It’s been an interesting year. Tracing through all the feature films of Studio Ghibli has been both fun and somewhat exhausting, which partly explains the six months I went on hiatus. I mean, I was taking off April and May because of my wedding and honeymoon, but then June, July, August, and September managed to slide past too.
Anycase, I finished what I started!
I watched the following twenty films:
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Grave of the Fireflies
- My Neighbor Totoro
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- Pom Poko
- Whisper of the Heart
- Princess Mononoke
- My Neighbors the Yamadas
- Spirited Away
- The Cat Returns
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- Tales from Earthsea
- The Borrower Arrietty
- From Up on Poppy Hill
- The Wind Rises
- The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
- When Marnie Was There
And wrote about 38,000 words combined about these films, which is more than enough to fill a book. Though it’s been a lot of work, it’s been joyful work.
So it’s with deep sadness that I say goodbye to it all. Some of these films hold a lot of my heart and brain and life. I’ve loved them so long, seen them so many times, and felt them burrowing deeper into me.
So why did I choose to only discuss these twenty films? Studio Ghibli’s done quite a bit more than just this. There are so many short films I could have discussed. There’s the film that was only made for television or the video game or the anime that I could have spent time discussing. I could have gone backwards and discussed Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or any number of pre-Ghibli films that led to its founding.
And I don’t really have a good answer. I chose the films because they’re the ones I’m most attached to. Much as I love Nausicaa, and especially the manga of the same name, I just decided to focus purely on the things Studio Ghibli is most known for. Which is maybe selling it short, but it felt like the most thematically cohesive thing to do.
And it was important to me to do that this year, since I believed it was the last year of their existence.
There’s a new Ni No Kuni game, though I’m not sure how much, if at all, Studio Ghibli is involved. It certainly looks, feels, and sounds like Studio Ghibli. In addition, the Studio Ghibli Facebook Fan Page seems to indicate that there is a co-produced film coming out next year, though this is a bit more nebulously defined.
Anycase, it appears that Hayao Miyazaki will only be making short films from here on out, and his next one appears to be all CG, which is a departure for him. So Studio Ghibli continues to exist, but it seems unlikely that they’ll be producing anything in the future to match Howl’s Moving Castle or My Neighbor Totoro. For all intents and purposes, When Marnie Was There was the final film likely to be made under the Studio Ghibli name.
And though sadness fills me, I’m mostly happy to have these, and to have a record of my thoughts and feelings about these films. While my views on these films will likely change in subsequent viewings and years, I very much stand behind what I’ve said in this series.
And that’s something worth mentioning. My personal biases are all over these essays/reviews. I can’t watch these films and look at them objectively because they hold my heart so closely. I can’t even think about Princess Mononoke without falling into that childlike trance I first experienced while watching it for the first time.
What’s been, perhaps, most interesting for me is seeing and discussing some of these for the first time. I had seen nearly all of the films before this year began. Many of them several times. But the only Takahata films I had seen previously were Grave of the Fireflies and Pom Poko. In addition, I had never seen The Wind Rises or When Marnie Was There. But I think it’s been falling through Takahata’s career with Ghibli that has been most interesting.
Grave of the Fireflies is an undeniable masterpiece. It’s one of the most profound and powerful statements about war that I’ve ever seen. The only film that comes close, for me, is The Thin Red Line, but for entirely different reasons. Only Yesterday is also just so brilliant. What I saw with Takahata in these first two films was an incredible eye for the details of human emotional motion. What I mean by that is that Takahata captures so perfectly the emotions of his characters through their movements and behaviors. Much as I love Miyazaki, Takahata is a far subtler filmmaker and animator.
Which makes it unsurprising that he would remain somewhat in obscurity while Miyazaki would rise to international prominence. Miyazaki is at his most subtle with My Neighbor Totoro, but many of his films have more adventures, making them more relatable to international and western markets. In no ways do I mean that as a slight to him and his films, which I love dearly. But Castle in the Sky is a film that’s far easier for US and European audiences to fall in love with then, say, Only Yesterday, which feels more like François Truffaut than Walt Disney. Had Takahata made live action films, I think he would have had more international attention, though I doubt he’d be any better known here in the west.
