The 10 Best Studio Ghibli Movies 2020

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Hayao Miyazaki, who turns 80 years old today, has announced his retirement on more than one occasion, but like so many great artists — from Steven Soderbergh to Cher — he can’t help himself from practicing his gift. At the time of this writing, Miyazaki is deep at work on the movie “How Do You Live?” at Studio Ghibli, the independent animation company he co-founded with fellow animation legend Isao Takahata, who died in 2018.

When HBO Max launched last year, one of the platform’s most exciting offerings was the (near) complete catalog of Studio Ghibli films — which include several of Japan’s top-grossing movies, among them “Princess Mononoke,” “Howl’s Moving Castle” and Oscar winner “Spirited Away” — available for the first time via streaming in the U.S.

Last May, Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki spoke with Variety, explaining that the studio, which had let most of its talented animators go after the completion of “When Marnie Was Here” in 2014, was up and running again.

“Studio Ghibli had always been the studio that would create films for Hayao Miyazaki, so when he retired, it made sense that we stopped and shut down the studio,” Suzuki said. “However, as you know, Hayao Miyazaki came back. He said he wanted to do another film, so we had to get our employees back. What we decided was that this time, with his new hand-drawn animation film, we are going to approach it with smaller numbers of animators over a longer-term period.”

Whereas Ghibli films typically employ around 200 animators, Miyazaki’s latest project calls for just 60, who will work at a slower pace in order for the legendary director to achieve his vision. In the meantime, Studio Ghibli produced another feature, the computer-generated made-for-TV special “Earwig and the Witch,” overseen by Miyazaki’s son Goro (who also helmed the features “Tales from Earthsea” and “From Up on Poppy Hill”). Nearly 50 animators worked on that film, though Ghibli hired them from all over the world — America, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and France.

According to Suzuki, he and Miyazaki have discussed the idea that another director might carry on the company’s legacy in the future. “It’s a secret,” Suzuki said. “Miyazaki came back, and he’s working on this film, but he’s already thinking of the next project, but we’re not saying who’s going to direct that film.”

1. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My Neighbor Totoro Best of Studio Ghibli

Photo : Courtesy of Studio Ghibli/Everett Collection

Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece isn’t just the best feature that Studio Ghibli has made; I reckon it’s the best animated film of all time, introducing a character as beloved to Japanese audiences as Mickey Mouse is to Americans. The movie’s genius owes to its simplicity and the intuitive way Miyazaki manages to suggest that we humans share the world with benevolent spirits, who watch out for us in times of need — an idea adapted from Japanese culture into cuddly anthropomorphic form. Sisters Satsuki and Mei move to the countryside to be nearer to their invalid mother, who is recuperating in hospital, and while exploring the house and its woodland surroundings, they discover a trio of “Totoro,” or forest spirits, who come in three sizes: small (white), medium (blue) and extra-large (the ginormous gray beast with a big smile and boomerang-shaped chest markings). American audiences weren’t quite ready for Miyazaki’s vision when the mesmerizing film was first released, and surprisingly enough, it was “The Toxic Avenger” studio Troma that introduced the movie Stateside, buying rights to the English-dubbed airline version back in 1993. Later, once Miyazaki had become more acclaimed, “My Neightor Totoro” went from being regarded as a cult item to the children’s classic it is today — a movie of discovery and wonder for young minds, which challenges the notion that cartoons rely on conflict and instead encourages quiet observation of everyday details, finding magic in the mundane.

2. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Grave of the Fireflies Best of Studio Ghibli

Photo : Courtesy of Studio Ghibli/Everett Collection

Astonishingly enough, Studio Ghibli’s two greatest achievements were released as a double bill, which must have confounded audiences at the time, given the vastly different moods of “My Neighbor Totoro” (a featherweight fantasy) and this more realistic World War II-set drama from Miyazaki’s mentor and colleague Isao Takahata. Animation is so often dismissed as a medium for children, and yet, “Grave of the Fireflies” (adapted from Akiyuki Nosaka’s 1967 novel) represents the artform’s unique potential to tackle subjects too grim for most audiences to handle via live-action — a lesson later applied to films such as “Waltz With Bashir” and “Funan.” Here, Takahata presents audiences with the Japanese side of a devastating war, observing the wrenching toll this conflict takes on two children, 14-year-old Seita and his 4-year-old sister Setsuke, who are orphaned during the U.S. fire-bombing of Kobe. (These harrowing scenes were informed by air raids that Takahata himself survived. Fifteen years later, Miyazaki would draw from his own childhood memories for “The Wind Rises.”) Homeless and starving through impossible circumstances, Seita struggles to protect and distract his sister from the horrors that surround them. Though the ending is tragic, it’s the sparse moments of joy that stick with you.

3. Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away Best of Studio Ghibli

Photo : Courtesy of Studio Ghibli/Everett Collection

Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning marvel was the first Ghibli film to gross more than $10 million in the U.S. and is therefore the one that established most Americans’ idea of the Japanese toon studio. Given the sheer ambition and scope of the film — a Japanese spin on such Western classics as “Alice and Wonderland” and “Peter Pan,” in which 10-year-old Chiro crosses the river to an enchanted bathhouse from which, if she’s not careful, she may never be able to return — it’s no wonder that those who started with “Spirited Away” have trouble working backwards through the Ghibli catalog. The film represents the apotheosis of Miyazaki’s imagination, full of iconic visuals and larger-than-life characters, unfolding according to the filmmaker’s dream-like logic. This is something to watch for in all of Miyazaki’s films, as his plots don’t follow “traditional” narratives, but instead flow from scene to scene in such a way that one can never quite predict whatever surprises lie around the corner. A boy might transform into a dragon, pursued through the sky by paper Shikigami, or a stink spirit could come in for a bath, disgorging all the debris humans have thrown into the river. And so we watch with eyes wide as the anime artist leads us on this marvelous ride.

4. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Kikis Delivery Service Best of Studio Ghibli

Photo : Courtesy of Studio Ghibli/Everett Collection

Years before J.K. Rowling started writing her Harry Potter novels, Japanese author Eiko Kadono published her story of an apprentice witch, who uses her flying ability to find work in the big city. After Totoro, Miyazaki’s next most recognizable character is almost certainly Jiji, the wide-eyed black kitten who accompanies the 13-year-old trainee to Koriko, where she attracts the attention of an aeronautics-obsessed teen boy, Tombo. Miyazaki may have seen a younger version of himself in Tombo, considering his own lifelong interest in aviation — a theme which features prominently in all of his films, with their floating cities and flying contraptions. A sweet tale of young friendship centered around a precocious female protagonist (another recurring theme in Miyazaki’s oeuvre), “Kiki’s Delivery Service” presents its young heroine with a very gentle challenge: Far from home and somewhat uncertain of her abilities, Kiki discovers that her powers seem to be fading, just one of the movie’s clever metaphors for growing up. Once again, simplicity serves Miyazaki best as he invites audiences to identify with a girl who can soar through the skies on her rickety broom. (It would take live-action movies more than a decade to catch up with this very simple special effect.)

5. Pom Poko (1994)

Pom Poko Best of Studio Ghibli

Photo : Courtesy of Studio Ghibli/Everett Collection

Both Miyazaki and Takahata shared a strong moral connection to the environment, which can be felt in nearly all of their films. In “Princess Mononoke” (by far the most violent of Miyazaki’s films, and ultimately too heavy to make this list), the tension between man and nature reaches near-apocalyptic proportions. The same eco-conscious message is far easier to take in the form of Takahata’s earlier film, about a colony of tanuki (wild raccoon dogs) living in the woods outside Tokyo who are threatened by suburban expansion. At first, the creatures start to fight among themselves, which makes for some hilariously cartoony battle sequences, before wizening up and turning their frustration on the encroaching human developers. Depicting the problem from the animals’ point of view, the film plays like Japan’s answer to “Watership Down,” or else Don Bluth’s “The Secret of NIMH.” It should be noted that in Japanese culture, cartoony-looking tanuki statues are quite common, standing upright with swollen bellies and scrotums exposed, and that’s just how Takahata depicts them for much of the film — although in some scenes, they return to animal form, a switcheroo gambit that recalls the way Calvin’s stuffed tiger transforms into the real thing in classic “Calvin and Hobbes” comics.

6. Castle in the Sky (1986)

Castle in the Sky Best of Studio Ghibli

Photo : Courtesy of Studio Ghibli/Everett Collection

On the heels of “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” — a hit 1984 manga adaptation whose success motivated the formation of Studio Ghibli — Miyazaki made this remarkably similar fantasy adventure which expands upon many of the earlier film’s delights. For completists, it’s worth circling back to “Nausicaä” (which is not technically a Ghibli production), though that film’s science-fiction tone doesn’t feel nearly as distinct from other anime features of the ’80s, whereas this unmistably Miyazakian follow-up serves as a great introduction to the master’s favorite motifs. High-flying battles between steampunk airships and a group of sky pirates (the leader of whom, Muska, looks an awful lot like the big-nosed witch in “Spirited Away”) forecast the Red Baron-like “Porco Rosso,” while the levitating city of Laputa is as breath-taking a location as the director ever imagined. Laputa, not unlike the Wakanda of “Black Panther,” is a land that feels at once ancient and ultra-modern with its giant asymmetrical robots — dormant automatons designed to protect. The movie’s heroine, Sheeta, has ties to this marvelous floating castle, and while the movie focuses a bit too much attention on all the greedy villains determined to plunder her mythical kingdom, it delivers that incredible sense of discovery that characterizes the best Ghibli outings.

7. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Photo : Courtesy of Studio Ghibli/Everett Collection

Whether it’s Isao Takahata or Hayao Miyazaki (or even Miyazaki’s son Goro) at the helm, Studio Ghibli has an unmistakable “house style,” which is to say that the hand-drawn characters and worlds are all rendered in a distinctly similar way. Over the years, Takahata twice broke from that mold, experimenting with a more illustrative style in 1999’s “My Neighbors the Yamadas” (whose watercolor textures were achieved digitally) and again, for his final film, a big-budget adaptation of Japanese classic “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” whose brushwork and textures suggest calligraphy and parchment scrolls. It’s a story Asian audiences know well — about a princess from the moon who wishes to experience life on earth, where she challenges her suitors to a series of impossible tasks — and this gives Takahata room to express his own interpretation, as he lovingly does in early scenes. He takes his time to show tiny Kaguya, rescued from within a bamboo shoot, stumble around in infant form, and shares a stunning moment when she dances beneath the flowering limbs of a cherry tree in full bloom. While visually distinct, the movie boasts one key connection with Studio Ghibli aesthetic: the contribution of composer Joe Hisaishi, on whose wings these films take flight.

8. The Red Turtle (2016)

The Red Turtle Best of Studio Ghibli

Photo : Courtesy of Studio Ghibli/Everett Collection

Another anomaly in Studio Ghibli’s oeuvre, “The Red Turtle” wasn’t made in Japan and doesn’t look anything like the work of Miyazaki or Takahata, but it reflects both directors’ commitment to animation as a truly independent art form. Impressed by Michaël Dudok de Wit’s Oscar-nominated short “Father and Daughter,” the Ghibli duo approached the Dutch animator about supporting him in the production of a feature. No one would mistake the aquarelle-styled result as a conventional commercial gamble — an entirely dialogue-free film about a shipwrecked man which doubles as a poetic allegory about love and relationships and the isolated bubbles each of us construct around our families. “The Red Turtle” is what we think of as a “labor of love,” a painstaking effort (created using charcoal drawings and digital color) virtually without parallel in the world of animation. There are elements of “Fantastic Planet” or “Son of the White Mare” perhaps — experimental/expressionistic animated fables worth tracking down, if “The Red Turtle” speaks to you — but what makes this particular project so special is the way it seems to exist on an island by itself, enabled by those who love the medium so much they reached halfway across the world and helped will it into existence.

9. Ponyo (2008)

Ponyo Best of Studio Ghibli

Photo : Courtesy of Studio Ghibli/Everett Collection

More than a decade before founding their own studio, Takahata and Miyazaki collaborated on the 1974 TV series “Heidi, Girl of the Alps,” so it should be no great surprise that they returned time and again to European source material in their time at Ghibli. Some, such as “Howl’s Movie Castle,” “Arrietty” and “When Marnie Was There,” offered the animators a chance to feature red- and blonde-haired characters, or to set their stories in quaint European-style cottages and towns, for which they clearly have a special affinity. More successful however is Miyazaki’s incredibly loose retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” which borrows only the premise of a sea creature (in this case, a rudimentary “goldfish” that looks like a bright pink sock puppet) who longs to experience life on land, and the 5-year-old human friend she makes ashore. The Studio Ghibli creators often claim that they don’t make their films with any particular demographic in mind, but there’s no denying that “Ponyo” skews younger than any of their other features. That makes it a suitable gateway drug on which to get your kids hooked on the pleasures Miyazaki and company have to offer.

10. Only Yesterday (1991)

Only Yesterday Best of Studio Ghibli

Photo : Courtesy of Studio Ghibli/GKIDS

Whereas “Ponyo” appeals most to preschoolers, “Only Yesterday” stands apart as the most adult of Studio Ghibli’s films. It’s not dark or difficult in the slightest, but rather, a film about nostalgia and those half-forgotten links to our past, rekindled by 27-year-old Taeko’s trip to the small town where her sister now lives. So many of the studio’s movies are about moving forward (“My Neighbor Totoro,” “Spirited Away” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” are explicitly concerned with moving to new places), whereas Takahata’s introspective drama instead deals with looking back. Unmarried Taeko works in Tokyo but is frustrated with her life there, and so goes “home,” where she meets Toshio, who offers to drive her around the area, unlocking memories of her childhood that play as a kind of parallel narrative. The movie might easily have been made in live action, and yet, animation lends the material a kind of timelessness, allowing audiences to lose — or perhaps find — themselves in the character’s reminiscences. It’s a melancholy but moving film and one that appears to end one way, only to reverse the outcome under the closing credits. Stay though till the very end, or you’ll miss this subtle gem’s final emotional swell.

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