The Best (And Worst) Of Studio Ghibli

by The Anime News Network Editorial Team,

 

"What's your favorite Studio Ghibli movie?" is a common question to ask any anime fan, but it's surprisingly hard to come up with an answer - the Ghibli catalog contains a long list of beloved classics, movies that have touched and inspired people in a huge variety of ways. Someone who claims My Neighbor Totoro as their favorite might have a hard time understanding why someone else might pick Howl's Moving Castle as the best. Even harder to explain might be your choices for runner-up - and the dreaded "worst" category, which can be even harder to choose than your favorites.

Naturally, we needed to ask our writing team all these difficult questions - and now we need to know your answers! Once you've browsed our critics' picks, head on over to our forums and tell us your choices for best, runner-up, and worst.

Rebecca Silverman

Best: When Marnie Was There

Asking me to pick my favorite Ghibli film is a little bit like asking me to pick a favorite book – I can come up with about five immediately and have to narrow it down from there, and depending on the day, those five might be totally different. Having asked myself the question for about a week now, I've found that the first title to come to mind each time was always the 2014 When Marnie Was There, so I suppose that currently, that's my favorite.

It isn't a surprise, really – the story combines many of my favorite elements, including time travel and ultimately finding solace when you thought there was none, and I've always enjoyed Ghibli's children's book adaptations. Ghibli's Marnie is a bit different from its 1967 original by British author Joan G. Robinson, mostly in its transportation of the story from Norfolk, England to the Japanese coast. That actually adds an interesting element to the story, painting Marnie as not just different from Anna in terms of personality, but as a foreigner living in rural Japan. She's living in a world out of a storybook even in Anna's eyes, and that adds a layer of Anna “reading” Marnie's realm as surely as we read the original novel. Anna's not just traveling to a distant past, she's jumping into a story, and in that tale, she's able to find herself. For many readers, that's what literature does, and it makes Anna's and Marnie's story resonate as both a film and a filmic representation of reading. The images of Marnie's house, both past and present, are a ghost story and an adventure, and when Anna begins to fill in for people in the past, with or without Marnie's awareness of it, we really get the feeling that she has stepped into a world not her own, but one that emphatically exists alongside it.

That the film is exquisite visually helps, of course, and I actually ended up eventually watching it with the Japanese, English, and French dubs, because each language emphasized a different emotion. Ultimately, I think that's why I love this film – it made me really feel everything Anna, Marnie, and even the other characters in the story were experiencing. While it did make me cry, they weren't sad tears, or at least not entirely. Like Robinson's book, Ghibli's film version took me to another world and made me feel like I was a part of it.

Runner-Up: Whisper of the Heart

It's not surprising that 1995's shoujo manga adaptation is another one I kept thinking of, because it shares a fair amount with Marnie. The main difference is that in Whisper of the Heart, it is the heroine, Shizuku, is the one being immersed in stories. Like Anna (and an awful lot of children's literature protagonists), Shizuku feels like she's not quite sure she belongs, although in her case she's actively trying to lose herself in books. The plot, wherein Shizuku writes her own fiction based on both a statue and a tale told by an older man, is an ode to story and the power of reading and writing. Through both of those, Shizuku learns to be more comfortable with herself and the world and people around her. Shizuku lives through her pen and her emotions, using her fantasy tale of Baron the cat to work things out, whether she knows it or not. That really spoke to what I was like at fifteen. It still speaks to me now.

Worst: Ponyo

To this day, Ponyo is the only Ghibli film I cannot get through. This is because it scares the crap out of me. I suppose that that says a lot about how good the movie actually is, but without this, I don't have a worst, so bear with me.

Simply put, this film speaks to many of my greatest fears. I live on the coast, as I have all of my life. Storm swells, flood tides, and fishing vessels lost at sea are realities, and they can have real, catastrophic impact. I've seen what the ocean can do when she's angry. So the minute the movie started showing those huge ocean swells, the ones that flooded roads and rose higher than the high ground, I started panicking. I've lived through those situations, thanks. I'd rather not relive them with a weird creepy fishgirl and someone too dumb not to know better than to drive across a tide-flooding roadway. Basically Ponyo felt like my beautifully animated nightmares, and I'm anxious enough without having to see that on a screen.

