Thursday, January 7, 2016

Rank' Em: The Ghibli Films Part II

Continuing from yesterday's post, we're ranking all the Studio Ghibli films from weakest to strongest.  The second half of the list is below.

11. Only Yesterday (1991) - Taeko is an unusual Ghibli heroine, as she's a full-grown 27-year-old woman, in an unusual Ghibli movie, a light drama that was written specifically to appeal to adults.  Most of the film involves Taeko looking back on her on her experiences as a precocious 11-year-old, and re-evaluating her life.  It's one of those stories that doesn't seem like it gains anything from being an animated film at first glance, but of course, once you've seen "Only Yesterday," it becomes hard to imagine how it could have been told any other way.

10. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) - The one non-Ghibli film that I bent the rules for, because Studio Ghibli was founded almost as a direct result of Miyazaki's success with "Nausicaa."  It has the prototypical Miyazaki heroine, the strong ecological themes, the fantastic creatures, and so many of the other hallmarks of Miyzaki's best films.  The manga is unquestionably the stronger work, having a much more fully developed story and characters, but that doesn't change the anime's quality or impact.  If you're a Ghibli fan, "Nausicaa" is absolutely required viewing.

9. Howl's Moving Castle (2004) - The disparate parts are better than the whole, especially if you're familiar with Diana Wynne Jones's source novel.  There are an awful lot of little loose ends and logic gaps because so much of the story was condensed into something much simpler.  However, it's hard to resist the heroine cursed with premature old age, the anthropomorphic fireball, the eccentric playboy wizard, and the loveable shambles of the film's title residence.  The plotting is a jumble of anti-war allegory and unusual love story, but the important stuff comes across. 

8. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) - A little inaccessible for non-Japanese, because it assumes the viewer is at least a little familiar with the beloved folk tale of the bamboo-cutter and the princess.  This retelling, however, is surely one of the loveliest, with an animation style designed to look like classical brush paintings and calligraphy.  I remember this movie being in production for years and years, and all the effort comes across onscreen in the exquisite visuals.  The story has a few inventions in the third act I thought were unnecessary, but the charming heroine won me over.

7. Porco Rosso (1992) - I used to list this as my favorite Miyazaki film, but my feelings for it have dimmed over time.  The tale of the gallant Italian pilot in the early days of aviation, who prefers to be a pig than to be a fascist, had this wonderful air of mystery and unknowable tragedy when I saw it as a child.  As an adult, though, my perspective has changed, and I view it as more of a nostalgic fantasy for a bygone era.  It strikes me as a sillier film too, where the climactic race devolves into a merry street brawl.  However, it's quieter moments and reveries on flight are absolutely breathtaking.

6. Whisper of the Heart (1995) - One film is enough to count Yoshifumi Kondo among Ghibli's great directors.  "Whisper of the Heart" is a simple story about two kids growing up and embracing their creative sides, with a few touches of fantasy.  But oh, what perfect touches they are.  We get to see just enough of the magical world young Shizuka is writing about to spark our own imaginations, and leave us wanting more.  The more mundane, day-to-day, slice-of-life parts of the movie are also a lot of fun, following the kids through their little intrigues and adventures together.   

5. Princess Mononoke (1997) - My first Miyazaki film, a darker fable about encroaching industrialization and the displaced forest gods and spirits who refuse to go quietly.  The character design, animation, and art direction here are some of the most stunning in all of film history.  The sequences with the Great Forest Spirit alone are a perfect example of what animation is capable of that live-action is not.  I found the arc of the plot a little lacking, in spite of a strong cast of characters and some incredible worldbuilding. That's the only reason why "Princess Mononoke" isn't higher on this list. 

4. My Neighbor Totoro (1988) - The iconic Totoro are big, round, cuddly forest spirits, who befriend a pair of young sisters, Setsuki and Mei.  The girls have moved into a small house near the woods with their father, while their mother is away recuperating from an illness.  This is one of Ghibli's earliest successes, a beautifully observed children's story stuffed full of little wonders.  Its power is in its simplicity and universality.  The scenes with the umbrellas at the bus stop, the soot sprites, and the windy night flight, need no dialogue or explanation.  They're perfectly coherent and delightful in any language.

3. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) - Kiki is one of my favorite Ghibli heroines, because her worries and troubles are fairly ordinary.  Yes, she's a witch who does a few magical things, but more importantly she's a girl who has left home and is trying to make a place for herself in the world.  And so she's plagued by the usual self-doubts, bouts of melancholy, and bad reactions to change that everyone experiences in such circumstances.  And all it's so beautifully handled.  "Kiki" may look light and sweet, but it's a very eventful story, and in its own way, very profound in its worldview.

2. Spirited Away (2001) - Sullen Chihiro isn't looking forward to moving to a new town, but when her parents take a wrong turn into the world of the spirits, and she is left to fend for herself as the newest employee of a bath house for the gods, she has to learn to adapt quickly.  I love everything in this film, top to bottom - the endlessly surprising characters, the stream of spectacular visuals, the multiple mysteries that the story unravels one at a time, and especially Chihiro herself, who is allowed to change and grow into quite an admirable little heroine.  I like this one a little more every time I see it. 

1. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) - Because of its subject matter, this "Fireflies" has never escaped obscurity, though it was originally presented as a double-feature with "My Neighbor Totoro."  I think it's not only the best Ghibli movie, but far and away the best animated film ever made.  The prospect of watching a pair of siblings struggle for survival in the aftermath of WWII is hardly appealing to most viewers, but the power of the images and the emotions that they conjure is terribly rare and precious.  If your heart can stand it, all animation lovers should make the time to experience this film.


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