This week marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of Studio Ghibli, possibly the world’s most revered animation house. It’s a bittersweet occasion, given that the company’s activities have been on a “hiatus” since last year, due to the retirement of founder Hayao Miyazaki and the disappointing box office performance of several of its more recent films. Still, that’s no reason to dampen any celebration of Ghibli’s beloved output.
The studio is respected the world over for its lush animation, attention to detail, and the way its movies can soak its audiences in a mood without any effort at all – a trait many find lacking in most American cartoons. Ghibli’s stories take viewers of all ages seriously, never let commercial concerns get in the way of imagination, and more often than not incorporate female characters in a way that puts the rest of the film industry to shame, animated or live action.
To observe Studio Ghibli’s 30th birthday, I’ve taken up the task of ranking its entire oeuvre of feature films. Feel free to disagree with the placements – that’s half the fun of a ranked list.
22. Tales from Earthsea (Dir. Goro Miyazaki, 2006)
Rankings can often seem frustratingly arbitrary, or change depending on the writer’s preferences from one day to another. But from the moment I started this list, there was no question of what would be at the bottom. Tales from Earthsea holds the dubious distinction of being Ghibli’s only outright bad (terrible, even) movie. The junior Miyazaki turns Earthsea into the most generic of fantasy settings, and a stage for bland good-and-evil conflict between characters who are either cardboard or outright unlikable (the ponderous shitheel Prince Arren is unquestionably the worst Ghibli lead). The pleasingly loosey-goosey Ghibli story approach here decays into a grotesque, senselessly dull plot. Urusla K. Le Guin had previously turned the studio down several times when they approached her about adapting her books, and the instinct proved sadly well-founded.
21. Ocean Waves (Tomomoi Mochizuki, 1993)
Produced for television as a cheap training exercise for younger, newer staff members, this film nonetheless ran over both budget and schedule. It’s hard to understand how, since the result is identical to every other TV anime from the time. That goes both in terms of aesthetics (though the animation is perhaps smoother than that of its peers) and of story. It’s a halfhearted love triangle that’s more about an extended day trip to Tokyo and sends the very odd moral that, as a friend of mine put it, “you should pursue love interests even if they turn out boring or shallow, because you should always stick to what you initially wanted.” A terribly slight piece of work.
20. The Secret World of Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2010)
19. When Marnie Was There (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2014)
Yonebayashi’s two contributions both seem like products of a rival studio attempting to emulate the Ghibli formula (while somehow getting away with copying their character design house style) without quite understanding its nuances. Both films are pleasant, with fleeting moments of deeper beauty or thematic heft. And they have their solid qualities – Cécile Corbel’s score for Arrietty is terrific, and Marnie’s ghost story is a notable break from the studio’s usual fare. But neither movie amounts to all that much in the end.
18. Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)
Miyazaki famously works without screenplays, essentially half finding his films as he makes them – even the ones adapted from books. Historically, this has worked out stunningly well for him, but his lower-tier titles on this list are the exceptions. Howl is not free-flowing but formless, its strange story twists too random and unmotivated (and unable to be excused with “well there’s magic afoot”). Even though Miyazaki is passionately anti-war and incorporates that idea into much of his art, the theme feels tacked on here, the darker shades of the title character’s actions too much at odds with everything else that’s going on. Still, it is gorgeous, the eponymous castle a clever visual feat.
17. From Up on Poppy Hill (Goro Miyazaki, 2011)
In a vast improvement over his debut feature, the junior Miyazaki turns in a quite nice piece. Its uncomplicated story about a school trying to save its old clubhouse serves as a vector for an effective mood piece about Japan in its postwar years. Ghibli is often praised for its ability to capture little, everyday slices of life, and Poppy Hill is basically one big string of those little moments. So it’s most unwelcome that the plot suddenly snarls at a late stage with a weird-ass twist: The two romantic leads might be brother and sister! Even stranger is how the incest plot is resolved not too long after, raising the question of what point it had at all.
16. Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008)
Ponyo has the same wonky story issues I previously mentioned with Howl. People have defended such criticism of Ghibli by claiming that the tone, visuals, and characters are always more important than the stories. Which is absolutely true, but in this case, the tone is nothing notable and the character work is nil. Ponyo’s emotional intelligence is on the level of its preschool-aged leads. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that a 100-minute running time is horribly stretched. It comes across as an excuse for Miyazaki to show off the studio’s animation talent. Much was made of how the movie defied modern convention and returned to an entirely hand-drawn model. The result is indeed often astounding to behold, but still disappointing to think about.
15. Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)
The single biggest surprise I got from rewatching numerous Ghiblies for this article was that Grave of the Fireflies is not nearly as great as I remembered it being. The movie has gained an almost intimidating reputation as a heartbreaker. But I found only a fraction of that emotion to be truly authentic or earned. The entire story is built to sadden the viewer, everything targeted with the eventual death of a cute little girl in mind. It’s viciously manipulative, almost to an unseemly extent – the nadir being the montage of “aw shucks, ain’t she adorable” scenes that immediately follows Setsuko’s death.
The two young protagonists don’t seem to exist as their own characters so much as they do in the service of that weepy goal. Many of the outstanding parts of the movie precede the beat where the kids strike out on their own. The scenes that focus on life during wartime are more sincere than everything about dying. Yes, dying is sad, but the movie has nothing else to say on the subject besides that. Grave of the Fireflies is held up as a premier anti-war film, but it makes more sense when viewed through the lens of Takahata’s stated intent, which was to connect the Japanese youth of the ’80s with what their parents went through during World War II.
14. The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)
Speaking of World War II and Ghibli movies I value less than most other people do, here’s The Wind Rises. It’s fitting that a story all about an artist bringing forth morally murky creations has itself come out morally murky, to a contentious critical reception. I’m not going to step into the debate over whether the film glazes over Japanese war crimes and Jiro Horikoshi’s culpability (or lack thereof) in them, because that’s not my biggest problem with it (although the message is muddled enough for me to doubt whether it was ever fully thought through). Rather, I can’t love The Wind Rises because it’s so (and I make no apologies for this pun) airless. The times in which the viewer empathizes with Jiro’s passion are scant, and the times in which they can get invested in his love story are nil. The rest of Miyazaki’s output is so widely humanistic that a narrative buried this much inside one character’s head becomes a chore.