Ronja: The Robber’s Daughter, Studio Ghibli’s first foray into a television series, is released on Blu-ray and DVD on December 4th in the UK. The mark of Ghibli is a brand of quality and integrity, with over twenty films officially attached to the animation studio. This television series has already garnered positive reviews and it is worth remembering how strong the films of the studio are too. The vast majority are impressive, expansive stories that envelope and immerse you in the environment.
Therefore, for those who have not seen many – or are yet to watch any – Set The Tape has an all-encompassing list for you. Negating The Castle of Cagliostro (a film created by Miyazaki but before Ghibli was founded), yet including The Red Turtle (co-produced by the studio but not an official part of the canon), over the course of four posts, all twenty-three films are ranked. Inevitably, we begin at the bottom…
23. Tales from Earthsea
There is a reason so many people were put off by Game of Thrones‘ dragons and wizard world. Honestly, it’s because we have seen too much bad fantasy. Unfortunately, Tales from Earthsea is bad fantasy with dated animation (despite its post-Howl’s Moving Castle release). A convoluted plot and, the biggest shock of all, no sense of wonder ranks Earthsea right at the bottom of the list.
Based on a collection of four books by Ursula K Le Guin, director Goro Miyazaki (Hayao’s son) chose to combine these with a plot by his father (from his manga The Journey of Shuna). Adapting four books is difficult enough, but force-feeding another disconnected tale into the mix was a bold move – and a move not appreciated by Le Guin, who expressed her disappointment. Among her many criticisms, she felt the film was “incoherant”, was “heavyhanded” and took “bits and pieces out of context”. Arguably, that is quite a generous assessment considering the positioning on our ranked Ghibli productions.
The lead character, Arren, is dull while bearded Archmage Sparrowhawk has to contend with Arren’s teenage angst as he tries to desperately help him. There are dragons and magical spells, but nothing is smooth and, at almost 2 hours long, it drags tremendously. Surely, a leaf could’ve been taken out of Takahata and Miyazaki’s book but instead, it feels like it is badly planned and lacking creativity.
Interestingly, with its similar subject matter and widely-perceived failure, Tales from Earthsea could be considered Ghibli’s The Black Cauldron (Released in 1985, The Black Cauldron was a low-point for Disney Animation and was beaten at the box-office by The Care Bears Movie – but it did prompt the studio to make considerable changes that led to The Little Mermaid and The Lion King). Whatever criteria you use to judge the studio, Tales from Earthsea always sits close to or at the bottom of any list.
22. Porco Rosso
Casablanca with a pig? Anyone? Unlike Tales from Earthsea, Porco Rossois in the watchable club (proving that only once has Studio Ghibli failed spectacularly). It is incredibly unique, with a stylistic flourish and wartime context that is unlike anything Ghibli has ever made. It has subtle nods to early aviation including references to manufacturers Caproni and a Schneider Trophy race (a seaplane competition that took place from 1913-1931). But, when compared to the inviting worlds and memorable characters from Ghibli’s finest, Porco Rosso is lacking the depth and scale that truly makes a Miyazaki film, despite its flying-high subject matter.
World War I vet, Porco Rosso, is a gruff, cynical old pig. Defeating pirates, Porco has a love in Gina and an assistant in Fio. His arc of changing does happen, of course, but he remains ill-tempered and difficult to watch. He makes jabs at his young female assistants, fights with dumb smooth-talkers and wrestles the burly pirates. Crucially, there are few profound sentiments and therefore, Porco Rosso has little rewatchability. The clearest comparison is The Wind Rises which, similarly, explores early aviation with precise detail and loving warmth. Both by Miyazaki, The Wind Rises is far superior and isn’t dogged down by wartime politics – something Miyazaki himself once confessed made Porco Rosso a much more complicated and difficult film.
Porco Rosso has its high points and we can champion the quality of animation and innovative take on such a story. But let’s not ignore the rare decision to whack it on in an evening – if you want a Studio Ghibli film, Porco Rosso is rarely the first (second? third? tenth?) choice.
21. Pom Poko
Let’s give credit where credit is due: Pom Poko has hilarious scenes of magnificent tanuki scrotum-pulling skills. They stretch them over their heads to make parachutes. An old man will even stretch his ball-bag out as a rug for students to sit upon. Who knew the scrotum was so versatile! Pom Poko boldly and ambitiously tackles the nature of industrialisation and the reduction of natural growth in a growing urban environment. These are all great plus points. But it is also a busy ensemble with multiple tanuki’s at the centre.
