May 25-30 is Studio Ghibli Week at Polygon. To celebrate the arrival of the Japanese animation house’s library on digital and streaming services, we’re surveying the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. Follow along via our Ghibli Week page.
We’ve spent all week talking about the fantastic animated worlds of Studio Ghibli, from the games they’ve inspired to the rules they’ve broken. But what stands out most for us about Studio Ghibli? Where are the strongest, most memorable moments?
With all the films now on streaming platforms for the first time, we’ve decided to rank our absolute favorite scenes from the studio’s entire 35-year, 22-film run.
18. First borrowing, The Secret World of Arrietty
The most memorable moment in Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Secret World of Arrietty, based on Mary Norton’s Borrower books, isn’t dynamic or explosive. It’s a hushed, drawn-out experience where the biggest action is a character stopping to gape. Arrietty is a Borrower, a doll-sized girl whose equally teeny family lives inside the walls of a human family’s vast country house. At 13, she’s permitted to accompany her taciturn father Pod into that house for the first time, on a quiet raid to get some supplies: a single sugar cube and a single tissue.
On paper, the sequence might play like a thrilling heist movie, with Arrietty fighting off an immense, aggressive cockroach, ziplining up a narrow vertical space, and rappelling off a cabinet to the ground far below. But these events play out softly as a sweet coming-of-age ritual. Pod silently supports his daughter and smiles at her daring, and Arrietty alternates between boldness and nervousness. And then there’s the moment where she emerges into the vast empty space of a human kitchen for the first time, after a movie largely spent at mouse level, or in comfortingly well-appointed, close spaces. In that moment, she’s like a human standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and Yonebayashi manages to make everyday kitchen items look alien and monstrous as she takes them in with intimidated wonder. —Tasha Robinson
17. Schoolgirls vs. pirates, Porco Rosso
Director Hayao Miyazaki sets the tone for his period fable Porco Rosso early on — even before the titular bounty hunter arrives on the scene to deal with some air pirates who have kidnapped a group of schoolgirls, the audience has learned that they’re buffoons. The kidnap victims are actually pretty enthused about getting to hang out with pirates, whooping in delight when they arrive and marveling at the skulls painted on their planes. (“It could use some blood!”) It’s a perfect mix of characters, as the pirates kidnap the whole class because “it’s not nice to separate them from their friends,” and the schoolgirls cause havoc on their planes, going through their food and weapons, and popping up in the gun turret. Even when the girls are rescued, they cheerfully say goodbye to the pirates, who grin and wave back in turn. It’s just cute! —Karen Han
16. Eating pineapple for the first time, Only Yesterday
Isao Takahata was a master of creating compelling stories from the clouds of everyday life, and Only Yesterday captures the subtle joy of a slice-of-life story. The story flashes between adult Taeko, taking a break to the countryside to reevaluate her life, and young Taeko during small, important moments in her childhood — like the time her father splurged on a pineapple for the family. They all gather around for the ceremonial chopping, and tuck in under the winter kotatsu to try this exotic treat together. But the pineapple isn’t ripe; it’s hard and unpleasant, and the excitement drains away into a quiet, disappointed evening, with Taeko trying to convince herself it’s everything she was hoping for.
I have a (now fond) childhood memory of feeling immense shame when I learned that for Victorian people, oranges were a rare, treasured delicacy. Here I was, a kid taking these beautiful little suns for granted just because they were easy to come by. This scene reminds me of that memory, not because of the fruit connection, but because small childhood moments like this reverberate forward and change who we are. An unripe pineapple is the disappointing fulfillment of a dream, but it’s also a fleeting bad feeling that we will one day consider fondly. Adult Taeko wonders if she has stayed true to her childhood dreams, but the truth is that dreams are like pineapple; sometimes they’re underripe. —Jenna Stoeber
15. Chihiro returns to her parents, Spirited Away
The ending of Spirited Away feels like a sucker punch every time. It’s so understated: the protagonist, Chihiro, is just crossing a field of grass to return to her former life. But her friend Haku’s message to her not to look back, and the quiet reprise of the theme from the beginning of the film bring up a well of emotion that encompasses everything Chihiro has gone through to save her parents. Working in the bathhouse, cleansing the River Spirit, dealing with No-Face, traveling to Zeniba, remembering that Haku has once saved her life — it all comes rushing back as Chihiro walks away, thanks to the music, the subtle animation of Chihiro’s expression, and the purple tie that remains in her hair. —KH
14. The yōkai parade, Pom Poko
Isao Takahata’s imaginative but heartbreaking 1994 movie Pom Poko has always been one of Studio Ghibli’s hardest sells in the U.S., because it relies on so many pieces of Japanese folklore that other cultures don’t share. To begin with, the main characters are tanuki — raccoon-like Japanese animals legendarily famous for shapeshifting, trickster mischief, and cheery hedonism, all summed up with their giant transforming testicles. In Pom Poko, a group of tanuki facing extinction because of human industrialism take one last shot at persuading the local townsfolk to fear and respect their power: the creatures mount a playful spirit-parade, taking on the form of a variety of gods and monsters from Japanese myth. The sequence is spooky and colorful, but it finds its best expression in a moment where two drunken salarymen reminisce about and dismiss their childhood belief in monsters, while missing the wild rumpus going on all around them. —TR
13. Takashi vs. the bikers, My Neighbors The Yamadas
Viewers could be forgiven for not realizing My Neighbors the Yamadas is a Studio Ghibli film. Its style is a distinct departure from that of most of the studio’s films, with director Isao Takahata opting for an aesthetic reminiscent of yonkoma manga comic strips, giving the film the feeling of being sketched in faded pastels rather than inked. The characters are played mostly for humor throughout the film, and are presented as squat and compact. But that changes in one breathtaking sequence in which the father, Takashi, dons a hardhat and confronts a gang of bikers plaguing the family’s quiet block with their bullying antics.
