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From Lupin to Ponyo: A look back at the films of Studio Ghibli

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Ponyo (2010)

Miyazaki’s spin on The Little Mermaid hoves close to My Neighbour Totoro, unapologetically aiming at his youngest audience since 1988. But with its luxuriant hand-drawn style it has a warmth and palpability that makes it feel unique among modern animated features. It also takes Miyazaki to new territory: where he usually takes to the skies, here he dives deep into the ocean, which rebellious young goldfish-girl Ponyo seeks to escape for the joys of terrestrial life with resourceful five year-old boy Sosuke.


Miyazaki on Miyazaki “I have always dreamed of making a film with the sea as a motif, but animating the waves is really hard, so I wasn’t able to do that up to now. I decided to change the way of animating, and had a change of thought: that the sea is actually a living thing. Of course, it took courage to draw eyes on it! But a lot of the staff thought it was interesting so I thought, ‘Oh, okay, it works!’

“I also thought maybe we’d travelled too far away from children, that we should go back to the five-year-olds. But I can’t go back and make the same innocent ‘Totoro’ kind of film. So I put in more complex things. If you want to make something innocent, a shorter film is better. It’s not a good thing to make something very long for small children. For a long time, Suzuki-san had been saying, ‘Why can’t you make your films shorter?!’ But I have to make my films more complex, so this is 101 minutes.

“The part I love most about Ponyo is the end credits. There’s no job titles: I just put everybody who was involved in Japanese alphabetical order. So the big investors and the small little studios, they’re all treated equally in the end credits. And we don’t know where the producer is, where the director is. We even have the three stray cats that live round the studio — we even have their names on it, too!”

Beyond Miyazaki
Studio Ghibli's other feature films...


Grave Of The Fireflies (1988)
The sad one. Indeed, Empire’s own Simon Braund rated it one of the ten most depressing movies ever made — which makes it all the stranger that it was released as a double bill with My Neighbour Totoro. Yet, if you accept that this hard-hitting drama — about a young boy and his infant sister trying to survive in wartime Japan — won’t end well, then it has moments of warmth, humour and beauty. Directed by Isao Takahata, Miyazaki’s senior colleague since the ’60s.

Only Yesterday
Only Yesterday (1991)

The one never released on US DVD — although thanks to Optimum, it’s available in Britain. Evoking an introspective arthouse picture, it’s really two films intertwined: one is a sweet memoir of a girl’s childhood in ’60s Japan; the other has her grown-up self holidaying on a farm and finding her nation’s lost identity. Director Takahata leaves it to us to fit the halves together.

Ocean Waves (1993)
The one made for TV (its Japanese name translates to I Can Hear The Sea). Unusually for Ghibli, this naturalistic high school drama is told from a boy’s viewpoint, as the protagonist becomes intrigued by a beautiful female transfer student. It’s directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, who’d worked on ‘young love’ anime sagas such as Maison Ikkoku and Kimagure Orange Road.

Pom PokoPom Poko (1994)
The one where cartoon animals sport big testicles (really!). Takahata’s third Ghibli film shows tanuki — Japanese wild dogs with magic shape-changing powers — fighting against the destruction of their habitat. Like Watership Down, the film mixes animal folklore with political beast-fable (the tanuki are like squabbling eco-warriors). It’s deliberately digressive, a first draft of an imagined history.

Whisper Of The Heart (1995)
The one where the heroine sings Country Road. Miyazaki storyboarded and his protégé, Yoshifumi Kondo, directed the tale of a perky schoolgirl who flowers into love and artistic endeavour, portrayed with an affection that never cloys. Tragically, Kondo died soon after its release, aged just 47.

My Neighbours The Yamadas (1999)
The one that looks like no other Ghibli film. Takahata’s most recent feature adapts a newspaper strip about a family’s daily mishaps, animated with simple designs and soft pastels. Large sections consist of one gentle gag after another (imagine leafing through a compendium of Peanuts), punctuated by haikus and the occasional spectacle, such as a barnstorming performance of Que Sera Sera.

The Cat ReturnsThe Cat Returns (2002)
The non-Miyazaki with the best dub, featuring Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes, Peter Boyle and Tim Curry. Hathaway’s scatty schoolgirl saves a cat and is whisked to a magical feline kingdom. Luckily there’s a courteous cat, the Baron (Elwes), to protect her. A kind-of sequel to Whisper Of The Heart, it was directed by Hiroyuki Morita.

Tales From Earthsea (2006)
The controversial one. Ursula Le Guin’s fantasy books were a big influence on Miyazaki, but this adaptation went to his son, Goro. The widely reported conflict between the two overshadowed the film, which daringly makes its protagonist a murderer caught up in a war between wizards.

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Your Comments

i love all of his movies and every other movie from Studio GHIBLI. Miyazaki Hayao is GOD! More

Posted by mbembet on Wednesday August 3, 2011, 15:21

2 Errors spotted!
The films are in the wrong order, makes the reading slightly confused. Please consider fixing this... great interview though! More

Posted by La Mouche on Saturday July 30, 2011, 13:36

3 One Of The Best Directors In The World...
.... never mind just in animation. It's a crime that Miyazaki is still so underrated in the west - he should be a household name the world over. Ghibli and Miyazaki are responsible for many of my favourite films, like Totoro, Kiki's, Porco Rosso, Spirited Away... just all fantastic stuff. More

Posted by Artoo02 on Thursday July 28, 2011, 23:32

I have seen every one of these films (excluding Tales of Earthsea and Ocean Waves) multiple times, and every one of them is extraordinarily fantastic in its own way. The only movie I did not like was Pom Poko, but the rest of them are outstanding. More

Posted by seankeating0816 on Thursday July 28, 2011, 23:16

5 Thank you Empire
excellent read and well put together. Please disable the ability to comment as to avoid fanboys, useless flaming, adverts and brown-nosers such as myself. More

Posted by hemibell on Thursday July 28, 2011, 21:28

Studio Ghibli have done more than 11 films, just saying. More

Posted by kylereborn on Thursday July 28, 2011, 20:51


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