The Hidden Gems of Cinema: The Under-appreciated Studio Ghibili Films

By Erin Caine
Senior Writer

Celebrated Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki has for decades blended the familiar with the fantastical with a creativity and sensitivity that few—if any—can replicate. He is known for co-founding the equally famous Studio Ghibli in 1985, and has become practically synonymous with the company. In Japan, eight of the 15 high-grossing films to date have come out of Ghibli. Its influence over western audiences is likewise staggering: Miyazaki’s 2001 film Spirited Away, considered by many to be his magnum opus, is still the only Japanese animation to win an Academy Award. Even an animation powerhouse like Ghibli has its lesser known and overshadowed gems. Here are just a few of those titles:

1. “Only Yesterday,” 1991. This down-to-earth, realistic drama centers on a 27-year-old woman who leaves Tokyo for the rural countryside, episodically reminiscing about her childhood. The film has a layer of maturity that speaks to a slightly older crowd, though all ages can enjoy its idyllic scenery, wistful nostalgia, and charming dialogue. Isao Takahata’s candid and poignant directing style is apparent in every scene and expression. Though the film did surprisingly well in Japanese theatres (and scores extremely high amongst critics), it hasn’t had the same influence on western crowds due to a delayed American release.

2. “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” 2013. Another film helmed by Takahata, “Kaguya” is Ghibli’s most visually unique and innovative, adopting a style similar to traditional Japanese woodblock printing. This adapted folktale follows a bamboo-cutter and his discovery of a mysterious celestial being, whom he names Kaguya and makes into a princess, despite her desire to return to her simple, pastoral life. The film’s drawn-out pacing, arresting visuals, and heavy themes—as well as its compelling heroine—make this one of Ghibli’s finest and most resonant works.

3. “Whisper of the Heart,” 1995. A story about passion and failure, imagination and adolescence, the film centers on an aspiring young novelist, her first love, and her struggle to discover her own ambitions. The heroine is amongst Ghibli’s most relatable protagonists, and the movie’s charming and memorable cast of characters are set against a world that feels both lived-in and painstakingly detailed. The late Yoshifumi Kondo’s directing prowess rivals that of even Miyazaki’s, demonstrating a sensitivity to the reactions, speaking patterns, and subtle gestures of real people.

4. “When Marnie Was There,” 2014. This film is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, whose directorial debut was just four years earlier with the commercially successful “Arrietty,” and is one of Studio Ghibli’s most recent (and perhaps most overlooked) films. Though Yonebayashi lacks the experience and reputation of some of his veteran colleagues, he proves himself to be attuned to the qualities that make Ghibli films so enduring. Everyday scenes, such as the picturesque marshlands of the movie’s setting, are wrapped up in mystery and wonder. The film, though it unflinchingly explores the anxiety and emotional trauma of its reserved and perceptive protagonist, still preserves its core premise of a love that extends through time and memory.

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