Founded in Tokyo in 1985 by animation directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli turns 30 this year, and while its fate in terms of future movie-making remains to be seen, the studio already has many masterpieces under its shingle.
The American Cinematheque celebrates Ghibli’s 35th birthday this week with a new retrospective at the Egyptian and the Aero
The series features the two most recent films from Ghibli’s founders: Hayao Miyazaki’s look at a WWII aircraft designer, “The Wind Rises” and Isao Takahata’s coming-of-age folk tale “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.” The Cinematheque also revisits old favorites, from “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “Princess Mononoke” to “Grave of the Fireflies” and “My Neighbors the Yamadas.”
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Here’s our ranking of Studio Ghibli’s best:
10. “Ponyo” (2009) was a lovely departure for Miyazaki (and the largest theatrical rollout ever for him in the U.S.). While the story of a magical goldfish wishing to break free from her overbearing wizard father was more kid-friendly than Miyazaki’s previous movies, the Hans Christian Andersen-influenced fable enchanted young and old alike. The seaside village (much like the one in “From Up on Poppy Hill”) is a richly detailed and tantalizing paradise; and the hand-drawn waves are a delight (the secret was keeping the squiggly lines moving all the time). However, “Ponyo’s” strongest element is the precious bond between parents and children, who both learn to see the world through the other’s eyes.
9. “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989) Years before the “Harry Potter” series, Miyazaki gives us yet another feisty heroine as an engaging 13-year-old witch proves her independence by running a bakery courier service. She tries out her prodigious skills, including exhilarating aerial feats on her broom far above the verdant countryside, with talking cat in tow. Based on the 1985 children’s novel by Eiko Kadono, “Kiki” was the first Ghibli film to be released in the U.S. via Disney.
8. “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” (1986) Miyazaki’s gorgeous rip-roaring fantasy action adventure–sky pirates! magic crystal! airborne chases!– had a major influence on James Cameron’s “Avatar,” as it features an orphan girl’s quest to solve the mysterious force that keeps karst peaks aloft in the air, hidden by clouds.
7. “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988) Isao Takahata’s animated wonder is a tragic remembering of Kobe, Japan after a US-staged firebombing in World War II. In spite of its grim story of two orphans’ struggle for survival after Japan’s surrender, this an aesthetically hopeful, vividly rendered film which put Ghibli on the map. The titular insects are a metaphoric, and literal, light to guide brother and sister Setsuko and Seita as they navigate a ravaged world without their parents. “Fireflies” is, at times, unbearably sad, a eulogy for a bleeding nation but also a hugely imaginative tale that reminds us of art’s power to lift us from the ramparts of our own devastation.
6. “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) is Miyazaki at the height of his trademark visual technique: richly conceived textures, emotive characters and a steampunk-inspired “moving castle” that anthropomorphizes in proto-3-D fashion. Bewitched by an unlucky curse, teenage hatmaker Sophie transforms into a haggard old woman. Her quest to break the spell acquaints her with wizards, demons and a leggy scarecrow, all of whom have endearingly complex personalities. This Cinderella story contains plenty of magic and wonderment for kids to appreciate, but its dark coming-of-age themes are what make “Howl” one of the most mature entries in the Miyazaki catalogue; it earned Miyazaki’s second Oscar nomination for best animated feature.
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5. “Princess Mononoke” (1997) Set in 14th century Japan, Miyazaki’s visually sublime fable packs more
imaginative breadth than a dozen Hollywood animated fantasies. The
story of a prince who must bridge the gap between animal gods and the
greedy humans devouring their land, “Mononoke” is no cuddly children’s
film. Rather, it is an ambitious ecological parable that deftly avoids
pandering, a film whose animals don’t so much talk with their mouths as
they do communicate telepathically. Yet in spite of its lofty themes,
brilliantly conceived sequences in a shadowy forest or a brawling
village elevate the film to the level of pure cinema.
4. “Whisper of the Heart” (1995) You’ll never hear John Denver’s “Country Roads” the same after seeing this elegant, epic drama, storyboarded by Miyazaki and directed by Yoshifumi Kondo (who, sadly, died in 1998, leaving this one stunning work on his directorial resumé). Awkward teen Shizuku is grappling with stressful high school entrance exams, her crush, her parents — oh yes, and a rotund magical cat she meets on a commuter bus who runs a mysterious antique shop. One of the best films ever made about the soul’s need to etch out an identity.
3. “Only Yesterday” (1991) This gorgeously evocative double period-piece by Isao Takahata, produced by Miyazaki, follows listless twentysomething Taeko as she makes her way to the countryside where her sister’s husband’s relatives live. A series of parallel flashbacks reveal Taeko’s ordinarily turbulent adolescence as she struggles with puberty, difficult subjects at school and — what else? — boys. While Ghibli is typically known for its dazzling fantasy lands, this stirring, subtle portrait, along with “Whisper of the Heart,” prove it’s one of the most nimble, intelligent studios to deal with the coming-of-age genre.
2. “Spirited Away” (2001) The girl-in-wonderland subgenre can serve as an intelligent method for exposing the ludicrous and corrupt nature of those in authority. In “Spirited Away,” Miyazaki’s sublime and wondrously
haunting film about a child’s quest to save her family, an indictment of society’s burgeoning greed emerges. In one of the finest scenes of the film, the pint-sized girl
is confronted by a nasty client at a fantastic bathhouse, a previously svelte water
spirit who has gorged himself on the bathhouse’s luxuries and is now a bulging,
man-eating Goliath, determining his next meal based on who foolishly accepts
his gold coins. This film won the best animated feature Oscar.
1. “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988) This Miyazaki classic evokes a magic summer countryside as a lonely girl and her younger sister explore their new home, complete with whimsical dust bunnies and a giant tree that harbors Totoro, an over-sized genially grinning fuzzy yet scary forest spirit who protects them as their hard-working father cares for their hospitalized mother. When they are stranded in the rain at a dark bus stop, Totoro conjures up a 12-legged furry cat bus to ferry them home. A must-see.