Reviewing Ghibli : My favourite films and what I learned

A Brief Retrospective

At the start of May, I made a decision to review every Ghibli film on Netflix in a month, one per day. It was a project to –

  1. improve my writing skills
  2. learn to write reviews quickly
  3. work on my consistency, by committing to an idea

Despite going over the deadline by a month (sigh), I’m pleased with how it turned out. I definitely learned a lot. It was initially a challenge because I didn’t have a lot of faith in my perspective. I watched/read a lot of other reviews that often put me in crisis because what they said contradicted what I’d said. Or they said what I wanted to say much more succinctly. I had to accept early on that this was okay. I just had to keep writing. Yeah, there are reviews where I don’t know if what I wrote makes any sense or represents my views of the movie accurately, but at least I wrote it. I think this project was good for my mentality- removing that fear of writing.

“My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

The true aim of this project was to re-examine my relationship with Studio Ghibli. As I said at the start, I’ve never really loved Ghibli in the way others seemed to, and I wanted to change that. In hindsight, that was silly. It’s hard to verbalise, so bear with me. My favourite animated films are Jin-Roh: the Wolf Brigade, Liz and the Blue Bird and Prince of Egypt. I love these films because they moved me so thoroughly in their artistry, and they spoke to me in a deeply personal way at a specific period of my life. I didn’t go into these films expecting to resonate with them. It was a rare, wonderful coincidence. Very few excellent films make that impact on me. To dismiss Ghibli because their films failed to make that impact was vastly unfair. Understandable, given the studio’s reputation, but still unfair.

And whilst I’m not going to be adding a Ghibli film to my personal top ten anime list anytime soon, I have fallen in love with the studio hard. Anyone who likes film, animation and storytelling in general should watch a Ghibli film. They’re just sophisticated – sophisticated narratives, sophisticated visuals, sophisticated music. I felt like I was having an expensive gourmet meal every time I watched one. I disproved some assumptions about Miyazaki and Takahata fairly quickly (Takahata is not a bleak director – the opposite actually – and can be really on the nose with his writing. Miyazaki, by contrast, is far more nuanced than his bombastic visuals would suggest).

And learning the history of Ghibli definitely enriched the experience. Like I said in my Tales of Earthsea review, the quality of the studio’s output is largely the result of years of experience through working at older studios like Toei Douga. They’ve grown with the anime industry. It was fascinating to learn about the various artistic figures involved in the films, like Katsuya Kondō, Yoshifumi Kondō, Yasuo Otsuka, Kazuo Oga, Hideaki Anno and Kitarō Kōsaka. If there’s one thing I genuinely regret in my reviews, it would be not going more in-depth with all these artists. I feel so grateful and lucky that I had the chance to experience the works of so many talented individuals.

ghibli-collector: Miyazaki Hayao and his mentor Otsuka Yasuo ...
young Miyazaki and his mentor Yasuo Otsuka

My Favourite Films

Here is a list, in ascending order, of my favourite Ghibli films right now.  

My Neighbours the Yamadas

This film is so slept on it hurts. A series of vignettes about an eccentric Japanese family might not make the most exciting film, but once you get into it, it’s hard to not be charmed. This is Takahata in his element, depicting the ups and downs of family life with humour and startling intimacy. The Yamadas, to me, are iconic – the family I wish I were a part of.

Whisper of the Heart

What a classic. I will forever believe that this film is a rite of passage for any young person. What I love about it is that it speaks about the uncertainty surrounding ambition, talent and the Future in a sensible way. It understands what needs to pay the bills. It understands that ambition can sometimes cloud judgement. It doesn’t promise that the creative life will be filled with endless joy and wonder. But it has a gentleness and empathy that makes it a comforting, hopeful experience.

Porco Rosso

Another hidden gem! I really, really like Porco Rosso’s vibe. There’s a certain feeling of leisure that I’ve come to associate with the film. It’s a calm film (for Miyazaki), dancing between epic aerial escapades and nostalgic, introspective character drama. There’s layers I’ve yet to unpack. And the moment in the film where Porco reveals his past was the first time I got chills from a Ghibli film. And all that in a low-key, goofy film about a flying pig. I love it.