Once Takashi leaves the gate in front of his home, the entire style of the film shifts. The backgrounds, which throughout much of the film remain the empty beige color of a printed page, are suddenly fully sketched and inky with night. Takashi is rendered in a less-cartoony fashion, taller and more precisely drawn. He walks slowly, hesitantly, and a film typically filled with light comedy suddenly takes on an aura of dread. He’s a middle-aged man who could be badly hurt if the encounter goes awry. The bikers are sinister-looking and hulking in this style, and one image, of Takashi caught in a biker’s headlights, is both ominous and breathtaking. The spell is broken once Takashi’s wife, Matsuko, and mother, Shige, join him in the street. The style reverts to cartoon previous mode as the normally punchy Shige attempts to appeal to the bikers’ egos with gentle admonishment disguised as praise, asking them to be heroes instead of villains. The bikers, fed up with the situation, depart into the night, leaving the family unscathed and prepared to return to their cartoony lives. —John Maher
12. Breaking through to Laputa, Castle in the Sky
Hayao Miyazaki’s first film under the Studio Ghibli banner features a lot of visual elements that later became studio signatures — lush green landscapes, energetically sincere child characters, frantic bodies piled on each other in pitched battle, and so forth. But Castle in the Sky is largely conventional animated storytelling, with cartoonish characters contrasted with elaborate, painted naturalistic backdrops. At least until protagonists Pazu and Sheeta have to fly through a hurricane to reach the flying city of Laputa. Suddenly, the action becomes strange and stylized, with dragon-like lightning bolts writhing around the children’s airship, and motion lines distorting the action. The color largely drops away, and Pazu spots his father’s ghost ahead of him, urging him on. It’s a lovely, dreamy sequence that feels entirely separate from the rest of the movie, visually and conceptually — appropriate for a sequence where everything changes for the characters. —TR
11. A celestial kidnapping, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
The Tale of Princess Kaguya ends with a breathtaking encounter with divinity, something like Wings of Desire played backward and dappled with watercolors. As a cloud of deities arrives to return Princess Kaguya to heaven, she protests. They feel she’s experienced enough of mortal life, but she disagrees, and hopes for a last moment with her parents. They all cry together, until a magical robe makes Kaguya forget her mortal life. The human light in her eyes flashes out as her parents fall gently to the ground, sobbing and holding each other. Most encounters with the sublime emphasize rapturous joy or enormous terror, the alien construction of things beyond our understanding. Kaguya shows the fine line between the chaotic, paradoxical mix of emotions that make us human and the unspeakable, humbling might of creation itself. —Max Genecov
10. Calcifer makes breakfast, Howl’s Moving Castle
One of the few scenes from Howl’s Moving Castle that is almost an exact transcription of the novel it’s based on, the breakfast scene also captures a moment of what normal looks like in the film’s fantasy world. That isn’t the wizard Howl and the shy teenager Sophie walking through air in the early part of the film, or Howl turning into a monstrous creature later on. It isn’t Sophie’s hair turning to starlight, or the witch who cursed her succumbing to a curse herself. It’s a cozy morning scene, except a magical fire demon happens to be making the eggs. As the movie progresses, these scenes of normal domestic life — the cleaning, the market trips, the laundry — become all the more important as Howl begins to lose his grip on humanity. Sophie, Calcifer, Markl, and this life they’ve created inspire Howl to stay and defend it. On a less thematic note, this scene contains some signature Ghibli food: the most delicious slices of bacon and the best-looking eggs ever to grace a screen. —PR
9. The impromptu wedding, The Wind Rises
In the years before the second world war, Jiro Horikoshi, a gifted Japanese airplane designer, has been troublingly associated with a German ex-pat who’s critical of the Nazi party. Hunted by the Japanese secret police, Jiro hides himself in the home of his supervisor at Mitsubishi. His fiancee, Naoko, has been recovering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium, but the affliction will kill her, just as it killed her mother. Against all guidance, Naoko takes a train to Jiro. So the pair can live together in the engineer’s household, they agree to wed immediately, that night in that house, with the supervisor and his wife as the only witnesses. Jiro waits with his boss in a cold room. Outside, they see the warm glow of a paper lantern escorting Jiro’s soon-to-be wife. She’s frail, barely able to stand on her own. Snow falls. They marry. The clock ticks toward tragedy. —Christopher Plante