Theron Martin

Best Studio Ghibli Movie: Princess Mononoke

Runner-Up: Spirited Away

Over the years I've seen a bit more than half of the Studio Ghibli movies that have been produced, and every time I reevaluate which ones I think are the best, I keep coming back to the same two titles. Princess Mononoke holds a special place for me because its original 2000 release in the States was the first DVD I ever owned; in fact, I bought my first DVD player specifically so I could own and play it. That aside, I've always appreciated it for being among the grittiest of all the Ghibli movies and having one of the studio's most compelling stories. Several of its action scenes – including the early encounter with the demonic boar and San's later fight against Lady Eboshi – rank among Ghibli's finest efforts and characters are well-defined and appreciable, with true villainy here being somewhat relative. Numerous scenes are visual feasts, too, although the movie isn't flawless on that front. While Academy Award-winner Spirited Away arguably exceeds it on technical merits, and while I did list a few years ago as one of my Top 10 Anime of the 2000s (a placement I still stand by), I didn't find its more whimsical story and setting to be quite as compelling as Princess Mononoke’s. It represents more of the cute, child-friendly side of Ghibli and does a tremendous job with its weird characters and lavish designs and coloring. Of all of the Ghibli films I've seen, it's the one which bears the most similarities to pre-CG American animated movies, even though the setting is very decidedly Eastern. It's every bit as much of a triumph as Princess Mononoke, just in a bit different way, so me listing them in this order is more a matter of personal preference than distinctly greater merit.

Worst Ghibli Movie: Howl's Moving Castle

Yeah, this one got an Academy Award nomination, too, but I'll always disagree that it was worthy.  Its technical merits are only a slight notch below the above-mentioned films, and it does just as great a job of conceptualizing its setting, but the much bigger difference is in the writing. Significant chunks of the story feel like a retread of Spirited Away and the ending is not handled anywhere near as well as in most of its Ghibli competitors. And frankly, I found the “castle” more interesting than any of the characters and definitely more compelling than the story. It's still better than a lot of other anime movies that have come out in the past 20 years and still worth watching, but it doesn't stand up well against most of its brethren. (Plus I haven't seen the much-lambasted Tales from Earthsea.)

Amy McNulty

Best: Spirited Away

To be fair, I'm a few Studio Ghibli releases behind and the reason for this is I have to be in the right mood to watch a Studio Ghibli film. Although they're always beautiful and sure to prove a memorable experience, they're also slow-paced and I often can't bring myself to watch them more than once. Spirited Away is the only Studio Ghibli release I've watched several times. There's something about the wondrous bathhouse and all the creatures Chihiro encounters there that makes the film seem like a dream brought to life on screen. In addition to the visual spectacle, Yubaba is one of the scariest villains Ghibli has ever put to screen. She's a terrible boss (to put it mildly) and a vicious mage all at once. I love how Chihiro (“Sen”) forgetting her real name and how forgetting her real life keeps her trapped in this world. She hardly has time to think about getting her name back at first because she's kept so busy. How she and her friend, Haku, outsmart Yubaba at last is the crux of the unforgettable climax of the film.

Runner-up: The Cat Returns

Although not one of the studio's best-known releases, The Cat Returns exudes charm and whimsy. Despite being a spin-off of the movie Whisper of the Heart, I don't think you need to have seen one to enjoy the other—in fact, The Cat Returns is more like a work of fiction within the world of Whisper of the Heart, as I remember it. When a girl named Haru saves a cat from being hit by a car, she's offered the hand of the prince of the Cat Kingdom. Yes, a cat prince—and she actually accepts. Between the stunning Cat Kingdom visuals, a dashing (cat) Baron, and an adventure that serves as a magical analogy for Haru learning self-confidence, The Cat Returns is simultaneously escapism and a relatable coming of age story in a beautiful, touching tale. 

