THERE WILL BE SOME SPOILERS If that sounds okay, then bring on the wall of text!
Over the past three months, I've been watching the entirety of Studio Ghibli's catalogue, thanks to my local library! And let me tell you--as an animation fan, I've really been sleeping on this studio. There are some great films here! Ghibli's movies are all unique (and they span an impressive number of genres, especially for an animation-only team), but they do often share some stylistic strengths: gorgeous environmental detail, rich themes, and my personal favorite: a focus on the "ma."
Roger Ebert: Instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or they will sigh, or look in a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.
Hayao Miyazaki: We have a word for that in Japanese. It's called ma. Emptiness. It's there intentionally. [claps his hands] The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it's just busyness. but if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.
Ultimately, I think that's really the strength of these movies compared to American animation. Which I still love, for the record. But there's a beauty in quietude and peaceful, still moments.
I'm ranking most of these as kind of a "gut" thing--watching them once, listening to people discuss them, letting 'em bounce around in my brain a bit, then slapping them into a list. A few of them I watched multiple times (the number one pick here has gotta be over 10 now). I have to get this out of the way: Spirited Away is not as high as you want it to be! I apologize to the Chihiro fans! I do like the movie, but...well, I'll cross that bridge (to the spirit world) when we get there, eh? I also watched all of these in dubbed form, as I found the dubs to be of high quality and helped boost my enjoyment of the films. With two exceptions: Grave of the Fireflies (I found the dub distracting so I switched to subbed), and Ocean Waves (which was never dubbed). Also, I am including the sort-of-Ghibli movies Nausicaa, The Red Turtle, and Castle of Cagliostro in this ranking, but not the not-Ghibli movie Mary and the Witch's Flower (it'd rank around #19, if you're curious).
By and large, these are mostly very strong as a collective. They helped open my eyes to different types of filmmaking and storytelling techniques and have a unique sense of beauty that I think a lot of western studios would pollute with noise and fart jokes. And I'm glad I got to experience them.
...That said, I'm gonna start by ragging on a few of these, so let's get to the rankings! Earwig, you're up!
25. Earwig and the Witch: The latest but certainly not greatest Ghibli film is also director Goro Miyazaki's third. One of my favorite aspects of Ghibli movies (which I mentioned above) is their atmosphere and attention to quiet, human moments, and Earwig really lacked that. Because the CGI animation is pretty amateurish--I'd place it around A Bug's Life level in terms of technology--certain movements are not even attempted. Characters don't go through the motions of tying their hair, struggling with clothing, cutting or taking a bite of food (as opposed to just shoving it whole into their mouths), etc. Most of the movie takes place in a single, small house that's really quite grody and dingy at times, and it just feels dank and oppressive. CG lip-syncing is also way more noticeable when it's off than 2D lip-synching.
Beyond that though, the plot isn't any good either. It's paced really strangely, with hints at larger things happening in the world but no real payoff; it feels like we're following the wrong character. A huge chunk of this movie is just Earwig doing chores against her will in a mean witch's abode. It'd be like if Harry Potter never left the Dursleys and the movie ended before he goes to Hogwarts. Who wants that?? In terms of unbearable characters, #24 on this list may have ticked me off more, but at least it had something to say. And wasn't animated like an episode of Paw Patrol.
24. Ocean Waves: One common criticism I have with Ghibli films is that they can run a tad too long, perhaps a side-effect of the focus on smaller moments (usually a worthy trade-off). At a scant 72 minutes, Ocean Waves is still too long! A made-for-TV novel adaptation released in the early 90s by some of the younger animators at Ghibli, this romance/drama missed the mark for me, largely because the leads were so unlikable. The main love interest girl has a whopping zero redeeming qualities: she's manipulative, childish and insulting, and not once did she say or do anything that endeared me to her. The main guy lets her walk all over him for the most part and barely has anything interesting going for him himself. There are some attempts at making the point that teens are stupid and irrational, which is kind of true...but it doesn't mean I want to watch a whole movie of teens being stupid and irrational. I can actually relate with the “vaguely romantic and exciting high school frenemy” element but ultimately, this is a romance where you absolutely don’t want the characters to get together. The animation and music are merely serviceable.
