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 | When Marnie Was There (2014)

Synopsis: Anna Sasaki sent to the country for health reasons, where she meets an unlikely friend in the form of Marnie, a young girl with flowing blonde hair. As the summer progresses, Anna spends more time with Marnie, and eventually learns the truth about her family.

When Marnie Was There was, at the time, Studio Ghibli’s final film – Miyazaki had announced his retirement and the studio would be taking a break after the film’s release. Which is a little strange, because this film doesn’t feel like the end of anything. Ghibli started with Miyazaki and Takahata, and for me, it ended once both men retired (or ‘retired’, in Miyazaki’s case). At the end of the day, Ghibli only existed to help these men make the films they wanted to make. Furthermore, the second film of an up-and-coming director can’t possibly feel like the swansong of Japan’s greatest studio. When Marnie Was There feels like the start of an era, not the end of one.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi is very different to his predecessors. When Marnie Was There has its fair share of Miyazaki-esque wanderlust, but fantasy isn’t always a force for good and can manifest in genuinely unsettling ways. And he’s not really like Takahata either – there was always a careful, un-emotional distance that Takahata put between the audience and the characters. Yonebayashi is more deeply involved in the moods of his characters – he’s more overtly emotional. This works excellently in Marnie – Anna’s emotional trauma is explored with painstaking visual detail, as the animators map out every emotional shift through subtle gestures and facial expressions. This makes the core conflict of her story – her fear of abandonment- feel more immediate and real. This is where the film’s heart lies.

Anna is a character that I felt a deep sense of sympathy for the start of the film. She’s massively self-loathing, due to feeling uncertain about her family’s love for her. She’s not likeable, but the writing and animation goes to great lengths to make her understandable. I’d go so far as to say that Marnie’s depiction of insecurity and self-loathing were probably the most poignant I’ve seen on film yet.

The depth of Anna’s character combined with the film’s strong emotionalism contribute positively to the film’s core relationship. Marnie and Anna have an intense friendship that’s heightened by the loneliness they feel in their separate lives. It’s a friendship that’s absolutely dripping with queer subtext. I knew about the queer undertones before watching the film, but took it with a grain of salt – after all, shippers read so much into small interactions. But that’s not the case. Anna blushes frequently around Marnie, the two go on moonlit rowing trips, they slow waltz at a party, they share a jacket at some point, they declare their love to each other in one scene etc. I know Ghibli tend to treat their platonic relationships with romantic passion, but the queer subtext in Marnie feels deliberate. Anna and Marnie’s relationship is so involving that when the film’s infamous twist arrives, it stings like a betrayal. Anna herself interprets it as such (only driving the point home). I wasn’t expecting the film to go above subtext (this is Ghibli after all), but the twist turns its strongest relationship into a sham. It honestly felt cruel.

Unfortunately, after that point, I found my interest quickly waning as the film’s narrative moved in a direction that lacked the subtle emotional power of the first half. I do think that Anna’s story is resolved beautifully by the end, as finding her past reaffirms that she is loved, which deeply resonated with me. I just think we could have gotten all that without the queerbaiting.

When Marnie Was There is the imperfect conclusion to Studio Ghibli’s long legacy. It’s not groundbreaking, and Yonebayashi’s style feels like a subtle evolution away from the studio’s in-house style- but it’s a film that promises a lot for the future. Ghibli – as we know it – might be over, but the studio’s legacy lives on in the artists it has cultivated and inspired. And When Marnie Was There carries on that legacy into the start of something new.


Ghibli Month | The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)

Synopsis: Found inside a shining stalk of bamboo by an old bamboo cutter and his wife, a tiny girl grows rapidly into an exquisite young lady. The mysterious young princess enthralls all who encounter her and orders her suitors to prove their love by completing a series of near-impossible tasks.

Reviewing The Tale of Princess Kaguya is hard because I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. Takahata’s final film is a beautiful summation of the recurring themes and visual ideas of his work with Ghibli – from rural Japan (Only Yesterday) and traditional Japanese history/folklore (Pom Poko and Grave of the Fireflies), to the simplistic, dynamic animation style (My Neighbours the Yamadas). Yet, for all this, I can’t help but find The Tale of Princess Kaguya a little…sterile.

From my Western perspective, the film takes the classic Disney princess tale of a young woman wanting to escape her restrictive princess life – and adds real gravity. There’s a subtle horror that emerges as Kaguya’s lively spirit is eroded by the demands of the men around her. First her father who, blinded by his adoration, insists on giving her the life a princess deserves- without considering her feelings on it. Then, of course, the conga-line of suitors, all of whom see her as an object to stroke their male egos. Through these characters, Takahata critiques the patriarchy with equal parts humour and tragic irony. Kaguya reminded me strongly of Princess Arete, another film with similar themes of female liberation. But Arete uses her quick mind to exploit every loophole, and gains freedom. But the emotional landscape of Princess Kaguya’s story is too complex for loopholes. Kaguya, with her quick mind, is thwarted at every attempt to gain physical or spiritual freedom. The tragedy is set in motion when her father, in his love, traps her in a role she doesn’t want, and when Kaguya, in her love, neglects to tell him how she truly feels.

