The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) Written by Isao Takahata & Riko Sakaguchi Directed Isao Takahata
When people talk about Studio Ghibli, you will most often hear them talk about it in the context of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. That’s completely reasonable as the studio’s most prominent work started with Miyazaki before becoming a collaborative effort. However, he was only the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, with his partner being Isao Takahata. Takahata was the director behind films like Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, and My Neighbors the Yamadas. Takahata’s take on animation was quite different than Miyazaki, but both men worked to push the medium in ways it never had been, both artistically and thematically.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Howl’s Moving Castle is one of the most financially successful Japanese films ever made. It grossed $236 million worldwide, which is quite a feat for a picture like this. It’s also yet another Miyazaki film that has had heaps of praise for its inventive magical world and characters. However, it’s the first Miyazaki movie in this series that I would rate below everything that has come before. For all of the technical mastery of animation and the fully developed world, I would argue something is lacking to pull all the elements together. Miyazaki revisits some old themes and some new ones, and I think the result is a very confusing picture.
Spirited Away (2001) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Spirited Away became the Studio Ghibli film that opened the floodgates into the American theatrical market. It was just home video sales of movies like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service had doing well until this picture. However, seeing a Miyazaki movie in a theater was a more challenging experience to find. If you lived in a major urban area, your art-house theater might show them, but it was difficult outside of those venues. That isn’t to say Miyazaki films became marquee pictures in the States. However, from my own experience, it was from this point forward that I knew I could go to my local Regal cineplex; when these animated films reached our shores, they would have them playing on at least one screen.
Princess Mononoke (1997) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
This is the moment where I met Miyazaki. I can remember going to the theater at the mall near my college. It was my freshman year, and I sort of went along to the movies without really know what was being seen. I believe it was my friend Clint that wanted to see this. I had no idea that is was animated or Japanese; it was merely a Friday hanging out with people I knew. When that Joe Hisaishi score kicked in, and the story began, I was immediately taken away to another world much in the same way Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Ring trilogy felt around the same time. Afterward, I had to know who made that movie.
Whisper of the Heart (1995) Written by Hayao Miyazaki Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo
Despite the marketing art, Whisper of the Heart is not a movie about a young girl and a magical talking cat. Instead, it is a very grounded coming of age movie about the transition from childhood into young adulthood. It was also one of the rare Studio Ghibli films not directed by Hayao Miyazaki. That honor went to Yoshifumi Kondo, who was seen as the natural successor to Miyazaki and was groomed to take over Ghibli when the founder eventually receded into a different role or retired. But that wasn’t to be, and in 1998, Kondo died suddenly from an aneurysm, which led to Miyazaki retiring temporarily from filmmaking. Such tragedy surrounding Whisper of the Heart makes is an even more bittersweet meditation on fragile our lives can be.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Japan often remixes Euro-American fantasy tropes to create incredibly different contexts and characters. This is done with traditional Western witches in Kiki’s Delivery Service. The black cats and flying brooms are here, but the context is changed so that being a witch is passed down from mother to daughter. There are no wicked witches here; instead, the women serve as community healers and advice-givers. This does tie into the Japanese folklore of tsukimono-suji (hereditary witches), but the iconography is most definitely the classic Western culture witch.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
No one wanted Totoro. From the first pitches by Miyazaki and his producer Toshio Suzuki in the early 1980s, they were rejected by multiple studios who didn’t believe that such a pastoral, simple story about two little girls and the spirits of the forest would appeal to too few people. This was also the first film from Miyazaki to take place in an identifiable 1950s Japan, further diminishing the escapist fantasy the distributors were looking for. When My Neighbor Totoro was released, it was shown as a double-feature with Grave of the Fireflies, a brutal tragedy about Japan’s victims of the American atomic bombing. It wasn’t until a year after its release when it began airing on television that My Neighbor Totoro finally found its fan following.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is not the first Studio Ghibli movie, but it is considered the first one. Studio Ghibli, a Japanese animation studio, was founded in 1985 after Nausicaä was released. However, because it is the first film by Hayao Miyazaki to present the themes and types of stories present in his later work, Nausicaä has retroactively been made a part of the Ghibli canon. It fits perfectly, and for most fans, they don’t even notice the difference in dates.