23. Tales from Earthsea: Goro Miyazaki's directorial debut is tasked with adapting several long fantasy books into a coherent movie. The visuals and sound are rather good (albeit a bit generic for the studio), and this story has some interesting ideas about the fragility of life contributing to its preciousness. Nevertheless, I can see why this one's so unpopular: it's confusing, it's sometimes dull, and I found the lead character thoroughly unlikable. The very first time you see him onscreen, he's murdering a good-hearted person for reasons unknown. He just comes across as a psychotic madman half the time, and a moping, easily manipulated fool the other half. As far as I'm concerned, Sparrowhawk is the reason to watch this movie. He also feels a little underbaked, but he's got a cool Obi-Wan presence and is the actual hero here.
22. The Red Turtle: A half-Ghibli film collaboration with several French companies, The Red Turtle is an experimental, dialogue-free movie about a castaway. I found this story to be pretty compelling in the first half, following the man’s struggle to survive and his frustration at being unable to escape the island. Things take a turn for the weird when he encounters a red turtle, and I’m afraid with the mid-film twist, the movie just kind of loses me. My suspension of disbelief cannot bend enough to reconcile the fact that this dead turtle has suddenly become a living, full-grown woman that the man then has a child with. I don’t understand how literally I’m supposed to take this, and not in a fun Calvin and Hobbes or Totoro way of “is this part real?” It’s just…weird, I’m sorry!
21. Pom Poko: Speaking of weird! Now, I do appreciate a lot of things that this movie was going for—almost a sort of Animal Farm [EDIT: Hah, I originally typed "Animal House" here. Now that would be odd] look at the relationship between man and beast. It also gave me Pixar vibes at points—like films such as Toy Story, Ratatouille, and Monsters Inc, Pom Poko focuses on a "race" of creatures with their own culture, and their interactions with human in a world similar to our own. It also features a few dramatic/heavy moments at times despite being a comedy overall. I'd say the comparisons end there though, as Pom Poko has a number of problems not normally found in Pixar movies. For starters, it's slowww with a lot of exposition. I didn't love the cast which lacks a focus on any one protagonist (and it's hard to root for the tanukis at times since they do some pretty awful things as a group), and the designs of the characters was less "cute in a Japanese way" and more 80s-animation Care Bears for my liking. Not a bad movie overall thanks to how wildly different it is, but it’s pokey and it needed a compelling protagonist.
20. The Cat Returns: A sort of spiritual spinoff/sequel to the low-key drama Whisper of the Heart (which I’ll talk about much later in this list), The Cat Returns is pretty light on themes and something meaty to grab onto. Despite having the most wide-eyed anime “look” of the repetoire, it feels a little too much like a lesser Western studio’s story to me. This is due to its pretty typical three-act structure, the Don Bluth-ian carousing and general oddity of the second half, and the kind of rote bickering between the comic characters. This stuff isn’t necessarily bad, but I quickly longed for the movie’s earlier minutes featuring a down-to-earth Japanese city and a lanky, klutzy girl. There are some cool sequences such as the climax, but The Cat Returns didn’t quite have that polish I expect from the studio.
19. Only Yesterday: Man did I want to like this movie. It sounds great on paper--a slice-of-life story across two separate time periods, the kid one being episodic and the adult one being serial. It's a great premise and the Futurama episodes which employ this technique are among my favorites. But while the ingredients are there, this story feels underbaked to me. Adult Taeko's reminiscing feels overdone--what adult reflects that much on her fifth grade self to other people?--and to make a less-nitpicky point, the flashbacks didn't feel relevant to what was happening (or shaping her decisions) in the present. By and large, the present-era story I found to be rather dull for long stretches, largely because I wasn't that invested in the two leads. And this may have actually been because of the dub, the first of which that I felt was very distracting in this lineup. I just didn't like Daisy Ridley or (especially) Dev Patel's performances here, so when they would have lengthy car conversations about very little, I found it tedious.