Spirited Away

My review of Spirited Away is so short because if I sat down and talked about every good thing in the film, I’d have been there for ages.  The film is perfect. There’s no dent, no flaw in it. After watching it, I felt a sense of awe because I couldn’t process how something could be that objectively good. But my fondness for this film goes beyond its technical perfection. I watched it with my sister and part of the enjoyment was seeing her fall in love with it, and we could fangirl over it together. The film is doubly beautiful because I could share its beauty with the people I love.

Only Yesterday

If you held a gun to my head and forced me to pick an absolute favourite Ghibli film, this would be it. The character animation in Only Yesterday is superb. The sequence where Taeko meets X at the train station still kills me every time I watch it. It’s so natural and spontaneous in a way you rarely see in animation. Watching the characters interact became a special kind of joy. It speaks to Takahata’s commitment to realism in depicting slice-of-life narratives. The movies’s presentation of childhood, with its joys and upsets, is just wonderful to watch. It may not be the most impressive, but it’s a film that excels in my favourite animation niche. That’s reason enough to love it.

What’s Next?

So, what’s next? Well, I’ve been watching a lot of anime in quarantine. I’ve just finished the first season of March Comes in Like a Lion and I loved it, so I want to talk about it. I’ll definitely be revisiting Studio Ghibli because there’s still a lot that I want to say. But I’ll leave it here for now. A massive thank you to the studio for all the awesome movies! And a massive thank you to all who read my reviews! I hope you enjoyed them, and I’ll see you in the next.


Ghibli Month | The Wind Rises (2013)

Synopsis : A lifelong love of flight inspires Japanese aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi, whose storied career includes the creation of the A6M World War II fighter plane.

I didn’t realise how much I missed Miyazaki’s directing until I watched The Wind Rises. Arriety and From Up on Poppy Hill were both strong films, but there’s a certain degree of confidence that Miyazaki (understandably) exudes in his direction. During the film’s opening scenes, I found myself relaxing as I thought, ‘ah, he’s back.’ The Wind Rises carries this self-assured direction throughout. It’s a film that feels like the end of an era, as Miyazaki returns, for one last time, to the theme of flight.

The Wind Rises is obviously Porco Rosso’s sister film. Both are love letters to a heavily idealised era of aviation. But Porco Rosso is about the bombast and charisma of aviators; The Wind Rises looks at the engineers, who are grounded, yet make countless sacrifices to give those men flight. The joy of creation is tainted with constant failures and personal tragedies. And, of course, war. Porco escapes the war by the end of his film. Jiro is forced to acknowledge that his love of flight aided destruction. For all the film’s romanticism, there’s a hard edge of reality that underpins it. Its fantastical elements only help the pill go down easier. The character that illustrates this best is Mr Castorp, a man Jiro meets on a brief vacation. Mr Castorp is animated with typical Miyazaki whimsy, but there’s something off about him- from his intense gaze to his ominous words about Japan’s future in the war. That feeling haunts the film, and is realised in the end. But Miyazaki’s storytelling remains elegant and nuanced. The ending, as sad as it is, is also truly beautiful.

Mr Castorp was one of the many characters I fell in love with during the film. Kurokawa, Hattori, Naoko, Kayo, Honjo – just a wonderful cast of characters, drawn with real human depth. Jiro himself is an strong anchor to the story, and easily my favourite male character from Miyazaki. He’s not the most charismatic or the most handsome, with his glasses, slightly awkward mannerisms and distracted look, but he had an understated, comforting presence. His quiet intensity and passion for those he loved were traits I found especially endearing. And I really loved getting another glimpse into the world of aviation. The workshops, the calculations, the test flights, the stressed chain-smoking – it was all fun to watch. It added to the movie’s warmth, and the fondness I felt for its characters.

