Total Recall

Total Recall: The Best of Studio Ghibli

With The Secret World of Arrietty hitting theaters, we count down the best films from the visionary Japanese Animation studio.

by | February 16, 2012 | Comments


Nicolas Cage and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance might be getting most of the press this week, but for animation lovers, it’s no contest — the biggest release of the week is The Secret World of Arrietty, Studio Ghibli’s spin on the classic children’s book The Borrowers. Stateside fans have been waiting for Arrietty to reach these shores since the movie came out in Japan way back in July of 2010, and to celebrate its arrival, we’re taking a fond look back at every other Ghibli movie that’s received an American release. Get ready for lots of strange creatures, magic spells, and mysterious journeys — it’s time for Total Recall!


Tales from Earthsea


Following in a parent’s footsteps is rarely easy — and when you’re a young filmmaker whose dad is the legendary Hiyao Miyazaki, joining the family business has to be particularly daunting. Credit for chutzpah, then, to Goro Miyazaki, who made his directorial debut at the helm of Tales from Earthsea, Ghibli’s long-mooted adaptation of the Ursula K. Le Guin series of bestselling books. The elder Miyazaki reportedly expressed his misgivings about having his son take the reins of such a difficult project — and his concerns were echoed by many of the critics who reviewed Earthsea, which ended up becoming the studio’s worst-reviewed release. Still, it had plenty of defenders, including Film4’s Daniel Etherington, who wrote, “Miyazaki Jr. has a long way to go before he can hold a candle to his father’s work, but Tales From Earthsea still carries the Ghibli mark of quality.”

My Neighbors the Yamadas


A fairly thorough visual departure for director Isao Takahata — not to mention Ghibli in general — My Neighbors the Yamadas represented the studio’s first foray into all-digital animation, albeit one that used the technology to obtain a flat drawing style and washed-out palette rather than 3D images and realistic textures. A series of vignettes depicting milestones in the life of a family, Yamadas may not be one of the better-known Ghibli releases, but it earned an Excellence Award from the Japan Media Arts Festival and impressed Tim Brayton of Antagony & Ecstasy, who wrote, “For all that they are cartoons, the Yamadas never court buffoonery… In fact, it’s surprisingly observational, based in the way that people honestly act and feel.”

Pom Poko


An eco-friendly fable inspired by Japanese folklore about the raccoon dogs known as tanuki, 1994’s Pom Poko topped Japan’s box office in 1994, entrancing audiences with the moving tale of wildlife continually encroached upon by — and eventually forced to fight against — the constant threat of human development. Less overtly cartoonish (and, ultimately, more melancholy) than most Ghibli films, Poko impressed critics like MaryAnn Johanson of Flick Filosopher, who called it “Deeply affecting and visually mesmerizing” and “one of the best animated movies I’ve ever seen.”

Howl’s Moving Castle


Hayao Miyazaki came out of retirement to direct this adaptation of the Diana Wynne Jones novel, hewing loosely to the basic plot outline (about a teenage hatter whose friendship with a cursed wizard lands her in the center of a conflict between him and a vindictive witch) while adding some quintessentially Ghibli touches, such as feminist themes and a pacifist subplot. It all added up to an experience altogether different from the book, but that didn’t deter filmgoers (who made it one of the most successful releases in Japanese history), Academy voters (who made it a Best Animated Feature Oscar nominee), or critics like Bruce Westbrook of the Houston Chronicle, who said it was “So richly detailed and colorful that one almost aches from the beauty.”

Whisper of the Heart


The sole directorial effort of Yoshifumi Kondo, who was being groomed to succeed Ghibli mainstays Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata when he passed away suddenly in 1998, Whisper of the Heart explores some of Miyazaki’s favorite themes (which isn’t surprising, since he wrote the script): independence, the end of childhood, fantasy, and young love. While lacking the gleefully childlike spirit of some of Ghibli’s other films, Whisper captured the imagination of plenty of critics, including Tim Brayton of Antagony & Ecstasy, who called it “Perhaps the most unadulterated coming-of-age story in Ghibli’s canon” and “a film of truly excellent observation.”

My Neighbor Totoro


A lasting cultural touchstone in Japan and a major launchpad for Miyazaki’s worldwide success, My Neighbor Totoro wraps a heartfelt message about the value of rural living inside an irresistible fable about two girls (voiced in the Disney release by Dakota and Elle Fanning) whose fears for their ailing mother are soothed by a giant forest creature and his bizarre woodland companions (including a cat shaped like a bus — or is it the other way around?). “What Miyazaki has animated,” argued Eye for Film’s Anton Bitel, “is an idyll, that most melancholic and nostalgic of genres, where landscapes vanish, innocence is lost and death is as much a part of nature as life.”



A stunning retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (and Miyazaki’s most commercially successful American release), Ponyo may not have earned quite as much rapturous praise as some of his earlier efforts, but as many of this list’s other entries prove, he’d already set the bar pretty high — this film is a triumph that, in the words of Radio Times’ Lucy Barrick, “is a million miles away from the garish and crude cartoons that American studios often churn out, and serves as a reminder that animated films can be imaginative, enchanting and exciting while still telling a sweet, good-hearted story.”