It wasn't all rough. The premise is great. Many of the short stories from the kid era--while unresolved--are compelling and well-written, especially the theater one, the first crush story, and the one about menstruation. It's a melancholy movie in a lot of ways and nails some emotional sequences and the smaller moments of life (director Isao Takahata is good at this, it seems--all of his movies have an undercurrent of sadness). The kid characters are smartly designed and I really liked the way the past backgrounds would sort of fade off into the distance, like a hazy memory. On the flip side, adult Taeko's dimples/cheekbones were so distracting to me it looked like she'd instantly age 30 years between expressions. And while the kids on the bus at the end were cool, I thought her going back to the dude sort of undermined her film-long frustration with societal expectations of getting married. And I typically am all about people settling down into a family! A film of two halves that would get a faint recommendation from me.
18. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind: I rather like the rest of these movies (which are a B- or above starting now), but I imagine people might balk at my placement of Nausicaa. This sci-fi environmentalist story reminds me a bit of Final Fantasy in some ways. The flying scenes are a real highlight, particularly later in the film when Nausicaa is escaping an enemy airship. I also really enjoyed the quiet exploration the movie opens with, culminating in a chase sequence that's our introduction to the fourteen-eyed Ohm creatures. This movie has a lot of world-building and exposition through dialogue--a bit too much for my tastes, frankly. It does feel well-realized, but I found it a little overwhelming and felt that it got in the way of what I tend to look for in Ghibli films: 1) quieter, atmospheric moments, 2) endearing characters, and 3) whimsical, visually creative sequences. To be blunt, the dialogue in these movies is rarely a highlight and is sometimes only serviceable. Even so, this is a pretty fun adventure with quite a spectacle of a finale. The environmentalist message is a little heavy-handed in this one and I think was handled with more deftness in Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke.
17. Howl's Moving Castle: I can’t help but feel that Howl is kind of a lesser, less atmospheric Spirited Away. It certainly has some whimsical, iconic, and majestic moments and some of the characters really make an impression, but it also has similar problems of Spirited Away where certain plot points just sort of happen without a proper buildup.The castle itself is whimsical and I enjoy the character of Calcifer, but overall it's a bit disjointed. Miyazaki's films often have a love subplot (which I generally enjoy), but it felt a little hamfisted here as I had trouble pinpointing how/when exactly the main characters fell for each other or why the villain does what she does. It certainly is imaginative though.
16. Ponyo: This is a cute take on The Little Mermaid that made me smile a lot. Weird, random moments like Ponyo squeezing the baby's cheeks really add to the characters feeling like real kids rather than just plot devices. The spunky mom was memorable as well and I really enjoyed the morse code interaction with the dad. When the movie starts getting grandiose in scope with the end of the world and the giant moon and stuff, I feel that it bites off more than it can chew. And the climax is a little underwhelming with the kid just saying "Sure, I love her" or whatever as his final test. Also a little weird that they needed these two six-year-olds or whatever to basically get engaged, but that’s more minor since it’s meant to be a pretty light fairy tale type story. It’s a fun film overall and doesn't overstay its welcome.
15. Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro: I'm going into the world of Lupin III completely blind here, but this movie was a good introduction to it. He's a bit of a scoundrel and a bit of a hero, and it's fun to see what sorts of tricks and traps he'll employ to get the upper hand. The main storyline is pretty light--stop the creepo, save the girl--but it's got a fun adventurous feel to it. A couple of the characters in Lupin's gang just kind of seem along for the ride without really being a solid part of the story, but they help lighten the mood and give our hero some much-needed backup, while I felt the female lead was pretty forgettable. The hot-tempered detective and female spy were good fun though. All in all, a pretty solid film although I feel it's kind of a prototype to Castle in the Sky, which was a little more my speed.