And I wonder if that’s why he pushed towards the more fantastical and more adventuring style of storytelling with Pom Poko, which has always seemed a strange film for him to make. At times it looks like many of the american cartoons of the 80s, while at other times it’s more in the style of his previous films. It’s also incredibly chatty. There’s so much talking in it! Most of it narration. And I wonder if he was hoping to tap into that audience Miyazaki was slowly building through his films.
But Takahata is, I think, primarily an arthouse director, while Miyazaki does both arthouse and blockbusters, and his blockbusters are intensely influenced by the arthouse. When Takahata went for that wider audience, I think he stumbled on his inability to give himself to it fully.
Pom Poko is a fine film, but it stands up poorly, I think, to his other Ghibli films. And My Neighbors the Yamadas is, in my opinion, a disaster. I think it’s exactly the kind of film he wanted to make, but I found it unpleasant to sit through, which is perhaps the only time I’ve ever thought that during an animated film of any kind. But I wonder if this was a natural reaction to what he did with Pom Poko. The Yamadas is, perhaps, the most Japanese film made by Studio Ghibli. Or at least the most specifically for a domestic audience.
And then there’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which is a beautiful mess or the bleakest film made by Studio Ghibli. I’m still unsure of which it is or even which it’s trying to be. I’ll have to watch it again to make up my mind, but, for now, I think it’s an impeccably made disaster. It’s his best looking film but also his most muddled, in terms of theme, statement, and intention. I wonder if its bleakness comes from Takahata’s frustrations, the way he has overwhelmingly become overshadowed by his younger colleague, who was once his protégé. Oddly enough, it’s also the film that’s garnered him more attention than anything he’s done since Grave of the Fireflies.
One of the most interesting aspects about going through these films chronologically is that I was able to see these films in the context of the careers of the filmmakers. I think Takahata was, perhaps, doing his finest work before Ghibli and immediately after it opened. His first two Ghibli films are such masterpieces. It’s clear he’s at the apex of his ability there. While, at the same time, Miyazaki is at the end of his apprenticeship under Takahata.
I mean, that’s not true, but it the Miyazaki who made Castle in the Sky is not the same man who made Spirited Away, similar as they may sometimes seem. My Neighbor Totoro is certainly one of his best films, but I think it’s atypical for that stage in his career. Much as I love Kiki’s Delivery Service, I think it’s one of his weaker films, and Porco Rosso, despite my belief that it might be his most personal and autobiographical, is mostly a very bizarre film for Miyazaki to have made.
It’s not till Princess Mononoke that Miyazaki really hits the peaks he had always been reaching towards, and that was made nearly a decade after Totoro. This is, I think, where the golden age of his career begins, and he follows through with Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, which are both so brilliant. And then, over a decade after Mononoke, we get Ponyo, which is effortless and beautiful and powerful, and perhaps his most subtle since Totoro, some twenty years previous.
Interestingly, while Miyazaki is making the best films of his life, Takahata is fumbling, and a few others begin their careers, including Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Gorō. While Gorō and Hiromasa Yonebayashi made perfectly fine first films, it’s difficult to see them that way. Hayao Miyazaki is putting out masterpieces and defining Studio Ghibli as a place where masterpieces are made–it’s a difficult situation for any filmmaker to step into, especially if you’re taking the helm for the first time.
I have a fondness for Gorō Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea, despite its many problems. The same is true for Yonebayashi’s Arrietty. Yoshifumi Kondō made the most impressive début with Whispers of the Heart and seemed ready to begin making films that stand up next to Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. Tragically, he died a few short years after the film came out.
Gorō Miyazaki and Hiromasa Yonebayashi made great follow ups with From Up on Poppy Hill and When Marnie Was There and I think they’re really ready to step into that next phase of their career. The phase where they begin making their best work, but, here we are, Ghibliless.
Because what is Ghibli without Hayao Miyazaki? Isao Takahata has not officially retired in any way, but it took him over a decade to make Princess Kaguya, and, at his age, it’s unlikely he’ll be making anything of that scope again.
