I don’t profess to be well-versed in the art of list-writing. Some people prefer the rigidity in categorisation, deduction and suitably listing, but it’s quite difficult for me. Playing the role of the model twin brother though, I wanted to contribute to Vic(ky)’s blog with something that was congruent with the audience and the themes she’s cultivated. A list was ideal, but as I tend to do, I’ve made things considerably more difficult for myself by choosing an impossibly difficult task.
My favourite Studio Ghibli films. I struggle immensely with focusing any sort of writing I do, and to attempt to pin-point only three of, what I consider to be, the greatest animation company’s films as my favourites is unfathomably difficult. I don’t do well with sentiment, I never have done, I’ve just always found it exceedingly difficult to vocalise my love for certain things, but it’s always been seamless with Studio Ghibli and their films. I’ll never apologise for speaking so effusively about things that mean a lot to me, and the films on this list sit comfortably at the top of that pile.
So with that in mind, this isn’t a list with any sort of order, just a general group of films that have most affected me.
From Up on Poppy Hill
If I hadn’t already thrown myself under the (cat)bus by taking on this list, allow me to do so now by starting on what I assume will be considered a controversial choice.
Goro Miyazaki’s second film for Studio Ghibli, a top grosser in Japan upon its 2011 release, centres on two seemingly unremarkable characters whose budding romance coincides with their schools attempt to save the beloved Latin Quarters. Admittedly, I’ve not made it sound like a particularly engrossing affair, and it could have quickly devolved into such but there’s an intrinsic charm that stretches throughout it. Yes, such is present in all Ghibli films, that much is undeniable, but From Up On Poppy Hill possesses an unusually disarming personality found in the meticulously designed and unquestionably character-filled Latin Quarters building that they’re fighting so hard to save. It’s unconventional for Studio Ghibli, but this is a film where the setting and supporting cast are arguably more important than the protagonist.
Despite the huge amount of money it made in its native Japan, most feel that although it was an engaging and enjoyable affair, it is by no means one of Studio Ghibli’s stronger films. Whilst my Dad shares my own assessment of its understated greatness, I can’t help but feel that I’m slightly blind-sided by the pavlovian-esque response that From Up on Poppy Hill elicits from me. Its original theatrical run in Japan coincided with my first trip to the country in 2011, and never have I been so frustrated at my inability to speak another language. This resentment was compounded with my trip to the Ghibli museum in Mitaka, where I sat and watched an artist, armed with a paintbrush, begin a mural comprised of the maritime signal flags seen in the film. At the time, I felt as if I was missing out on magic, and upon reflection, my feelings rang true.
Laputa: Castle in the Sky
Remember that unrivalled sense of wonderment and escapism you experienced when watching fantasy films as a kid? It’s something that was mostly lost during the transition into adulthood, as our wide-eyed selves grew into cynics with responsibilities. Laputa abrogates that entirely. A world with such depth and detail couldn’t possibly be forged in the back of one man’s mind, could it? A land with such rich history and whispered myths couldn’t simply be conjured up. I’d have thought that would be the case, had I not been previously aware of Miyazaki and his many story-telling feats. Laputa is a film that adheres to the Studio Ghibli museum’s mantra of “Let’s get lost together,” imploring that you step through this portal to a storybook world. It boasts a wide collection of characters, each as interesting as the last with two orphans, Pazu and Sheeta (who mysteriously floats down from the sky after falling from an airship) attempting to escape the clutches of a band of sky pirates.
The real beauty of the film comes from the forgotten world of Laputa, entered in the latter half the film. It’s a visual myth, a moss-covered ruin with a long forgotten robot soldier guarding the land peacefully. While other Ghibli films are focused on exploring every facet of the world we live in, being one with the natural aspects, Laputa focuses on the mythical, the storied and uncharted past of a world we don’t know. That makes those first steps onto Laputa that much grander of an adventure, where the excitement of the characters is palpable and we share their achievement. As most Miyazaki films do, it possesses an important environmental message in line with Shinto ideals, whereby a connection between the ancient and modern worlds are established for the benefit of everyone. I’ll save that for another time, though.
This one I may struggle with. My first foray into Studio Ghibli, as I imagine it was for most. An Oscar winner, arguably one of the greatest animated feats of all times, and a story so laden with whimsical charm that it is nearly impossible not to get completely sucked in to the world Miyazaki creates. Spirited Away follows Chihiro, a girl who finds herself stuck in the Spirit World after a detour with her parents ends in them being turned into pigs. Under the guidance of a mysterious boy named Haku, Chihiro lands herself a job at the bathhouse under the witch Yubaba who controls people by taking their names. The story bears some resemblance to Alice in Wonderland, with an unwitting 10-year-old haplessly wandering into a world built on fantastical and unfamiliar creatures, with its entire existence formed on the illogical. It’s a bustling and vibrant world when set against our own, but provides comment on Miyazaki’s yearning and nostalgia for “old Japan,” with Chihiro’s search for her past self.
With a career that spans 50 years, you’d expect some level of decline or depreciation in an artist’s work. Miyazaki would be an exception to that rule, boasting a level of consistency that most could only dream of. Although, spanning from his directorial debut in The Castle of Cagliostro, until his bow-out swansong with The Wind Rises, Spirited Away may well be remembered as his most beautifully crafted and highly-lauded film, and the greatest of all of Studio Ghibli’s releases. It isn’t the portrayal of a strong female, like most other Miyazaki films, but of a very real girl who grows into her role and does what she must for her family. It’s a far more rounded and realistic character from Miyazaki, which goes so far in showing the absurdity of the world around her. It’s a carnival of dreams and nightmares, but it’s one that we as the audience will continue to delight in for years to come.
If you’ve never previously seen a film from Hayao Miyazaki, or Studio Ghibli, I implore you do so.