7. Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994)
If someone had told me years ago that the Ghibli film to bring me closest to tears would be the one about magic raccoon dogs with shapeshifting testicles, I would have been skeptical. But Pom Poko finishes off a long string of bravura sequences with a stunner, in which said magic raccoon dogs use their powers to conjure a massive illusion of the past. It’s a reminder to the humans they’re in conflict with about everything they’ve paved over in their rush of progress. And then both humans and raccoon alike begin to recognize their family members in the vision, and it’s like a knife in the chest.
Pom Poko is overlong and repetitive in parts, but it masterfully spins a serious topic (environmental destruction) into an immensely humorous yarn, and then uses that spirit of fun as a springboard to deeply affecting tragedy. And again, all of this is about raccoon dogs with shapeshifting testicles. A group, by the way, which consists of a terrific array of different personalities in alternate cahoots and bickering with one another. Unlike most other Ghiblies, there’s no clear protagonist, and this film’s sense of community is lived-in and vivid.
6. Castle in the Sky (Hayao Miyazaki, 1986)
Castle in the Sky is a completely perfect adventure film. There is not a single wasted scene or beat in the entire thing. A rollicking good time from beginning to end, Ghibli’s first official feature immediately staked a claim for the studio as a place of formidable talent. Everything about Nausicaä feels like a test run for this – the mythic backstory, the tranquil start, the mounting danger, the idea of a military force seizing ancient power for ill will. But Castle knows where it’s going, and thus goes further than Nausicaä, taking its vibrant characters on a journey that feels too huge for a mere two hours, but which fits very comfortably within that frame. This is the kind of movie that aspiring filmmakers should study.
5. My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
It’s a well-worn joke that pairing this film with Grave of the Fireflies as a double feature in its original theatrical release must have made for quite the tonal about-face. But it’s interesting to seriously contrast how My Neighbor Totoro approaches the way children experience tragedy (or the possibility of it) against how its partner film does the same. Where Fireflies is heavily manipulative, Totoro is amazingly subtle. And the darker elements never override the film’s pervasive sense of childhood wonder. The iconic scenes and images are innumerable – Totoro and the sisters in the rain, the nighttime flight around the massive growing tree, the arrival of the Catbus, so on and so forth. Plus, it’s the second-funniest Ghibli film.
4. Kiki’s Delivery Service (Hayao Miyazaki, 1989)
When I saw Kiki’s Delivery Service as a teen, I dismissed it as lightweight fluff. When I saw it again years later, now a 20-something and having recently moved out of my family home to live on my own for the first time, I recognized how dead-on it is about so many things. It’s a brilliant parable for the process of becoming self-reliant, figuring out just what kind of a person you are, and leaving childish things behind. Plus the English dub features one of Phil Hartman’s last performances (*tears*).
3. Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995)
The founders of Studio Ghibli hoped that Kondo would be the one to lead their studio into the new century. Instead, the poor guy worked himself to death, leaving this his only feature. Watching Whisper of the Heart’s effortless humanity makes one wistfully wonder at what might have been. But we still have this lovely exploration of adolescent creativity and uncertainty. Much of what makes Whisper of the Heart great is difficult to put into words. Not enough people have watched it, so placing it so high on this list may be baffling to many. But its tone is singular, and its understanding of young people without pandering to or idealizing them is unsurpassed.
2. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, 2013)
Without exaggeration, one of the best-looking animated films yet made, probably to ever be made. It’s not just that the watercolor art is so distinct and consistently gorgeous; Takahata expertly bends reality to reflect the main character’s state of mind. The world sharpens and details itself as she grows older, and when she experiences massive distress, everything disintegrates into an impressionistic scribble of movement that’s breathtaking to watch. Many Ghibli films are about young people self-actualizing, and Kaguya marries that to fairy tale story logic in a unique, compelling way. And like Pom Poko, all of it builds to a dramatic, heartbreaking finale, one which serves as a flawless statement on life’s beautiful ephemerality.
1. Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)
One of the best fantasy epics in cinema history (eat your heart out, Lord of the Rings), Princess Mononoke is everything loved about both Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli distilled into two-plus hours. Memorable, fascinating characters. Unparalleled craft (I’m not sure the studio ever topped the character animation or action cinematography they pulled off here). A legitimately complex approach to differing worldviews and motivations. An environmental warning that remains relevant.
In a departure from the studio’s generally family-friendly fare, this movie is unabashedly, graphically violent. Its viciousness likely helped play a role in anime’s increasing appeal to older audiences in the latter half of the ’90s. But none of it is gratuitous. Rather, it reinforces the film’s thematic concerns – all about bodies, and what we do both to them (and the world that supports them) and to save them. And animation itself is about the body; it’s the art of movement (you could also argue that this doesn’t really set the form apart from cinema as a whole). Princess Mononoke is a evocative, exhilarating, tragic, disquieting, and ultimately cathartic experience.