A Little Perspective From Tom Church

My Favorite Ghibli Movies

Hey all! As usual, I’m keeping up with the entertainment realm of life and lately that’s meant watching every Ghibli movie ever produced. It started with Spirited Away when I was seven or so, and hell, I was scared of that movie. It’s not exactly the most kid-friendly Ghibli movie, and the scene where Chihiro runs back to her parents to find they’ve turned into pigs scared me shitless. It’s like losing your parents in the grocery store. Except they’re pigs now. Non-sentient, unpredictable pigs.

So my first impression wasn’t the best. That scene nagged me so badly that the rest of the movie was difficult to appreciate. I was a crummy little kid though, unable to watch the basilisk scene of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; hiding around the corner drinking milk during a family viewing of King Kong; being brought to see X-Men 2 only to cover my eyes through the entire movie. The only scene I saw was the one where the cat licks Wolverine’s claws.

But through some miracle of a trend in overly violent movies that keep upping the ante and pushing the boundary of what viewers are willing to sit through, I am now mostly numb to these kinds of things. Pig parents? Those would be like regular parents except you’d have to clean up after them instead of it being the other way around.

So I’ve watched all of the movies Studio Ghibli has to offer. I haven’t watched all of their short films, music videos, commercials, or collaborative works, but I can at least say I’ve seen all of their theatrical releases (of which there are sixteen currently in American circulation). They’re captivating in every sense of the word, and while some are better than others, I have no clear-cut favorite. I can’t make a “top ten list” of these films. I cherish them all for different reasons and would want to watch one the most under certain circumstances. I’ll do my best to explain my admiration for each of the films I list here.

[Reminder: these films are not listed in order of favorites; they are simply a group that I consider my favorite.]

1) My Neighbor Totoro

This movie is held as one of the most fantastic adventures that Studio Ghibli has ever produced, and I don’t think it could be summed up in clearer terms than with this quote from Roger Ebert: “[Totoro] is based on experience, situation, and exploration–not on conflict and threat.” He also called it “one of the lovingly hand-crafted works of Hayao Miyazaki,” who is the director, animator, writer, and/or producer of many Studio Ghibli feature films. Totoro is the story of two young girls, Satsuki and Mei, who discover creatures of varying size in the forests near their new home. These creatures are dubbed “totoro” by young Mei, who is the first one to actually see them. Her father calls them keepers of the forest who will reveal themselves again when they wish.


These creatures reveal themselves to be benevolent, fun-loving, and magically gifted. The movie focuses on their experiences with them, and while the movie does in fact have an apparent conflict, the magic in this movie comes from the innocence, imagination, and excitement of the two girls and the totoro (which, by the way, is plural in this case). It transcends the kids’ genre and I encourage anybody to watch it if they ever want to feel like a kid again.

2) Spirited Away

Let’s go ahead and tackle this one. Here’s the movie I said frightened me. Frankly, it still does, but perhaps in different ways. No, I’m not scared my parents will turn into pigs anymore, but this movie is centered around a plot in which a young girl, Chihiro, stumbles into a world of spirits. She feels out of place, lost, and lonely, and everyone she meets treats her harshly. There are some genuinely scary characters along the way, and a big-headed old woman running the show.

This movie works to alienate Chihiro, and in the process makes the viewer uncomfortable. The movie is unpredictable and surreal, and that’s part of its beauty. It’s wonderfully animated and full of suspense, as well as happy moments, paced to keep you waiting. One of my favorite parts about this movie is its soundtrack (not uncommon, as you’ll see from entries further down this list). Joe Hisaishi is a composer who often collaborates with Hayao Miyazaki in adding musical emphasis and power to Studio Ghibli films. A movie with Hisaishi as its composer is one worth watching. Notable tracks from this film are “One Summer’s Day,” “The Sixth Station,” and “The Dragon Boy.”

spirited awayThis movie is dreamlike. It may have been hard to watch and appreciate when I was younger, but it was also the first Ghibli movie I saw, and when I was older I searched for it and watched it again and found it to be beautiful. It’s absolutely worth watching.

3) Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies offers a largely different experience, you will find, than its Ghibli counterparts. The two main reasons are its premise and its director. The movie’s foundation rests on the air raids on Japan during WWII. Seita and his young and naive sister Setsuko are two children left to fend for themselves when their living situation falls apart. They are surrounded by harsh circumstances in a community that is becoming increasingly stingy with its food and money. Seita feels it’s his responsibility to look after Setsuko, who is just old enough to talk and who has a much harder time adapting than he does.

