Top 5 Studio Ghibli Films

Originally written for

Studio Ghibli has released so many quality films over the years that I had a hard time limiting myself to five films for this list. After some deliberation, I was finally able to whittle it down to the five films that I included on this list. In full disclosure, I have to admit that at the time I compiled this list, I had not yet seen The Wind Rises, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, or When Marnie Was There.

5. Only Yesterday (1991)

This is the second film that Isao Takahata directed for Studio Ghibli, and it has the distinction of being the only Studio Ghibli feature that has not yet received a home video release in North America even though Disney holds the distribution rights for the title. I was finally able to see Only Yesterday about two years ago, when my husband bought the Hong Kong Blu-ray release of the film that includes English subtitles for me as a gift.

Only Yesterday is a great film, but I can see why Disney has passed on releasing it after I watched it. The main character is an office lady in her late twenties named Taeko Okajima, and she takes a trip into the country to help the family of her elder sister’s husband with the safflower harvest. While Taeko is on her trip, she begins recalling memories of when she was a 10-year-old schoolgirl in 1966. Over the course of the film, Taeko’s memories of her 10-year-old self are intertwined with what’s happening to her in Yamagata, and Taeko finds herself questioning not only her feelings, but also what she wants in life. Between having an adult as a main character, as well as some of the topics that are included in Taeko’s memories, Only Yesterday just doesn’t fit with the other Studio Ghibli films that Disney has dubbed and released over the years.

I was in my later thirties when I watched Only Yesterday, so I could relate to Taeko and understand where she’s coming from. I also enjoyed the story and thought that Takahata took quite the chance by producing and releasing an animated film that is a realistic drama written for adults.

4. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My Neighbor Totoro is set in the 1950s. Two girls named Satsuki and Mei are the protagonists of the film, and they move into an old house in rural Japan with their father in order to be closer to their mother, who is staying in the hospital due to illness. One day, Mei plays outside and sees a creature with two white, rabbit-like ears. She follows the creature under the house, and discovers two magical creatures; the creatures lead her through a briar patch and into the hollow of a large tree. Mei meets and befriends a bigger version of these spirits, and the big spirit identifies itself through a series of roars, which Met interprets as “Totoro.” One day, after believing her mother’s condition has worsened, Mei heads out on foot to the hospital. Satsuki enlists the help of Totoro and the Catbus, a large bus-shaped cat, to help her find her sister.

My Neighbor Totoro has a very sweet story with child characters that are very compelling, and I thought that Hayao Miyazaki was able to tell the story, convincingly, through the eyes of the child protagonists. The animation in My Neighbor Totoro perfectly accompanies the story that’s being told, and it captures the audience’s imagination. The look of the fantastical creatures like Totoro and the Catbus is very endearing, and Mei is simply cute. I have to admit that I kind of feel like a kid again whenever I watch this movie.

3. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

This is the first film that Isao Takahata directed for Studio Ghibli, and it’s an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel written by Akiyuki Nosaka. The film is set near the end of World War II in Japan, and features two children, Seita and Setsuko, whose lives are disrupted after the firebombing at Kobe. They survive, but their mother is caught in the air raid and dies from burn wounds. Seita and Setsuko’s father was serving in the Japanese navy and away from home when the attack occurred. As a result, the children are sent to live with an aunt who treats them cruelly over time. The siblings can only take so much before they leave and live in an old, abandoned bomb shelter.

Grave of the Fireflies is a realistic portrayal of this event and the aftermath of what happened. It’s gritty and at times, it gets rather dark. While this film may star children, it’s not a film aimed at that audience. It’s a very gripping film, which probably includes one of the saddest scenes ever to appear in an anime film. While I’ve seen this film three or four times now, I choke up and bawl like a baby every time I see this particular scene. In addition, I also become very angry at Seita and Setsuko’s aunt every time I see this film. To me, always having these strong emotional responses each time I watch the film is a testament to how well written the story is. It also shows how emotionally invested the audience can get when it comes to Seita and Setsuko.

2. Princess Mononoke (1997)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke was the Studio Ghibli film that started getting the company attention in the United States. The film is set during the Muromachi period of Japan, and it focuses on the struggle between the supernatural guardians of the forest and the humans that try to consume its resources. Ashitaka, the last Emishi prince, is cursed when he kills the demon form of Nago, the boar god. He leaves his village because of the curse, and he comes upon Irontown, a refuge for social outcasts near the forest that’s inhabited by the animal gods and the Forest Spirit. Ashitaka finds himself thrown into the middle of the conflict when San, a human girl adopted by wolves, attacks Irontown. He tries to become a peacekeeper between the gods of the forest and the people of Irontown, who clear the forest to get more iron ore for the firearms that they manufacture.

