It’s an amazing time to be among the multitudes of Studio Ghibli fans from all around the world. That is particularly so because all but one of Studio Ghibli’s twenty-two films are now available for streaming on Netflix.
For those who’ve missed out on these delightful films, this marks as an opportune time to hop in on experiencing the brilliance of the Japanese Studio Ghibli’s works. Their animated feature movies have been long admired critically from all the corners of the world, in the process commanding mass-following courtesy some of its masterpieces like Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, and Princess Mononoke.
From Hayao Miyazaki to Isao Takahata, we ranked the best ten Studio Ghibli movies on the streaming platform right now.
Let’s get going.
The most expensive Japanese film of all-time, Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya is based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a 10th-century Japanese literary tale. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at the 87th Academy Awards, the film follows a tiny nymph found inside a bamboo stalk, who grows into a beautiful and desirable young woman and orders her suitors to prove their love by completing a series of near-impossible tasks.
Takahata’s direction has a clear focus at showing us the development of Kaguya and her foster parents but still leaves us with enough time and space to get the full scope on how Kaguya, and her rapid growth, affects the people around her, for both better and worse. It is an excellent film and its message about the sometimes messy, yet joyous nature of being human makes the film a wonderful conclusion to Isao Takahata’s career.
The Wind Rises is a fictionalised biographical film of Jiro Horikoshi, who was the designer of the Mitsubishi A5M fighter aircraft and its successor, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, used by the Empire of Japan during World War II. The film is adapted from Miyazaki’s manga of the same name, which was in turn loosely based on both the 1937 novel The Wind Has Risen by Tatsuo Hori and the life of Jiro Horikoshi.
In retrospective, this stunning work from Hayao Miyazaki isn’t just a film about a man establishing the stepping stones in Japanese aviation. This is a movie about the meaning of life and more importantly, propagates the belief as long as we have passion in our craft or even in the people closest to us, we’ll always have a reason to live.
Another majestic gem from Miyazaki’s glittered oeuvre, Ponyo tells the story of the titular Ponyo, a goldfish who escapes from the ocean and is rescued by a five-year-old human boy, Sōsuke after she is washed ashore while trapped in a glass jar. As they bond with each other, the story deals with resolving Ponyo’s desire to become a human girl, against the devastating circumstances brought about by her acquisition and use of magic.
Irresistibly charming, immensely adorable, and truly magical, the film shifts between moments of carefully illustrated wonder like sea creatures gently flowing through the aquatic deeps to cartoonish distortions like Ponyo’s body-transforming magically, blowing up like a balloon.
In Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko, the Raccoons of the Tama Hills are being forced from their homes by the rapid development of houses and shopping malls. As it becomes harder to find food and shelter, they decide to band together and fight back. The Raccoons practice and perfect the ancient art of transformation until they are even able to appear as humans in hilarious circumstances.
Like many other Ghibli productions, it is a pro-environment fable that attempts to showcase the disruption brought into the ecological balance by human society and hopes to make its viewers reflect on their actions by exposing the selfishness and utter disregard we have for other habitats.
Only Yesterday explores a genre traditionally thought to be outside the realm of animated subjects: a realistic drama written for adults, particularly women. It follows the life of an unmarried career woman, Taeko Okajima, who takes her first extended trip outside her native Tokyo when she travels to rural Yamagata to visit her sister’s family during the annual safflower harvest. On the train, Taeko daydreams about her pre-adolescent self. As her vacation progresses, she has extended flashbacks about the frustrations and small pleasures of her childhood, and wonders if her stress-filled adult life is what the young Taeko would have wanted for herself.
Where Hayao Miyazaki likes to make extensive use of colours in his features, Isao Takahata aims for the minimal effect that provides his works with a uniqueness of its own, and here the hand-drawn animation is quite mesmerising. One of Studio Ghibli’s finest achievements, it is moving, fraught with melancholy, and a marvel of animation as well as art direction.