14. The Wind Rises: It helps to know a little bit of the backstory going into this film, as it seems largely autobiographical for Miyazaki's own career--his focus on work over family, his mom suffering from tuberculosis, and what the movie has to say about art and following one's dreams in general. One character remarks in a poignant line that you're only inspired for about a decade when you're an artist, which I hope Miyazaki doesn't apply to his own work! Anyway, it's a smart movie with some ambitious themes, but I won't lie--it's a bit hard to get through. It's lengthy and more importantly, feels long with a lot of calm, dialogue scenes between calm and soft-spoken people, and it did make me a little sleepy a few times. Ultimately though, pacing issues notwithstanding it's a pretty cool swan song for Miyazaki (even though he's apparently still working on another film, hah).
13. My Neighbors the Yamadas: You’ve made it halfway through my rankings! And sitting smack in the middle of my list is the quirky comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas. If Castle in the Sky is Spielberg-esque, Kiki is Disney-esque, Pom Poko and Arrietty are Pixar-esque…then Yamadas is The Simpsons (with a little bit of Peanuts thrown in). From the short-tempered blowhard dad to put-upon housewife and the hapless son who's sort of a Lisa/Bart blend, this slice-of-life comedy definitely channels some of the simple charm of America's animated shows. Not every bit works but it did get me to laugh a number of times at the goofiness onscreen, and the characters have enough depth to carry the film. It's a little loose and the art style oscillates between appropriately simple and appealing to slightly lazy, but still a good palette-cleanser after all the more dramatic, emotional films in the lineup.
12. From up on Poppy Hill: Apparently there's this whole to-do about Hayao Miyazaki's son taking the reigns to mixed results, and most Ghibli fans agree this entry is a big improvement over his first one (Tales from Earthsea). Goro’s other two films have already been covered at the beginning of this post but I enjoyed Poppy Hill well enough--the '60s Tokyo setting is enticing and the period-appropriate music really stands out. While the songs can get a bit overbearing at points just in comparison to how low-key a lot of this film is, it's got a lot of personality and I'm pretty sure there's even an overt Koichi Sugiyama reference to an old pop song of his in the OST. The leads were likable enough and the theme of old vs new really spoke to me. On the down side, the brother/sister plot line is a bit of an odd one and kind of peters out in a flaccid way, but this wasn't a bad showing by ol' Goro Miyazaki.
11. Spirited Away: Here it is—my big controversial placement. This movie has been frequently lauded as a masterpiece, the crowning jewel of Ghibli and indeed of all modern animation, and the winner of the 2003 Best Animated Feature award. The last of which I might agree with, actually (sorry Stitch)—Spirited Away, like most Miyazaki films, really excels in animation, music, and a tangible atmosphere. This film feels really cozy and serene in spots, despite the protagonist's fear and confusion. So I do think it's worth watching on those merits alone, especially if someone's tired of the sugar-infused obnoxiousness of so many animated films here in the US. This is an imaginative, unpredictable and super-creative movie.
So here’s my problem: this movie's plotting is kind of a mess. Things just sort of happen with no real build-up or motivation. The boy is a dragon, the dragon is attacked by these paper...things, one of the paper things is the witch's twin sister who we've never heard of and she was trying to apparently kill the boy for him taking her treasure, an object we've never heard of and have no real idea of its value or importance. The baby and old-lady-bird-thing get turned into other creatures and decide to just hang around Chihiro, etc. I really like Chihiro's personal journey of growth and in showing kindness to others (the bath scene with the stink spirit is the movie's high point and a wonderful spectacle), but a lot of these details just kind of feel made up as the movie goes along. I feel like the pacing is off as well; things get slow around the time she gets on the train since it feels like we've gone through two climaxes and the final act of the movie is pretty subdued (IMO the river spirit reveal would have a lot more oomph if we knew more about Chihiro's trauma in the past).