Worst: Howl's Moving Castle

Calling Howl's Moving Castle the worst Studio Ghibli film is likely an unpopular opinion, and I still think it's an aesthetically striking and decent film. However, my feelings toward it are likely a case of “the book was better,” which is ironic because I only sought out the book after hearing that Studio Ghibli was going to adapt it—and I went on to read every one of Diana Wynne Jones’ books thereafter. By the time I saw the film, though, I'd read the book and I couldn't get over the massive changes, including making a villainous character harmless and a kind character the villain in the film. Then there's the castle itself, which moves on legs instead of floating (but likely changed since Castle in the Sky already covered floating castles), which is also cool, but just more gritty and mechanical than the book version. That said, Sophie and Howl themselves are fairly good representations of the characters and are easily the highlight of the movie.

James Beckett

Best: Tale of the Princess Kaguya

For all of the work Studio Ghibli has done in producing some of the greatest animated films ever made, Hayao Miyazaki unsurprisingly receives the lion's share of the fame and credit for the studio's success. His reputation as the “Japanese Walt Disney” is well deserved, after all; he's been the mind and hand behind almost all of the Ghibli's greatest and most well-known achievements. It may come as a surprise, then, that the movie I would name Ghibli's best by a country mile isn't one of Miyazaki's works, but rather Isao Takahata's 2013 directorial effort, Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

Isao Takahata's most well-known work is easily Grave of the Fireflies, with most of his other movies being fairly obscure compared to titans like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. While that meditation on the cruelty of war and the tragedy of lost youth is absolutely essential viewing, Princess Kaguya is Takahata's true magnum opus. The film adapts the classic folk story The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the movie adopts a painterly and lush watercolor style to bring the feel of mythic Japan to life. While the story of the Heavenly Princess who comes to earth to be raised by humble village folk has been told and retold in countless mediums throughout the years, here it is so stunningly beautiful in its execution, so heartbreakingly earnest in its storytelling, that the old fable is transformed into something singular and almost unbearably affecting.

Princess Kaguya is a fiery and empathetic figure, and Takahata brilliantly shifts the focus of the story ever so slightly to emphasize the undertones of feminism and social criticism latent in the tale. Watching Kaguya navigate the treacherous waters of womanhood, while trapped in a world controlled by men,  is as engrossing a journey as it is tragic. If Grave of the Fireflies is an emotional sledgehammer, then The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a surgeon's blade; the film is much gentler than Takahata's most famous film, but it is just as powerfully felt. In terms of artistry, storytelling, and raw emotional poetry, it is easily Ghibli's most masterful production.

Runner Up: Spirited Away

I'm of the opinion that Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are equally perfect films, and perfectly capture the gorgeously dark humanism that flows through all of Hayao Miyazaki's films. At the end of the day, though, I give the edge to Spirited Away. It's beyond cliché to describe a film like this as “magical”, but I honestly can't come up with a better description for the movie. It's been 15 years since Miyazaki first whisked Chihiro and his audience into a world of spirits, witches, and demons, and the film has lost none of its imaginative power. For a movie to be so intricately animated and so full of genuinely childlike wonder and fantasy, there really does have to be some kind of magic at work. Either that, or a crew of the world's best animators working to the bone under the direction of a man at the peak of his artistic capabilities. 

Really, there's almost nothing to be said about this movie that hasn't been shouted from the rooftops by anyone with even a passing admiration for animation. Chihiro is, for my money, Miyazaki's most well-rounded and compelling protagonist, and her journey to save her parent's souls strikes the perfect balance of tangible darkness and comforting warmth that the best all-ages entertainment captures. Also, between the horrendous visage of Yubaba the Witch and the terrifying duality of No-Face, Ghibli managed to make almost every character in the film delightfully weird and interesting. The otherworldly bathhouse that Chihiro finds herself trapped in isn't just the most beautiful setting Miyazaki ever designed, it's populated with one of the best casts of characters in any Ghibli film, bar none. With a refreshingly nuanced take on morality and the pitfalls of childhood, Spirited Away isn't just one of Ghibli's best films, it's one of the best animated films ever made, bar none.