Howl’s Moving Castle is set in a fictional kingdom where both magic and early 20th-century technology are prevalent, against the backdrop of a war with another kingdom. The film tells the story of a young, content milliner named Sophie who is turned into an old woman by a witch who enters her shop and curses her. She encounters a wizard named Howl and gets caught up in his resistance to fighting for the king.
In 2013, Miyazaki said the film was his favourite creation, explaining: “I wanted to convey the message that life is worth living, and I don’t think that’s changed.” Also influenced by Miyazaki’s opposition to the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, the film contains strong anti-war themes. Miyazaki stated that he “had a great deal of rage” about the Iraq war, which led him to make a film which he felt would be poorly received in the US.
Of all Hayao Miyazaki’s attempts at catching life as it is really lived, My Neighbour Totoro is arguably the closest. Without any apparent plot or narrative complexities as such, the film leaves Miyazaki to focus on characters and possibly imagined scenes of fantasy. Very few films can capture the everyday simplicity and wonder of childhood, with the eventual stress of growing up.
It is a film crafted in the innocence of fantasy from the wisdom of reality; a simple, beautiful, and perfect conception. My Neighbour Totoro is a masterwork, depicting a time in life when fantasy is acceptable and necessary while reminding us that even when fantasy is and must be discouraged, imagination can always be a good thing.
Porco Rosso, known in Japan as Crimson Pig is the sixth animated film by Hayao Miyazaki and released in 1992. We’re introduced to an Italian World War I fighter ace, now living as a freelance bounty hunter chasing “air pirates” in the Adriatic Sea. He has been given a curse that changed his head to that of a pig. Once called Marco Pagot, he is now known to the world as “Porco Rosso”, Italian for “Red Pig.”
It is one of the few films directed by Hayao Miyazaki in which the historical and geographical settings are clearly defined and where most of the story could have happened in the real world. Porco makes statements of his being anti-fascist, quipping during one scene that “I’d much rather be a pig than a fascist”.
Miyazaki shed light on the political context of the making of the film in an interview with Empire. reflecting that the conflicts that broke out during the film’s production made Porco Rosso a much more complicated and difficult film.
In Princess Mononoke, Ashitaka, a prince of the disappearing Emishi people, is cursed by a demonized boar god and must journey to the west to find a cure. Along the way, he encounters San, a young human woman fighting to protect the forest, and Lady Eboshi, who is trying to destroy it. With that, Ashitaka must find a way to bring balance to this conflict.
Upon release, it was a critical and commercial blockbuster, becoming the highest-grossing film in Japan of 1997, and also held Japan’s box office record for domestic films until 2001’s Spirited Away – another Miyazaki film overtook it. Inspired by John Ford, Miyazaki created Irontown as a “tight-knit frontier town” and populated it with “characters from outcast groups and oppressed minorities who rarely, if ever, appear in Japanese films.” He made the characters “yearning, ambitious and tough.” He later explained that he was inspired to portray people living with leprosy, “said to be an incurable disease caused by bad karma.”
One of the greatest animated films to be ever made, Spirited Away is a coming-of-age drama, adventure, comedy, romance & fantasy, all merged into one, and concerns Chihiro; a 10-year-old girl who, while moving to a new neighbourhood with her parents, gets stuck in the world of gods, witches and monsters. After her parents are turned into pigs by the witch Yubaba, Chihiro takes up a job at the witch’s bathhouse in order to free herself and her parents from the magic spell and return to the human world.
The film is abundant with Miyazaki’s trademarks, recurrent themes, allegories and fascinating characters, yet it retains the innocence and childlike sense of wonder to eventually deliver a truly spellbinding experience. Many hail this anime as his magnum opus, and that is for good reason. One of Miyazaki’s most ambitious features, one of Studio Ghibli’s greatest accomplishments, and one of world cinema’s highly treasured gems, Spirited Away is magical enough to take your breath away.
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