8. A midnight romp, My Neighbor Totoro
So much of Studio Ghibli’s work is about interactions between humanity and nature, whether it’s violent and competitive, or marked by curiosity and wonder. My Neighbor Totoro falls on the idyllic end, as young sisters Satsuki and Mei meet and befriend the local forest spirits. After Satsuki lends the biggest one her father’s umbrella during a rainstorm, he politely offers a gift in return: a packet of seeds, which the girls plant in the garden at home. Then he and his smaller compatriots show up in the middle of the night to make the seeds grow to a house-dwarfing height, and he takes the girls on a flying trip to celebrate. Hayao Miyazaki’s films are often dark and serious, delving into transactional nature and cost of magic. But here, there’s just pure childhood wonder, and a fantasy of flight come true. It’s all summed up in the moment where the little totoros and Mei cling to the biggest Totoro’s fur for their flight, but Satsuki, the older and more responsible sister, pauses. Is she really invited to take advantage of this giant teddy bear’s fluffy, flying tum? When she accepts that she is, and jumps aboard, her glee makes her seem a lot younger, and it’s a callback to every moment in our lives that makes us feel like kids again. —TR
7. Kiki learns to fly again, Kiki’s Delivery Service
Toward the end of Kiki’s Delivery Service, the Kiki finds herself struggling with her powers. But when her friend Tombo is in danger — dangling from a zeppelin’s mooring line, high above their city — she knows she has to do all she can to save him. This action-packed scene is the closest thing to a climax that Kiki’s Delivery Service has, and it’s made all the more triumphant because the previous segment of the movie focused on Kiki’s struggles with her powers and her loneliness. The film’s end sees her finding a new sense of purpose and realizing that she’s made a new set of connections. She’s able to fly once again. In the beginning of the movie, she took to the skies alone and landed in a city full of strangers, but at the end, she flies with all eyes on her, and lands to victorious cheers. —PR
6. The ocean erupts, Ponyo
In Miyazaki’s Ponyo, the titular little fish-girl wriggles her way free from her wizard father and rushes to find her 5-year-old human friend Sōsuke. But when she inadvertently releases her father’s store of magic, the sea roils and rises, her fish-sisters mutate into vast beasts, and a huge storm overtakes the land. None of this fazes Ponyo, who shifts rapidly between forms as she runs along the waves, chasing Sōsuke and his mother along a flooding oceanside road, oblivious to the danger she’s putting them in. It’s a wild, expressive chase scene, with Ponyo’s excitement and joy mixing with the humans’ concern about survival. And the surging, out-of-control ocean is a particularly stunning bit of Ghibli magic, especially as it shifts back and forth between waves and giant fish, just as so many other things in the film slip seamlessly from one shape to another. —TR
5. “Country Roads” singalong, Whisper of the Heart
Compared to other Studio Ghibli films, there’s little fantasy in Whisper of the Heart, a coming-of-age story following a few months in the life of 14-year-old Shizuku as she takes final exams and figures out what she wants from her future. Navigating the deep pangs of adolescent loneliness, Shizuku is drawn to a little antiques store and a mysterious boy named Seiji, who keeps checking out the same books from the library as she does. As the two get to know each other, Seiji reveals his passion for violins, and Shizuku, an aspiring writer, tells him she’s translating John Denver’s country classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads” for their upcoming graduation. Though nervous, she shares her translation with Shizuku, who plays along with her, and the two are joined by some of his grandfather’s friends. It’s a joyful moment, the two awkward teenagers drawn together and made comfortable by music. Each of them offers the other a glimpse into their inner selves — and it’s all done with a certified banger. —PR
4. The Setsuko montage, Grave of Fireflies
