It’s no overstatement to say that there’s always something to be impressed by in every Studio Ghibli film. Whether it’s the superb artistry of the animation, the delicacy and meaning of the storytelling, or the tremendous power of the ideas within the story, there’s something ineffable about these works that makes them so captivating.
Japan’s greatest animation house rarely, if ever, puts a foot wrong. And even when it it’s not at its best it’s still far more engaging and original than so much of what animation has to offer elsewhere. The studio’s most wondrous output is the stuff of dreams, nightmares and the most fantastical recesses of the imagination. The latest, and potentially final, film from the studio is set to be released in the UK later this year, so what better time than right now to look back at ten of Studio Ghibli’s most incredible films?
10. The Cat Returns (2002)
A quasi-spinoff to Whisper of the Heart, this is the 75-minute tale of Haru, a young girl who finds that saving a cat’s life when crossing the road results in her unexpectedly betrothal to the prince of a hidden kingdom of cats. It’s up to the Baron (a cat figurine brought to life) to save her from this fate, along with the aid of his chubby sidekick Muta. The Cat Returns is bursting with energy and ingenuity, as the simple structure of the Baron attempting to help Haru while she asserts her right to refuse marriage to the prince fuels a great little story that is loads of fun. Some may not regard it as an essential piece of Studio Ghibli’s catalogue, but surely the little movie that takes a statue from an earlier film and successfully turns him into a swashbuckling hero is a demonstration that there’s little Ghibli isn’t capable of accomplishing!
9. Only Yesterday (1991)
Studio co-founder Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday deserves to be strongly considered as one of the most nuanced and contemplative of Ghibli’s works, as it spends very little time developing a plot but commits to characters and concepts in fascinating ways. It’s all about the allure of idealising the past, as main character Taeko returns to the countryside to decide whether she’s meant for the city or for working on a farm. What’s interesting is how we’re not meant to see the natural world as unquestionably perfect, as the film takes the time to explain how the beauty of the countryside is “a collaboration between humans and nature”. It devotes much of its story to looking at the importance and hard work of farming, and argues that protecting the countryside isn’t about leaving it alone but actively caring for it. Some of Taeko’s memories about the tranquillity of country life are challenged, some are not, and there’s something really poignant about how a vision of her younger self guides her through difficult moments of adulthood.
8. When Marnie Was There (2014)
Studio Ghibli’s latest may also, sadly, be its last. When Marnie Was There, which had its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival earlier last year, delivers the kind of subtly touching story that Ghibli is known for. It’s also unusual in the extent to which it acknowledges the sadness and loneliness at the heart of its main character, Anna. The story sees her struggling with her identity as a foster child and how uncertain she is about how much she is valued and loved by her parents. The film, like others from the studio, is based on an English children’s story and manages to bring a sense of simplicity, serenity and sensitivity to a little story that is as much about the elation of new friendship as it is about finding your place in the wider world.
7. Arriety (2010)
Like When Marnie Was There, Arriety also comes from director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and its script was written by renowned Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, based upon Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. It’s the enchanting story of Arriety, a young girl from a race of miniature people living within the home of an ordinary family, who borrows what she needs from the family but never takes so much that they’d be noticed. It immediately conjures up childhood memories through its fantastical storytelling, and seeing Arriety’s view of the familiar human world is both scary and fascinating all at once. Her environment is simultaneously full of danger and unlimited possibility, and this film’s ever-present dreamlike quality is something that keeps it a constantly gripping watch.
6. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
The beautiful brushstroke style animation of Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya alone would instantly mark it as one of Studio Ghibli’s finest films. It’s often said that every frame of their films is so intricately composed as to feel like an arresting painting, and that is truer than ever in this film which is easily one of the studio’s most visually sumptuous and artistically masterful. There’s energy and life to this animation, telling a deeply moving story adapted from folklore. The narrative here is that of a bamboo-cutter who discovers a minuscule girl within a bamboo shoot while at work and, believing her to have been sent from the heavens, raises her to be his daughter while always convinced she’s destined to princess. His expectations of what she should become weigh heavily upon her and the film is able to juggle notes of sadness, despair, joy and relief within a story that is as meaningful as it is stunning.
5. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Miyazaki’s fantastical Princess Mononoke tells the story of Ashitaka, a prince cursed by a boar god who needs to travel deep into the forest to find a cure, where he meets a young woman raised by wolves who’ll protect the forest at any cost, and a woman looking to harness the power of the forest for technological development. He seeks to resolve the conflict, but the film wisely acknowledges that there’s no easy resolution to these differences of opinion, and that there’s a complexity to how they both have merit in their own way. The forest creatures are just as unsparing as the ruthless humans, and there are complications that challenge the prince as he finds himself unable to pick a side. Mononoke is one of Ghibli’s most plot-heavy films, and has some weighty concepts and violent moments too, but there’s a powerful environmental and humanist message here as Ashitaka desperately desires to view the world “with eyes unclouded by hate.”
4. My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
Has any film ever engaged with the spirit and excitement of childhood as convincingly as Miyazaki’s heart-warming masterpiece My Neighbour Totoro? This film’s revered status as one of the very best and most lasting creations Studio Ghibli is responsible for is well earned, and it proves itself as such a gorgeous, captivating film through its simplicity and vitality that is on constant display. The basic tale is that of two young sisters who encounter and befriend a magical creature who helps them through a difficult time in their lives. It’s about as simple as stories come and all the better for it. This is a family-friendly adventure brimming with elegantly composed visuals and wonderful ideas about the power of imagination and nature all presented through a child’s perspective and filled with such wonder and delight that it is impossible not to feel the joy within this lovely story.
3. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
It’s hard to be sufficiently prepared for the gut-wrenching experience of watching Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. This is a stark and sad story of two children caught in the most terrifying and terrible circumstances during the bombing of the Japanese city of Kobe in World War II. It is not an easy watch, by any means. It’s extraordinarily emotional and draining, and is absolutely designed to shake you and challenge you by showing the brutal reality of war and the effect that it has on the lives on young children who can’t possibly understand what is happening. Bombs fall throughout, and the world they experience descends into something unrecognisable as hunger, fear and cold take over. Grave of the Fireflies isn’t just Studio Ghibli’s most powerfully moving film, it might be the most haunting animation ever, and it’s a work of art with staggering impact.
2. Castle in the Sky (1986)
Sometimes you just get everything right first time around. In 1986, Castle in the Sky was the first film produced and released by Studio Ghibli, and it remains amongst its greatest works. The endlessly engaging central characters of Pazu and Sheeta go on an adventure that has them searching for mythical floating kingdom of Laputa, all while being chased by pirates in the sky. This film is of astoundingly high quality for a debut feature, but the same can be said of the spectacular Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (which, like Castle, was directed by Miyazaki and produced by Takahata), widely considered to be the start of the studio even if it was made before Ghibli was created. Castle in the Sky is full of colourful, vivid imagery that is truly compelling, and its story is a simple adventure elevated through strong characters and rewarding relationships. You just can’t help but fall in love with this world and the characters within it!
1. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Yoshifumi Kondō’s Whisper of the Heart is infrequently mentioned as one of the studio’s best, but it deserves to be considered for a plethora of reasons. At the heart of what’s so deeply compelling about this film is how it blends together so many of the elements you find in other Ghibli movies. It joins life-affirming character drama with spirited fantasy and is so overflowing with imagination that you imagine you could live in its world for much longer than its 111-minute running time. The story it tells is that of Shizuku, a teenage girl who spends all her time lost in books but finds that everything she reads from the library has already been read by somebody else, and she becomes preoccupied with questions about what kind of person “Seiji Amasawa” could be. This is one of the studio’s most fun and most resonant features, as it follows characters looking for a sense of purpose and for clarity within their everyday lives. It’s a stunning film that bridges the gap between fantasy and reality with grace, while delivering wholly convincing emotional moments and moving with the pace, energy and youthful liveliness the studio is known. It does this all while still allowing for a more contemplative and honest approach in its consideration of what growing up and finding your place in the world feels like.