Confession time, kiddos: I have only ever seen two, count ‘em, two Studio Ghibli films. That’s right, it’s official: I am a terrible anime fan.
It’s not like I ever deliberately avoided the required viewing, it’s just that, between having limited childhood access and the general fatigue of adulthood, I never exactly got around to it. But, jeer no more because this week I finally did as I should and took it upon myself to rectify my lapsed cinematic attentions, padding my anime resume with more than just Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.
Now, to be fair, I didn’t watch everything (I am just one person with only so many tears, good and bad), but on the recommendation of some highly trusted sources, I took a lengthy tour through a decent sized chunk of the library. Here’s a little look into my feels trip down the rabbit hole–
And no, it did not include that Fireflies one. Y’all can keep that, forever.
Grave of The Fireflies (1988)
Yeah, I know what I said literally one sentence up, but in my defense, a good friend happened to have a copy and I decided that if I was going to do more than dip a toe into these beautifully animated Miyazaki/Takahata waters, I shouldn’t shy away from the tougher stuff. Also, I figured that after the emotional walloping this film was going to put me through, there would be nowhere left to go but up. That said, this movie beat me up pretty relentlessly. I had a solid enough idea of what I was getting into with a film set against the backdrop of Japan at the end of World War II and told from the perspective of two young children fighting to survive (and even if I hadn’t, the film’s opening death was more than enough warning of things to come), but even with forewarning it was still a pretty rough ride. As to be expected the animation was beautiful and the overarching plot line compelling, which almost made the entire experience worse. If it was a nonsensical outing or even a poorly executed one, it wouldn’t have hit me nearly as hard, but as it stood, it’s realism hammered home aspects of this fraught time period that I was previously only vaguely familiar with, and the alternately horrific and cloyingly serene visuals made it almost impossible to look away, even in the harshest of scenarios.
I give Grave of the Fireflies 3.5 out of 5 candy drops, and only because for all it’s traumatic perfection, I will probably never watch it again. That’s just too much masochism for me.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
I was going to save this one for last, but considering all of the hype I’ve heard about it, I gave it an earlier spot in my binge, just in case it didn’t live up to any amped-up expectations I may have had. Not to mention, there’s something to be said in my addled brain about viewing this selection in the order they came out. Pessimism shoved all the way aside, I loved absolutely every minute of this movie, and was grinning through most of it.
Right off the bat, the pastoral country scenery had me wanting to uproot and move somewhere even half that serene. Beyond that, the family dynamics and the two fierce little girls at the movie’s center drew me in effortlessly. There was a kind of harmonious and supportive undercurrent running through the Kusakabes’ interactions, and there was something so immediately heartening about how easily they supported and believed in one another that the magic of the story was already apparent before Totoro even appeared. There was also a hefty amount of nostalgia to be found in watching the girls, Satsuki and Mei, in their day to day explorations, and in the alternating wonderment and delight that that children able to find so readily in even the simplest of moments– and I’m not crying, you are! Moving on…
As far as the titular forest spirit himself, by the time he showed up I felt just as in awe of his world as the characters, and I think it helped that I was kept on the same page as the fictional humans that got to meet him. There was barely ever more than a glimpse into what Totoro was and could do, and that air of mysticism and playful otherness had me delighted at having a chance to peer into it at all, rather than disappointed at being held at translucent arm’s length. And anyway, that rain scene? And the Cat Bus? Just damned delightful.
I give My Neighbor Totoro 5 out of 5 loud, well-intentioned, and magical screams to the face, as well as all the tears that I somehow managed to not cry during Fireflies. I guess the warm and fuzzies are a bit craftier than getting past my defenses than out and out misery. Either way, I will definitely be adding this movie to my collection ASAP.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
I think I had the most benign kind of trepidation about this one only because in my younger years I was tangentially slapped in the face with its existence. Fellow, grade-school anime enthusiasts would talk about this movie constantly, a few substitutes used it as their go-to keep-the-kids-entertained flick, and Cartoon Network promised to show it almost as often as TNT filled its scheduling gaps with Shawshank Redemption. Even with a healthy
love obsession appreciation for both anime and witchy things, the lingering sense of overkill from bygone days had me reluctant to even give this film a shot. However, upon finally getting down to this viewing, I found that it was a rather charming coming of age story that was in no way marred by the saturation I experienced years ago.
In contrast to Totoro, this film was more about growing up than encapsulating childhood, although there was still a strong foundation of easy belief in the supernatural, and I appreciated that the central conflicts Kiki faced were about her self-acceptance and search for belonging in the world, rather than her inherent otherness as a witch. Community was also heavily emphasized in this movie and I really enjoyed the relationships that were forged out of need and circumstance, even minor instances like the wordless interaction between Jiji the cat and the husband of the baker that takes Kiki in while she trains to become not only a better witch but a productive member of society.
The soundtrack of this film was also a really nice touch for me, often adding a bounce to things that really meshed well with the lively spirit of its central character. At times, especially in slower moving sections, I wished that there was a little more of the magic feeling that I got from Totoro (though I’m not sure anything could match that, especially not while I’m still in the glow of my first viewing), or maybe just any more instances of magic at all considering the subject matter, but luckily things were never stagnant enough for me to miss it too much or stop rooting for Kiki to find her groove. It was also a bit bizarre to see how much Kiki’s dad looked like Mei and Satsuki’s dad, but I think that just comes down to animator style and the fact that I was bingeing to the point of being able to pick out patterns.
Another side note? I think I’m still traumatized from Fireflies because when Kiki shook her metal piggy bank while packing up for her adventure, I immediately had twitchy flashbacks of rattling bones in a Sakuma candy tin…
I give Kiki’s Delivery Service 4 out of 5 lovingly prepared but unasked for Herring and Pumpkin Pies and wouldn’t at all mind if I came across it on basic cable on a lazy afternoon.
So, now that I am no longer completely lapsed…
When all is said and done, I can’t really say that I regret not watching these films sooner, but for a host of different reasons between the three of them. Fireflies because I needed some (adult?) emotional fortitude to get through it in one piece. Totoro because having something that pure hit me so powerfully and remind me of the kind of easy amazement I usually shove aside for more grown up matters and behaviors was a much needed respite. And Kiki’s because I don’t know that I could have enjoyed it if it had been force fed to me rather than a viewing of my own choice, or while I was in the throes of figuring out my own maturity. I’m not even halfway through Studio Ghibli’s catalog, but if these three movies are any indication of what I can expect (or not expect if the first one is as bad as it can get, emotionally), then I am all for an even deeper dive in the near if not immediate future, probably into Ponyo first and foremost.
Get it? Because Ponyo’s about fish and stuff? Come on, leave me my weak humor! I watched children starve to death for this article!