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TOH! Ranks the Top Ten Studio Ghibli Films, 'My Neighbor Totoro' and 'Howl's Moving Castle' Come to Blu-Ray UPDATE

by TOH!
May 31, 2013 2:43 PM
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Hayao Miyazaki's "My Neighbor Totoro"
Hayao Miyazaki's "My Neighbor Totoro"

Hayao Miyazaki's masterpieces "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Howl's Moving Castle" are now available on Blu-ray for the first time. Below, our TOH! ranking of the Top Ten Studio Ghibli films (hint: "Totoro" and "Howl's" make the list).

As John Lasseter has been called America's new Walt Disney, so is Miyazaki known as the Disney of Japan. Miyazaki and Lasseter share something rare: they are filmmakers in charge of animation giants in their respective countries, Studio Ghibli and Disney Animation/Pixar.

The two men are mutual fans and friends, going back to Miyazaki's visit in the 80s to the U.S. around the time of the now classic "My Neighbor Totoro." Where Lasseter has developed a strong collaborative ethic at Pixar, he reveres Miyazaki for dreaming up his stories and drawing much of the storyboards and characters himself. At Comic-Con in 2009, Miyazaki told the crowd the secret behind his artistry: "My process is thinking, thinking and thinking, thinking about my stories for a long time," he said with a smile. "If you have a better way, let me know."

"Whisper of the Heart"
"Whisper of the Heart"

When Lasseter interviewed Miyazaki in front of 6500 fans in Hall H, the Disney/Pixar chief praised him for running a "filmmaker-led studio dedicated to making great movies. That's what it's all about." Backstage, Lasseter said that you could watch the films in Japanese with no subtitles and still figure out what was going on. The language only adds subtlety and depth. "I love the positive messages in all the films," he said. "Miyazaki is inspirational. He celebrates quiet moments."

At Lasseter's Academy tribute to Miyazaki, the Disney animator provided commentary on his favorite Miyazaki clips: a rousing helicopter rescue operation in "Castle in the Sky," a bar scene with pig-faced aviator "Porco Rosso," the scary magic of "Spirited Away," and the dreamlike catbus scene from "Totoro," as the giant furry creature waits with two little girls in the dark rain at a bus stop. Miyazaki, who studied politics and worked his way up as an animator while always wanting to write manga comics, admits that he never wanted to make Totoro's origins or powers crystal clear. He was thinking about the images in that film for ten years, he said. He doesn't like spending time drawing villains, so he doesn't do it much.

And the studio's latest "From Up on Poppy Hill," written by Miyazaki and directed by his son Goro, is also sublime; it whisks you into another stylized, hand-drawn 2D world. Miyazaki has always been able to capture the forces of nature and the great outdoors, in this case, a quaint 60s Japan just dealing with encroaching modernization.

With the release of critically praised "From Up on Poppy Hill" (review here), TOH! ranks the Top Ten Films by Studio Ghibli. (Written by Bill Desowitz, Beth Hanna, Ryan Lattanzio and Anne Thompson.)

10. "Ponyo"  (2009) was a lovely departure for Miyazaki (and the largest theatrical rollout ever for him in the U.S.). While the story of a magical goldfish wishing to break free from her overbearing wizard father was more kid-friendly than Miyazaki's previous movies, the Hans Christian Andersen-influenced fable enchanted young and old alike. The seaside village (much like the one in "From Up on Poppy Hill") is a richly detailed and tantalizing paradise; and the hand-drawn waves are a delight (the secret was keeping the squiggly lines moving all the time). However, "Ponyo's" strongest element is the precious bond between parents and children, who both learn to see the world through the other's eyes.

9. "Kiki's Delivery Service" (1989) Years before the "Harry Potter" series, Miyazaki gives us yet another feisty heroine as an engaging 13-year-old witch proves her independence by running a bakery courier service. She tries out her prodigious skills, including exhilarating aerial feats on her broom far above the verdant countryside, with talking cat in tow. Based on the 1985 children's novel by Eiko Kadono, "Kiki" was the first Ghibli film to be released in the U.S. via Disney.