It’s absolutely a film worth watching for its numerous merits. Personally, I had trouble just rolling with the story elements after a while, at least to the degree where I couldn’t put it above the remaining ten (very good) movies…
10. Grave of the Fireflies: This was a tough watch. Confirming the deaths of the children at the beginning of the movie removes some of the shock that comes later, but has this added effect of the viewer knowing that ultimately, they're headed towards their doom the entire film. This gives everything a kind of bleak, hopeless feel in lieu of shocking devastation...although there is a bit of that as well in the opening act with their mother's injuries. When your movie is essentially two children starving to death across most of its runtime, it runs the risk of being bleak just for the sake of bleakness. And honestly I thought a couple sequences were reveling too much in the sadness of it all. But this film still has plenty to say and think about, and thankfully enough moments of happiness and character development that it still succeeds as a story and not just as a dire black hole of soul-crushing emptiness!
One of the little nuggets of joy to cling onto here comes across in Ghibli's trademark eye for detail. Little moments like Setsuko struggling to remove her pants at the beach, or the fruit drops clinging together in the can, or the long, quiet pans over serene environments untouched by people really help humanize the characters and this world. The iconic firefly/netting scene was tranquil and lovely. Some people have a big problem with Seita's stubbornness and refusal to return to his aunt's even when they were dying of illness and malnutrition, but I took that as commentary on our pride and misunderstanding of the severity of some situations. Plus, he was like 12. The movie certainly shows the devastating effects of war, but it felt to me like the themes were less directly about that and more about Japan's nationalism and some Japanese selfishness at the time (seen in many of the characters who interact with the kids). All in all, a brutal movie but a good one. Might wanna have a second film chaser on hand so you don’t cry yourself to sleep at night (this was a double-feature with Totoro during its debut, so that’s a good one to help wash the sadness away).
(A side note—this is the only film that I felt compelled to change from dubbed to subtitled partway through. I felt the voice actors didn’t do the movie justice, unlike the rest of these)
9. When Marnie Was There: Upon my first watch, this drama-mystery felt a lot more like a drama-romance. I think part of that might be due to the localization—it really felt like the film was implying that the lead Anna was working through her feelings for the enigmatic but friendly Marnie. But while it seems like a lesbian love story at first “blush,” it’s actually meant to be something completely different (and given the nature of the ending, I don’t think this was actually intended to be a mislead). As such, I found it a little jarring how the movie seems to be about one thing and then abruptly switches gears. But maybe I’m just not as familiar with how personable, emotionally open, and physical female platonic friendships can be.
Enough of that. That element aside, this is actually a really compelling story with a well-written lead and a good look at how social anxiety can be crippling (and overcome). The ending is perhaps the biggest tearjerker in Ghibli’s canon—at least with the exception of those Fireflies above—and the resolution with Anna feels way more earned than The Cat Returns’ lead suddenly being more confident. While some of the dialogue is a little flat or on-the-nose, this is an intensely likable film that looks and sounds great and features well-defined characters. A sleeper hit of sorts.
8. Kiki's Delivery Service: Miyazaki seems to be channelling Walt Disney here, which I’d say is a very good thing in this case. It's got a nice sense of optimism and whimsy, though the story has a more traditional structure (cartoon movie-wise, anyway) than something like Spirited Away or Totoro. On the plus side, it’s also lacking those odd out-of-nowhere plot points that bothered me in Spirited and Howl. And it’s less trite than you’d expect, covering themes of losing your passion and dealing with depression with deftness and tenderness. But going back to that Disney comparison, there's even a wisecracking talking cat! Voiced by the late, great Phil Hartman, no less. "You may remember me from such films as Kiki's Delivery Service..."
7. The Secret World of Arrietty: We’re into the A-tier with these final movies. I hadn't heard much about Ghibli's take on The Borrowers story, so I went in with basically no expectations. Turns out, this movie was just what I was looking for. It's thoughtful, pensive, beautifully illustrated and has atmosphere to spare. The concept of taking a closer look at the natural beauty around us is right up Ghibli's alley, and it's always fun in these kinds of stories seeing things like kitchen counters become these imposing cliffs, etc. The themes are a little light in comparison to most of their filmography but make some salient points about risk and fear of the unknown, I found the ending emotional, and the dub is really good too (minus the lead boy Sean, who sounds a little stilted). I mentioned that Pom Poko had elements of Pixar in it, but this one's wayyy closer to Pixar stylistically and in terms of storytelling. It’s not the most original of their work but I sure found it enchanting. All in all, my pick for most underrated of their films.
6. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya: Now, one of my criticisms across the board with Ghibli films is that they can be about 20 minutes too long. I think that also applies here, where Kaguya sort of loses the plot for a time, or takes a bit too long to set a mood. That said, this movie is gorgeous! Definitely one of the prettiest animated films I've ever seen, utilizing an impressionist brush stroke approach that conveys some serious emotion and life in every frame. It's got this sort of sumi-e or wall scroll look that reminds me a little of Zelda: The Wind Waker's bold departure, bolstered by the usual quality soundtrack. And despite my problems with its pacing, the story is strong as well, focusing on themes of humanity, expectations, the joy of nature, the treatment of women, and even questions about the afterlife and whether our emotions (negative ones included) make us more human. I can have mixed feelings on some of Isao Takahata’s work but I feel like I really “get” him with this and Fireflies. There’s a rich sadness here and the ending is quite bold and memorable. It's a thoughtful, lovely film and I really liked it.
5. Whisper of the Heart: Whisper of the Heart is often advertised with one of the film’s (very few) fanciful dream sequences, but the true strength of this story is in how grounded and relatable it is. It’s a drama/romance slice-of-life tale in 90s Tokyo and everything just works. The well-defined lead character, Shizuku, is easy to root for and the themes of budding artistry are deftly explored. This isn’t a movie about prodigies or effortless talent—it’s about just starting out and making something that has the potential for greatness.
I also found it extremely cozy. From the distinctive setting and the attention to detail, the familial relationships between the characters and the multiple dimensions each had, this is a Ghibli movie through and through. Whisper’s best moment, however, comes around the mid-point of the movie when Shizuku comes out of her shell just enough to sing her modified (translated) lyrics to “Country Roads”—words that very much encapsulate the themes of this story—and begins to realize both her love for the male lead and for creativity. No extra polish required—this is a hidden gem for sure.
4. Porco Rosso: This action-packed take on dogfighting films and Bogart was solid entertainment through and through. The grouchy Porco is a breath of fresh air compared to the usual protagonists, being a grizzled, tough middle-aged dude with survivor's guilt. The cast in general and themes are endearing and memorable, and it's easily one of the funniest Ghiblis, with multiple really great comedic moments. As always, the fun is interspersed with deceptively rich character moments and themes. The music is a tad understated for Joe Hisaishi, and there are a few elements that seem cribbed from other movies (notably the comedic pirate crew, who basically have the same arc as Castle in the Sky's) but this is still a great watch. Heartfelt, good characters, lots of fun! Zero speaks the truth.
3. Castle in the Sky: This was recommended to me in this thread a few times after I voiced my complaints about some Ghiblis being too surreal, and I can now see why. This is a great little film! I can see some people thinking it's too straightforward-action-movie fare compared to the more surreal Miyazakis, but darned if I wasn't entertained. Castle in the Sky features the strengths associated with this line of films (excellent animation, endearing character design, great music) but in a rousing, steampunk adventure featuring pirates and cannons and death-machines. It honestly gave me Skies of Arcadia vibes at a few points, which is very much a good thing. The sequence through the storm comes to mind as both beautiful and thrilling.
I also liked the characters. The main boy (Pazu) is likable and has a distinct voice, and while the main girl (Sheeta) is not as memorable, she goes through some character growth by the end that I think the boy doesn’t, while the pirate crew gave me Team Rocket vibes. Pretty dramatic climax too. All in all, a lovely and exciting adventure, even if there are quite a few super-convenient coincidences to give the leads plot armor.
2. Princess Mononoke: One nigh-universal complaint I've had about these movies is that almost all of them past the 2-hour mark are a little too long and could've used a cut here or there. Princess Mononoke is a whopping 137 minutes, I'd seen it in the past but barely remembered it, and I thought Nausicaa was a bit too heavy-handed with its "save the Earth" theme--so I was going in with somewhat lowered expectations…
However, this movie was great! I actually felt it didn't drag at all and used its runtime to properly developed its (rather brutal) world and characters. The visuals were stunning and a testament to how much effort was put into the film, with a number of wild sequences that looked like a nightmare to animate. The cast is done well too, with people all over the morality scale, which bolstered the themes of man/nature/beast coexistence.
