Studio Ghibli, the film company started by Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Toshio Suzuki, is best known for its releases directed by animation master Miyazaki, and it would certainly be easy enough to compile a list consisting solely of his films. But there’s more to Studio Ghibli than just Miyazaki movies, even if the prolific filmmaker is responsible for the majority of the studio’s most well-known features. Here, then, are the five most entertaining and engrossing films produced by Japan’s Studio Ghibli:
1. 'Spirited Away' (2001)
Hayao Miyazaki’s crowning achievement, Spirited Away has deservedly become one of the animation world’s most lauded and respected titles in the years since its 2001 release – with the film earning an Oscar for Best Animated Feature and a raft of almost ridiculously positive reviews (Roger Ebert, for example, has called Spirited Away “the best animated film of recent years.”) The movie, which follows a girl as she discovers a fantastical world overrun by mystical creatures, boasts an epic and downright sweeping visual sensibility that instantly captures the viewer's interest, yet Miyazaki also ensures that the outlandish plot never diminishes the reality of the characters. As far as animation goes, Spirited Away is about as good as it gets.
2. 'Princess Mononoke' (1997)
Written, directed, and co-edited by Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke’s subtle message of environmentalism has ensured that it’s just as relevant today as it was back in 1997 when it first hit movie theaters. The film’s storyline, which is sure to remind viewers of Jim Cameron’s 2009 epic Avatar, concerns a young warrior who is ultimately forced to pick a side in the battle between humans and forest creatures, with the complexity of the central character’s dilemma indicative of Miyazaki’s desire to explore difficult themes and questions within the context of a big-budget, visually stunning piece of animation. Few filmmakers within the genre are as ambitious as Miyazaki, and it's no wonder that John Lasseter has called him a major influence.
3. 'Grave of the Fireflies' (1988)
One of the most moving and devastating animated films of all time, Grave of the Fireflies follows WWII-era siblings Setsuko and Seita as they’re forced to fend for themselves after their mother dies in an air raid – with the bulk of the movie subsequently detailing the pair’s ongoing (and increasingly desperate) efforts at staying alive. Filmmaker Isao Takahata has infused Grave of the Fireflies with a stark and downright unflinching sensibility that ensures that the film is often extremely difficult to watch, and it’s no wonder that Roger Ebert called the movie “an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.” (Takahata, incidentally, is one of the men with whom Hayao Miyazaki co-founded Studio Ghibli.)
4. 'My Neighbor Totoro' (1988)
Though Hayao Miyazaki had achieved critical acclaim with such movies as 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and 1986’s Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, released in 1988, marked the first time that one of the prolific director’s films was embraced by mainstream audiences outside of his native Japan. The movie, which follows two sisters as they encounter and befriend several forest spirits (including an oversized creature named Totoro), contains many of the elements that Miyazaki has come to be known for, and it's worth noting that the film holds up just as well today as it did more than two decades ago (with Totoro's brief cameo in Toy Story 3 serving as a palpable reminder of Myazaki's influence over contemporary animators).
5. 'Whisper of the Heart' (1995)
Written by Hayao Miyazaki, Whisper of the Heart is a gentle drama revolving around a young girl who experiences her first love after discovering that she has been borrowing the same books from the library as a mysterious stranger. Though not as flashy or as memorable as some of Miyazaki’s films, Whisper of the Heart is a low-key romance that possesses its fair share of poignant and thoroughly captivating sequences (including an unexpectedly moving finale). The film marked the debut of one of Miyazaki’s most trusted associates, Yoshifumi Kondo, though the man tragically died just a few short years after its release. Whisper of the Heart is a hidden gem that certainly deserves to shine brighter.