Princess Mononoke tells a compelling story, which focuses on two ideas: the environment and the fact that no one is necessarily either good or evil. What I really appreciated about the storytelling in Princess Mononoke is the fact that Miyazaki was able to tell this story without falling into the trap of “the forest animals and the animal spirits are the good guys, and that Lady Eboshi and the citizens of Irontown are the bad guys.” The animation in the film is also breathtaking, and it perfectly conveys the feelings and emotions Miyazaki wants the viewer to experience while watching the film.

1. Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away is Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki’s best known film, thanks in large part to winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards. The main character of the film is a spoiled 10-year-old girl named Chihiro, who is unhappy about moving to a new home and going to a new school. As they drive to their new home, Chihiro’s father becomes lost. The family finds an entryway to a mysterious tunnel, which appears to be an entrance to an abandoned theme park. Chihiro’s parents find food at one of the stalls and help themselves to the meal. Chihiro declines to eat, and goes off to explore more of the park. During her exploration of the park, Chihiro comes across an older boy who warns her she must leave the park before it is dark. Night is quickly falling when she returns to the food stall, only to discover that her parents have turned into pigs. The film follows Chihiro as she learns what she needs to do in order to survive trapped in the spirit world. She also must find a way to return her parents to normal and return to their world.

With Spirited Away, Miyazaki tells a compelling coming of age story as Chihiro begins to change as she goes through her experiences in the spirit world. Miyazaki also successfully combines the fantastical elements of the spirit world with the realism of Chihiro’s maturation. Spirited Away is also filled with memorable characters such as No-Face, Haku, Yubaba, and Boh.

The animation in Spirited Away is breathtaking, and at times, it almost looks realistic. The look of the film adds to its overall atmosphere and helps to enhance the fantastical elements that are included in it. The combination of the storytelling and the animation help to make Spirited Away one of the best films that Studio Ghibli has ever released.

This list represents my personal opinion, it is not meant to be a definitive list of the best Studio Ghibli films of all-time. Which films would be in your personal top five? Let us know in the comments!

Anime Films to Screen at the IFC Center Theater in New York City

The IFC Center theater in New York City will be holding a film retrospective for films released by GKids over the past five years. The films included in the retrospective are:

  • Welcome to the Space Show
  • A Letter to Momo
  • My Neighbor Totoro
  • Grave of the Fireflies
  • Summer Wars
  • From Up on Poppy Hill

The films will open on December 20, 2013 and will play through January 2, 2014.

Anime Film Review: Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies is a film written and directed by Isao Takahata. It was released to Japanese theaters as part of a double feature with My Neighbor Totoro on April 16, 1988. Sometimes, My Neighbor Totoro would be shown first, and sometimes, Grave of the Fireflies was shown first. Audiences who saw My Neighbor Totoro first were more likely to leave before the end of Grave of the Fireflies; however, if audiences saw Grave of the Fireflies first, they were more likely to stay for the entire film. Grave of the Fireflies wasn’t released in the United States until 1998; however, there was no theatrical release in the United States, and it was only released on DVD. The film was first released on DVD by Central Park Media until the company went out of business. As of this writing, Sentai Filmworks holds the North American rights for Grave of the Fireflies. This is a review of Central Park Media’s DVD release of the film.

Grave of the Fireflies
Directed by: Isao Takahata
Written by: Isao Takahata
Starring: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara, and Akemi Yamaguchi
Run Time: 89 minutes

Grave of the Fireflies is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel written by Akiyuki Nosaka; the novel and film are set near the end of World War II in Japan. The film opens in Sannomiya Station, and shows Seita (one of the main characters) wearing rags and dying from starvation. A janitor comes by and digs through his things, and finds a candy tin. The janitor throws it out, and the spirit of Seita’s little sister, Setsuko, as well as some fireflies, springs from the tin. Seita’s spirit joins them, and the story goes into an extended flashback of how Seita and Setsuko ended up dying.

The flashback begins with a firebombing at Kobe. Seita and Setsuko are left to secure the house and the family’s belongings, so their mother is able to head to a bomb shelter. The children’s father is serving in the Japanese navy, so he is not home to help the family. Seita and Setsuko are caught off-guard by bombs being dropped in their vicinity, but they are able to survive unscathed. Their mother, however, was caught in the air raid and dies from burn wounds.

