Norton’s The Borrowers had reportedly existed for around 40 years, so it’s nice that when it finally blessed our screens, it received a standing ovation from critics and fans around the globe, going on to break the all-time Japanese record for theater attendance (7.5 million) for a first time director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. And even if the classic 'tiny people secretly living under your floorboards and within your walls stealing your food' plot was slightly too childish for my decrepit bones, I still have to appreciate how such an adorable and friendly premise would crawl into a kid’s imagination and show them their own world from this new, sweeter perspective. It flows naturally, it interacts intimately, it shines brightly (arguably the best coloured Ghibli in their catalogue), and it teaches us the importance of loving all creatures, great and small. Like the Borrowers themselves, this film proves you don’t need to be loud to captivate a heart.

Key Scene: When the very memorable (and ugly) house maid Haru captures her first Borrower.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Ecological/Man vs. Nature.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 10. Ponyo

10. Ponyo (2008)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

As some weird take on The Little Mermaid, this breathtaking Miyazaki is not without its problems. The focus on eye candy (the film consisting of 170,000 separate drawings, reportedly a Ghibli record) took priority over the plot, and as a result, Ponyo looks much better than it’s paced, leaving the story somewhat vague, blinded by its own spotlight visuals. But, damn, it does look good. The carefree plot is shined until it dazzles, naturally centered around a magical goldfish and her desire to be human, presented in such a precious manner that your inner child will dominate, excited for no real reason and delighted by this glowing tale of friendship against all odds. Not to mention, the characters are superb: the mother is likeable and authentic; Ponyo (whose name is an onomatopoeia for what "squishy softness" sounds like according to Miyazaki, uhm) is borderline creepy with her contorting face and unhealthy love of ham; and the magnificent ocean comes across like a character all by itself. Fill in any gaps with the warmth of love, and here is yet another unreal peculiar Ghibli for you to drown yourself in. And besides, how often do you hear a boy/fish love story anyway?

Key Scene: Driving against the waves with Ponyo running beside the car? Epic.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Young love. Ecological/Man vs. Nature.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 09. The Cat Returns

09. The Cat Returns (2002)

Directed by Hiroyuki Morita
Written by Reiko Yoshida

Originally conceived as a theme park installment, this underrated film is a spin-off of Whisper of the Heart, and (as a fan of Ghibli’s more delusional personality) is far superior in my opinion. Featuring the ever popular Baron character (as well as the fat Muta cat) from the aforementioned coming of age bore, here we have a vastly different whimsical tale surrounding the loveable Haru and her ability to talk to felines; her adventures into the secret cat kingdom; and her struggle against arranged interspecies marriages. If that loony premise wasn’t already as tempting as catnip, let the action packed execution do the rest, as you ride this vibrant journey through surreal worlds at such a frantic pace that you’ll reach the end in no time, short of breath and ready to go again. Sure, others fairly dismiss The Cat Returns as lacking depth, but that was never the point. And sure, it feels a tad throwaway, but even this is refreshing, as it is an effortless watch, opting to use humour rather than relying on some deep moral message to win your vote. Take Spirited Away, feed it a Ritalin/Prozac cocktail, and here is the result.

Key Scene: Hundreds of cats flocking to Haru’s house.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Young love.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 08. Tales from Earthsea

08. Tales From Earthsea (2006)

Directed by Gorō Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki (concept)

Maybe the vicious critical backlash drastically lowered my expectations, but I genuinely loved Tales from Earthsea, and am here to vigorously defend the 'worst Ghibli ever'. It's important to note this as Hayao Miyazaki’s son’s debut, and following in such legendary footsteps is obviously impossible—these expectations were unfair. You try adapt four books into one solid storyline with that pressure hanging over your pencil. The unanimous resistance which followed was unwarranted (original author Le Guin publicly expressing her disappointment, and father Miyazaki refusing to speak to his son during its production) even when considering the odd execution and loose ends. Perhaps the plot isn’t very clear, but it’s a concentrated Tolkien-esque fantasy, far too violent for your typical Ghibli audience, yet animated as fantastic as any other. Perhaps it’s a bit messy and confusing, an overly ambitious attempt at imitating his father's style, but it’s still very competent even in comparisons. Personally, I see something deeper here, and I wish Gorō would continue to develop this style until it became his own, but imagining how such a negative reaction probably wrecked his confidence, I doubt he will. Just please remember: we rely on this guy to keep the legacy going, so give him some space.

Key Scene: Cob’s insanity deteriorating his face was well scary.
Trademarks: Ecological/Man vs. Nature.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 07. Howl's Moving Castle

07. Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

Despite excelling as one of the studio’s most well-known animations (and for good reason), Howl’s Moving Castle has not altogether escaped some rejection. It has been called 'overrated', 'lengthy', and 'incomplete', none of which I disagree with. However, what these critics have failed to worship, is some of the most imaginative Ghibli characters ever created, not to mention the sheer volume of them. Remember: the helpful Turnip Head; Heen the asthmatic dog; the revolting Witch of the Waste; Calcifer the comedic fire; the dynamic steampunk castle itself; and, of course, Howl with his charming flamboyance and eccentric insecurities. Even the 18 year old Sophie is a complicated and memorable addition, changing ages as she confidently leads the delightful adventure, empowering young female viewers in her stride (an obvious intention by her very design). So, naturally, it should come as no surprise that with such a daunting cast, there wasn’t all that much time to develop each character properly, but while the heartfelt journey may be muddled, it’s never boring, and is yet just another perfect movie for kids and adults alike. Watch this one twice.

