With news of Netflix finally adding the films of Studio Ghibli to its service, making available its first seven in February, there’s no better time to revisit these seminal stories. So which films truly measure up to the Ghibli name? Let’s find out in part one of our review series!
CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986) Director: Hayao Miyazaki
A young orphan girl evades capture when her plane is attacked by pirates with help from a magical necklace. She joins forces with a young orphan boy, and the pair go on the run. They are pursued by both pirates and the military, both of whom believe the girl is the key to discovering the lost flying city of Laputa, and its plethora of treasures.
Featuring a meticulously detailed steampunk aesthetic and nonstop action the likes of which would be revisited to perfection in Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle In The Sky is technically speaking the first Studio Ghibli film (though the earlier Nausicaa has since been retroactively canonised). This Netflix incarnation comes free of its surtitle “Laputa”, consistent with its excision from American releases for fear of its similarity to the Spanish phrase “la puta,” meaning “the prostitute”. Trivia aside, the film is expansive and dizzyingly ambitious. Its frenzied first half scarcely grants its audience a chance to breath amidst extended chase sequences, explosions and fist fights, hurtling through varied locations in quick succession, all choreographed to maximum excitement. It makes a sturdy case for animation as the premier medium for staging physics-defying action scenes, given what Miyazaki is able to accomplish, liberated from the obvious limits a live-action film would face. The second hour of the film takes place almost exclusively on the eponymous castle, and it is here that Miyazaki skyrockets the scale to quite literally stratospheric heights. The sheer density of this mammoth climax proves slightly wearying, even as I marvelled at Miyazaki’s ceaseless ingenuity. But if the worst feature of your film is that it offers too much of a good thing, it is unequivocally worth seeing.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE).
MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO (1988) Director: Hayao Miyazaki
A father, as his wife is treated in hospital, moves into a decrepit farmhouse with his two young daughters. While exploring the surrounding forest, the children encounter a host of benevolent mythical creatures.
Among the pantheon of beloved Ghibli films, Totoro is particularly cherished by fans. If you’ve ever visited the Ghibli museum in Mitaka (which I would heartily recommend) and wandered into the gift shop, you’ll see Totoro dolls of all shapes and sizes lining the walls. So indelible is the image of this portly, toothy and irresistibly cute being, and so prolific a piece of Studio Ghibli’s legacy, that after the film’s release it became the company’s logo. The overwhelming charm that exudes through the character designs of Totoro and his companions (particularly the “Catbus”) tend to overshadow the film’s other attributes – and for good reason – though for me, at least, they aren’t enough to comprehensively salvage a paper-thin narrative. Don’t get me wrong, it’s as ebullient a film as you’d expect, and has dollops of Ghibli magic to spare, but I kept longing for some sturdier character and/or plot development that would drive the emotional impact of the film beyond cutesiness into genuine empathy, as so perfectly achieved in Kiki. Nitpicks aside, it’s an undeniable, stone-cold classic, and I’m only so hard on it because of the unwavering strength of Miyazaki’s cinematic output.
Review Score: FOUR AND HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE).
KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989) Director: Hayao Miyazaki
An intrepid young witch, in the wake of her thirteenth birthday, leaves her village for a seaside town, in accordance with a custom for witches to spend a year independently from their families. While there, she forms an alliance with a baker and forms her own flying delivery service, endearing herself to the locals of the town.
One of the most pleasantly low-stakes Ghibli offerings, Kiki’s Delivery Service offers subtle pleasures abound. The film is more Westernised that typical Ghibli fare – for one, its French Riviera-esque setting couldn’t be further from the distinctly Japanese urban and rural locales of, say, Only Yesterday, and for another, Miyazaki keeps the signature zaniness of his supernatural elements in check more than usual, resulting in a narrative that has more in common with vintage Disney films like The Aristocats or Lady In The Tramp than Spirited Away. For this reason, it’s an accessible entry point to the chaos of Ghiblidom especially for children weaned on Hollywood animation. Thematically, the film is unexpectedly rich. The hurdle Kiki must ultimately overcome is her own self-doubt, which narratively comes in the form of a specifically adolescent disaffection – “I make friends, then suddenly I can’t bear to be with any of them,” she heartrendingly bemoans, “seems like that other me, the cheerful and honest one, went away somewhere.” Moreover, this concept doubles as Miyazaki’s personal commentary on the creative process, that it is one’s ability to recuperate from introspective woes that affords them the chance to generate valuable art. It’s an utterly winsome film.