Princess Mononoke


A true Hiyao Miyazaki epic, Princess Mononoke took more than 15 years — and $23 million — to complete its journey from its creator’s mind to the big screen. Of course, the investment was well worth it; Mononoke was the top-grossing film at the Japanese box office in 1997, earning raves from critics all over the world — not to mention an impressive list of honors, including Best Picture at the Japanese Academy Awards. “Miyazaki’s artistry is evident in every frame,” wrote Jeanne Aufmuth of the Palo Alto Weekly, describing the film as “a pristine combination of lush greenery, ghastly mythic monsters and beautifully executed humans.”

The Cat Returns


An indirect sequel to Whisper of the Heart, 2002’s The Cat Returns took a pair of characters from that film’s magical subplot (the Baron and Muta) and took them on a new adventure in the Cat Kingdom, where they work to rescue a teenage girl (voiced in the Disney dub by Anne Hathaway) who finds herself trapped by the Cat King (Tim Curry) after saving his son from being hit by a truck. Offering the by-now familiar blend of oddball imagery, magical surrealism, and coming-of-age narrative structure that Ghibli often employs, The Cat Returns was generally regarded by critics as one of the lesser entries in the studio’s catalog — but that by no means meant they found it anything less than enjoyable. Calling it “An enchanting, magical fable with a twisted vein of surrealism,” the BBC’s Neil Smith quipped that Cat “makes you wonder exactly what they’re smoking over there in the Land of the Rising Sun.”

Castle in the Sky


The first film created and released by Studio Ghibli, Castle in the Sky proved an auspicious debut, winning the Animage Anime Grand Prix in 1986. Many of the themes and character types that would recur throughout the studio’s subsequent efforts are in evidence here, from its young female protagonist (voiced in the Disney dub by Anna Paquin) to its ecologically-minded story, which revolves around the efforts of a military commander (voiced by Mark Hamill) to locate and invade an ancient floating city. And unlike a lot of opening chapters, this early effort from writer/director Hayao Miyazaki presents a fully formed creative vision — one described by the Washington Post’s Richard Harrington as “Frequently astounding” and by Filmcritic’s Christopher Null as simply “My favorite Miyazaki film.”

Grave of the Fireflies


When you think of Studio Ghibli, you probably think of family-friendly films loaded with childlike whimsy, but there’s a lot more to the studio’s offerings. Case in point: the heart-rending Grave of the Fireflies, adapted from Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novel about the death of his younger sister following the Allied firebombings of Kobe during World War II. Shot through with an aching sadness, yet limned with a persistent hope, Fireflies was a commercial flop in Japan (due in large part to its release as half of a comically mismatched double bill with My Neighbor Totoro), but it stands as one of Ghibli’s proudest critical moments — and a personal favorite of Roger Ebert, who called it “An emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.”

Spirited Away


After the success of Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki spent an extended period searching for his next project, finally finding inspiration in the young daughters of some family friends. Aimed at the hearts of 10-year-old girls, Spirited Away offers its intended audience a smart, strong-willed protagonist whose relatively straightforward coming-of-age journey is beset with all manner of obstacles that could only have come from the mind of Miyazaki, including fantastical creatures, magic spells, and unforgettable, dreamlike set pieces. Thrilled by its beautiful animation and generous subtext, critics heaped nearly universal praise upon the Academy Award-winning hit — among them Jay Boyar of the Orlando Sentinel, who wrote, “Visually imaginative, thematically instructive and thoroughly delightful, it takes us on a roller-coaster ride from innocence to experience without even a hint of that typical kiddie-flick sentimentality.”

Porco Rosso


How unbridled is Hayao Miyazaki’s creativity? Porco Rosso started out as a short film, paid for by Japan Airlines as a bit of in-flight entertainment — only to morph into a typically surreal adventure about a cursed Italian World War I fighter pilot (voiced in the Disney dub by Michael Keaton) whose transformation into a piglike creature isn’t enough to keep him from a successful career as a freelance bounty hunter (or to stop him from capturing the hearts of a pair of fair maidens). Voicing an appreciation for the film’s visual appeal as well as its more thought-provoking themes, Jeannette Catsoulis of the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Miyazaki smooshes fantasy and history into a pastel-pretty yarn as irresistible as his feminism.”

Kiki’s Delivery Service


Ghibli’s fourth film had to wait almost a decade before receiving a proper theatrical release here in the States — and when it arrived, it came with a Disney-sanctioned English overdub featuring the voices of Kirsten Dunst and Phil Hartman, as well as a few changes that annoyed purists. For everyone else, the American Kiki’s Delivery Service was a treat — the poignant, yet sweetly loopy tale of a young witch (Dunst) who celebrates her 13th birthday the old-fashioned way: by heading off to the big city with her talking cat (Hartman). Blending humor with a sensitive look at the end of childhood, Kiki’s earned raves from critics like Ken Hanke of the Asheville Mountain XPress, who called it “The gentlest and most sweet-tempered Miyazaki film I’ve seen — yet it’s not without the strange undercurrent of something slightly sinister that exists in all his works.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for The Secret World of Arrietty.


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