Studio Ghibli released their first film, Castle In The Sky, back in August 1986. Twenty-four years and nineteen films later, the Japanese animation giants have announced a halt in production following the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, the director of much of Ghibli’s most renowned work.
It therefore seems like an appropriate time to take a retrospective look at some of the studio’s work over the past two and a half decades. That’s what I hope to do in this three part series. Part one (the article you’re reading now) covers Studio Ghibli’s more well known productions, part two their lesser known work ,while part three will take a look at some of their films that you may not have even heard of.
To clarify, I’m by no means a Studio Ghibli virtuoso. I am coming into this series having seen several Ghibli films. As a result, my thoughts on many of the films I look at in these three articles (and in the final part in particular) will be fresh from my viewing. To me this seems like a positive attribute rather than a handicap, hopefully even the most seasoned anime fans amongst you will agree. Anyway, disclaimer over, let’s get cracking!
My Neighbour Totoro
Released back in 1988, My Name is Totoro is one of Ghibli’s earliest works and has become arguably the most iconic with a Totoro appearing on the studio’s logo and even making a cameo appearance in Toy Story 3.
The film tells the story of two young girls who move into a rural part of the country with their father, while their mother stays in a nearby hospital. The girls explore their new home and the natural beauty of the area around it; when the younger of the two girls (Mei) wanders into the nearby forest she stumbles upon a Totoro, a large, rabbit-like creature. Later we are introduced to a ‘cat bus’ (a bus in the shape of a giant cat, rather than a bus for cats), which Totoro boards after standing at the bus stop one evening with the girls while they wait for their father to arrive home from work.
Totoro is not as epic as the big sisters it has in Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, very little happens in terms of plot development, but with a relatively succinct running time of 86 minutes it makes sure not to over stay its welcome. It is an incredibly charming, feel-good film and Totoro‘s iconic status is well deserved. A fine example of the creative talent at Ghibli and a must see for animation fans.
If you’ve only seen one Studio Ghibli film, chances are it’s Spirited Away. The Academy Award winning animation is without a doubt their most renowned production and its reputation is well deserved, arguably being the most accomplished film in the studio’s library.
Spirited Away overflows with imaginative ideas and features a monumental display of interesting characters to feast your eyes on. Examples include the nightmarish No-Face who devours people whole, the six-armed boiler man Kamaji and the menacing witch Yubaba who runs the bathhouse where Chihiro finds herself employed. A highlight of the film sees a stink-spirit arrive at the bathhouse and becomes Chihiro’s first customer; the young girl spots a piece of metal protruding from the spirit and tries to yank it out, inadvertently removing a gargantuan collection of garbage from the spirit, rendering him clean again.
Watch it, love it, then watch it again.
Princess Mononoke completes the holy trinity of Studio Ghibli’s most famous works but is probably the least well known of the three. In terms of quality however, Mononoke is firmly alongside Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro at the peak of Ghibli’s best creations.
Mononoke‘s story is centred around Ashitaka, a young man who kills a demon that is attacking his village but is cursed in the process. In an attempt to find a cure, Ashitaka leaves the village in search of the Great Forest Spirit who he is informed may be able to heal him. While on his journey, Ashitaka encounters a wild wolf-girl called Princess Mononoke who, alongside her pack of huge white wolves, is in open conflict with Lady Eboshi, who is destroying the forest to build her town.
It is a grander tale than the one that Spirited Away offers and a more serious one too, raising questions about the preservation of natural beauty. It tells it well however and the film does a fantastic job of bringing its varied assortment of creatures to life; the boars that arrive towards the end of the film are genuinely scary. Despite being somewhat overshadowed by Studio Ghibli’s more celebrated work, it is easy to see why Princess Mononoke often appears at the top of fans’ favourite lists.
Howl’s Moving Castle
When I see lists of people’s favourite Ghibli films, Howl’s Moving Castle (HMC) nearly always makes an appearance. Perhaps going into the film with this in mind contributed to my feelings about the film, setting my expectations too high. Whether it did or not, I came away from HMC thoroughly disappointed.
The castle is undeniable a fantastic creation, and the film does feature some interesting characters: a living (yet mute) scarecrow called ‘Turnip Head’, a fire demon named Calcifer, and a grotesque gargantuan witch titled ‘The Witch of the Waste’. Unfortunately, and particularly when you (and you inevitably will) compare it with Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, it leaves much to be desired.
The story and its so-called ‘romance’ between Sophie and the vain, cowardly wizard Howl is as threadbare as they come. The film failed to make me care about their relationship and by the end HMC‘s story is a mess, with unfinished plot lines being solved in the final two minutes of screen time with the laziest example of deus ex machina. It’s unforgivable storytelling and so disappointing when you think what Miyazaki has created both before and since.
HMC isn’t terrible, it’s just much, much too average from a director of Miyazaki’s pedigree. The castle is great but the story simply has far too little substance. My Neighbour Totoro is a great example of a slow story done well. As I mentioned above, arguably very little happens in that film in terms of major plot points, but the viewer is so enthralled in its charming world that it doesn’t matter. The same unfortunately cannot be said here; the plot of HMC is a more intricate one than Totoro‘s, but while Totoro easily fills its running time, HMC‘s two hours drag and I found myself repeatedly checking my watch, wondering when it was going to get better. Fans of Ghibli should still give it a watch, but if you go into HMC expecting something on the same level of their finest work then you’re likely to come away feeling disappointed. Lot’s of people seem to like it, although I did not.
If you enjoyed the first part of our Studio Ghibli series, come back next Wednesday for part two.