Total Recall: The Best of Studio Ghibli

With The Secret World of Arrietty hitting theaters, we count down the best films from the visionary Japanese Animation studio.

Princess Mononoke


A true Hiyao Miyazaki epic, Princess Mononoke took more than 15 years -- and $23 million -- to complete its journey from its creator's mind to the big screen. Of course, the investment was well worth it; Mononoke was the top-grossing film at the Japanese box office in 1997, earning raves from critics all over the world -- not to mention an impressive list of honors, including Best Picture at the Japanese Academy Awards. "Miyazaki's artistry is evident in every frame," wrote Jeanne Aufmuth of the Palo Alto Weekly, describing the film as "a pristine combination of lush greenery, ghastly mythic monsters and beautifully executed humans."

The Cat Returns


An indirect sequel to Whisper of the Heart, 2002's The Cat Returns took a pair of characters from that film's magical subplot (the Baron and Muta) and took them on a new adventure in the Cat Kingdom, where they work to rescue a teenage girl (voiced in the Disney dub by Anne Hathaway) who finds herself trapped by the Cat King (Tim Curry) after saving his son from being hit by a truck. Offering the by-now familiar blend of oddball imagery, magical surrealism, and coming-of-age narrative structure that Ghibli often employs, The Cat Returns was generally regarded by critics as one of the lesser entries in the studio's catalog -- but that by no means meant they found it anything less than enjoyable. Calling it "An enchanting, magical fable with a twisted vein of surrealism," the BBC's Neil Smith quipped that Cat "makes you wonder exactly what they're smoking over there in the Land of the Rising Sun."

Castle in the Sky


The first film created and released by Studio Ghibli, Castle in the Sky proved an auspicious debut, winning the Animage Anime Grand Prix in 1986. Many of the themes and character types that would recur throughout the studio's subsequent efforts are in evidence here, from its young female protagonist (voiced in the Disney dub by Anna Paquin) to its ecologically-minded story, which revolves around the efforts of a military commander (voiced by Mark Hamill) to locate and invade an ancient floating city. And unlike a lot of opening chapters, this early effort from writer/director Hayao Miyazaki presents a fully formed creative vision -- one described by the Washington Post's Richard Harrington as "Frequently astounding" and by Filmcritic's Christopher Null as simply "My favorite Miyazaki film."

Grave of the Fireflies


When you think of Studio Ghibli, you probably think of family-friendly films loaded with childlike whimsy, but there's a lot more to the studio's offerings. Case in point: the heart-rending Grave of the Fireflies, adapted from Akiyuki Nosaka's semi-autobiographical novel about the death of his younger sister following the Allied firebombings of Kobe during World War II. Shot through with an aching sadness, yet limned with a persistent hope, Fireflies was a commercial flop in Japan (due in large part to its release as half of a comically mismatched double bill with My Neighbor Totoro), but it stands as one of Ghibli's proudest critical moments -- and a personal favorite of Roger Ebert, who called it "An emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation."

Spirited Away


After the success of Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki spent an extended period searching for his next project, finally finding inspiration in the young daughters of some family friends. Aimed at the hearts of 10-year-old girls, Spirited Away offers its intended audience a smart, strong-willed protagonist whose relatively straightforward coming-of-age journey is beset with all manner of obstacles that could only have come from the mind of Miyazaki, including fantastical creatures, magic spells, and unforgettable, dreamlike set pieces. Thrilled by its beautiful animation and generous subtext, critics heaped nearly universal praise upon the Academy Award-winning hit -- among them Jay Boyar of the Orlando Sentinel, who wrote, "Visually imaginative, thematically instructive and thoroughly delightful, it takes us on a roller-coaster ride from innocence to experience without even a hint of that typical kiddie-flick sentimentality."

Porco Rosso


How unbridled is Hayao Miyazaki's creativity? Porco Rosso started out as a short film, paid for by Japan Airlines as a bit of in-flight entertainment -- only to morph into a typically surreal adventure about a cursed Italian World War I fighter pilot (voiced in the Disney dub by Michael Keaton) whose transformation into a piglike creature isn't enough to keep him from a successful career as a freelance bounty hunter (or to stop him from capturing the hearts of a pair of fair maidens). Voicing an appreciation for the film's visual appeal as well as its more thought-provoking themes, Jeannette Catsoulis of the New York Times wrote, "Mr. Miyazaki smooshes fantasy and history into a pastel-pretty yarn as irresistible as his feminism."

Kiki's Delivery Service


Ghibli's fourth film had to wait almost a decade before receiving a proper theatrical release here in the States -- and when it arrived, it came with a Disney-sanctioned English overdub featuring the voices of Kirsten Dunst and Phil Hartman, as well as a few changes that annoyed purists. For everyone else, the American Kiki's Delivery Service was a treat -- the poignant, yet sweetly loopy tale of a young witch (Dunst) who celebrates her 13th birthday the old-fashioned way: by heading off to the big city with her talking cat (Hartman). Blending humor with a sensitive look at the end of childhood, Kiki's earned raves from critics like Ken Hanke of the Asheville Mountain XPress, who called it "The gentlest and most sweet-tempered Miyazaki film I've seen -- yet it's not without the strange undercurrent of something slightly sinister that exists in all his works."

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don't forget to check out the reviews for The Secret World of Arrietty.

Finally, here's the great Hayao Miyazaki cooking up another masterpiece at Studio Ghibli:


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