While Studio Ghibli is far from a hidden gem, not all films from the famous Japanese studio have found the same fame as titles such as Taken away as if by magic and Howl’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Still, a lack of attention doesn’t mean the studio’s lesser-known films aren’t as stunning as their more famous siblings. What follows is a guide to some of Studio Ghibli’s minor films, focusing on the aspects of each film that are worth watching, from the story to the animation to the musical score.
Only Yesterday (1991)
Studio Ghibli is often associated with fantasy and magic: spirits of traditional Japanese folklore, wizards and magical fire demons, or even fish that turn into little girls. So, it may be surprising to find a Studio Ghibli movie that makes a point of being “realistic.” Only yesterday is an anime drama following 27-year-old Taeko (Miki Imai), who has lived her whole life in Tokyo and devoted herself to her work, rejecting childhood love and fantasies. After deciding to take a trip across the country to visit her family, Taeko begins to reminisce about her childhood at school. Her nostalgia only grows when she arrives at her destination and reconnects with a childhood acquaintance, whose presence only adds to Taeko’s sudden nostalgia for more than the life she currently has.
The film, which was a surprise hit in 1991 and received wide critical acclaim, is a wonderful illustration of the feelings many adults have about their childhoods – nostalgia for a time when math homework and crushes for school were the only major concerns. Yet the film is also a reminder that no matter how old you are, you still have the power to make changes in your life and pursue the things you are truly passionate about. Not only is the movie beautiful in its story and message, but it’s also visually stunning. A lack of magic in the story does not translate into a lack of magic in the artwork and animation. The simplicity of the story is like a blank canvas on which the artists of this film can create a masterpiece. Simple scenes of train journeys at night or strolls through country fields are rich in fine detail and the painted landscape is simply captivating.
Pom Poko (1994)
Although it was released in 1994, pompokoThe message of awareness and respect for the environment is still valid. When a clan of tanuki, Japanese raccoon dogs, are threatened by the construction of a suburban development to be built on top of their home, the tiny creatures band together to fend off humans, while learning ancient illusion magic that their species possessed in Masse. The film is keen to urge viewers to keep nature in mind in its creatures throughout their lives, especially when it comes to wildlife that once resided in places now filled with cities and other modern developments.
Funny, poignant and somewhat absurd, pompoko manages to be thought-provoking without being depressing and, while bittersweet at times, it’s hard to resist the comedic nature of the tanuki. The movie was made by Isao Takahata, and his unique style shines through not only in the story, but also in the animation. While the film still retains a classic Studio Ghibli feel, it also stands out for its quirky character designs. It’s worth noting that, true to Japanese folklore, the film’s tanuki have a…er…magical scrotum, which they use like everything from parachutes to punching bags.
My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
Not to be confused with My Neighbor Totoro, My Neighbors the Yamadas is a slice-of-life compilation of short stories centered around the titular characters. While the stories certainly contain a fair amount of comedy and light-hearted antics, they also cover heavier subject matter, but with overall humor. From the loss of a child to the inner workings of various relationships, My Neighbors the Yamadas is a beautiful and heartwarming search for the importance and strength of family.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of My Neighbors the Yamadas is his artistic style. Rather than the more polished artistry so often associated with Studio Ghibli, this film uses a more “unfinished” look, reminiscent of comic books and sketches on paper. Rather than making the movie feel unpolished, the animation and artwork wraps the story full circle; it feels like viewers are almost privy to the private drawings and musings of someone who is a part of the characters’ lives, given the film’s title. The art also lends to the film’s more comedic and light-hearted nature, while also making the film’s more fantastical elements fit better with the more realistic stories.
Tales from Earthsea (2006)
Loosely based on the author’s novels Ursula K. Le Guin, Tales from Earthsea is an epic fantasy tale of kings, dragons, knights and magic. Be warned if you’re a fan of the original novels: the film, while inspired by Le Guin’s work, is “entirely different” (as the author put it), though that doesn’t make it any less beautiful. . The film follows the story of Prince Arren (Bunta Sugawara), who flees his home after killing his own father and travels across the land followed by a strange presence.
Although critical response has been mixed – generally favorable with some criticism for altering the original story – the real beauty of this film is in its visuals and audio. The film’s animation, artwork, background, and character design are jaw-dropping, with awe-inspiring landscapes and beautifully shot scenes. The soundtrack, composed by Tamiya Terashima, evokes feelings of magic and splendor, as well as the drama and emotion that these epic tales demand.
From the Top of Poppy Hill (2011)
Likewise nostalgic in a way similar to Only yesterday From the top of Poppy Hill tells the story of two high school students as they attempt to save their school’s clubhouse from demolition. As they grow closer to each other, Umi Matsuzaki (Masami Nagasawa) and Shun Kazama (Junichi Okada) not only begin to learn more about the school they attend and the town they grew up in, but also reveal strange secrets about both of their families. Like many Ghibli movies, From the top of Poppy Hill refers to the war and how it has affected the characters and the world they live in. The country and its people are eager to leave behind a bloody history and make room for new ideas.
To like Only yesterday, From the top of Poppy HillThe beauty of lies in its simplicity. Everyday life is given a magical aura through detailed artworks and landscapes. However, the film also delves into the trauma that war can leave behind, with evocative and beautifully animated moments of the horror that battle can bring. The film is breathtaking and thought-provoking, while remaining gentle in its approach to heavier subjects and leaving a sweet feeling behind in its wake.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
The Story of Princess Kaguya is based on the Japanese tale of the “bamboo cutter”, in which a man discovers a little girl inside a bamboo stalk. In the original story and in the film, the girl is taken home by the man and raised as his daughter. As she gets older, she also becomes more and more beautiful. Although she wishes to remain in her village, her beauty attracts many suitors, and she is soon forced into a life of luxury and royalty that she does not desire.
A striking art style, very different from those seen in classic Ghibli films, is what defines The Story of Princess Kaguya apart and gives the film a folkloric and fantastic atmosphere. The film was deliberately made with a more hand-drawn style of animation in an effort to make the audience think about the artwork and find a deeper meaning on their own. As a director Isao Takahata stated, he wanted viewers to “remember the realities of this life by sketching ordinary human qualities with simple props”. The film has an ethereal quality, enhanced by the soundtrack, and the story is timeless and beautiful.
When Marnie Was There (2014)
When a young girl, Anna Sasaki (Sara Takatsuki), visits her adoptive parents’ family while sick, she discovers that the rural seaside town where they reside is more than meets the eye. As she spends her days exploring the area, she begins to notice a strange young girl who always seems to be hanging around. Eventually, the two meet, and as they agree to keep their meetings a secret, Anna begins to realize that there is something strange about Marnie (Kasumi Arimura). As the plot unfolds, secrets surrounding Anna’s own family are uncovered.
When Marnie Was Here is poignant and beautiful, with an undertone of sadness that seems to seep into even the brightest moment. While it doesn’t quite contain the same magic and fantasy as many Studio Ghibli films, it does have a kind of bittersweet magic all its own. Like other “simple” entries on this list, When Marnie Was Here finds beauty in its small details, including beautiful backgrounds and a soundtrack that evokes feelings of nostalgia and nostalgia.
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