I really admire the complexity with which Takahata weaves this tale, and I think my admiration for the story contributes a little to my overall disappointment. The ending, despite the strong storytelling, is a letdown. It’s not bad by any means, and on paper, it’s thematically cohesive, but I simply can’t marry it to the story that came before. I think I just dislike the way it’s told more than anything. Before, the film had seamlessly integrated its fantastical elements into the realism of the setting. But the ending over-explains in places, shifting the film from its magical-realist tone to something more definitively magical. So not bad, just jarring. And infinitely less compelling than what came before.

I also have to admit that, whilst I admire Takahata for pushing unique visual ideas in his movies, the animation in Kaguya didn’t connect with me like I hoped it would. For a style that screams expressionism, it’s surprisingly restrained. The rough linework, though beautiful, felt wasted and could sometimes be too crude. I preferred the approach of My Neighbours the Yamadas, mostly because the designs matched the linework well. And the storytelling in that film also gave opportunities for variation. Princess Kaguya lacks those strengths, and the result is a film that looks and feels a little sterile.

My experience with this film reminds me of my experience with Ghibli films before I started this project – watching them with expectations of greatness, then coming out of it with an overall feeling of apathy. But I’m not apathetic about Princess Kaguya, just a little sad that Takahata’s final film didn’t close the chapter perfectly. But, that’s alright. His movies with Studio Ghibli explored the nuances of human behaviour in either funny or tragic ways, brought to life by the meticulous character animation that defined his style. Princess Kaguya, for all my gripes with it, is still a gorgeously realised movie- a touching swansong from one of animation’s greatest directors.


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 | Arietty (2010)

Synopsis : Arrietty, a tiny teenager, lives with her parents in the recesses of a suburban home, unbeknown to the homeowner and housekeeper. Like others of her kind, Arrietty remains hidden from her human hosts, but occasionally ventures forth from beneath the floorboards to borrow sugar cubes and other supplies. A secret friendship forms when 12-year-old Shawn meets Arrietty, but their relationship could spell danger for Arrietty’s family.

Arrietty is missing something. On the surface, it’s a fine film, a strong directorial debut from Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and there’s a lot to like about it. There’s a level of sensory detail to the film unlike anything I’ve ever seen from Ghibli. There’s one particular sequence in the film where Arrietty and her father wander around the house, and you see how the Borrowers navigate the larger world. Yonebayashi uses sound, not just scale, to convey the hugeness of the world around them. Every action is enunciated and precise. Yonebayashi even takes it a step further – when Arietty and her father reach the kitchen, you hear the dishes being made as the camera pans across the kitchen. The immersion this creates is perfect; I felt ultra-aware during this scene, just like the Borrowers, which added to the tension of being caught. It’s intelligent storytelling.

And the animation itself is beautiful. There’s a strong emphasis on the solidity of the human characters and Yonebayashi doesn’t shy from making them feel unsettling to the Borrowers when need be. The soundtrack’s Celtic style was unexpected, but refreshing. And I loved the Borrowers themselves. Arrietty and her family had a really sweet, gentle dynamic that never crossed into the saccharine, and Arrietty’s guilt over endangering them had greater effect on me because I saw what good people her parents were. I especially loved Homily, Arrietty’s mom. Her design, her mannerisms, her fussy, nervous personality – she was just so much fun, especially in contrast with the more laid-back Arrietty and Pod.

And that’s where the great ends and the mediocre begins. Like most Ghibli films not directed by Miyazaki, it’s a low-stakes story and the fantastical isn’t really given any weight. Whilst I really like these types of story, they do run the risk of having abrupt endings or having stories where the ‘point’ or the goal feels a little vague. Movies like Kiki’s Delivery Service or Whisper of the Heart both have fairly abrupt endings, but it works because what came before was strong enough that by the time they ended, I didn’t feel like I had wasted my time. The characters and relationships were strong enough to sell the sudden endings. That’s not the case in Arrietty. Sho and Arrietty are not a very convincing friendship. He causes trouble for her, she seeks him out to tell him to stop, then they both get into trouble, rinse and repeat. Arrietty never sought Sho out just to be with him, as a friend. Their relationship only comes together at the end, when we see their chemistry as they work together against a sudden foe.

This brings me to my next major issue with the film – Haru is an awful antagonist. Her motivations are blurred and her actions make no sense given the context of who she works for. Her actions drove the film’s abrupt climax, creating conflict that existed for the sake of it. What she did had no impact on character relationships or on the plot, besides tying up some (barely important) loose ends on Sho’s end. That said, I think the climax set a good foundation for the film’s ending. I was surprised at how strong an emotional reaction I had to the ending, which was genuinely touching and earnest.

I don’t think I’ve had such an apathetic reaction to a Ghibli film before. Arrietty is phenomenal in certain aspects, but in others, it’s an uninspiring watch. I think I might re-visit it, to see if it improves upon rewatch.