Few other animation studios invoke the praise and name recognition as Studio Ghibli. And perhaps few if any other name is more synonymous with Ghibli’s outstanding pedigree of critically lauded, genre-defining masterpieces than that of Hayao Miyazaki. One could say that Ghibli is the house that Miyazaki built, having directed a total of nine of studio’s twenty feature-length films (not including Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind).
However, Miyazaki notwithstanding, Ghibli has been home to a small yet prestigious roster of talented directors whose works have bolstered the studio’s hold on the imaginations of anime aficionados and general movie-goers alike, while cementing its legacy as one of the preeminent purveyors of anime as a global art form over the past 30 years. Here are six of the best Studio Ghibli films that don’t feature Hayao’s name on top billing!
6. From Up On Poppy Hill (2013)
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Goro Miyazaki is one of—if not the most—scrutinized of Ghibli’s nascent directors. The son of the master himself, Goro’s body of work has been been hounded by the lofty expectations heaped upon his family name long before even the release of his critically maligned debut, Tales from Earthsea, in 2006.
His follow-up in 2011, From Up on Poppy Hill, is a far stronger showing of his potential for greatness. Set in Yokohama, Japan, at a turning point in the country’s newfound post-war identity, Poppy Hill follows the story of Umi Matsuzaki, a young high school girl who befriends a strong-willed student journalist by the name of Shun Kazama and joins him in his campaign to save their school’s historic yet dilapidated clubhouse from being demolished. As the two rally together the student body to defy the school’s decision, circumstances come to light that threaten to upend their budding relationship. Umi and Shun remain nonetheless steadfast in their resolve to save the clubhouse, all the while searching their hearts in the wake of uncertain revelations.
Though the film is is certainly not without its occasional lulls, it benefits greatly from a storyboard screenplay co-penned by none other than Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa (The Secret World of Arrietty). Karey Kirkpatrick’s English-adapted screenplay is deserving of special mention, injecting incidental quips of background dialogue throughout the film that are as enlightening as they are hilarious. This may not be Goro’s first great film to step entirely from the shadow of his father’s influence, but the simple exuberant charm of From Up on Poppy Hill bodes well for future efforts.
5. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
Director: Isao Takahata
It’s entirely likely that you could be reading this as ardent fan of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki’s films and have no idea who Isao Takahata is. As one of the three founding members of Studio Ghibli, Takahata has directed the second largest number of Ghibli features, eclipsed only by that of his former protege, long-time colleague and unofficial rival. His fifth Studio Ghibli feature and final film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, was produced alongside and released in the same year as that of Miyazaki’s own parting production, The Wind Rises.
Adapted and inspired by a 10th-century Japanese fable, the film follows the story of the enchanted life and journey of a child who, born from the shoot of a bamboo tree, is discovered and adopted by an elderly bamboo cutter and raised as his own daughter. One of the most captivating dramas Ghibli has produced as of late, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is beautiful both in its story and it’s telling, imbued with an unmistakable aura of impressionistic beauty thanks to its soft watercolor hues and boldly calligraphic compositions.
The sight of Kaguya, surrendering to a fit of desperation, as she storms from the confines of her father’s estate, her ceremonial garments discarded in a regal flourish as she seemingly transforms into a living brushstroke surging like a blur across the canvas of the scene makes for one of the most heart-wrenchingly evocative and stunningly animated sequences in recent memory. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a declarative testament to why Takahata stands alone and apart from that of his former protege and colleague’s reputation and why he deserves to be touted as a master of the craft of anime in his own right.
4. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Director: Yoshifumi Kondo
Before his untimely passing in 1998, Yoshifumi Kondo was one of Studio Ghibli’s most promising animators, a former protege of the senior Miyazaki and popularly considered as one of his successors. Whisper of the Heart, his first and only directorial effort, has all the makings of a true Ghibli classic while managing to distinguish itself apart from and deservedly alongside that some of the studio’s most renowned films.
The film tells the story of Shizuku, a strong-willed and precocious bookworm confident in her love of writing song lyrics and reading stories, though uncertain of her impending future beyond junior high school. After meeting Seiji Amasawa, an ambitious young violin-maker who shares a kindred passion for literature and dreams of one day attending school in Italy, Shizuku is moved to follow and cultivate the calling of her own talents while making sense of the nascent whispers of adolescent affection stirring within her heart. Among the film’s many merits are its endearing screenplay, penned by Miyazaki, the gorgeously rendered cityscapes of Tokyo and the fantasy backdrops present throughout its third act, and above all its captivating film score composed by Yuji Nomi. (The use of Olivia Newton-John’s rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which later becomes the film’s central motif, is particularly effective.) At once a stirring love story and an endearing portrait a young woman’s life within a close-knit working class family, Whisper of the Heart is a thoroughly satisfying film and a touching coming-of-age drama.
