Oh, my Ghibli! The Japanese animation studio founded by Hayao Miyasaki and Isao Takahata is a delight and a grand splendor of the film experience. Every movie is unique in terms of story, characters, and visual beauty. Setting the standards for Japanese animation, six of Studio Ghibli films are among the 10 highest-grossing anime films made in Japan. All of Studio Ghibli films are a work of art, which makes it a hard task to narrow down a top ten. However, engaging on the impossible, here is a top 10 list of some of Japan’s greatest films:
- Spirited Away (2001)
Every frame in Spirited Away is pure beauty! Dazzling, enchanting and gorgeously drawn, the film tells the story of a 10-year-old girl Chihiro Ogino. When moving to a new town, Chihiro stumbles upon the spirit world. Her parents are turned into pigs by the witch and headmaster Yubaba, so it’s Chihiro’s determination to take a job at Yubaba’s bathhouse to find a way to free herself and her parents and return to the human world. Classic and stunning, the film became the most successful film in Japanese history.
Spirited Away received universal acclaim and is frequently ranked among the greatest animated films ever made. It even made history by winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards, making it the first (to date) hand-drawn and non-English-language animated film to win that award. The movie is simply breathtaking, a drawn work of art that will leave viewers curious and captivated by the world around them.
- Princess Mononoke (1997)
Princess Mononoke is a brilliant fantasy war film that brings forth the essence and the urgency of speaking up about environmental rights. The film opens up with a watchtower of a disturbance in the forest, introducing the movie’s central theme about nature. Set in the late Muromachi period of Japan and accompanied by fantasy elements, the story follows the young prince, Ashitaka and his involvement in the struggle between the gods of the forest and the humans who take its resources.
When Ashitaka gets cursed at the beginning of the plot, he’s exiled from the village and shortly encounters a female wolf princess named Mononoke. Together they will set on an adventure and struggle to balance and make peace between humans and the forest’s spirits. The film speaks urgently about the morally ambiguous conflict between humankind’s growth and nature’s need of preservation. it’s a thought-provoking work about issues applicable as briefly as today. Other than its environmental message, the story is epic and contains breathtaking visuals. Princess Mononoke is a landmark in the world of animation.
- Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Howl’s Moving Castle is loosely based on the 1986 novel of the same name by British author Diana Wynne Jones. This film is a remarkable work of fantasy. It brings to life the harsh reality of war and the whimsical elements of magic and wizardry, the story is set in a fictional kingdom during the early 20th century, in which conflicts between two kingdoms take place. The film’s protagonist is a young and content milliner named Sophie. She’s turned into an old woman by a witch who enters her shop.
In hopes of revoking the curse, she encounters a wizard named Howl and gets caught upon his resistance to the war and his overall charms. The film contains strong anti-war themes and explores positively and freely the view of coming of age and the value of compassion. The movie, however, is thematically and significantly different from the novel, while the text focuses on class and gender norms, the film gives us a deep insight of love, loyalty and the destructive effects of war. Moreover, in 2013, Miyasaki said the film was his favorite creation! And we can all agree that we all have a crush of Howl, right?
- Castle in the Sky (1986)
Ingeniously and splendid, Castle in the Sky is the cornerstone of Studio Ghibli’s films. The movie follows the adventures of a young boy Pazu and his female counterpart Sheeta. Set in the late 19th century, the pair attempts to keep a magic crystal from a group of military agents, while searching for a legendary floating castle named Laputa. The military group wants access to Laputa due to its technological advances and riches, however Pazu and Sheeta want to find the castle as a way of finding Sheeta’s true self and origins. Castle in the Sky, filled with mystery and excitement, is a thrilling and graceful film experience. Said to be by, consensus reads: “With a storytelling palette as rich and brilliant as its animation, Castle in the Sky thrillingly encapsulates Studio Ghibli’s unique strengths.” So, go watch it!
- Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a fantastic adventure film based on the manga of the same name. Taken place one thousand years after an apocalyptic war that destroyed civilization and created a vast toxic jungle with swarming giant mutant insects, the film tells the story of Nausicaa, the young princes of the Valley of the Wind. She’s a courageous young leader, praised and loved by her people. When suddenly, the princess becomes embroiled in a struggle with Tolmekia, a kingdom that tries to use an ancient weapon to eradicate the mutant insects and its habitat.
In spite of the constant clash between the human species and the insects, Nausicaa hopes to understand the jungle and find a way for it and humans to co-exist. There is no doubt that Nausicaa is a role model, especially for young girls. She’s tender, empathetic, but also strong and independent. Hayao Miyasaki’s film tend to have strong female leads, and Nausicaa is by far, the best that embodies his vision:
“Many of my movies have strong female leads- brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe in with all their heart. They’ll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a savior. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.” -Hayao Miyasaki
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is frequently ranked among the best animated films in Japan and I couldn’t agree more.
- Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
This film is in one word: enchanting. Written, produced and directed by Hayao Miyasaki, Kiki’s Delivery Service is outstanding. The movie follows the story of a young witch, Kiki, a profession that carries no sinister associations, that having reached the age of thirteen, she must fly and move to a new town and start a living. Accompanied by her cat Jiji, and a broomstick as aviation, she winds up lodging with a kindly baker, for whom she begins an airborne delivery service. Kiki’s Delivery Service is not a simple coming of age film, the work of Miyasaki teaches us about independence and reliance. While being raised by loving parents who support her independence, Kiki is faced with problems common in adolescence such as finding a job, seeking acceptance and taking care of herself. There is so much psychological depth in the film that makes it a metaphoric work of art. Truly spectacular, this movie will absolutely make you take flight.
- The Wind Rises (2013)
“The wind is rising! We must try to live.”
This quote by French poet Paul Valéry sets the tone for The Wind Rises, directed and written by Hayao Miyasaki. Stunning and provoking, this animated historical drama is a fictionalized biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of fighter aircraft during World War Two. We follow his journey from a young age, in which we see him eager to build planes. Soon enough, Jiro studies aeronautical engineering and we experience soothingly his professional growth and his relationship with love interest Naoko.
The Wind Rises was going to be Miyasaki’s final work before his retirement and the creator’s parting mood is well felt within the film. However, in 2017 Miyasaki announced he has come out of retirement to direct How Do You Live?, which expected release is in 2023. The Wind Rises is a fantastical and uplifting visual experience, told to be by film critic David Ehrlich: “Perhaps the greatest animated film ever made” and who could have the audacity to disagree?
- Porco Rosso (1992)
Action, comedy, drama and romance! Porco Rosso has a little bit of everything. The plot revolves around an Italian World War I ex-fighter ace named Marco, now living as a freelance bounty hunter chasing down “air pirates” in the Adriatic Sea. However, what’s peculiar and unusual about the protagonist is that he’s a pig. Literally, the barn animal with hooves.
It’s said that he was cursed and transformed into an anthropomorphic pig, which gives him the name of Porco Rosso, Italian for Red Pig. Porco is a whole lot of fun as the main character. Calm, charming with the ladies, and just absolutely cool. It’s a stunning and a joyous thrill to follow this character along with his rivals and love interests. Energetic and unique, Porco Rosso is a must watch.
- My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
We can all agree that we all want Totoro as our neighbor, right? Fun and full of fantasy, My Neighbor Totoro became the icon of Studio Ghibli films. It was written and directed by Hayao Miyasaki and animated by Tokuma Shoten. The film narrates the story of two adorable young siblings, Satsuki and Mei in the midst of postwar rural Japan. The girls, along with her father, move into an old house so they’ll be closer to the hospital where the girl’s mother, Yasuki, is recovering from a long-term illness.
When suddenly the girls start to interact with lingering spirits and eventually stumble and befriend a large furry spirit named Totoro. The film does not contain much conflict, but that does not belittle its genius of telling a great story. My Neighbor Totoro was critically acclaimed and has amused audiences worldwide. Following the girl’s curiosity and adventure, the film becomes a sentimental masterpiece that captures the simple grace of childhood.
- From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
Like father, like son. From Up on Poppy Hill was directed by Hayao’s Miyasaki’s eldest son, Goro Miyasaki. The film is a drama, set in 1963 Yokohama, Japan, that tells the story of Umi Matsuzaki, a high school girl that lives in a boarding house. Her everyday life suggests a tender monotony of raising a set of signal flags in honor of her deceased father and working on domestic activities right before school. The story moves forward when Umi meets Shun Kazama, a member of the school’s newspaper club, together they decide to clean up the school’s clubhouse, Quartier Latin.
However, Tokumaru, the chairman of the local high school and businessman, intends to demolish the building for redevelopment and Umi and Shun persuade him to reconsider. Based on the 1980’s manga of the same name by Tetsuo Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi, the film magically brings to life the original story with delight. The Japan Times described the film as “pure hearted and a melodramatic youth film.” Definitely the film will tender your heart with the union of Umi and Shun and their parents’ war-fare past.
There were so many other films by Studio Ghibli worthy of being on this list: The Castle of Cagliostro, Whisper of the Heart, The Grave of the Fireflies, The Cat Returns, Ponyo, The Secret Life of Arrietty, and so much more. Studio Ghibli’s films are a triumph of imagination. Every work is unique and stunning, a must watch for everyone. Timeless and a legacy that will live on in animated history.