Many of you are well familiar with Hayao Miyazaki
and the many quality works that Studio Ghibli
has worked on for over 25 years now in Japan and for some of you, their anime films might have been your gateway drug into anime. Not counting The Borrower Arrietty
(which has yet to be on video) and any other upcoming film from the studio, I have decided to personally rank what I found to be the best and worst Ghibli films out of the 17 films available on video, streaming or on direct download. While it was made before the studio's official formation, I will also be including Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
on this countdown since it was created by those who would later form into Ghibli. I will warn folks that what I present here is merely my personal opinion. So do not get too uptight over anything I rank higher or lower on this list.
17. Tales from Earthsea
Being the directorial debut of Hayao Miyazaki's son Goro, Tales from Earthsea was enough of a mess in the quality of its plotting. The film tended to gloss over relevant details concerning the world of Earthsea and any developments involving its characters, in particular what drove Arren to murder his father. Combine this with a shallow villain in the form of Lord Cob and enough elements of deus ex machina for the movie ending, and you have perhaps the worst Ghibli film that the studio has put together to date.
Currently being the highest-grossing Ghibli film here in America, Ponyo was created purely to appeal to children with its simple and light-hearted content which could turn away older viewers. The low ranking I give this film has nothing to do with it appealing to children. It has to do with the poor attempt the movie attempts to do in presenting its "life lessons" and some events that made me question the movie sticking with its light-hearted mood. The beginning of Ponyo presented a few themes it was juggling around that the movie seemed to want to explore such as man's pollution of the ocean, overprotective parents and the elderly thinking of better days. However, the movie fails to expand onto these themes instead favoring focus on the movie's fantasy element involving Ponyo. In addition, the flooding Ponyo causes as a result of her magical powers towards the later half of the movie and the easy resolution to it seemed something that should have been handled more seriously with the ending giving me a bad taste in my mouth as it felt similar to a typical ending you would find in a Disney animated film.
15. Pom Poko
The premise behind Pom Poko with its focus on raccoons trying to protect their forests from land expansion had its potential, yet became mauled with issues in whom exactly it wanted to appeal to. The antics of the raccoons and the cute way in which they were drawn make it seem too childish to hook older viewers yet the serious themes explored with land expansion and some onscreen deaths with the raccoons make it not so friendly to show to younger viewers. In addition, trying to paint sympathy on the raccoons doesn't come across as convincing with the narrator trying too hard at pushing sympathy onto them and the raccoons coming across at points as selfish and greedy such as stealing money from an amusement park owner or celebrating the pranks they pulled off.
14. The Cat Returns
The Cat Returns was a Ghibli film that started off decently in its first half and just fell flat in its second half. Focused on high schooler Haru and her interactions with cats from the Cat Kingdom, the first half made for a fun light-hearted comedy when Haru finds herself unwillingly receiving unusual gifts from servants of the Cat King for saving the life of his son, the prince, leading to some fun and unusual results that run at a slow, natural pace. Yet by the second half, the focus of the film shifts over to the Cat Kingdom where the film's pacing is rushed giving the viewer little time to get a sense of things within the kingdom. Also like Ponyo, The Cat Returns makes a failed attempt at expressing a "life lesson" for Haru to learn about which it fails to elaborate on because of the lack of focus on the girl's character.
13. Howl's Moving Castle
Like The Cat Returns, Howl's Moving Castle is a movie that starts off smoothly enough in its first half yet falters in its second half for me. The first half does a decent enough job of fleshing out the characters of Howl and Sophie to give you a sense of who they are and what they desire for themselves giving consistent focus on the two when Sophie starts living with Howl when she becomes cursed by the Witch of the Waste. However when the second half progresses, the plot focus becomes a bit disjointed making it difficult to keep track of events as the Witch of the Waste becomes a resident of Howl's home, Howl's involvement in the sorcery wars continues to put his body at risk and Sophie is conflicted over her feelings for Howl. By the end of the movie, it definitely comes across as a Disney-esque ending with the formulaic setup to have all cursed characters become freed and the unnatural way in which Howl and Sophie come together as a pairing.
Not many of you would be familiar with this movie as it has yet to be released in America and it was the only made-for-TV movie Ghibli animated to date during the early 1990s. Made to appeal to young adults, this movie explores a young man recalling his years in high school where he is caught up in a love triangle involving his best friend and a new female student. Interactions between the three come across naturally, as well as the awkward tensions faced by Taku as he tries repressing his feelings for Rikako to not upset Yutaka. The pacing for the movie does feel a bit rushed as it does quickly progress through the major events with the love triangle. Plus compared to many of the more well-known Ghibli works, Ocean Waves is a bit more subdued in its mood compared to the lively and high-paced stories you would often come across with Ghibli films which combined with appealing to young adults makes it an acquired taste.