Before I watched this film, I’d heard it had garnered some controversy for depicting the life of the man responsible for the Japanese fighter jets. Whilst this is understandable, since Japan is infamous for deflecting criticisms for their actions in WW2, this is Miyazaki. The man’s brand has always been anti-war. One of the earliest lines in the film is ‘fighting is never justified’. The aggression of the Japanese military is bluntly criticised, the bluntest I’ve ever seen in Japanese media. The engineers don’t want war, but who else will pay for planes besides the military? And should they stifle their potential because their creations might be used for evil? Jiro, interestingly, never doubts if he’s doing the right thing. All he wants is to make planes. You might find his position selfish and callous. I think it’s a powerful statement on the desire to create.

I didn’t realise how much this film moved me until I found myself in tears by the ending. I’ll probably re-watch it after this review, because a story that affected me like that can’t be see once. Miyazaki will return in 2023 with a new film, but for now, The Wind Rises is the perfect end to a wonderful career.


Ghibli Month | From Up On Poppy Hill (2011)

Synopsis : Set in 1963 Yokohama, Japan, the film tells the story of Umi Matsuzaki, a high school girl living in a boarding house. When Umi meets Shun Kazama, a member of the school’s newspaper club, they decide to clean up the school’s clubhouse, Quartier Latin. However, Tokumaru, the chairman of the local high school and a businessman, intends to demolish the building for redevelopment and Umi and Shun, along with Shirō Mizunuma, must persuade him to reconsider.

In my review of Tales of Earthsea, I mentioned how Goro Miyazaki was thrust into an epic fantasy without figuring out where his strengths lay as a storyteller. In From Up on Poppy Hill, he clearly comes into his own, and with Miyazaki’s screenplay, crafts a gentle tale about family, tradition, modernity and loss.

When I first watched this film years ago, I thought of how dramatically the story would have played out if it had been in a modern (or Western) context. Re-watching it, I’m still struck by the maturity of the lead characters. Especially Umi. It was fascinating to see her run her family’s boarding house, taking on an adult role in the absence of her parents. However, this independence isn’t romanticised as it is in other Ghibli films. Umi’s maturity is as much a burden as it is a strength. In the film’s most emotional scene, she dreams of a time where both her parents were with her and grieves their absence. The moment when she expressed that grief tangibly, in the physical world, was pure catharsis.

The film’s exploration of modernity versus tradition is a lot more nuanced than I thought it would be. The story dispels the myth that the young are ignorant of the past. They are the ones pushing to preserve tradition, whilst the old want to barrel forward into the future without looking back. But preserving tradition requires change – the Latin Quarter can only be appreciated when the boys agree that letting it just sit there and gather dust is not the way to preserve it. In the end, the message that collaboration between young and old is true progress feels timely, given this film’s production as a joint-project between father and son. The Latin Quarter itself is realised beautifully. Tales of Earthsea showed that Goro had an eye for architecture, and he expands on that here. The Latin Quarter is given true personality, bolstered by its quaint, 3-story design and the characters that live and clash within its space. It lends power to the film’s quiet humanity.

This is a film I’m very fond of. Goro paints a picture of domesticity that’s achingly gentle. The premise, I think, does the story a massive disservice. The relationship between Sora and Umi emerges, not for cheap melodrama, but to honestly explore the importance of the past and the potential of the future.


Ghibli Month | Ponyo (2008)

Synopsis: During a forbidden excursion to see the surface world, a goldfish princess encounters a human boy named Sōsuke, who gives her the name Ponyo. Ponyo longs to become human, and as her friendship with Sōsuke grows, she becomes more humanlike. Ponyo’s father brings her back to their ocean kingdom, but so strong is Ponyo’s wish to live on the surface that she breaks free, and in the process, spills a collection of magical elixirs that endanger Sōsuke’s village.

In this (very, very loose) adaptation of The Little Mermaid, Miyazaki returns to basics. When I saw the title cards at the start of the film, I thought of his oldest films, like Castle in the Sky and Totoro. Ponyo has a lot in common with the latter film especially. But whilst Totoro was about children finding solace through fantasy from the complex world around them, Ponyo rejects complexity and the adult world, running on child-like logic throughout.

