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The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli

Masterworks from anime's finest production house

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When animation director Hayao Miyazaki founded his own studio in 1985, he called it Studio Ghibli, a name that would soon become synonymous with the finest animated features produced in most any country in the world. Not every Studio Ghibli release has been directed by Miyazaki, but his guiding hand is clearly behind all productions released through the company.

Here are the major releases from Studio Ghibli, in chronological order. Note that this list is limited to titles with U.S. / English-language releases. Titles marked with a star (*) are especially recommended.

1. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) *

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Miyazaki’s first feature production with him as director still ranks among his very best, if not also the best in all of anime. Adapted from Miyazaki’s own manga, also in print domestically, it deals with a post-apocalyptic world where a young princess (the Nausicaä of the title) fights to keep her nation and a rival from going to war over ancient technology that could destroy them both. There are endless allusions to modern-day issues—the nuclear arms race, ecological consciousness—but all that takes a backseat to a tremendously engaging story told with beauty and clarity. The original U.S. release (as Warriors of the Wind) was infamously cut down, which left Miyazaki wary of distributing his films in the U.S. for almost two decades.

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2. Castle in the Sky (1986) *

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Also known as Laputa, this is another of Miyazaki’s grand and glorious adventures, loaded with imagery and sequences that reflect his love of flying. Young villager Pazu encounters a girl named Sheeta when she falls from the sky and practically lands in his lap; the two learn that the pendant in her possession could unlock untold secrets within the “castle in the sky” of the title. As in Nausicaä, the young and innocent must grapple against the machinations of cynical adults, who only have eyes for the city’s war machines. (This was the first true Studio Ghibli production; Nausicaä was officially done by the studio Topcraft.)

3. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) *

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Directed by Ghibli cohort Isao Takahata, this is a grim depiction of life (and death) during the last days of WWII when Allied firebombings claimed many civilian lives in Tokyo—a story that has not been reported as often as the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Derived from Akiyuki Nosaka’s novel, it shows how two youngsters, Seita and his little sister Setsuko, struggle to survive in the charred ruins of the city and fend off starvation. It’s difficult to watch, but also impossible to forget, and definitely not a children’s movie due to the graphic way it depicts the aftermath of war.

4. My Neighbor Totoro (1988) *

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Easily the most beloved of any of Miyazaki’s films, and more than almost any of his others about the world as seen through the eyes of children. Two girls have relocated with their father to a house in the country, to be close to their ill mother; they discover the house and the surrounding forest is a veritable hotbed of supernatural spirits, who play and keep them company. A synopsis doesn’t do justice to the movie’s summery, gentle atmosphere, where what happens isn’t nearly as important as how it’s seen by Miyazaki and his creative team. Most any parent should grab a copy of this for their kids.

5. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) *

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A sprightly adaptation of a beloved children’s book from Japan (also now in English), about a young witch-in-training who uses her broom-riding skills to work as a courier. It’s more about whimsy and characters colliding than plot, but Kiki and the clutch of folks she befriends are all fun to watch. Spectacular to look at, too; the Ghibli crew created what amounts to a fictional European-town flavor for the film. The biggest problem is the last ten minutes or so, a five-car pile-up of storytelling which injects a manufactured crisis where one wasn’t really needed.
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6. Porco Rosso (1992) *

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The title means “The Crimson Pig” in Italian, and it sounds like unlikely material: a former fighter pilot, now cursed with the face of a pig, ekes out a living as a soldier of fortune in his seaplane. But it’s a delight, fusing a post-WWI European setting with Miyazaki’s always-idyllic visuals—it could almost be considered his response to Casablanca. Originally intended to be a short in-flight film for Japan Airlines, it was expanded into a full feature. Michael Keaton (as Porco) and Cary Elwes are featured in Disney’s English dub of the movie.

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7. Pom Poko (1994)

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A cadre of shapeshifting Japanese raccoons, or tanuki, collide with the nature-threatening ways of the modern world. Some of them choose to resist the encroachment of humankind, in ways that resemble eco-saboteurs; some instead opt to assimilate into human life. It’s a great example of how anime often mines Japan’s mythology for inspiration, although note there are some moments that might not be suitable for younger viewers.

 

8. Whisper of the Heart (1995) *

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A girl with ambitions to be a writer and a boy who dreams of becoming a master violin-maker cross paths and learn to inspire each other. The only feature directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, whom Miyazaki and Takahata had high hopes for (he also worked on Princess Mononoke) but whose directorial career was cut short by his sudden death at the age of 47.

9. Princess Mononoke (1997) *

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In a land reminiscent of premodern Japan, young Prince Ashitaka sets out on a journey to discover a cure for a festering wound he received at the hands of a strange beast—a wound which also gives him great power at a terrible cost. His journey brings him into contact with the princess of the title, a wild child who’s allied herself with the spirits of the forest to protect it against the encroachment of the haughty Lady Eboshi and her forces. It’s in some ways a differently-flavored reworking of Nausicaä, but hardly a clone; it’s as exciting, complex and nuanced a film (and as beautiful a one) as you’re likely to see in any medium or language.

10. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)

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An adaptation of Hisaichi Ishii’s slice-of-life comic strip about a family’s various misadventures, it broke rank from the other Ghibli productions in its look: it sticks closely to the character designs of the original comic, but reproduced and animated in a gentle watercolor style. The story has little plot, but rather a series of loosely-connected scenes that work as comic meditations on family life. Those expecting adventures in the sky or many of the other Ghibli hallmarks may be disappointed, but it’s still a sweet and enjoyable movie nonetheless.
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