Worst: The Secret World of Arrietty

Keeping in mind that I've actually managed to avoid Ghibli's more universally criticized movies, such as Tales from Earthsea or Ocean Waves, this was a shockingly easy spot to fill, because The Secret World Arrietty is the only Ghibli film I've actively disliked. The directorial debut of Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Arrietty is adapted from the classic English children's novel The Borrowers, and the script had contributions from Hayao Miyazaki himself. With credentials like that, the success of the movie should be cut-and-dry, but unfortunately the movie just doesn't work at all.

A big part of this actually has to do with the script, which is frankly quite boring. It follows the lives of the titular Arrietty and the rest of her family, who are Borrowers, a race of very tiny humanoids living in the walls and floors of a rustic English cottage in the countryside and subsist by “borrowing” food and random knick-knacks from the humans that occupy the house.  Arrietty's curiosity eventually has her meeting the sickly young boy who lives in the cottage with his grandmother, as well as the paranoid maid that wants to get rid of the Borrowers for good.

While that setup would indicate reliable family entertainment, the actual result is horribly boring and imbalances in its storytelling. Shou, the sick boy, proves to be unlikable and flat for the entirety of the film, and he never forms a meaningful relationship with Arrietty. Meanwhile, the rest of the movie consists of a bunch of disconnected adventures with the Borrowers preparing for a vague journey while trying to avoid the crazy maid. While all of these little set pieces and scenes are extremely lovely to look at, they ring completely hollow on an emotional level. Even Miyazaki's presence here works to the movies detriment, with his environmentalist preoccupations feeling preachy and tired than informative or heartfelt. By the time the credits rolled, I walked away with a sense of frustration, vague boredom, and not much else. For a studio known for the humanity and life that fuel its best works, The Secret World of Arrietty stands out for its failure to muster even a hint of genuine emotion.

Christopher Farris

Favorite: The Wind Rises

Most of my experience with Studio Ghibli's films is with Hayao Miyazaki's output, and the style of his stuff is honestly not really my scene. With regards to that, The Wind Rises is pretty much the opposite of a typical Miyazaki movie from Ghibli: It's slow, serious, distinctly grounded in the real world, and I find it much more engaging for all of that. This slow-burn biopic is woven with some less-spotlighted World-War history, and the detailed sequences of airplane engineering trial-and-error are surprisingly interesting in their little-by-little sense of progress. The whole thing's wrapped up in some truly jaw-dropping animation, leaving no detail unrepresented, no movement shortchanged. It's also a deeply personal affair on multiple levels, not only exploring the possible passions and conflicts of aerodynamic engineer Jiro Horikoshi and his ‘art’ being used for war, but allegorically delving into similar conceits of Miyazaki himself regarding the creative process and the products that result. It's a fundamentally more focused and idea-based approach to the trademark team's filmmaking that spoke to me much more than usual.

Runner-Up: Spirited Away

Which isn't to say that when Ghibli and Miyazaki do their trademark thing well, it doesn't manage to shine. Spirited Away uses the studio's well-known knack for whimsy in the best way possible, weaving a true fairy tale out of its simply-styled premise. A predication on classic fae-realm fantasy ‘rules’ keeps the structure of this one sensible while reeling in the fantastical self-indulgence in ways that make sense. It makes it easy to appreciate Chihiro's struggles and successes as we see them distinctly pitted against the way the world works. It's all effectively wrapped up in lush visuals that push the limits of even Ghibli's considerable talents. “Bringing the world to life” is a phrase that gets slung around in animated movies like this a lot, but that exactly describes what they do in Spirited Away. The design of the world feels distinctly lived-in, and following Chiriro's trials throughout it make use of the whole setting effectively. Viewing the various nuances and miniscule quirks of the way everything moves helps mitigate how overloaded the film sometimes feels with additional subplots and detours. Spirited Away is the prime example of what I think the key factor of Ghibli's most beloved films is: It's simply fun to watch.

