The legendary animation company, Studio Ghibli, is inarguably deserving of its reputation. Home to some of anime’s preeminent talents, including the equally legendary Hayao Miyazaki, Ghibli is responsible for some of the greatest and most famous works that the medium has to offer. Instant classics, like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away have won the studio international acclaim, and any fan of their work will surely gush about how every bit of that acclaim is deserved.
However, with a range of work as expansive as Ghibli’s, it’s inevitable that certain films will receive more recognition than others. For every Spirited Away there are a handful of other works from the studio that go criminally underrecognized outside of Japan. These essential, yet tragically underrated, Ghibli movies are must-sees for any anime fan.
7 The Wind Rises
One of several Miyazaki works about war that doesn’t actually take place during wartime, The Wind Rises tells the real-life story of the engineer Jiro Horikoshi, famous for being the chief designer behind the famous A6M Zero fighter plane — the main carrier-based aircraft fielded by the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II. The story follows him from childhood, where he innocently dreams of flight, to adulthood and the onset of the war, where he is confronted with the terrible violence his life’s work is used to carry out.
Miyazaki seems to have a strong personal interest in the interwar period, and the tragic irony inherent to the period is deployed to great effect here. The audience knows from the outset that Jiro’s dreams are doomed to be deployed to violent ends, and they also know that the happiness the characters experience has an expiration date, as the war creeps ever closer. Of particular note for this film is the sound design. Many of the most memorable sequences feature effects produced entirely by the human voice rather than traditional sound engineering, lending a distinct, and sometimes frightening character to several pivotal scenes.
6 Only Yesterday
Known in Japan as Omoide Poro Poro (“Memories Come Tumbling Down”), Isao Takahata’s 1991 film, Only Yesterday, tells the intimate story of the life of the movie’s protagonist — a woman named Taeko — through a series of interconnected flashbacks that affect her as she makes one of her regular trips to the countryside. Taeko finds herself reflecting on the formative experiences of her childhood, the moments that shaped who she is today as well as those that inspire her to consider what could have been – the paths that her life might have taken had circumstances been different, or had other choices been made.
This is a movie concerned largely with exploring the significance of memory itself, both in the ways that people experience it internally, and the ways in which the perceived significance of past experiences influences our lives going forward. The themes and story here are remarkably adult, making it stand out from some of the studio’s more child-friendly work. The final impression of Only Yesterday is a somber one, but hopeful at the same time, and the story ends up feeling extremely true to life by the end of its runtime.
5 Pom Poko
Isao Takahata’s work for Ghibli exhibits incredible range: he is at once capable of directing some of the most harrowing and tragic stories available in the medium in Grave of the Fireflies, lyrical art films meant to entrance the viewer through their beauty like The Tale of Princess Kaguya, and primarily comedic works about shapeshifting raccoons opposing intrusive residential developments in Pom Poko.
This is a strange one for Ghibli, not only on account of its subject matter, but also because it is one of the few offerings the studio has that first and foremost aims to make the audience laugh. When their community is threatened by real-estate development, the magic-equipped raccoons in the story deploy their abilities to ridiculous ends in an effort to defend themselves. This one is worth watching to showcase Takahata’s range, as well as for those looking for something different from the studio.
4 Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind
Despite being an earlier theatrical work for Hayao Miyazaki, Nausicaä showcases his trademark aesthetics, as well as remarkable directorial confidence for such an early film. Set in a post-apocalyptic landscape where ecological disaster has rendered most of the Earth uninhabitable by humans, the titular protagonist, Nausicaä, must placate the environment’s dangerous insectoid wildlife, as well as protect her home village from an aggressive militaristic nation seeking to stake claim over their territory and resources.
The story’s setting, and the design work that makes up the tools, characters, and symbols that populate said setting is incredible. There’s an otherworldly realism to the environments in the movie, which lends an important believability to the overall story. It feels like real people live here, despite it being a world so different from our own. It also features characteristically fantastic animation (including one impressive sequence from a young Hideaki Anno, who would go on to direct Neon Genesis Evangelion among other things), and an environmentalist message that makes the movie feel even more relevant today.
3 The Tale Of Princess Kaguya
The final film by studio veteran Isao Takahata, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a visual achievement in every sense, even for the high standards set by the studio’s past work. Featuring an incredibly bold aesthetic (the animation and art evoke watercolor and charcoal), Kaguya is a dramatic retelling of one of Japan’s most prominent folkloric stories: that of a tiny princess discovered at the heart of a bamboo shoot, and the complicated fate that awaits both her and her loved ones. The film is the perfect sendoff for Takahata, and the experimental visual style showcases the range of artistic expression that the staff at Ghibli is capable of.
In addition to being an aesthetic achievement, Kaguya presents its fairytale-like story with the dreamlike romance and majesty that the subject matter deserves. This feels like the definitive retelling of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the story that inspired the film, and as an artistic reinterpretation of a very old tale, Kaguya hits high marks. Anyone with a passing appreciation for the art form of animation owes it to themselves to watch this movie, as do those with an eye for the truly beautiful.
2 Whisper Of The Heart
Director Yoshifumi Kondo was a longtime storyboard artist and animator at Studio Ghibli who was unfortunately only afforded the opportunity to direct one film for the studio before his death in 1998, and the result of those efforts was the laid-back and sentimental Whisper of the Heart. Whisper of the Heart notably chooses to steer clear of the fantastical elements found in many of the studio’s other works, opting instead to tell a more grounded story about young people struggling to find purpose, and perhaps becoming closer to one another in the process.
Kondo’s eye for setting shines through here. The level of realism and detail that can be found in the movie’s environments is incredible, which lends a strong sense of believability to the entire work. What really makes the film work, however, is its characters. The struggles the film’s protagonists go through feel truly universal, and the love story that runs parallel to the events of the main arc is extremely effective at making up the emotional core of the movie.
1 Porco Rosso
Although Porco Rosso is perhaps less recognized than some of Miyazaki’s more famous works, like Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, it is also arguably his best. Porco Rosso is about a pigman who flies planes, but it’s also a deeply personal meditation on the impact that war has on those who live through it. Set over the Mediterranean between the first and second World Wars, the film’s protagonist, Marco, is a man changed in a very literal sense by his wartime experiences, and the story follows his exploits as the world marches inevitably towards another cataclysmic confrontation.
This is a deeply melancholic work from Miyazaki, but also one of arresting beauty. The sheer artistry that Ghibli exhibits via the environments in this film instantly lands it among the ranks of the studio’s best-looking work, which is to say nothing of the animation itself. Miyazaki’s longtime love of aviation comes through in force here, and the film features some outrageously high-quality animated sequences involving aircraft.
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