The movie’s director is Isao Takahata. Takahata is the director of only four Studio Ghibli films of the eighteen that are currently available in Japan (two of these films, Only Yesterday and The Wind Rises, haven’t been released in America). That said, Takahata is second in directorial involvement to Miyazaki, and does not often receive as much praise. I personally prefer Miyazaki movies to those Takahata produces, and their difference is only in style and interest. Takahata’s career has consisted of movies that are more “slice-of-life,” and perhaps more relevant to real-life situations. Movies like Only Yesterday and My Neighbors the Yamadas support this assertion, whereas Takahata’s Pom Poko (a movie about talking raccoons who face habitat destruction) would contradict it. In any case, I generally prefer the films Miyazaki writes and/or directs.

grave of the fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies is the exception. This movie is heartbreakingly real, and is even based on a Japanese man’s autobiography. The events described in the movie are recreations of true occurrences. The outcome of this movie, I will warn you, is harsh. But there is a magic to the movie that sticks with you long after you watch it, as well as an appreciation for life.

4) From Up On Poppy Hill

I only needed to watch this one once to declare it one of my instant favorites. From Up On Poppy Hill is actually the second film directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki. The first film, Tales From Earthsea, was good, but From Up On Poppy Hill, in my opinion, is a more worthy film and received better critical attention. Another film that falls into the category of realism, Poppy Hill details the story of Umi, who raises marina flags every morning in order to signal ships. The ship she is signalling is her father’s, who she has not seen in years.

A boy in town notices and writes a poem about it that makes it into the school paper. They end up meeting and bonding over extracurricular activities that take place in a clubhouse called the Latin Quartier. The movie is a love story, and a really good one. It was funny and endearing, and most of all it was pretty.

from up on poppy hill

Also notable about this movie was its ability to make me laugh. Studio Ghibli movies are always pretty, but a sense of humor always helps. This movie was all-around fantastic, and a definite must-see for fans. It also gave me confidence in Goro Miyazaki’s ability to succeed his father, who recently retired!

5) Kiki’s Delivery Service

This movie is one of the most inherently goodhearted and beautiful films I’ve ever watched. Everyone in this movie works to do good for each other, to be helpful and kind human beings. It’s all about a young witch, Kiki, who moves to the waterside town of Koriko in order to learn how to learn how the human world operates. The people she meets along the way become close friends and help her at every opportunity.

This movie is not conflictless, and yet it has no clear villain. You cannot even label something intangible as the enemy, such as “human greed” or “environmental pollution.” There is simply no evil afoot. This movie, like Totoro, is about the situation, and about the experience. It’s a lesson in aesthetics, and in how to treat people. Kiki and Tombo are fantastic characters, because of their inclination to optimism and their profound childlike wonder (and I may be a little biased).

This gorgeous movie was written, directed, and produced by Hayao Miyazaki, with music by Joe Hisaishi.

kiki's delivery serviceA fantastic movie and a great choice for anybody! It’s certainly something I’ll be showing my children someday. And you know the old C. S. Lewis quote: “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” I will never stop enjoying Kiki.

6) Howl’s Moving Castle

Erin’s personal favorite, Howl’s Moving Castle is directed and written by Hayao Miyazaki, with music by Joe Hisaishi–right in my comfort zone. Originally, Mamoru Hosoda, the director of two Digimon movies, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and Summer Wars was to direct.  However, he left the production, and Miyazaki came out of what everyone thought was his retirement to direct the movie (keep in mind, this was in the early 2000s).

This movie never disappointed me. It’s a magical tale, and a more surreal one as well, comparable to Spirited Away in the sense that not everything that happens makes sense. The rules are never spelled out, but that’s something you end up understanding and enjoying. Howl is a love story between the mysterious owner of a moving castle and a young girl named Sophie who has trouble believing she’s pretty at all. It makes it all the more difficult for her to believe Howl loves her, and has been looking for her.

howl's moving castleThis movie is touching, and you end up loving the characters for their ability to protect their friends and convert their enemies. It’s a movie that’s stuck with me as being one of the most beautiful in terms of art and its story. “Now, straighten your legs, and start walking!”

