On February 17, 2012, Studio Ghibli releases Arrietty, its first Hayao Miyazaki project since Ponyo in 2008. Miyazaki, for anyone who hasn’t explored anime before, is considered to be the master of the medium, and if you have watched any Disney or Pixar DVD special features you will be hard pressed not to have seen John Lassiter and his American animator brethren praising Miyazaki as their mentor, and their inspiration for their own animated storytelling.
Miyazaki has served as writer, artist and director, often painting frame after frame of his own films, where other studios might rely on studio artists for detail work. For Arrietty, Miyazaki wrote the screenplay, based on Mary Morton’s The Borrowers. Arrietty is a little girl, a very little girl, who lives in a world of tiny people called the Borrowers, who live by borrowing items when humans are not around, in the spirit of the fairy tales told in Miyazaki’s past films. She befriends a human boy and encounters trials not unlike other “incredible shrinking person” stories. Released last year in Japan and soon in the UK, Arrietty won’t hit U.S. theaters until next year. In the meantime several great anime films are available on video to get caught up on Miyazaki’s works and other Studio Ghibli films.
Years ago we stumbled upon an AMC Network Monday night marathon that played two Studio Ghibli movies per night. First up was Princess Mononoke (1997), and we were sucked right in. It played first in English dubbed with American voices, but later we re-watched it in its original Japanese, with added English subtitles, and it was a different, far better film. We are not fans of movies with subtitles, but this communicated its story seamlessly, and pretty much every other Miyazaki film we have seen plays better without the American dubbed actors. The dubbing choices for Ghibli are typically known actors and actresses and they can sometimes detract from the story and are a bit distracting.
Princess Mononoke at first viewing reflects the animated movie Battle for Terra, in its interesting and inventive visuals, exciting action and mythic story. Princess Mononoke surpasses that film and is a more complex story, but it plays like Star Wars in its energy. Clone Wars should be this good. The soundtrack is spectacular. The story centers around a warrior on a quest to cure a curse. He must walk a line between competing factions of a village and the forest and along the way encounters natural and spirit world obstacles. Nothing is predictable in this world, but elements like sword fights, bravery, and sacrifice make the story familiar to any audience.
Another worthy film from Ghibli and Miyazaki is Spirited Away (2001). A little girl is literally and figuratively spirited away when she wanders away from her parents and enters a strange and bizarre world of unique creatures, gods, witches and unworldly monstrosities. She is forced to work for the creatures in a bath house. The story and direction is imaginative and descriptions of the admittedly bizarre plot do not do justice to the compassion and angst you feel for the lost girl of the story.
Characteristic of Miyazaki is his sweeping panoramas of nature, whether through water, mountains or forests. No film surrounds the viewer in these elements more than Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984). Both written and directed by Miyazaki, Nausicaa follows a young princess who must forge through warring factions in her attempts to save her world. Nausicaa is an ecological parable and a satisfying and sweet film. Miyazaki’s storyboards were once available in book form (now out of print, but can still be found from time to time on eBay). They showed in still form the great details and care he used in making the film.
The most fun of Miyazaki’s films is the first movie that made him a global name, My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Two girls move to the country to be with their ailing mother and befriend several strange nearby animal creatures called Totoros. This is a charming story of children having a fun adventure, despite the realities of their lives. One highlight is a giant 12-footed wide-smiling Cheshire cat that serves as a bus to transport the girls and their spirit friends. A story in the realm of Alice and Wonderland, but without all the dark and twisted places.
1995’s Whisper of the Heart marks a departure from Miyazaki’s trademark fantasy, focusing on a sweet romance between two Tokyo teens. But Studio Ghibli lavished the same care and detail on the scenery and cinematography of Whisper that characterized such masterpieces as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, and the result is a fully-realized and richly layered film that gives depth and majesty to this deceptively simple tale of two young people learning to follow their dreams.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988) plumbs the darker potential of anime, turning the delicate artistry and storytelling to this heartbreaking tale of two young siblings struggling to survive in Postwar Japan. This film pulls no punches, exploring the war’s effects on the Japanese homeland, a side of history seldom presented in Western film, with tremendous empathy and perspective.
The above are our top Ghibli recommendations. Other notable Studio Ghibli films include Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso and Ponyo.
C.J. Bunce and Elizabeth C. Bunce