Least Favorite: Howl's Moving Castle

And on the other hand, you have what I don't generally like about these movies. I know I'll catch some flak for this, but Howl's Moving Castle encapsulates everything about Ghibli and Miyazaki's movies that drives me bonkers. It's overtly self-indulgent, to the detriment of the actual structure of the movie, with Ghibli's animation free-flowing seemingly just to show off their knack for things like well-drawn transformation sequences and amorphous character design. Plot-points come and go at their whim; portions such as Howl's alternate-area birdman dogfights being more confusing than evocative in their surrealism. To say nothing of the apparent villain rather anticlimactically being turned to irrelevance halfway through the movie, or the needless last-second reveal of what Turnip-Head was. At times, it feels like stream-of-consciousness from the animators and director, throwing everything they want out with little regard to how it actually works as a story. The movie expectedly looks pretty, but at least to me it'll never be anything more than a hot mess.

Anne Lauenroth

Best: Princess Mononoke

Picking the best work from a studio that, over the course of 30+ years, created several movies I would rank masterpieces, is a tough challenge. Instead of trying to justify my choice objectively, I will go with the Miyazaki masterpiece that means the most to me, personally. Obviously, the top spot would have to go to the film that reintroduced me to anime as an adult, Spirited Away. But what about My Neighbor Totoro, the movie to reaffirm my faith in life by celebrating its little wonders and possibilities every time reality is in desperate need for some catbus riding and jumping in the rain? What about the Castle in the Sky and one of the most wonderful scores ever written?

Still, the Ghibli movie closest to my heart with its environmental themes will always be Princess Mononoke – and by being an epic fantasy refusing to become a story about good and evil. Granted, Ghibli movies rarely are, but few of them would get me to set foot on something as incompatible with me as a boat just to visit the real magical forest that inspired the fictional one on screen. Thanks to insane sea sickness, I have no memories of the 4-hour ferry ride back from Yakushima. But I will always treasure the ones I made hiking through the forests of Shiratani Unsuikyō valley, encountering semi-wild deer and pretending to meet the Forest Spirit.

Runner-up: Whisper of the Heart

The only movie ever to be directed by the late, great Yoshifumi Kondō mesmerizes with a magic very different from the big Miyazaki titles. Much more mundane but no less engrossing, we follow Shizuku as she follows the cat, not down the rabbit hole, but up the winding secret alleys to an antique store, the place where the magic begins. It sparks her imagination just as much as the need to compete with Seiji does, her not-quite Prince Charming, who's just an adolescent boy slightly ahead in finding his life's passion. Between Shizuku and Seiji, Whisper of the Heart tells its story of first love and the discovery of passion with such sensitive honesty that it makes me feel like I'm 14 again, a cynical adult suddenly full of confusing but oddly inspiring adolescent aspiration.

Whisper of the Heart is a wonderful film. The fact it that comes with the bonus of having Miyazaki's music video On Your Mark, another Ghibli favorite of mine, released with it means I treasure it even more.

Take me home, concrete road.

Worst: Tales from Earthsea

Tales from Earthsea isn't a particularly inspired choice for my worst Ghibli movie. Looking at the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, Gorō Miyazaki's debut film didn't score half of what even more modest Ghibli productions such as The Cat Returns achieved. Despite its painterly backgrounds of gorgeous natural scenery and beautiful cityscapes (the young Miyazaki is a trained landscape designer, after all), Tales from Earthsea simply isn't a good movie. Plagued by non-existent (or badly communicated) character motivations, its plot is unnecessarily confusing, its character interactions stiff and unnatural. From Up On Poppy Hill showed that Gorō has grown as a director since then, and that it's probably a good idea to focus on directing and leave at least the script writing in the hands of a seasoned pro for now.


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