7) Whisper Of The Heart

This love story was actually adapted by Hayao Miyazaki from a manga comic series. While I can’t compare the two (having never read the latter), I can honestly say that Whisper is a beautifully touching story of young romance and coming of age. It’s a story that I believe many can identify with, because it’s all about balancing responsibilities and becoming something you can respect. One of my favorite quotes from the movie is spoken by the main character’s scarcely-seen father: “Why don’t we let Shizuku do what she thinks is best? Not everyone has to follow the same path? … Go ahead and do what your heart tells you. But it’s never easy when you do things differently from everyone else. If things don’t go well, you’ll only have yourself to blame.”

Whisper has a powerful story and a wonderful message. It may feel at first as if this story is realistic fiction, like From Up On Poppy Hill or Only Yesterday, but this is a movie that creates its own magic and showcases such imaginative ideas and themes.

whisper of the heartOne of my favorites, absolutely. It also has one of my favorite scenes–the one pictured in the .gif above–of any Ghibli movie!

8) Princess Mononoke

Mononoke means ‘spirit’ or ‘monster,’ so the translation for this movie’s title is closer to “The Spirit Princess.” It’s described as a historical epic fantasy (try wrapping your mind around that one) that illustrates mankind’s effect on nature. It’s actually one of a few Studio Ghibli movies that notably delve into that subject, the others being Nausicaa of the Valley of the WindPom Poko, and Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Other films go into less detail, but convey the same message through mankind’s harmful interactions with magical presences.

Mononoke is a masterful movie. It’s a fan favorite because it’s a bit more violent than other movies, and also a bit more fantastic. The characters are ambitious and aggressive, and the art is beautiful. This movie was calculated to have approximately 144,000 individual celluloid images used in the final production, the Studio’s last cel-shaded film up until Ponyo was made. Ponyo topped Mononoke’s cel-shade count at 170,000 separate images.

princess mononoke

This is a spectacular movie, and it features one of my favorite Hisaishi songs: “Ashitaka and San.”  It’s a bit more action-oriented than other Studio Ghibli films, for all of us who appreciate that kind of thing!

9) Arrietty

This movie was really fantastic. It was actually directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, notable for the fact that he was the youngest director of a theatrical Studio Ghibli movie. It was written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, with music by Cecile Corbel. The change in musical style was actually quite welcome, and suited the movie superbly. I paid attention to the music in this movie and ended up really loving it.

Arrietty had a cry-worthy premise. It’s about a boy named Sho who moves into a house inhabited by a tiny race of people called Borrowers. They borrow things from the humans’ residences because the difference in size is extremely helpful to them. For example, a sugar cube in the human world that would last us one cup of coffee would last the Borrowers several weeks. Arrietty is a young Borrower whose father wants to teach her how to explore human houses discreetly.

But Sho finds out about her when she is careless, and tries his best to help her. Sho reveals to Arrietty later on that he has a heart condition, and he is sick almost beyond conceivable medical help. It appears that Sho does not have much longer to live, and he says that he is helping them because, unlike himself, the Borrowers have a chance at not “dying out.”

arriettyEverything about this movie is pretty. The whole thing is wonderful, and the way that Arrietty and Sho give meaning to each others’ lives is what makes this movie really special.

10) Ponyo

I will never grow tired of this movie, not in two or three or ten lifetimes. Ponyo was brilliant in every sense of the word. From the killer cast to the breathtaking art style, from the Hisaishi soundtrack to the goofy main characters, this movie had it all. It is the epitome of cuteness and fun. I think what made this movie great was its ability to make me happy. The kids in the movie are always jovial, brave, and silly with each other, especially Ponyo who is ridiculously oblivious and always jumping for joy. When she’s not screaming, she’s sleepy. She was the most enjoyable and adorable character.

The plot managed to be suspenseful, cute, and fulfilling all at once. What also makes Ponyo interesting is that it lacks a definite villain. It was much like Kiki’s Delivery Service in that way. Ponyo was extremely imaginative and visually stunning.


If there’s one movie I can trust to liven me up and make me happy, it’s Ponyo. 

Thanks so much for reading, everyone, and I hope you enjoyed! If you learned anything or got some insight into what to watch next, that’s a bonus!

aestheism, not atheism.


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