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5 Ghibli Films Hollywood Filmmakers Need to Watch

What Hollywood Has Left to Learn from Studio Ghibli? Everything:

5 Ghibli Films Hollywood Filmmakers Need to Watch

Hayao Miyazaki can’t quit. Meaning that in both the ways it can be taken. First off, the man has seriously tried, having basically given a KISS-level amount of farewell tours, starting all the way back in 1997 after making Princess Mononoke, and continued the trend with every film after. Clearly quitting was something that was left out of the animator’s education, along with how to make bad films, and how to not be an incredible creative genius/world treasure. Some real tragic gaps there, but at least they lead me directly to the second meaning of my beginning, being: Hayao Miyazaki can’t quit. I won’t let him, mainly, but, more importantly, it would end a career that hasn’t nearly shown its age, and whose gifts have yet to even be cursorily mined for cinema at large, which in itself is an incredible failure.

Although Miyazaki’s been at it almost as long as him, this is not even close to a Woody Allen situation where the mimickers are now far outdoing the original. Nor is this like Walt Disney (to whom he is so often compared), where the studio can thrive without its founders. Further, for Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli, there is absolutely no Pixar equivalent to take things really to the next level, either. Studio Ghibli was founded by Miyazaki and fellow genius Isao Takahata twenty-five years ago now and, for them still, there is no next level to be seen—they are the sole bar-setters for their genre.

Now, what exactly is that genre? It’s tough to describe, but I’ll try anyway. How about, culture-illuminating creative-girl-power movies? Clunky, but mostly apt, and speaks at least to the originality of their oeuvre. It’s tempting to categorize them into “Fantasy” but so many fall into that label that just don’t fit Ghibli. Fantasy is often “Lord of the Rings” and “Twilight,” stories that take place in another world, or have otherworldly characters, and then a standard adventure plot develops specifically to service that world or those characters. For Ghibli films, though, any fantastical elements are merely a means to a supremely human end, and the point isn’t to escape, but instead to meet and shake a ghostly, or even furry hand with life and the slightly scary things in it, which Ghibli realizes are actually the most scary things. From moving to a new home, to having a sick parent, to even having a friend more driven to succeed than you seem to be.

This complete onus given to “real stuff” is all proven by the few Ghibli films that don’t utilize fantastical elements. At least three Ghibli films are, for all intents and purposes, straight human dramas, and still fit right in next to Porco Rosso, the story of the pilot pig-man. Though this is not only because of the aforementioned “genre,” but also the masterful animated flourishes, great humor, personal vision, and overall commitment to excellence that one can’t expect to be totally replicated, there remains a strong, connective thread that is yet untapped by other filmmakers.

Still, hope is not lost. Although Disney’s old-hat “Princess” pattern reigns supreme over Ghibli’s in animation today, there has been some headway in recent films. For instance, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog may be sold along with Cinderella figures in Disney stores all over, but her humanizing journey as a transformed amphibian in the film calls more back to Sophie’s journey as an old woman in Howl’s Moving Castle. Tiana’s main objective of owning her own restaurant (tedious and shoe-horned as it may have been) as well put her more in line with the rest of Ghibli’s heroines in terms of dimensions. And since being released on DVD and Blu-Ray last week, you can now also see what is perhaps Miyazaki’s biggest influence to date in The Secret of Kells. Set during barbarian invasions, the  Irish surprise tells a story not of war or of love, but of the birth of a masterpiece of art—and the adolescents whose quiet courage, choices and principles bring it into being. That’s Ghibli’s priorities and preoccupations all over, and a long time coming to seen carried over somewhere else.

So, the beginnings of evolution are underway. Let’s expedite this a little faster, though. In all Ghibli films there is something to learn, but I now present for you the five that I believe have the most to teach. Maybe if animators, and really all filmmakers give each of these a look, then we can put an end to the old ways. And then perhaps Miyazaki will learn something too—like how to take a break.

5. Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (d. Hayao Miyazaki w. Hayao Miazaki)

It was touted as a story based on The Little Mermaid, but this version’s absence of an Ursula highlights a constant in many of Miyazaki’s films—that characters are wholly responsible for their own actions. Ponyo sprouts legs because she damn well feels like it. At a whopping five years old, the lead “prince” is basically left to his own devices to put an end to the stormy devastation caused by her departure from the sea  (and takes this responsibility with an eye-rubbing amount of aplomb). His mother even facilitates his adventure, whatever the consequences. Released from American panic and auto-pilot behavior, the characters get a chance to breathe and firmly establish their own identities, and it makes Ponyo a great template for stories in its own right—Jamaican accents missed only slightly.

4. Whisper of the Heart (d. Yoshifumi Kondo w. Hayao Miyazaki)

How can a girl trying to discover her own talent be a compelling plot for a film, some poor girl at film camp inevitably asks every summer? Apparently by trusting it to deliver, and stripping it of fantasy where it would be so tempting to include. In Whisper, Junior high student Shizuku sees mysterious cats and magic all around her, but it’s kept smartly to her imagination. It may not be not one of Ghibli’s most famous works because of this, but is incredibly rebellious in its straight charm, and its connection to viewers who grew up with ambitions that didn’t match what they were expected to do. Seeing whether Shizuku will make her month deadline for her short story, or ever come up with a good re-write of the John Denver song “Country Roads” for herself may not be the stuff epics are made out of, but they are so epically pure as to possibly shock you into thinking about what kind of entertainment you have been subjected to thus far, and what you want to be subjected to in the future.

3. My Neighbor Totoro (d. Hayao Miyazaki w. Hayao Miyazaki)

“It was a dream!” “It wasn’t a dream!” Sisters Satsuki and Mei take turns screaming after a night with a giant spirit troll in Tokyo. It goes on and on; except, wait a minute, somehow, it’s not an argument between them, like it would be in most movies. Instead, it’s one harmonious pronouncement. It was and it wasn’t; both are true, and that’s the brilliance behind it all in this children’s classic-for-a-reason. It may include the company of big plush animals, sentient dust bunnies, and a cat that is also a bus, but they are in the end just company, even maybe hysterical mirages for the girls. Like Michigan J. Frog, Totoro can only appear when no one else is around, and while at first they want to prove his existence, this quickly takes a backseat to their own family dramas. Like how big sister Satsuki starts off Mei’s sushi roll but makes her finish it up—Totoro provides the merchandising, but lets the characters do the work—and its all the tastier for it.

2. Only Yesterday

Only Yesterday‘s uniqueness can also be summed up in a quote, which is, “At last, we’re in the middle of nowhere.” Not exactly a line you’d hear from the latest Shrek sequel without it being a punchline. It’s not even a line taken seriously by the other characters, as her proto-organic farming hipster companion corrects her, saying farmers make everything we consider “nowhere” (which is definitely a component of the film’s and Ghibli’s overall environmental point). Still, office worker Taeko’s words echo something very important about her and others like her, totally underrepresented in film. Many people are always waiting for the place they fit in and looking for the environment that will support them. As an adult Taeko spends over half the film envisioning simple vignettes from her childhood, where she was considered “not normal,” but to the viewer was plainly just experiencing life in a different way, and very probably had ADD. Not a glamorous or easy subject to treat respectfully, but it works amazingly here, and should give hope to all who want to combine entertainment with real psychological issues.

1. Spirited Away

On the flip side of Whisper and Only Yesterday, Spirited Away does the shouldn’t-be-impossible and shows you can choose your emphasis, but still absolutely have an exciting and mainstream plot. Every fantastical element here is just as soaring as in Wonderland or Oz, but here ingeniously ties in to a girl’s specific reconciliation of adulthood. Chihiro is scared as she moves to her new house with her blustery parents, but remarkably, everything on her magical detour goes beyond the call of duty in helping her not only make peace with this fact and grow up in ways unheard of in two and a half hours of running time. The work she does in the bathhouse for the gods strengthens her spindly, awkward body; the face-off she has with a faceless demon teaches her selflessness; and, the run-ins she has with a giant screaming baby reveal her own sheltered existence. On top of it all, her dragon boy love interest is not treated as a reward for her good decisions—like it would be in most stories—but he also ends up having a secret past that ties directly in to her childhood and outlook on the world. In the end, it’s all about Chihiro, and even though she’s not done growing, no prequels or spin-offs or “returns to” are encouraged. Listening, Hollywood?

– Michael J. Narkunkski