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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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5. "Princess Mononoke"  (1997) Set in 14th century Japan, Miyazaki’s visually sublime fable packs more imaginative breadth than a dozen Hollywood animated fantasies. The story of a prince who must bridge the gap between animal gods and the greedy humans devouring their land, “Mononoke” is no cuddly children’s film. Rather, it is an ambitious ecological parable that deftly avoids pandering, a film whose animals don’t so much talk with their mouths as they do communicate telepathically. Yet in spite of its lofty themes, brilliantly conceived sequences in a shadowy forest or a brawling village elevate the film to the level of pure cinema.

4. "Whisper of the Heart" (1995) You'll never hear John Denver's "Country Roads" the same after seeing this elegant, epic drama, storyboarded by Miyazaki and directed by Yoshifumi Kondo (who, sadly, died in 1998, leaving this one stunning work on his directorial resumé). Awkward teen Shizuku is grappling with stressful high school entrance exams, her crush, her parents -- oh yes, and a rotund magical cat she meets on a commuter bus who runs a mysterious antique shop. One of the best films ever made about the soul's need to etch out an identity.

3. "Only Yesterday" (1991) This gorgeously evocative double period-piece by Isao Takahata,  produced by Miyazaki, follows listless twentysomething Taeko as she makes her way to the countryside where her sister's husband's relatives live. A series of parallel flashbacks reveal Taeko's ordinarily turbulent adolescence as she struggles with puberty, difficult subjects at school and -- what else? -- boys. While Ghibli is typically known for its dazzling fantasy lands, this stirring, subtle portrait, along with "Whisper of the Heart," prove it's one of the most nimble, intelligent studios to deal with the coming-of-age genre.

2. "Spirited Away" (2001) The girl-in-wonderland subgenre can serve as an intelligent method for exposing the ludicrous and corrupt nature of those in authority.  In "Spirited Away," Miyazaki’s sublime and wondrously haunting film about a child's quest to save her family, an indictment of society's burgeoning greed emerges. In one of the finest scenes of the film, the pint-sized girl is confronted by a nasty client at a fantastic bathhouse, a previously svelte water spirit who has gorged himself on the bathhouse’s luxuries and is now a bulging, man-eating Goliath, determining his next meal based on who foolishly accepts his gold coins. This film won the best animated feature Oscar.

1. "My Neighbor Totoro" (1988) This Miyazaki classic evokes a magic summer countryside as a lonely girl and her younger sister explore their new home, complete with whimsical dust bunnies and a giant tree that harbors Totoro, an over-sized genially grinning fuzzy yet scary forest spirit who protects them as their hard-working father cares for their hospitalized mother. When they are stranded in the rain at a dark bus stop, Totoro conjures up a 12-legged furry cat bus to ferry them home. A must-see.

Watch below backstage interview footage from Comic-Con 2009 of Lasseter talking about making the English-language version of "Ponyo."

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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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