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Take a seat Vice-champs and chumps, this week we’re once again attempting to educate you on the overlooked, unknown, and criminally underappreciated work of Studio Ghibli. This basically boils down to the movies NOT directed by Hayao Miyazaki himself. Some of these may not be undeniable instant classics like our favorite Ghibli movies, but these are still unqiestionably great films. Keep an open mind and you just might find your next favorite movie. This should be a fun one, kids!
NUMBER FIVE – POM POKO
This is by far the strangest of all the Ghibli films, especially for American audiences not accustomed to seeing animal scrotum on the big screen. That’s right, POM POKO prominently features the amazing, elastic, transforming ballsacks of the Tanuki (kind of like a Japanese raccoon). This is the epic as shit story of a group of Tanuki struggling to keep their traditional way of life and not be run out of their forest by urban sprawl, using their power of transformation, and literally fighting people with their sacks. If you’re still reading then you’re exactly the kind of weirdo that could love this movie (and be our best friend).
Right off the bat, you’ll notice that there are three different distinct styles used in this film, a recognizable Ghibli style, for the people, cartoony somewhat anthropomorphosized animal style used for the tanuki when they’re speaking with each other, etc, and a realistic style, where the tanuki look like the actual animals they represent. It’s a bit odd but interesting, and certainly effectively conveys the many sides of these animals.
POM POKO is arguably too long at very nearly 2 full hours of tanuki balls, and the subject matter and presentation may just be a bit too out there for US audiences. We don’t have the years of cultural history surrounding these animals, so every few minutes there’s some new crazy surprise that Japanese audiences take for granted, but American audiences will be left reeling from for at least a few minutes. At one point a tanuki elder collects all the tanuki who cannot magically transform, then “stretches his sack to the limit,” transforming his scrotum into an enormous ship, loads the tanuki onto it and they all sale off into the distance TO DIE. So yeah, shit gets weird.
NUMBER FOUR – FROM UP ON POPPY HILL
POPPY HILL is the second movie directed by Miyazaki’s son Goro, but the first worth watching, and it’s actually a pretty rousing success! It’s a quiet film that hits all the familiar themes and motifs on the Ghibli checklist- family, period piece, young love, nostalgia- but does so quite effectively! It’s a surprisingly quiet and subtle story for a young man, standing in stark contrast to papa Hayao’s early work (NAUSICAA, CASTLE IN THE SKY, ETC).
This film does not have the same thrills or gravitas that the elder Miyazaki’s work does at its best, but its an excellent start, and hints at a really promising and exciting future. The character animation is charming and well observed, and the settings are colorful, lively, and believable. The story focuses on a somewhat convoluted love story between two students who find it impossible to be together for reasons that reveal themselves slowly as the movie progresses.
The longing for family, connection, and purpose of Umi, the films main character, is believable and not overdone. Some of the twists along the way are surprising and heart wrenching, while others feel a bit sillier, but the ride is always a pleasant one. You really want to see these characters find the happiness they’re after.
There’s a notable absence of any crazy magical or supernatural element that usually permeates Ghibli films, but the world of UP ON POPPY HILL is one that any viewer would want to spend time in, and that’s always been one of the things Ghibli does best.
NUMBER THREE – MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMADAS
Like POM POKO, this film was directed by the mighty Isao Takahata, and while it is far less baffling, MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMADAS is possibly the movie most unlike the usual Ghibli standard. This is a collection of short vignettes, and watching it feels a bit like reading a collection of comic strips. This is one hundred percent intentional, and we at the TOP 5 happen to think it works fantastically.
This was the first Ghibli film to be made entirely on the computer. Takahata wanted to achieve a watercolor look, and THE YAMADAS do look completely unlike any other Ghibli film. The whole thing swims in a field of white for the most part, kind of misty and dreamlike, with occasional pieces of full frame animation. While this is a departure from the usual Ghibli look, make no mistake about it, the film is gorgeous to watch, with some truly stunning moments of top of the line animation.
While it is primarily a relaxing affair, full of quick jokes, and quickly resolved problems, there are some sections with legitimate emotional heft. There are a couple moments where Takashi feels he’s let down his family or himself, or is drifting away from his son. They’re jokes and the moment is brief, but for a glimmer of a second you feel the poignancy of the situation. At its best, this movie feels grand and inviting at once- warm and comfortable even as life’s sadder moments come and go.
NUMBER TWO – WHISPER OF THE HEART
Miyazaki wrote the screenplay for this film, while directing duties went to Yoshifumi Kondo, an impressive talent, expected to one day become the successor to Miyazaki and Takahata. It’s very much in the classic Ghibli style, and unsurprisingly beautiful to watch. There’s a roundness to the faces that sets the style apart just slightly, but it would be easy to think Miyazaki himself directed this.
The story is on the quieter side, focusing on the aspirations of a 14 year-old girl named Shizuku, who wants to become a writer. This, more than any other Ghibli film, captures the struggle, fear, and conflict of being an artist. This film will really hit home with anyone who’s ever attempted to make the arts their living, or really chased any improbable passion. The heartache, while not overdone, has weight and realism to it.
WHSIPER cleverly uses the fictional adventures of a well dressed golden cat to give the audience a taste of the wonder and magic of the creative process- a celebration of the creation of art or fiction- wile keeping the story entrenched in the real world. Art really feels like an amazing escape in this movie, and it gives the film a bit of that Ghibli magic that we mentioned earlier. This is a realistic movie set in the real world, but there are moments that feel magical just the same.
Unfortunately Kondo died of an aneurism shortly after finishing this film. This is tragic, as we’d have loved to see more movies like this. If this was Konod’s debut, one can only imagine what he could have gone on to achieve. WHISPER OF THE HEART is not to be missed.
NUMBER ONE – GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES
There’s a better chance that you guys have at least heard of this movie, and we hope that you’ve all seen it, but we understand that it’s a bit of a tough watch. GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES is truly and undeniably gut wrenching and even crushing at moments, but absolutely beautiful and moving.
FIREFLIES is the story of a brother and sister, trying to take care of each other in the wake of world war two, having lost their mother to an incendiary bomb. Without giving anything away, the movie is about fighting to survive without much more than love for each other. There are moments of brilliant uplifting beauty in here, and absolutely crushing sadness, and both will stay with you. It’s a hard watch but absolutely essential—for fans of anime and cinema alike.
There is plenty of tragedy in this movie, but FIREFLIES never feels manipulative, or heavy handed. This is elegant film making, beautifully executed, haunting, and affecting.
There is no other Ghibli movie that feels so honest, unrelenting, and powerful as GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES.
So there you have it! 5 excellent films you may have overlooked from one of the all time great anime studios. There’s really no excuse not to watch these if you even casually enjoy these moving doodles we watch. Feel free to weigh in on how you felt about these in the comments section below. I can’t imagine having any complaints about these movies, but we’re not afraid to invite your indignant rants- so bring’em on!
Alex Eckman-Lawn is an illustrator and comic artists from Philadelphia. Check out his site - - alexeckmanlawn.com - - rumble with his Tumblr - -dudenukem.tumblr.com - - and hit up his Twitter: @alexeckmanlawn