This is clear right from the film’s art direction – colour pencil backgrounds and bright flat colours that are further emphasised by the lack of shadows. The film’s chaos – and Ponyo is chaotic, even for Miyazaki- is lighthearted and exuberant. At some point, I accepted that Lisa, Sōsuke’s mum, would always drive like crazy – once I did, I could sit back and enjoy her race waves with her five-year-old son in the passenger seat. In fact, this film gave me major anxiety sometimes. There was no car safety, no child safety, no boat safety. But Miyazaki doesn’t care. If his heroes are gonna go seafaring on a toy boat, so be it! Leave your grown-up logic at the door, the film seemed to say. This is, first and foremost, about the kids.

Sōsuke and Ponyo lead a fun cast of characters whose personalities elevate the movie’s magic. As in Totoro, Miyazaki demonstrates excellent understanding of children’s psyche. There’s no attempt to make Sōsuke and Ponyo unrealistically self-aware – they sound like kids, they talk like kids, they act like kids. Both are emotionally simple, and display a lot of curiosity about the world around them. Sōsuke was especially delightful to watch. He’s smart in the five-year-old way – showing off all his trivia – but he’s animated with a certain self-consciousness and clumsiness that brings him to life. The earnestness with which he declares his love for Ponyo is a perfect depiction of the simple, pure love children often have for those around them.

Everyone else, from Lisa to the nursing home ladies to the townspeople, were all familiar Miyazaki archetypes. But these archetypes never stop being charming. I love how everyone randomly accepts goldfishes with faces, waves that look like fish, a sea goddess. My personal favourite has to be Fujimoto, Ponyo’s dad. He was the stressed, over-worked adult who did care about all the things other characters took with smiles. Something about his gangly, quasi-scholarly appearance reminded of Diana Wynne Jones. He seemed like the sort of character she would write. And as Jones herself created some of the most magical worlds in literature, I guess that’s the highest compliment I can give the film. It’s pure magic.

There’s not much else to say about this movie; what you see is what you get. Miyazaki channels all his charm and charisma into a perfectly breezy flick. It’s definitely simpler than his other films, but honestly, this is the type of Miyazaki film I like best.


Ghibli Month | Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Synopsis :  The film tells the story of a young, content milliner named Sophie who is turned into an old woman by a witch who enters her shop and curses her. She encounters a wizard named Howl and gets caught up in his resistance to fighting for the king.

Howl’s Moving Castle is an adaptation of a book by the late, great Diana Wynne Jones. I went through both at roughly the same time and was unimpressed. Over the years, I’ve revisited both film and book. Howl’s Moving Castle is now one of my favourite books ever. And Howl’s Moving Castle is…well…still not a great film. This will be a longer review, beware of spoilers.

Now, I’m not biased because of my love for the source material. I’m not a purist. I actually hate it when adaptations prioritise being faithful to the source material without thinking of how it works in a different medium (looking at you, Lion King 2019). And Howl’s Moving Castle is an excellent adaptation in some places. It brings Jones’ world alive with typical Miyazaki breadth and imagination. It’s so visually iconic that I can’t detach myself from his imagery when reading the book. And the quasi-Victorian, military setting fits nicely into my personal tastes. Whenever I attempt to write fantasy, I find myself subconsciously trying to replicate that ideal.

When the film is faithful, it’s beautiful. Sophie’s growth as a character is conveyed by the visual cues of her fluctuating age – a nice visualisation of her self-esteem and the self-inflicted nature of her curse. When the film makes changes, it can also be very beautiful. Changing Michael to Markl alters the dynamic in a good way. Michael, whose character fit the romantic-comedy caper of the book, would be out of place in a story that is more focused on family. And Markl is delightful in his own way. The scarecrow (Turnip-head) gets more time as well, and becomes a really sweet addition to the cast. In fact, this film reaches a peak for me in at the halfway point where it’s just Sophie, Markl, Turnip-head and Calcifer (who I love) all interacting, being a family. It’s just perfect.

