22 films! Spanning 30 years! With 12 whole awards!
Possible spoilers for each film mentioned.
Looking back to the precise moment when I thought of animation as more than just a vehicle for surreal visual gags and implausible frantic action, it was after I saw my first Studio Ghibli film. The quality and passion imbued within every frame gave the film beauty, it gave it atmosphere, it gave it a richness that made it easy to become enthralled in its narrative and world. And now with Netflix snagging almost all of Studio Ghibli’s work onto their service, I thought it was time to go through every one and give out some special and totally not pointless awards. And remember, the key word in the title is personal.
The Best Character Award: Nausicaa from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Strong female characters in stories are sometimes portrayed as cold and uncaring badasses that desperately try to prove that they’re above emotions, but it ultimately makes them unlikeable. Yet with Nausicaa, she is joyful and compassionate while still showing the audience her confidence and strength when the time arises. Always ready to throw herself into the fray for the sake of others, her actions are one of pacifism in a world hell-bent in going to war with itself. That’s not to say she is a saint, and the scene where she kills her father’s murderers in a fit of rage is a clear example of that, and she isn’t afraid to be vulnerable as evidenced when she breaks down in tears in the arms of Lord Yupa. But these weaknesses endear her to us, and makes us appreciate her heroic deeds even more.
Runner-up: Baron Humbert von Gikkingen from The Cat Returns
Once just a statue in Whisper of the Heart, he’s now a cool, calm and collected feline in The Cat Returns with plenty of charm and style to win you over.
The Most Lovely Looking Award: Arrietty
Sure, Studio Ghibli is very, very good at making beautiful scenery and animation, but in Arrietty – which is essentially their take on What If People but Small (aka The Borrowers) – they really go the extra mile. It’s the studio’s ability to craft a world with such exquisite detail is what truly makes this film shine. The way the Borrowers fashion everyday items into homes is inspired, and it almost feels otherworldly when you shrink down to their size. Animals such as cats and birds are made into terrifying titans, and a particularly neat touch is the way liquids are more viscous due to the increase in scale.
Runner-up: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
A wonderfully bright and dreamy art style that certainly makes for one of the more unique looking Ghibli films – it also happens to be one of the most expensive too.
The Most Surprising Film Award: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
I’m not terribly familiar with The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, so going in I thought this was going to be your standard feel good wholesome Ghibli movie. I thought Sanuki would realise how power and money had corrupted him, and that he would apologise to his adopted daughter. I thought Kaguya and Sutemaru would reunite and live happily ever after with each other in the countryside. And I thought Kaguya would persuade the Buddha to let her stay on Earth as a human, rather than dragging her back to the Moon. But none of this happens, instead you get a handful of once deep relationships abruptly cut, reinforcing the notion that in real life we sometimes don’t get to say our proper goodbyes. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya has certainly shot up the rankings in my Ghibli film list.
Runner-up: The Wind Rises
Yes, you can see the mark of death on Naoko a mile away, yet the way the film presents her passing shocked me just because of how sudden and downplayed it is.
The Best Fantasy World Award: Spirited Away
The first Studio Ghibli film I ever watched, and the one that instantly turned me into a fan. And I think this is mainly down to just how imaginative the world of Spirited Away is, with all sorts of bizarre creatures and impossible landscapes. But the bathhouse that features so heavily in the film also has some cultural commentary. The lower poorer floors are simple Japanese-style dwellings, while the upper richer floors are designed with a more luxurious European look. The divide can be speculated as Western consumerism’s dominance on Japanese culture, and the theme of greed is pervasive throughout the film.
Runner-up: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
The only one of these films to feature a post-apocalyptic setting, and Studio Ghibli delivers a world that is both as fascinating as it is dangerous, with quiet scenes that are simply there to appreciate its splendour.
The Strangest Film Award: Pom Poko
While there are Studio Ghibli films that feature crazy, inventive stories to get lost in, none match Pom Poko’s absolutely insane tonal shifts. We are talking about having a bunch of silly cartoonish raccoon dogs merrily dance as they watch a news report about people getting killed here. Not to mention how the tanuki use their giant, hairy ballsacks to bludgeon the humans to death, which is also mixed in with graphic depictions of dead animals. A film for those who want to stare at the screen and go “what?”
Runner-up: Pom Poko (again)
Seriously, nothing comes close to this movie.
The Funniest Film Award: The Cat Returns
Not all Studio Ghibli films have to be about pacifism, environmentalism, the power of love or how aircraft are the shit, sometimes they can be just light and breezy fun. Enter The Cat Returns, a straightforward yet energetic film that acts more like your traditional kids animated movie, with a simpler art style in comparison to other Ghibli works as well. It’s easily the Studio Ghibli film that got the most laughs out of me with cats getting launched out of windows, and Haru fruitlessly trying to pick up a fish with her newly acquired paws. A movie that acts as a good pick-me-up if needed.