Grave of the Fireflies opens with a teenage boy dying of starvation, segues into the firebombing of Kobe, Japan, and somehow still ends with the most heartbreaking scene in the film (and maybe all of Studio Ghibli history): the celebration of a young life lost. Four-year-old Setsuko is a bundle of joy, even after her mother is killed. She finds beauty in a bomb-shelter hideout, and savors meager meals alongside her big brother Seita. The audience might hope that everything will be all right — but they know from the movie’s opening scene that it won’t be. Setsuko eventually dies from malnutrition, and as her spirit fades, director Isao Takahata cues a soft soprano elegy in her name. The music plays over scenes of Setsuko at her most innocent, crafting, pretending, and running amok in the grass. The cost of war is not just life, Takahata tells us with elegiac grace, but life that could have been. —Matt Patches
3. San vs. the settlers, Princess Mononoke
Ghibli’s humanity-against-nature theme returns again in Princess Mononoke, but this time it’s much more literal, as a group of exiled and outcast humans build an outpost in the forest and set out to tame it, and the spirits of the forest fight back. Chief among them: San, a human girl raised by wolves, who in a daring mid-film raid, charges into the midst of the human settlement and tries to kill their leader, Lady Eboshi. It’s a thrilling action sequence, but it’s complicated by the fact that Eboshi is expecting San and isn’t remotely intimidated by her. And it’s further complicated by the cursed, dying warrior Ashitaka, who interferes in ways no one was expecting. It’s a three-way push-and-pull situation, with plenty of literal explosive power, a lot of surprises, and full of beautiful moments like the one where San pauses for a long moment between swift attacks and stands in profile atop a building, masked and confidently alone. —TR
2. Travel by train, Spirited Away
There’s a tremendously poignant journey toward the end of Spirited Away, and writer-director Hayao Miyazaki makes it even more powerful by placing it right after a tremendous amount of hubbub and mess. When human protagonist Chihiro invites a spirit called No Face into the yokai bathhouse where she’s working, he goes on a rampage, devouring everything in sight (including her co-workers) until she feeds him a magic healing dumpling that makes him vomit it all up again. Cue several minutes of frantic chasing, as he simultaneously dissolves into goo and pukes up voluminous waves of gunk. She takes it all in stride because she’s entirely focused on something else — a journey to meet a witch and save a friend.
So the crowded, rococo busyness of the bathhouse’s interior, and all the dark and grotesque miasma of No Face’s sickness abruptly gives way to pure, serene blue, as Chihiro escapes the bathhouse, walks along flooded train tracks to a station that’s nothing more than a concrete slab in the middle of a ceaseless ocean, and boards a train full of shapeless, shadowy ghosts. Joe Hisaishi’s gentle piano score here does powerful work of setting a tone of contemplative peace after a whole lot of hullabaloo. This entire movie is a journey for Chihiro, but this sequence makes that literal, capturing both the excitement of heading into a new place and the wistfulness of leaving an old one, not to mention the peaceable state of being between spaces, with nothing to do but wait and take in the shifting scenery. —TR
1. Waiting for the bus in the rain, My Neighbor Totoro
The landmark sequence that gave Ghibli a lot of its most memorable iconography hasn’t lost any of its power. My Neighbor Totoro is a charming children’s fantasy that slips comfortably between the mundane world and the spirit world, as young sisters Satsuki and Mei encounter blobby, furry forest spirits that often seem alien, but are entirely benign. In Totoro’s most lyrical sequence — which is really saying something, in a movie so full of memorable moments — the sisters try to meet their father’s bus during a rainstorm, so they can hand him an umbrella as he gets home. But he’s late, and the wait drags on past a cheery late afternoon and into a tenebrous night.
Then a familiar giant creature shows up, waiting for its own bus. Everything about this sequence is delightful: the familiar way Mei turns from a ball of restless energy into a cranky, sleepy dead weight. The dozy look on Totoro’s face as he waits for the bus. His bearish curiosity over Satsuki’s umbrella. The sheer delight he takes in the noise of rain hitting it, and his outsized response. The gently plodding score, which conjures up the feeling of this great dozy beast operating at a different pace from the humans he meets. So much of Ghibli’s work is about encounters with magic, whether that means actual legendary creatures of power, or the simple magic of engine-powered flight or sunlight in a field. My Neighbor Totoro reliably mixes fantasy wonder with ordinary child wonder, and finds them both equally marvelous, but never more so than in the rain sequence. —TR
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