Studio Spotlight: My Top 5 Ghibli Films

This one here is Totoro

Alright, this is the second part of my Studio Spotlight where I rank my top 5 films from a particular studio. Like I said from my previous post, I’m going to feature Studio Ghibli. This studio is another one of my favorites and I mostly stumbled on its movies because of my aunt who lent me a DVD (or was it VCD, I don’t know) of some Ghibli films. I have to say it was love at first sight for me.

I have been familiar with anime ever since I was a kid because of our localized dub of various shounen shows–with Dragonball, Slam Dunk, Flame of Recca, and Hunter x Hunter to name a few. When it came to animated movies I was a Disney and Pixar kid. I absolutely haven’t watched a single Japanese animated film and I did not even knew it existed. But, the moment I watched my first few  Ghibli films it was a different experience for me.

One thing that most Ghibli films had compared to Disney films is that there is a certain maturity in their films. They don’t shy away from blood or death, or darker themes. It isn’t just subtle, it’s part of the story. I think it’s that way because there is a significant difference between American and Japanese culture that also reflects on their animation style and storytelling.

Selecting my top 5 for Ghibli is hard. Much harder than Pixar, probably since it has produced more film than Pixar. But just hard since there is something endearing, surreal, and magical in a Ghibli film. I almost love all the the Ghibli films, but, here goes nothing.

5) The Secret World of Arrietty

It was either Arrietty or Howl’s Moving Castle, but I chose Arrietty as the better one. Arrietty has a simpler and tighter plot compared to Howl’s (which had a lot of unfinished plot points), but still retaining a certain depth in the plot. It has gorgeous visuals, and an amazing soundtrack–a typical staple for any Ghibli film.

The typical little people living in your house is not the most original of all genres, it has been done a lot of times. But what Arrietty introduces is a different perspective–a family struggling to survive and a species that may be on the brink of extinction. Despite its apparent lighthearted tone, it actually has considerable weight.

This bleakness is turned up a notch to show that Sho, a boy living in the house Arriety resides in, has a heart condition and an upcoming surgery. It doesn’t have a high success rate as he tells Arriety. That particular scene also has one of those most emotional exchanges between Arrietty and Sho that summarizes the sentiments of both characters and also the theme of the movie.

Sho: There are so many rare species that have died out. I’ve only seen them in my books, though. So many beautiful creatures has ended up dying because the environment changed. It’s sad, but maybe that’s what fate has in store for the Borrowers.

Arrietty: Fate, you say? You’re the one who changed things, and we’re the ones who have to move away. We have to survive. That’s what my father said. So we’re moving away even if it’s dangerous. We make do, we always have. You don’t know anything about us. But we will survive this and not simply die out!

Sho: I’m sorry…you’re right, of course…in fact, I’m the one who is going to die.

Their conversation not only explored their particular stance in their own impending doom, but it also gave a commentary in the effect humans have on the environment. But most of all, Arrietty’s comment reflects on the death of a particular culture. The effects of modernization has been beneficial to us, but that’s because we lived alongside with it. We were the one who changed things, and they have to move away. Just in my country alone, a lot of amazing tribes with a rich cultural history is slowly dying out because of the change we bring.

But more than that, the final message of Arrietty is hope–the human will to survive. Death has always been our greatest motivator, but hope has always been our fuel. It’s this fuel that drives us to our dreams, to accomplish what our short existence provides us. This blend of optimism and realism is what made me enjoy Arrietty.

4) Kiki’s Delivery Service

If Arrietty shows our will to survive, Kiki’s Delivery Service explores our drive to succeed. It explores our issues concerning our own talent, or sometimes our lack of it. Humans have this persistent fear of having little to no talents at all. We always want to be good at everything–multi-talented is a word we like to associate with ourselves. And it’s perfectly okay to want that. But, what if we were only ever good at a certain thing? What if, unlike that peer who is athletic, charismatic, and can play the guitar, we can only draw or dance or sing?

Kiki embodies this; she is a witch that only has the ability to fly and to make matters worse, she is not that good with it. To support herself, she does a delivery service and she faces a lot of setbacks and worries with it. Kiki puts us in that shoe. We see Kiki have a friend in Tombo who believes in her talent, but we also see her critics, who makes fun of it. Kiki eventually loses her drive and loses the ability to fly, and her crisis is even called a form of artist’s block.

Almost all of us have gone to this phase. Heck, I had times were I felt down that I’m not good compared to people who are multi-talented or just really good. As someone who writes short stories, I question myself and worry if I really have the talent for writing. Sometimes, I shrink and lose my will when I see those who are really good or those who have criticized my work. But Kiki shows that it is only natural to feel that. It shows that self-doubt is just one of the many obstacles in the road ahead. Our time to shine is always there and we would eventually have a purpose. We just have to be patient and, if the opportunity ever arrives, we have to be courageous and confident to grab it. Like what Kiki did, sometimes, we just have to take a leap of faith and keep on pushing ourselves.

Aside form the message of the story, I love how the whole witch theme played out. It’s actually more human than I thought, and not on the more surreal magical thing. Also, one thing I love about Ghibli films is world building. It’s so beautiful I just want to live in it.

3) Grave of the Fireflies

I dub this Cryfest the Movie. It’s one of the first few Ghibli films I have watched and it’s the very first movie ever to make me cry like a baby. I watched this when I was just in elementary, and my golly did its theme really rock me to the core. To watch a tragic and emotionally-engaging movie like this made me understand the true effects of war. I’ve read about a lot of wars in my history classes, I’m familiar with words such as death toll, famine, and air raids–but it took an animated movie like this to understand its value.