11. Spirited Away
Being the only anime film to date to win an American Academy Award, Spirited Away was quite the feast on the eyes with its visuals featuring plenty of detail in the setting of the bathhouse with bizarre character designs coming off the various gods and spirits encountered by Chihiro as she works under Yubaba the witch. While the coming-of-age story was done before by Ghibli with some of their earlier works, Chihiro did come across as a believable girl of her age as she finds herself in a new environment that she is forced to adapt to, develop independence and learning to work and befriend the bathhouse workers. However, your mileage could vary on how well you warm up to Chihiro's character as she is a far cry from the strong-willed, independent female characters one could be accustomed to from earlier Ghibli films such as Nausicaa
. In addition, the immense focus on Chihiro and the fast pace of events does prevent one from getting to know more about the other bathhouse workers Chihiro comes to befriend and leads to a somewhat rushed ending.
10. My Neighbor Totoro
My Neighbor Totoro is a children's film that sticks with simplicity throughout its entire run without tossing in anything to bog it down like what Ponyo pulls off, making it a better quality children's film as a result. Focusing purely on the interactions between the Totoros and sisters Satsuki and Mei, the movie consistently retains its light-hearted mood with the moments between the two even with some drama coming from the hospital stay of Kei and Satsuki's mother. As a result, this movie contains no coming-of-age dilemmas, life lessons or antagonists to get in the way of these interactions. This is a perfect movie for a parent to show to their kids, though older viewers might feel a bit alienated seeing it (which happened with me) as it doesn't have the typical themes you would expect out of Hayao Miyazaki's films.
9. Only Yesterday
Like Ocean Waves, Only Yesterday was a film geared towards young adults when it was released during the early 1990s and it has yet to see a video release here in the states. Focusing on Taeko taking a break from her office job to figure out what to do with her life, the movie switches between past and present time frames quite frequently as Taeko reflects on events that occurred in her childhood. The transition between present and past events flows smoothly with occasions of Taeko's younger or older self being immersed with one another during transitions. Events do flow at a slower pace with the movie, unlike Ocean Waves, allowing one to get enough sense of Taeko's character as a woman who gets enjoyment reflecting on the smallest, irrelevant moments that occurred with her as a child while helping out her in-laws on their farm as she figures out what she wants to do for herself in the present. Like Ocean Waves though, this movie is geared for a specific audience and is just as subdued in its mood making it another title of acquired taste for viewers.
8. My Neighbors the Yamadas
A fun family comedy, My Neighbors the Yamadas is a series of short vignettes similar to titles like Azumanga Daioh
exploring the everyday activities of the Yamada family. The family members make for a likeable bunch due to their believable personalities and how they interact with one another in everyday situations such as losing daughter Nonoko at the mall leading to a family panic, wife Matsuko and husband Takashi getting in some silly arguments and son Noboru exasperated at the silly arguments coming from his parents. Their interactions with one another can come across as both heartwarming and silly with the occasional adult moments tossed in to give parents a good laugh. The artwork and animation for this movie is quite likely the lowest quality to come from Ghibli to date as they were trying to emulate the art style of the movie's manga source material resulting in simple visual details and a lack of fluid movement at many points throughout this movie. On top of that, this movie might not hook in those who didn't get enjoyment out of the series format and slice-of-life setup that drove the laughs for similar titles like those mentioned above.
7. Laputa: Castle in the Sky
This steampunk adventure movie features many of the prominent elements of Ghibli movies that one can enjoy. It features an immerse world that takes advantage of the steampunk genre through the use of advanced steam-powered machines in an alternate Industrial Era setting. Laputa creates an adventure out of Pazu and Sheeta's developments as they try to find out more about Sheeta's origins and become entangled in a government plot involving Sheeta's mysterious pendant. The two also come across villains who later become allies to their journey in the form of Dola and her group of air pirates. The visuals to the movie still hold up rather well today despite being made in 1986 as it features a great amount of detail coming from features such as scenery, buildings and airships; as well as well animated moments of movement during the movie's more intense moments such as airship fights and the Dola Pirates raiding a prison to rescue Sheeta. The movie does get a little bogged down for me thanks to Muska being your typical shallow baddie and the sudden developments that led to Laputa's ending.
6. Whisper of the Heart
A worthwhile coming-of-age romance, Whisper of the Heart focuses on middle schooler Shizuku finding herself curious about her own future when she comes across Seiji, a young man who has already planned out what he wants to do for himself. The movie believably explores the developments of Shizuku's character as she finds herself inspired to write her own story as a result of Seiji's goal to become a luthier (repairman of stringed instruments) and undergoes the challenges of trying to put her story together. Both of Seiji and Shizuku's characters behave naturally for their age as Seiji comes across as mature for his age and prepared for what sort of future he wants for himself while Shizuku is insecure and uncertain over what she wants to do for herself. The movie features detailed designs of scenery, in particular antiques found in an antique shop such as a grandfather clock and a cat statue that serves as inspiration for a character used in Shizuku's story. The John Denver song "Country Road", used at several points during the movie and sung in English and Japanese, fits in well with the natural mood of the movie and is used for plot development with Shizuku's character. The only blemish I could bring up with Whisper of the Heart would be the sudden choice of ending when Seiji and Shizuku come to terms with what they want in their relationship.
5. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Being the very first movie made by Ghibli, Nausicaa includes many of the highlights to expect out of Hayao Miyazaki's films: a strong-willed and independent female lead in the form of Nausicaa, themes on environmental awareness involving the insects known as Ohmu and residents of the Valley of the Wind, the lack of a true antagonist, opposing factions that have justifications for their actions and fluid flying scenes coming from Nausicaa flying her air glider. The movie is notable for some complex animated scenes, in particular a scene animated by future Evangelion
director Hideaki Anno
involving the resurrection of one of the Giant Warriors towards the ending of the movie. A fun little fact about Nausicaa is that the ending of the movie has been known to cause some debate and controversy amongst fans over whether or not Miyazaki was adding in religious symbolism to the movie which he vehemently denies. Any fan of Ghibli movies should give this movie a peek as it helped pave the way for the future successes and films that the studio would put together.
4. Princess Mononoke
Princess Mononoke was the second Ghibli film by Hayao Miyazaki to explore themes related to environmental awareness in the form of the conflict between Lady Eboshi's ironworks village and the animal gods of a nearby forest with banished prince Ashitaka playing middle man in the bloodshed. Like Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke makes you care for the motivations of both sides involved in the conflict with both sides shown to care for those they wish to protect. Lady Eboshi and San both stand out as examples of strong-willed, independent women within Studio Ghibli works with San caring greatly for the wolves that adopted her despite being conflicted about joining human society when she encounters Ashitaka and Eboshi creating a village ruled by women in male-dominant feudal Japan that accepts outcasts such as lepers and prostitutes. The movie features fluid and intense battle scenes coming from the battles that occur between the two factions fighting with one another with great-looking and detailed scenery and character designs, in particular the various animal gods that are seen throughout the film. Princess Mononoke is Ghibli's most intense work to date filled with a number of graphic scenes that include heavy bleeding, the decomposing of animal gods when they die and the severing of human limbs. Because of this, it would not appropriate for younger viewers to see.
3. Porco Rosso
An immersive and somewhat touching adventure title, Porco Rosso is quite different from Hayao Miyazaki's other works in the fact that its setting occurs during an actual time period in the form of 1924 Italy, around the time fascism is about to gain influence in the country. Focusing on the character of pig-headed freelance pilot Porco Rosso, this movie effectively mixes focus on exploring the man's character and the conflicts he encounters with air pirates and a rival love interest. The movie does get a bit deep in its exploration of Porco as he finds himself disillusioned at his own humanity and comes to regain his faith in it with the presence of young mechanic Fio Piccolo later in the movie. Other characters come across as quite lively and fun to get attached to such as Porco's old romantic flame Madame Gina and the group of bumbling air pirates. The plane flying scenes are the animation highlight for the movie moving quite fluidly and are a sight to behold for an early 1990s movie.
2. Kiki's Delivery Service
This coming-of-age fantasy film is a perfect one for the entire family to check out as it involves young witch Kiki learning to live on her own as part of a family tradition when she turns 13. The movie does well at exploring the young girl's developments as she adjusts to her new surroundings and tries making friends with some of the locals, in particular a young boy named Tombo who has a strong interest in aviation. Like earlier Miyazaki works, the animation highlight for Kiki's Delivery Service comes from the flying scenes involving Kiki on her broom, which also serve as a symbolic source of character growth for Kiki's character towards later in the movie. The movie is notable for being the first Ghibli film to be released in America by Walt Disney Home Entertainment with voice talents for the English dub led by Kirsten Dunst and the late Phil Hartman as Kiki and her pet cat Jiji respectfully.
1. Grave of the Fireflies
One of the most emotionally powerful anime titles to come from Japan, Grave of the Fireflies explores the tragic circumstances involving siblings Setsuko and Seita as they struggle to survive on their own in the final days of World War II following the death of their mother during an enemy air raid. The movie doesn't hold back in depicting the civilian perspective of the war as the opening scene of the movie featuring Seita's ghost reveals the inevitable death of him and his sister that is to come and featuring scenes of the corpses of people killed during air raids. Even with all the depressing moments, the movie does show off its lighter moments with Seita and Setsuko spending time with one another as they try to hold to whatever normalcy that they can with their lives despite the fact this could contribute to their tragic downfalls with the harsh reality of war still lingering in Japan. Grave of the Fireflies is one of the personal favorite films of acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert. If you don't mind tragedy with your anime, then Grave of the Fireflies is worth a look as you are likely to shed a tear or two for the hardships faced by Seita and Setsuko.