Runner-up: The poster for Warriors of the Wind (The butchered version of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind)
Yep, this is a thing:
The Parent That Needs Child Services To Take Their Kid Away Award: Lisa from Ponyo
Now I wouldn’t call Lisa evil, but she does endanger her son’s life multiple times during the movie for the dumbest of reasons. Firstly you get Lisa trying to lick Sosuke’s ice cream while driving, nearly causing them to go flying straight off a cliff. And secondly you get her driving through a flooded part of the road, once again with her son in the car, just because she wants to get home a little faster. Plus, she takes in another child – the eponymous Ponyo – at the end of the film, what madness is this?
Runner-up: Setsu and Kiyomasa Oiwa from When Marnie Was There
While they are not Anna’s parents, they are responsible for her well-being while she is in the countryside. And they see no problem with Anna disappearing for hours on end even when it is pitch black outside.
The Now You’re Playing With Incest Award: Umi and Shun from From Up On Poppy Hill
A mostly unremarkable film aside from the subplot where Umi and Shun have to find out whether they are related or not because they want to hook up. But even when they don’t know for sure, they both still confess their love for each other despite the high potential for some sibling sacrilege, and in the subtitles the words “in love” are used, so it is romantic. And yes of course, it turns out at the end they are not sister and brother, because that would be a fucking weird message for your film to have otherwise.
Runner-up: Anne and Marnie from When Marnie Was There
What at first I thought was a budding relationship with gay undertones, turned out to be a girl getting reunited with her grandmother from the past – zoinks as Shaggy would say.
The Unnecessary Added Lines In The Dub Award: Kiki’s Delivery Service
Studio Ghibli is no stranger to having their work changed when translated from Japanese to English, just look at Warriors of the Wind. But even after that embarrassment the English voice tracks did sometimes include little but impactful changes. Such as with Kiki’s Delivery Service, where Kiki’s permanent loss of communication with Jiji was meant to represent her maturing to the point where she didn’t need her cat’s advice anymore. However, the English dub has Jiji talking to Kiki once again at the end of the movie. It comes across as a little pandering and removes an important part of the young witch’s growth as a character.
In the Japanese sub, it's unclear whether Arrietty and her family find another place to call home, yet in the English version it almost outright tells you that they do. Again it feels like pandering, especially when the Japanese original ends on a more emotionally complex tone.
The Hope You Are Ready To Feel Like Garbage Award: Grave of the Fireflies
Actually missing on Netflix due to the convoluted system that is streaming rights, but fortunately I’ve already seen this one many years ago. And it stands as a testament to the film’s success that I can still clearly remember it in all its traumatic glory. In fact, I’m a little glad that I don’t have to see it again, simply because it’s hard to watch a story where two children slowly die of starvation. An absolutely brutal portrayal of the effects of war on civilians, that can also be strangely whimsical and uplifting at times. The way the film is so unrelenting in its examination of death and decay is what makes the story so utterly haunting. Just make sure you don’t see it if you’re feeling a little down, because it won’t exactly shine a ray of light into your life.
Runner-up: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
See The Most Surprising Film Award above for my reasons.
The Worst Film Award: Tales from Earthsea
I’ll give you a moment to pick your jaw up off the ground because I’m sure you’re surprised, but in all seriousness it’s not a shock to know that Tales from Earthsea is my worst Ghibli movie. To put it simply the film is just a mess, with a myriad of ideas that go nowhere or get resolved in a half-arsed manner, leaving many questions. What was up with the two dragons fighting at the start? What was evil Arren actually trying to accomplish? Why was the sword so important when it was hardly used? Is the door between life and death an actual door, or was Lord Cob just being metaphorical? And how and when did Therru learn that she could turn into a bloody goddamn dragon!? One thing is clear though, don’t see this movie.
Runner-up: My Neighbours the Yamadas
Not necessarily a bad film, just a dull one, with humour so flaccid that I didn’t realise when a punchline had landed until the scene had ended, indicating a joke had been made at some point.
The Best Film Award: Princess Mononoke
Here it is, my favourite Studio Ghibli movie of them all, it’s certainly the one I’ve seen the most at the very least. Sure it has its faults, chiefly of which is how San is actually not that integral to the plot despite her prominence in the film, but there is so much more to love about it. The way it balances the brutality of war and violence with the magnificence of nature and its creatures. The sad desperation of the beasts as their last chance of survival dwindles against humanity’s might. The morally grey Lady Eboshi who is despised and feared by some, while also being loved and adored by others. The film showcases the Studio’s talent for crafting grander tales, a true epic with a heart for nature.
Runner-up: Grave of the Fireflies
Oh, I’m sad now.