As for the environmentalist plot that felt a little basic for me in Nausicaa? I thought here, it was actually quite nuanced with many shades of gray, which I appreciated. It felt like the theme of the movie was rallying more against concepts of revenge and hatred than just "don't cut down trees" or whatever. That said, it can be a slightly tough watch at times due to the trademark grotesque Ghibli creature design mixed with gore (I could’ve done without the fast-rotting carcass of a beast or the encrusted eyelids of the blind boar leader, etc) so it’s not going to be one I return to a lot, necessarily. But it sure was impressive and told a good story, and when it was done, I felt like I watched a real epic and quite an achievement in animation.
1. My Neighbor Totoro: Ready, set, let's go!
The climax of this film involves a young girl delivering an ear of corn to her mother. Plotwise, it’s as simple and basic as it gets, but that’s not the point. My Neighbor Totoro paints a picture of childhood so clearly and so honestly that I can’t help but be impressed and charmed each time I see it. The heart of the movie is in a pair of unbelievably-well-characterized girls, both dealing with the darker elements of the world in their own way. In a lot of ways, My Neighbor Totoro is about coping with fear, but in the most joyful, whimsical way possible. A haunted house is something exotic and appealing, a crumbling front porch is fun, and a furry, toothy giant is so docile that a child can take a nap on his tummy.
The cast is an all-star lineup: Mei is adorable in her mirroring her older sister, her constant insistence that she’s not scared, and her wide-eyed wonder at finding the magic in nature. Satsuki is caught between the fun-loving whimsy of early childhood and the responsibilities she feels compelled to take on in her mother’s absence. Their father Tatsuo encourages the girls’ imaginations and helps them look on the bright side. Granny is caring if a little misguided, Kanta is basically every crush-ridden boy you knew in elementary school to a T, while the mystical Totoro and Catbus really steal the show with their limited screentime.
Due to its laid-back structure, the film breaks all the rules of storytelling and it’s actually gotten me to re-evaluate the kinds of tales that can still be told effectively without adhering to a strict “ruleset”. The quieter moments of observing nature, the tiny elements of characterization through movement, the three-dimensional characters that reflect children perfectly without making them into catchphrase-shouting mini-adults…these are Ghibli-defining features, and I’d argue that none of their repertoire nails these elements quite like Totoro does. Despite the wave of merchandise associated with him, Totoro himself appears rather sparingly in the film (not even showing up until about half an hour in), making the most of his limited screentime. Ultimately, this is the girls’ movie, and Totoro’s merely there on the sidelines to help them cope and aid in their sense of discovery and wonder.
I could go on for a while with a deeper analysis of the movie, the nature of Totoro and reality, the parallels with the Three Billy Goats Gruff, the role Satsuki feels burdened with and how it comes crumbling down when the reaches her breaking point…but the important thing is, this movie is just joy personified. It’s enchanting, funny, thoughtful, pensive, achingly nostalgic and masterfully drawn. It’s basically my film equivalent of EarthBound, and a movie that I wish I could’ve grown up with and associated with childhood. But that’s okay—now my kids can!
Whew, that was a lot of typing. It's late and I'm starting to feel like the Stink Spirit, so it's time to hit the bath. I'd be curious to hear of your own thoughts about these films, which ones resonated with you, which ones had you scratching your head, which ones I should give another shot to. And keep an eye out for "How Do You Live?", Hayao Miyazaki's next film. And supposedly his final film (yeah, I've heard that one before)!
If you didn't "tl;dr" this business, then thanks for spending 15 minutes of your day reading some random dude's opinion of twenty-five different Japanese animated movies. Sayonara!
I've only seen Ponyo, Spirited Away, and My Neighbor Totoro. Good to know I've seen the number one in your list! I did love it! If I ever get the chance to watch others, I'll take to this list for recommendations.