3. The Cat Returns (2002)
Director: Hiroyuki Morita
A spiritual sequel of sorts to Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart, The Cat Returns is the sole Ghibli film directed by Hiroyuki Morita, an infrequent director with only three directorial efforts under his belt but a rich and varied career as a key animator for such films as Kiki’s Delivery Service, Perfect Blue, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, and Akira.
After rescuing a stray cat from oncoming traffic, Haru Yoshioka soon learns that her impromptu rescuee is none other than the prince of the mythical cat kingdom. Showered with bizarre gifts by the royal Court of Cats as tokens of thanks, Haru is mistakenly bequeathed to the prince out of a gesture of gratitude by the overbearing Cat King. Pushed to act, she sets out to find the mysterious Bureau of Cats and its dashing proprietor, the noble-titled Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, in a desperate bid to annul her betrothal and return safely to her ordinary life.
Naoya Tanaka’s art direction and Satoko Morikawa’s character designs are the real elements that make this overall terrific film shine apart all the more among the studio’s typical look and feel. Though hewing close to Ghibli’s tried-and-true tone of magical realism, The Cat Returns adeptly conveys its own essence of breathless enchantment, owed largely to the charismatic magnetism of the aforementioned Baron and the slapstick inanity between the characters Muto and Crow. All of these elements combine into a beguiling hour-and-fifteen-minute feature that confidently asserts itself to the status as one of Ghibli’s most unique and undersung treasures.
2. Only Yesterday (1991)
Director: Isao Takahata
Only Yesterday follows the story of Taeko Okajima; a 27-year-old, unmarried woman who has always nurtured a fascination for the simplicity of the countryside, having lived in Tokyo her entire life. Taking a vacation from work, Taeko travels to the rural farmlands of Yamagata, aiding her extended family’s business of harvesting safflowers and transforming them into dye.
During her stay, Taeko is stirred by memories of her maturation into adolescence, of puberty and boys, the frustrations of learning math and the disappointment of a spurned acting career. As she attempts to make peace with her past, Taeko must wrestle with both the prospects of love and fulfillment in her present life as she confronts the uncertainty of her future.
Re-released recently in American theaters for the first time since its 1991 Japanese debut, Only Yesterday takes place in the late 1980s and is near-entirely absent of fantastical elements, two qualities that distinguish it from the rest of Ghibli’s oeuvre. The minimalist colors and composition framing that Takahata would come to refine in his later work, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, are on full display here, imbuing the film’s depiction of the modern Japanese countryside pastoral comfort and beauty with a resonantly nostalgic allure. Only Yesterday is a rarity in modern animation—a mature portrayal of mid-life indecision predating the turn of the century, of the universal challenge of letting go of the past, and of learning to love oneself not in spite of who we might have been, but for the promise and potential of who we might yet still become.
1. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Director: Isao Takahata
Released in 1988 to critical acclaim both in Japan and abroad, Grave of the Fireflies has near-unanimously been touted as Takahata’s masterwork. Adapted from the harrowing autobiographical story of Akiyuki Nosaka, the film presents the tragic and heartwarming account of a brother and sister who attempt to eke out an existence in wake of war and devastation. (Grave’s premise is drawn from the director’s firsthand experience as a survivor of a U.S. air raid on his hometown of Ujiyamada, now Ise, in 1945.)
Although commonly referred to as an anti-war film and hailed as such by its critics, Takahata himself has passionately refuted this definition. Instead, he describes the film as an appeal to empathize with the plight of youths disenfranchised by the indifferent sensibilities of their society and grappling within the throes of great heartache and hardship. Regardless of one’s takeaway, Grave of the Fireflies stands out as a rapturous and achingly somber testament to the stubborn perseverance and indomitable dignity of the human spirit in the wake of insurmountable loss, desolation and despair. It stands proudly as not only one of the best Studio Ghibli films to date, but as one of the greatest animated films of all time.
Toussaint Egan is a culturally omnivorous writer who has written for several publications such as Kill Screen, Playboy, Mental Floss, and Paste. Give him a shout on Twitter.