Key Scene: A tough one (the end destruction is a pinnacle of modern animation, in my opinion), but the struggle up the staircase is the kind of scene only Miyazaki could pull off without being dull; the archetypal Ghibli magic which turns the ordinary to extraordinary.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Young love.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 06. My Neighbor Totoro

06. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

For many people, ‘Ghibli’ means ‘Totoro’, as this was not only the film which jump started Miyazaki’s career, but was also a key influence in spreading Japanese animation around the world. And while the gentle pace didn't initially fair very well, it eventually exploded thanks to the release of cuddly Totoro dolls, one of the company’s greatest character achievements (yet still second to Catbus), continuing to stand as Ghibli’s mascot to this very day. But it’s not all about the peaceful, mystical forest animals, but rather the two girls’ curiosity as they are forced to come to terms with the realities of life when their mother falls seriously ill in the hospital and their upbeat dad is left to raise them by himself. And yet even while this aura of death follows the plot around, it also exposes the wonders and warmth of our earthly experiences, revealing mystery and fantasy without conflict or suspense, a different formula-less approach in comparison to some of the studio’s similar projects. As almost any critic with a heart will agree, this is essential viewing whether you know Ghibli or not, encouraging the growth of children vicariously through the hope of these characters, which is pretty profound for something so simple.

Key Scene: The bus stop spectacle is the epitome of trademark Ghibli subtleties, an almost everyday occurrence with nothing significantly spectacular about it, yet somehow delivered with a hyperactivity of magic beneath.
Trademarks: Strong female lead(s). Ecological/Man vs. Nature.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 05. Grave of the Fireflies

05. Grave Of The Fireflies (1988)

Directed by Isao Takahata
Written by Isao Takahata

Released at the same time as Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies was the less successful of the two, but ultimately the more intense and memorable, even if the contrast leaves them utterly incomparable. In a sentence: this is the most depressing film I’ve ever seen. It tells the heartbreaking tale of two siblings’ desperate struggle to survive after World War 2, shattering audiences by building family bonds in the face of grim devastation, all very timeless and unpleasant and ughhh. Even the colouring gives us the sense of poverty and starvation, Takahata opting to use brown outlines rather than the customary black (the first of any anime to do so) which accentuated the misery to the point of making me want to vomit. I mean, it was never supposed to be easy to watch the suffering of little children, and as a result, is not made for children whatsoever unless you want them to cry until their eyes dissolve within the tears. Which is why this is probably the most unusual and distinctive of all the Ghiblis, disregarding the company’s trademarks, shunning all magic and losing all hope, whilst smearing a dark stain on your innocence.

Key Scene: Too many, but when Seita pours water in Setsuko’s fruit drops tin? That stood out as one beautiful and painful moment to me.
Trademarks: Coming of age. War.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 04. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

04. Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind (1984)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

According to some, this entry shouldn’t even qualify. Its release predates the studio’s conception, so what does it matter if it’s frequently praised as a benchmark in the development of anime? Who cares if its primitive yet futuristic departure from traditional storytelling preaches to us the moral of living in harmony with nature, even if that nature is writhing with aggressive insects the size of houses? What is the point of illustrating the message of how fear breeding violence may mean the ultimate destruction of man, but we can still use pacifism as a weapon to balance spiritual harmony without giving up on hope during the struggle of war? How is it relevant that I consider this to be the teenage version of Princess Mononoke, perhaps less colourful, but just as as perfect? None of this appreciation counts! Because it’s unofficial! It’s not a true Ghibli! How dare I add it in here! But then you learn that the studio doesn’t ignore it either, proudly including the film in their own box sets, this very act making it official, as not only their very first feature, but as one of their bests. Its success also lead to the foundation of Studio Ghibli itself, so show some respect.