The Wind Rises, for me, really marks the end of Studio Ghibli. It was the penultimate film of the studio, but it’s really Miyazaki’s farewell, or at least it’s hard to not feel that way about it, to not see that in there. It seems his most autobiographical since Porco Rosso and it could probably be argued that it has more of his life in it. Or at least more of his dreams.
Because Porco Rosso is very much a pessimistic film, despite it being a comedy. When the film ends, he flies off into the sunset, but we, the viewer, know he’s really flying towards WWII. There’ll be no sunrise there. The image is a lie, and a profound one. Porco Rosso is as absurd and existential as anything Camus or Sartre ever put down on paper. And I think it carries much of Miyazaki’s worldview. His intense pessimism and hopelessness for humanity. A species so intent on destroying ourselves that we have actively destroyed the planet we live on.
But then The Wind Rises is, I think, his statement of hope for humanity, and maybe his wish for personal salvation. It’s not news to say that Hayao had a strained relationship with his son Gorō. I imagine he had a strained relationship with the rest of his family as well. He’s a man so driven and so hard working that it’s easy to imagine how he let so much of his personal life suffer while he created the films he will forever be known for. Even while working on The Wind Rises, stepping into his 70s, he was still working extremely long hours six days a week. On the seventh day, he did not rest, but went to the local rivers and cleaned them. By himself.
It’s easy to see or to put connections between Miyazaki and his subject, Jori Horikoshi. The two men worked tirelessly for their dreams, for their visions.
At the end of the film, Horikoshi makes an emotional farewell to his dead wife. And he thanks her for forgiving him. He thanks her for loving him. For allowing him to live. For giving him the ability to make his dreams real.
It makes me emotional just to remember.
And I wonder if this is Miyazaki’s statement to us, his audience, his fans. His way of thanking us for allowing him to create his dreams. For sharing these dreams with him.
This is his farewell to us and to Studio Ghibli.
Who can say?
But it paints a nice picture, yeah? Wraps the story up real neat.
It sounds right. True.
Before I say goodbye to this 30 Years of Ghibli column, I want to talk about Joe Hisaishi.
I kept meaning to discuss him in so many different films but I struggled to find a place to fit him without making the essays stretch on and on, but he did at least as much as Miyazaki or Takahata to define what Studio Ghibli was.
Joe Hisaishi composed the music to half the Studio Ghibli films, including every Hayao Miyazaki films produced by the studio.
It’s difficult to imagine any of these films without his music. It’s difficult to hear his music and not be flooded by images from Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away or Totoro or any of Miyazaki’s films. Despite being the composer, I think of him as the silent architect of these films.
Miyazaki is known and renown and it’s his name we think of when we think of Studio Ghibli. There’s a good reason for that, of course. He created the iconic images, characters, and worlds. He wrote them, he drew them, and breathed life into them. But Hisaishi certainly shaped the way they feel. The swelling power of Ashitaka and the gods, Kiki’s or Chihiro’s first flight, Catbus tearing over the countryside, and the moving castle wandering the Waste–all of these are so strongly tied to sounds and acoustic emotions to me. Hisaishi’s hand is in every frame, though we rarely think of him. He’s the backdrop to these stories, to these lives. He adds weight and texture to every tense and beautiful moment.
And then there’s Toshio Suzuki, the legendary producer, who is really the pillar that held the studio together. Had he not been involved, I don’t know if we’d have any of these films in the way we currently do. His is a more difficult role to summarise or feel, but he was absolutely essential to Studio Ghibli.
And here I am, another 2,500 words into my last Studio Ghibli essay, and I still find it hard to say goodbye to this, to just end it.
But I think this year says about all I can about Studio Ghibli, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever write another word in this way about any of these films.
And while this is a record for me of the way I thought about these films in 2015, full of my own biases and prejudices and predilections, I think of these as open ended discussions.
While I’ve had my say, I hope, when you read these in the past or read them in the future, that you’ll think of them as a conversation starter.
These aren’t my films. They’re only my words. And words are subject to change and open to scrutiny and debate.
I hope, if nothing else, my now 40,000 words spent on the topic of Studio Ghibli will give you something to think about.