8. "Laputa: Castle in the Sky" (1986) Miyazaki's gorgeous rip-roaring fantasy action adventure--sky pirates! magic crystal! airborne chases!-- had a major influence on James Cameron's "Avatar," as it features an orphan girl's quest to solve the mysterious force that keeps karst peaks aloft in the air, hidden by clouds.

Grave of the Fireflies
7. "Grave of the Fireflies" (1988) Isao Takahata’s animated wonder is a tragic remembering of Kobe, Japan after a US-staged firebombing in World War II. In spite of its grim story of two orphans’ struggle for survival after Japan’s surrender, this an aesthetically hopeful, vividly rendered film which put Ghibli on the map. The titular insects are a metaphoric, and literal, light to guide brother and sister Setsuko and Seita as they navigate a ravaged world without their parents. “Fireflies” is, at times, unbearably sad, a eulogy for a bleeding nation but also a hugely imaginative tale that reminds us of art’s power to lift us from the ramparts of our own devastation.

6. "Howl's Moving Castle" (2004) is Miyazaki at the height of his trademark visual technique: richly conceived textures, emotive characters and a steampunk-inspired “moving castle” that anthropomorphizes in proto-3-D fashion. Bewitched by an unlucky curse, teenage hatmaker Sophie transforms into a haggard old woman. Her quest to break the spell acquaints her with wizards, demons and a leggy scarecrow, all of whom have endearingly complex personalities. This Cinderella story contains plenty of magic and wonderment for kids to appreciate, but its dark coming-of-age themes are what make “Howl” one of the most mature entries in the Miyazaki catalogue; it earned Miyazaki's second Oscar nomination for best animated feature.

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More: Features, Studio Ghibli, Animation, Lists


  • Zach | June 26, 2014 8:27 AMReply

    I really feel it's a shame that people only watch the major movies; as in Valley of the Wind (which I feel should definitely be on the list), Castle in the Sky, and Princess Mononoke; I was guilty of not even trying the ones that weren't majorly acclaimed, but even the rarer ones in Ocean Waves, Whisper of the Heart (probably the best Ghibli movies imo), and Only Yesterday are as good as the "main" works.

    By the way, in Whisper of the Wind, it's not the cat that runs the antique shop, and there's nothing particularly "fantasical" or "magical" about the cat.

  • Brian | June 26, 2014 11:15 AM

    Ditto on OCEAN WAVES, WHISPER OF THE HEART and ONLY YESTERDAY, arguably the three finest animated dramas ever made. Personally, I consider WHISPER (aka MIMI O SUMASEBA) to be the finest animated movie I've ever seen.

    To be honest, though, I'm not as big a fan of Miyazaki/Ghibli films made in the 21st century. UP ON POPPY HILL is the one I find most interesting, chiefly because of its particular historical setting (Tokyo just before the 1964 Olympics), but it still pales next to the ones cited above. ARRIETTY bothered me because none of the characters shows any sense of wonder. They barely react to anything. In contrast look at the awe the characters showed in NAUSICAA, KIKI, TOTORO, WHISPER, et al. I've found Miyazaki's late works to be more and more abstract, from SPIRITED AWAY on, to the point where I did not find the characters in these films terribly compelling. They got overwhelmed by the surreal/hallucinatory goings-on. I consider PONYO his most bizarre film yet, and not in a good way. There are an awful lot of emotional obligations forced on a five-year-old boy in it, which just struck me as ridiculous. And the way the adults respond blithely to nature's catastrophic assault on their community just flies in the face of logic. Compare it to the real-life reaction to the 2011 tsunami and earthquake. THE WIND RISES bothered me because of its myopia about WWII and Japan's brutal conduct in it. Miyazaki seems to me to be increasingly out-of touch.

