Published on August 26th, 2020 | by Blake Morrow0
I Watched Every Studio Ghibli Movie And You Should Too
Blake took the time to binge watch every Studio Ghibli film. And according to him, their films hold up magnificently as exemplary specimens of animation.
Founded in 1985, Japanese animation titan Studio Ghibli recently had their entire filmography released on Canadian Netflix (minus Grave of the Fireflies, annoying streaming rights be damned). The best-known animation studio outside of America and the creators of 2003’s Oscar-winning Spirited Away, Studio Ghibli is in a time of transition. With most of its influential figures having passed away or contemplating retirement, the future of the studio is cloudier than it’s ever been. Thankfully the body of work created by Ghibli in the last thirty-five years, ranging from child-friendly adventures to quietly thoughtful tales for adults, remain timeless pillars of the animation art form and necessary viewing for everyone.
The names most associated with Studio Ghibli are primarily that of the two founding directors, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahita. The better known of the two is undeniably Miyazaki, responsible for classics like My Neighbor Totoro and the aforementioned Spirited Away. Creating worlds brimming with child-like wonder and being obsessed with flight, it’s no surprise that he named Studio Ghibli after an Italian scout plane used in WWII. The other major director, Isao Takahita, made uncompromisingly humanistic films that covered everything from the devastation of war (Grave of the Fireflies) to the day-to-day bumblings of a normal family in Tokyo (My Neighbors the Yamadas). Several other directors have contributed to Studio Ghibli over the years with mixed results.
The first person not named Takahita or Miyazaki to direct was a protégé of theirs named Yoshifumi Kondo. In 1995 he made a coming-of-age romance called Whisper of the Heart, a film truly worthy of the Ghibli name. Kondo was Miyazaki and Takahita’s presumed successor before he passed away in 1998, leaving a void in quality that has yet to be filled. The 2000’s have seen other directors like Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Goro Miyazaki, Hayao’s son, attempt to fill that hole. Their films are still enjoyable but come nowhere near the heights of their predecessors. For anyone wanting an in-depth view of the state of Ghibli, the 2013 documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a must-watch. Since the documentary came out, Takahita passed in 2018 and Miyazaki has come in and out of retirement with a new film still years away, leaving the immediate future of the studio in doubt.
Recent struggles set aside, Studio Ghibli’s animation is still responsible for some of the most beautiful images ever put to screen. For the most part their films are almost entirely hand-drawn, a huge difference compared to the digital animation of most studios today. However, the fact that Ghibli largely works by hand combined with their small number of employees means that the studio has had a relatively small output of only twenty-one films. This doesn’t include several related movies such as Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind which, despite being released with different studios, are sometimes still considered as part of Ghibli’s larger filmography. What they lack in manpower is more than made up for by the care and attention put into every frame. Perhaps my favourite artwork from Ghibli is in 2009’s Ponyo, a stunningly gorgeous children’s fantasy set in an ocean-side town with an eye-popping colour palette and the most astonishing waves I’ve ever seen. Although most of the films are hand-drawn there are a few exceptions. My personal favourite of these is Takahita’s digital The Tale of Princess Kaguya, brought to life in the style of old Japanese watercolour paintings. The unique aesthetic gives the film an elegance and simplistic beauty that it wouldn’t get if it was animated any other way.
To go along with the amazing animation, Studio Ghibli is also renowned for their incredibly written protagonists and stories, with many of their female characters becoming feminist icons. Ghibli has their fair share of princesses including Princess Nausicaä from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Instead of being a powerless figure seeking her Prince Charming, Nausicaä is the leader of her valley, a paragon of virtue respected by everyone as she protects both her people and the creatures in her land from invading war-mongerers. For every princess there’s also characters like Whisper of the Heart’s Shizuku Tsukushima, a junior high student who spends most of her time in libraries, heroically endeavoring to write a novel in a few weeks, and somehow became the unofficial mascot of lo-fi study beats on Youtube. Ghibli characters are as multi-dimensional as the themes their stories dish out.
Environmentalism is present through much of Ghibli’s history, with Princess Mononoke and Pom Poko both being powerful statements on the destructive effect civilization is having on nature. Indeed, none of these films are brainless. They carry great messages for kids and adults alike, movies with heart not only meant to entertain but that challenge people to think.
One of the other artists most associated with Studio Ghibli is composer Joe Hisaishi. As much of a master as Miyazaki or Takahita, Hisaishi is a Ghibli mainstay whose musical arrangements are an integral part of many of its best films. Music usually isn’t meant to be noticed in movies but with Ghibli the scores are their own entities, as essential to creating a film’s wondrous atmosphere as the animation or writing. Indeed, in the weeks after my Ghibli-athon I’ve been listening to Hisaishi’s work on repeat with no sign of slowing down. With films that so often capture the essence of child-like wonder, it’s almost impossible to think of Ghibli without Hisaishi’s auditory contributions.
Admittedly, all of my earliest Ghibli viewings were with the English dubbed versions as I’m sure most kids grew up with. However, having now watched most of the original Japanese versions I’ve noticed myself so much more invested in each film I was previously lukewarm on. It’s easy to understand why. The originals were overseen exclusively by the directors, namely Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahita, and so on. The qualities they looked for and directions they gave to actors were unquestionably different than the English dubs they had nothing to do with.
It sometimes feels like the English voice actors weren’t necessarily chosen with the best option in mind but with the most famous one. Joseph Gordon-Levitt sounds like he’s holding in a fart for the entire runtime of The Wind Rises. In the dub of Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, Phil Hartman voices the cat Jiji and came off to me as annoyingly loud and grating. It’s hard for me to recommend any English dub when the original language version is waiting to be seen. When I rewatched Kiki’s in Japanese I was pleasantly surprised by the quiet, controlled sass of Rei Sakuma’s Jiji. This new vocal quality completely changed the mood of the film and made it an entirely different (and better) experience. That’s why I’m withholding my final judgment on both The Wind Rises and Grave of the Fireflies, two films that I’ve only seen in English and didn’t find as compelling. Overall, the English versions are still well produced. For those with younger children or who don’t want to read subtitles the dubs are better than nothing, but I can’t recommend watching these films in Japanese enough.
I didn’t love every Ghibli film I saw but it was impossible for me to deny the artistic merit of any of them, especially compared to the formulaic and visually uninteresting animation clogging today’s industry. If you have a Netflix account, stream them. If you have a library card, check them out. And hey, if you have a few bucks lying around you can even buy the full collection. It would be money well spent.