To follow our main characters–who are merely kids–suffer from malnutrition, displacement, and isolation all because of pointless human violence is infuriating and excruciating to watch. You know there is no happy ending since from the very start, you know they are dead. But that mere fact alone does not help as I slowly watch this kids to their apparent demise. When I watched it I was angry at all the adults in the film. From their aunt, who suddenly abandoned them so she could have the food ration to herself, and to the doctor who refused to help them when the little sister felt ill. But most of all, I hated the adults for starting a war.

Remember, I was a kid back then. To have such deep impressions like that, even when I barely had the necessary understanding of World War II or wars in general goes to show how great the narrative of Grave of the Fireflies is. It’s also the only Ghibli film I have yet to watch a second time–there is something deep down in my subconscious that doesn’t want to feel all that doom and gloom again. To have that last till adulthood really makes Grave of the Fireflies powerful.

2) Spirited Away

Spirited Away holds a special place in my heart because it’s actually the movie that inspired me to write. Well, write with a somewhat particular style that is. Spirited Away has a lot of amazing characters, and all of them are memorable. But what I like about this is that there isn’t really a concept of being a villain. Actually, that’s what I love about most Ghibli films, being a villain is a blurry line. Most of them are actually just misunderstood characters. I thought No Face had the potential for creepy villain (he was devouring people and he just makes a bunch of moaning sounds), but it turned out he was just lonely, and he just want a friend and attention. Yubaba, the witch, was pegged as the main big bad. But turns out…she isn’t as bad as she is portrayed to be. She doesn’t do the residents harm, treats them nicely despite being a little to strict and scary, and manages to run the whole town well.

This movie broke my traditional Disney hero-villain misconceptions. It gave a simple message–we shouldn’t judge based on our preconceptions. But what Spirited Away had was a beautiful soundtrack, more heart-warming than the typical Ghibli one. I just hear it’s opening theme and I know it’s Spirited Away. But the selling point of the movie for me was its dreamlike tone and style. It really brings the magical and fantastical part, from the building’s architecture to the residents of the town. The kid version of me was in awe with it. It made me imagine that world and to write something about that.

I eventually got to re-watch Spirited Away again in college and the ending filled me with tears and nostalgia, that’s something that only a few movies can do to me.

1) Princess Mononoke

Nothing really beats the feeling of first love…and Princess Mononoke was my first love, while San was my first anime crush. I dreamed of meeting San and imagined what I would have done when I meet her. I was captivated by her beauty, fierceness, independence , and her wild nature. To actually have sentiments like this for a 2-D character was often weird, more so back a decade ago when I was a kid. A time where I was fanboying about San and the movie, when most of my peers haven’t watched a Ghibli film in their lives ever.

Princess Mononoke didn’t just change my perspective for the animated movie, but it made me love Japanese animation. Princess Mononoke is a serious movie with a plot that is deep and full of symbolism. It freed me from the chagrins of the lightheartedness of Disney movies. Here was a movie that didn’t have any singing or fluffiness, but one that explored mysticism and the supernatural, conflict, greed, vengeance, betrayal, and the effects of industrialization to the environment.

Heck, the first scene involving a corrupted boar god (called demons) attacking the Emishi village was intense! The demons were grotesque and disgusting, and it really set the tone for the movie. Princess Mononoke didn’t shy away from the gory stuff, too. It shows decapitation, it shows people actually dying, it show rotting animal corpses, and it doesn’t shy away from showing blood. It was my first time seeing actual blood in an animated film. This was the very definition of a new watching experience.

Also, the movie had an interesting premise and plot. It’s about Ashitaka’s journey in finding a cure for his. But it’s also not just about his self-discovery. It ultimately explores his discovery of the conflict in the new environment he is exposed to. It also makes you ask who is actually wrong in the whole conflict. Eboshi and the Iron Town may look wrong since they are clearing the forests. But it’s also their source of living, and one cannot ignore the fact that Eboshi employs the social outcasts like lepers and brothel workers. She took them under her care. Her fight against the gods was not for spite, but because she wants to protect her town.

Meanwhile, the gods are merely trying to maintain the balance. Their homes, the forests, are cut down and they simply want to protect it. Watching the movie, you actually really don’t know who started the conflict. I don’t even know who I should root for since it introduced moral dilemmas.

Simply put, Princess Mononoke actually made me think and made me care for the characters. It was an action-packed movie, but it is also an intellectual one. It was a movie about self-discovery, but it’s also about the environment. When I say Princess Mononoke is deep and mature, it’s not because it had blood and death, it’s because it’s a mentally and emotionally engaging movie where the plot and characters are worth investing my time.

Nothing really beats the feeling of first love…especially when your first love is as beautiful, exciting, engaging, and smart as this.

Also, San with a bloodied face really turns me on. I don’t know, I’m weird.

Honorable Mention: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

I didn’t count this because while it’s a Ghibli film from its very core, it was pre-Studio Ghibli. But it’s actually more of me having an excuse to include an extra one, since Nausicaa is definitely in my top 5. It’s a post-apocalyptic fantasy/sci-fi with a lush and amazing world setting, environmental themes, and a carefree yet strong and independent heroine. What’s not to love?

*Anyway, that’s it for my top 5 Ghibli films. How about you guys? What’s your top Ghibli films?

*Also, what other animation studios you recommend I do a Studio Spotlight about? (you now get a chance to force me to write about something!)

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