  • cathy123 | September 25, 2013 10:29 PMReply

    Almost everyone is fond of ghibi with no reason .Perhaps for his childish ,perhanps for his love for comics .And one of my friend has bought a series of toys from of ghibi's products........

  • Matt | June 26, 2014 8:22 AM

    There's a reason everybody is fond of Ghibli; rather than a simple childish anime as you say, his magic is how he works beyond that to implement provocative themes and ideas within his apparently "younger-age" works. From the beautiful portrayal of everyday life of "Whisper of the Heart" to the much more serious and dark "Princess Mononoke" and "Valley of the Wind", I would definitely reccomend you to look at these one more time; and rather than looking through a lens of mocking its apparent childishness, try to understand what Miyazaki put behind the storyline and graphics.

  • Berrish17 | July 18, 2013 9:55 PMReply

    So my high school daughter comes home saying they watched a great movie in English class today.Yes,ironically English class.... My daughter,who usually don't care about movies told me how awesome it was so I asked the title and WHAT?! SPIRITED AWAY!!!! Turns out her teacher loves ghibli movies and was showing it in class.ahhhh we all love ghibli :D

  • Alan | April 23, 2013 4:34 PMReply

    I love most Ghibli films, my favourite being only yesterday, Its sentimental without over doing it, it has such a wonderful innocence and charm about it. I adore it.

  • wyrdy the gerbil | April 12, 2013 9:10 PMReply

    Im not going to dispute your choices(i agree with most of them) but its a bit shameful Nausicaa isn't in the top ten

  • scott | April 6, 2013 3:46 PMReply

    I think because I saw Spirited Away first it will always be at the top of my own list. I had to take a couple of runs at Princess Mononoke because I had a big problem with the English voice (mis)casting specifically Billy Bob Thortons character which I found almost as unconvincing as Kevin Costner as Robin Hood. Oy vey. I loved Howl's Moving Castle and My Neighbor Totoro although I have yet to see Castle in the Sky which I hear is quite good.

  • Michael M. | March 31, 2013 7:51 PMReply

    Who's John Lasseter? Haha.

  • Sora | March 30, 2013 9:36 PMReply

    I'm a huge Ghibli fan and always will be. With our technology today these movies can be easily seen all over the world by non-Japanese speaking audiences. I just don't understand why Americans have to wait for the English dubbed version all the time. I prefer watching these movies in its original Japanese audio (with subtitles on) because of the seiyuu's. The technicality and the heart they pour in to the character is also what makes the animation really engaging and magical. I've tried watching them in English and it doesn't really work for me - I feel removed from the character.

  • Brian | March 29, 2013 4:17 PMReply

    I'm very happy that you gave WHISPER OF THE HEART and ONLY YESTERDAY such prominence. They're two magnificent animated dramas that just don't get the attention they should. WHISPER OF THE HEART is one of the finest animated films I've ever seen and I constantly recommend it to children, adolescents and adults. (It's available on DVD.) ONLY YESTERDAY has had some festival showings in the U.S. and was aired once on TCM, but it's still never been officially distributed in the U.S., although hopefully that will change soon. When ONLY YESTERDAY aired on TCM, John Lasseter from Pixar was on hand with Ben Mankiewicz to introduce this film to the audience for the first time and all they talked about was how much Miyazaki liked TOY STORY and said not a word about the film. I'm still infuriated about that.

    Also, there's another animated feature from Ghibli, OCEAN WAVES (1993), that's one of the best high school dramas--animated or otherwise--I've ever seen. Hopefully that will eventually get released here as well.

    Oh, and one correction to your description of ONLY YESTERDAY: Taeko grew up in Tokyo, not the farming town, which she's visiting for the first time (to stay with her sister's husband's relatives). Her flashback to the '60s includes a reference to her older sister seeing the Beatles perform when they toured Tokyo in 1966.

  • Beth Hanna | March 29, 2013 5:28 PM

    @Brian -- Thanks for your comment. I was mis-remembering that "Only Yesterday" plot point, it's now been fixed..

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