The animation, in addition to the busy plotting, also switches between three different styles as the racoon dogs morph and adapt. Characters include students who learn their shape-shifting skills and the teachers who are forced to relocate their families. The story seems to feel more like a collection of short tales rather than one, organic and smooth narrative. The reality is how the entire subject matter – of tanuki and kitsune – are deeply rooted in Japanese tradition. Westerners who are not educated in such details may not appreciate the characterisations and the accuracy in the depiction of the creatures. Tanuki are friendly but mischievous. Foxes can be sneaky and deceive others. For many viewers, this required knowledge may be what separates this film from the more accessible entries regarding coming-of-age tales or moral life lessons.
Released in 1994, there is a lot to like in Pom Poko but it loses steam and is bogged down by a hectic narrative and ever-changing animated style. Director Takahata, as we’ll see, either creates powerful masterpieces or flippant comedies – Pom Poko is the latter.
20. My Neighbours the Yamadas
It is strange to think that the director of Grave of the Fireflies and Princess Kaguya also directed My Neighbours the Yamadas and Pom Poko. Unlike the sprawling stories Takahata usually creates, My Neighbours the Yamadas is a collection of short stories involving a conventional family. Mum, Dad, Granny, son and daughter are all shown in their different relationships, revealing relatable anecdotes in bitesize chunks. It is based on a comic-strip manga named ‘Nono-chan’ by Hisaichi Ishii and, released in 1999, marked the first entirely digitally-animated Studio Ghibli production.
It is an adorable family and you cannot help but enjoy the sweet-natured conflicts that arise through every day activities. Shopping, changing the television channel and dinner all create all sorts of problems in the Yamada’s household. The overriding theme seems to be one of loyalty, with a cynical resignation to the frustrations every family has to endure.
My Neighbours the Yamadas¸ in contrast to most Ghibli films, is not a must-see. It is disposable and forgettable. It is unique in its watercolour style of animation and unconventional vignette delivery, but this is not because broader themes are weaved in or the style of animation opens the door to inventive, unparalleled design. It may be fun, but My Neighbours the Yamadas offers little else other than an insight into Japanese customs and family drama.
19. Ocean Waves
The production behind Ocean Waves is a troubled one. Released straight to television in 1993, this was created by the younger artists at Studio Ghibli with the intention of creating a film that would cost little to make. Unfortunately, it went over budget and over schedule. The film is the only Studio Ghibli film that, despite a Blu-ray transfer, has yet to be dubbed in English.
A love-triangle, teenager story, Ocean Waves presents a boy who fancies a girl; the girl fancies his friend; the friend and boy fall out. Dawson’s Creekset in Kōchi, on the island of Shikoku. These coming-of-age tales, including From Up on Poppy Hill, Whisper of the Heart and to some extent, Only Yesterday, are often handled sensitively and reveal the challenges and excitement of youth and Ocean Waves does carry the graceful quality Ghibli films always hold. Akin to Only Yesterday, it is told in flashback. Bookended by a moment on a platform, as a young man, Taku, notices a girl he knew a few years before, named Rikako, we then see how she changed his life.
At barely an hour long, this is short, comfortable and warm as a film. It has a somewhat dated soundtrack, but it seem to accentuate the era the story is told within. But, when compared to Only Yesterday, or especially Miyzaki and Takahata’s masterpieces, Ocean Waves doesn’t come close. This is Ghibli churning out a good film – but there are many films that are much better.
18. Whisper of the Heart
Written by Miyazaki, Whisper of the Heart has a different feel to many other Ghibli films. Directed by Yoshifumi Kondō, it is important to be aware of his importance to the company. Kondō was expected to be the next director to join the ranks of Miyazaki and Takahata before his untimely death in 1998. While Ocean Waves was the first Ghibli production to be directed by someone other than Hayao and Isao, Whisper of the Heart was an attempt at preparing a new director to become one of their collaborators.
The Japanese translation of the title becomes “If you listen closely…”, and there is a wonderful mysteriousness that envelopes the film throughout. Shizuku, a passionate reader, embarks on a journey after finding that the books she loans from the library are borrowed by a school peer, Seiji, shortly before herself. Her inquisitiveness leads her to an antiques dealer and between getting to know Seiji’s family and finding her own voice in writing, she realises that Seiji may mean more to her than she realises.
The Cat Returns, a very different film in many respects, serves as a semi-sequel to Whisper of the Heart. The quirky cats of The Baron and Mutu are central to The Cat Returns, while the personal story of Shizuku and Seiji is not continued. This means that watching Whisper of the Heart (and not meeting the dapper felines for such a long time) seems uneven in comparison. But the animation is still of an exceptional quality and it remains a sweet coming-of-age story that, again, is an enjoyable ride, rather than a straight-up work of genius.
As the final entry in this particular article, it is worth noting that, apart from Tales from Earthsea, every other film is a recommendation. Rarely does a studio consistently put out films that are as enjoyable and enormously satisfying as Studio Ghibli.
Look out for Pt 2 of our Studio Ghibli retrospective very soon.