Howl, I think, best conveys this – when he’s Miyazaki’s Howl (mysterious and suave), he’s mesmerising to watch. When he’s Diana’s Howl (vain and childish), he’s entertaining. The question becomes how to mesh the two consistently. And the film succeeds initially. But as the story develops past the halfway point, it unravels as plot elements are picked up and dropped almost arbitrarily. There becomes a quiet struggle within the film to figure out how to mesh the book with Miyazaki’s own ideas. Most plot elements on Sophie’s end don’t fare too badly. Everything on Howl’s end flops spectacularly. In the book, Howl is a total coward, avoiding responsibility for his bad relationship with the Witch of the Waste. The film keeps that element – but then drops the Witch as the main villain. But Howl is still a coward, and decides that he’s not going to be one by fighting in the war…which would be fine if he hadn’t already been fighting in the war! That’s why you were gone half the film! You were never a coward in that respect!

The inability to reconcile the original writing and the changes creates inconsistencies within the story. The end result is muddied. I can’t imagine this being a forgiving watch for someone who hasn’t read the book. The finale, especially, is a mess. The resolution to Howl and Calcifer’s dilemma only makes sense when you know that Sophie is a witch – but that end of the story is adapted out whilst the resolution is kept. And don’t even get me started on what they did with the Witch of the Waste. And Turnip-head. At that point, my feelings for the film crossed from confusion to frustration.

I’m not angry at the film though. Howl’s Moving Castle is a book of simple prose, with a tricky, complex plot. It’s a difficult story to convey in film. But the film genuinely was on the right track. Everything before the final act is solid. And frankly, the added stuff was just as compelling, if not more so, than the original. Howl, like in the book, is a victim of his own magic – but in a way that manifests as a literal monster. I thought that the monster element was a representation of Howl’s self-loathing. His beauty and glamour, I thought, was his way of hiding those insecurities. Which would have been a nice juxtaposition to Sophie, who comes into her own at her least attractive. But that element, like many other, is resolved with a hand-wave of contrivance, with little consequence. It comes to nothing.

There are other flaws in the film that I’d like to talk about, specifically the clumsy integration of a war message into the story. But for now, I’m happy. I’ve said everything I’ve ever wanted to say about Howl’s Moving Castle. With each rewatch, I appreciate its strengths more and more. And with each rewatch, I understand its weaknesses better and better.


Ghibli Month | Spirited Away (2001)

Synopsis : 10-year-old Chihiro and her parents stumble upon a seemingly abandoned amusement park. After her mother and father are turned into giant pigs, Chihiro meets the mysterious Haku, who explains that the park is a resort for supernatural beings who need a break from their time spent in the earthly realm, and that she must work there to free herself and her parents.

What’s there to say about this movie that hasn’t already been said?

Spirited Away is fantastic, you think it’s fantastic, everybody and their mothers thinks it’s fantastic. It is the highest grossing film in Japan and the only international film to win Best Animated Picture for a reason. It’s easily Miyazaki’s most complete film – excellently paced, structured without feeling inorganic, great characters, an excellent score and a whimsicality that doesn’t shy away from the darkness of its world.

And the animation…what to even say about the animation! Miyazaki and his team seem to explore every visual concept possible under the sun. The film is overloaded with visual detail, sometimes overwhelming and grotesque in the best way possible. I could go on about the way Chihiro’s design conveys the lankiness and petulance of an awkward 10 year old. I could go on about her meeting with Yubaba. I could go on about the act with the stink spirit. I could go on about the inventiveness of the magic. Every setting in the story – from the exterior world of the spirits, to the interiors of the bathhouse, to Yubaba’s fifth floor, to the spirit train across an endless sea – brims with imagination. It’s like Miyazaki, the animators, the art director, the character designer, the storyboard artists, everyone on the film’s production wanted to see how far they could stretch the limits of human imagination in a 2-hour film. It’s insane. It’s wonderful.

And that’s all I have to say.