Key Scene: Nausicaä’s taming of the mutant insect from the plane wreckage kind of sums the whole film up.
Trademarks: Aviation. Strong female lead. Ecological/Man vs. Nature.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 03. Laputa: Castle In The Sky

03. Laputa: Castle In The Sky (1986)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

As the first official release from the company, this Gulliver's Travels inspired masterpiece completes every trademark criteria on Ghibli’s report card. Telling the coming of age story about a young boy and girl who are racing against pirates to locate a legendary floating castle, it’s overflowing with action packed sequences and magical crystals without shying away from their signature sense of humour or their classic moral lessons, teaching against greed and power and war and other such bad things that bad people do. Not to mention the steampunk design is probably the most impressively executed from the studio to this very date, the Laputan robots alone standing as one of the greatest character designs in the Ghibli arsenal, easily. It’s no wonder, then, that in an 80,000 strong audience poll, Castle in the Sky was the second highest-ranked animated film ever, and currently holds a 94% 'Fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Key Scene: I know it’s a weird choice, but when all the pirates fall over themselves to help Sheeta clean the kitchen always tickles me (although the destruction of the fortress is probably a more reasonable inclusion).
Trademarks: Aviation. Strong female lead. Young love. Coming of age.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 02. Princess Mononoke

02. Princess Mononoke (1997)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

I consider this to be the film Miyazaki always intended to make, yet the only time he managed to nail it so perfectly. It’s the pinnacle of the man vs. nature fantasy theme which runs rampant throughout his works, yet his other attempts are not nearly as potent, before or since. For while, say, Totoro or Nausicaä or Arrietty told similar stories about humans coexisting with our ecosystem (all featuring mythical creatures running around for good measure, of course), they still never achieved it quite so ... massively. The complexities of each Mononoke character blurs the line between good and evil; the forest animals are far more earth-based than most other Ghiblis, which gives them an even larger godlike presence (for they are, in fact, gods); the attention to dramatic visuals are as heavy as they are breathtaking (Miyazaki personally oversaw each of the film’s 144,000 cells, redrawing parts of 80,000 of them); and its ambitious length is intimidating, yet sustainable thanks to the inventive violence, action packed pacing, and adult themes of sexuality and disability—all with a heartfelt filling of moral integrity, just in case you were in need of some education. It took a few watches, but eventually, Mononoke became my favourite Ghibli of all time. Well, almost...

Key Scene: The epic Forest Spirit looking for its head.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Ecological/Man vs. Nature.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 01. Spirited Away

01. Spirited Away (2001)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

And this is it: not only the best Ghibli ever, but the best movie ever. Intended for a 10 year old female audience, this proved to be the ideal target market for Miyazaki to play with, because while it remains ‘safe for children’, it does not shy away from the darkness, as our loveable Chihiro races through the strange (often terrifying) bathhouse of spirits, trying to break the pig curse placed on her parents and find her way back home. And don’t forget the characters! A giant baby! Bouncing heads! Paper men armies! Adorable dust bunnies! Witches with faces the size of your body! That thing in the elevator! And literally hundreds more! But nothing can beat the disturbing No-Face, a complex lonely spirit who adapts the personalities of whoever he consumes, arguably the greatest character invention of all time. Which is why Spirited Away will always be remembered as Ghibli’s most defining, essential piece, and not only because it’s the most successful film in Japanese history or the studio’s first Oscar winner, but because it’s a modern day classic comparable to Alice in Wonderland, allowing the viewer to go as deep as they want to regardless of age. And that’s simply perfect.

Key Scene: That No-Face chase is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Young love. Coming of age.


  1. These past few days I've been immersing myself into reading and watching all sorts of lists regarding Studio Ghibli's movies, and this is, out of all I've seen so far (which have, at this point, been many), definitely the most interesting and the one that's closest to what mine would (or will, perhaps, if and when I have the time to craft it) be. The distinction between what one could call Ghibli's "slice of life" movies and its more fantastical/surrealistic ones that is echoed in your writing is one that is mostly overlooked when looking at the Studio's body of work, despite being of crucial relevance (and resonating very strongly with me on a personal level). I'd be really interested in seeing where you would fit the movies that Ghibli has produced since you've created this list, especially since I deem both Kaguya and Marnie (although the former more intensely than the latter) to be on the "best" end of the spectrum. Best regards!

    1. Great comment, and thank you for the kind compliment *bows* :)
      I agree with what you said. I loved When Marnie Was There a lot, very magical, but I am not convinced it would make my top 10. On the other hand, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya blew me away, the style was beyond most Ghibli and I adored the story. I guess I would put it as my 6th of 7th favourite? But I honestly need to watch them both again to be sure.
      Always a thrill to get a comment like this, so thanks again for stopping by! :)

  2. agree with you on Ocean Waves, Tales from Earthsea & The Cat Returns being unfairly underrated while films like Whisper of the Heart &, in my opinion, Grave of the Fireflies, garner much unwarranted or unjustified praise. I'd also have to say that while I did indeed like Nausicaa, I found it quite disappointing overall. Felt like an early, differently imagined draft of Princess Mononoke. Weak writing. Maybe it's better in the manga?

    Have a soft spot for Kiki & Ponyo and you damn right about Howl. Incredible visuals that make up for the confusing script. On the other hand, Arriety is my least favourite. The only redeemable quality it has are the visuals but unlike Howl, not interesting enough to make up for the flat story and script. The only film in the Ghibli catalogue I would consider 'bad'.

    Where would you place Castle of Cagliostro & The Little Norse Prince? Personally Cagliostro is up there with Totoro and Laputa for me, not on the level of Mononoke or Spirited Away ofc. And Little Norse Prince > Whisper of the Heart at least, and above most of Takahata's other work except Kaguya.