Since they have nowhere else to go, the siblings are sent to live with an aunt, and they write letters to their father. On their second day at their aunt’s house, Seita returns to Kobe to dig up the supplies he and Setsuko had buried before the air raid. Seita gives everything to his aunt, except for a small tin of fruit drops, which he hides. As time goes on, their aunt treats the children more and more cruelly; she barely gives them enough food, insults them, and sells their mother’s kimonos for rice and keeps most of the rice for herself. Fed up with their aunt’s treatment, Seita and Setsuko leave her home and go to live in an old, abandoned bomb shelter. Gradually, the children run out of food, and Setsuko ends up starving to death.

I’ve seen this film about three or four times now, but I get just as choked up at Setsuko’s death scene as I did the first time I saw the film. Even though I know that scene is coming, it still brings on the waterworks; to me, this is a testament to just how powerful that particular scene in the movie is. I also have to say that each time I see this film, I also get just as pissed off at the aunt’s treatment of Seita and Setsuko as I did the first time. Grave of the Fireflies is a film that can trigger strong emotional responses from the viewer; since these scenes were done so well, they can still trigger strong emotional responses with additional viewings of the film.

Grave of the Fireflies is a very well-made anime film, and after viewing it, I can see why it’s considered such an anime classic. However, if you decide to watch this film, be sure to have some tissues nearby; by the end of the film, you’re going to need them.

Central Park Media released Grave of the Fireflies as a two-disc DVD set. The only bonus features included on this disc are a storyboard version of the film and trailers for the properties that Central Park Media was promoting at the time this film was released. I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I don’t understand the appeal of watching a storyboard version of a film.

The second disc has an interview with film critic Roger Ebert, which runs for 12 minutes; he shares his thoughts about the film. There is also an interview with director Isao Takahata; he speaks in Japanese, and subtitles are used to translate what he says (however, the film footage used in the interview comes from the English dub). There are text-only biographies for Akiyuki Nosaka and Isao Takahata; however, these run for several screens, and you can’t control when the pages change. You can also see a “Japanese Release Promo” that runs for almost seven minutes, and includes interview footage with Akiyuki Nosaka, Isao Takahata, and art director Niza Yamamoto. The interviews are done in Japanese, but presented with English subtitles.

The “DVNR Featurette” is a documentary that shows the efforts Central Park Media went to in order to restore the film. The art gallery is a slideshow that includes stills from the film, model sheets, and storyboards. “Locations, Then and Now” shows images and has explanatory text for various locations featured in the film. “Bonus Storyboards” are storyboards for nine scenes that were cut from the film, as well as “single shots” (storyboards for various stand-alone shots put together into one piece).

The “U.S. Trailer” is a two-minute promo for this DVD release. The Japanese trailer has audio in Japanese, but does not include any English subtitles. It’s interesting to note in the trailer that you only ever hear Setsuko speak; Seita is never heard. “Historical Perspective” runs for about 12 minutes, and contains interviews with two authors of books about World War II in Japan, and sharing the history of the events that led up to what was shown in the film.

I have to give Central Park Media a lot of credit for all of the bonus features that were included in their release of Grave of the Fireflies. I especially appreciated the “Historical Perspective” documentary, because it helps to provide some background for the story that helps the viewer better understand what they saw in the film.

The back of the DVD box may say that the film is for ages “3 and up,” but I believe this is a typo. Between some of the shots included in the film, as well as the subject matter and the historical knowledge needed, this film is more appropriate for viewers 13 and up.

Unfortunately, the Central Park Media pressing of Grave of the Fireflies is out of print. As of this writing, the Sentai Filmworks release is available, but from what I’ve heard, most, if not all, of the bonus features from the Central Park Media pressing are not included. Grave of the Fireflies really should be seen by anyone who considers themselves to be an anime fan. It also is a film that should be in an anime home video library, regardless of which DVD pressing it is.

I wrote this review after watching a copy of Grave of the Fireflies that my husband and I purchased.

GKids Acquires Rights for Grave of the Fireflies

It’s being reported at IndieWire that GKids has acquired the North American theatrical rights for Grave of the Fireflies.

According to the report, GKids is planning to release Grave of the Fireflies theatrically in 2013 to celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary. The film will also be screened as part of GKids’ touring Studio Ghibli Retrospective.