Everyone and their mom has heard of Studio Ghibli. For many people, Ghibli movies might be their first (and maybe only) taste of anime. It’s even garnered a bit of a reputation amongst anime fans as being a bit “normie”.

I like Ghibli movies as much as the next guy, but whenever I see people talk about them, it’s always just about Hayao Miyazaki’s works. I mean, it makes sense, since he does have the most number of movies within that studio, but I also think it’s such a shame that other Ghibli filmmakers aren’t in the discussion nearly as often. I especially think this because his movies aren’t even my favorites from the studio.

Miyazaki’s films are great, don’t get me wrong, but I appreciate them more visually and cinematically than as compelling stories. They don’t particularly connect with me. The romance, in particular, is something that just doesn’t work in his movies, for me at least—and I’m saying that as someone who loves romance.

Well, I think that’s enough preamble. Let’s get to what you came for! Here’s my top 3 Ghibli movies.

Contents

  1. Whisper of the Heart
  2. Only Yesterday
  3. Grave of the Fireflies

3. Whisper of the Heart

Whisper of the Heart was the first and only movie directed by Yoshifumi Kondou. I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve never heard of this movie before. It’s not necessarily obscure, but it’s hardly mainstream either—at least not to the extent as other Ghibli movies. I first heard of this movie on a random post on AniList where someone called it their favorite Ghibli film. I then found out that it was on Netflix and decided to watch it.

This story revolves around Shizuku, who, in classic coming-of-age fashion, currently has no direction life but will eventually find one through the course of the movie. This happens through Seiji, the boy who seemingly takes delight in ruining her day—at least from her perspective. Eventually, he confides with her his dreams of becoming am expert violin maker. Inspired by Seiji’s resolve to realize his dreams, Shizuku decides to follow her passion for writing. Also, a cat figurine is involved.

A common theme you’ll see in this list is that these movies are all a lot more grounded than the Ghibli movies that are typically in public conversation. Whisper of the heart doesn’t have a fantastical fairytale world like Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s just the life of a regular girl who likes to read books and write Japanese translations of American country songs.

In a lot of ways, there isn’t really any thing too special about Whisper of the Heart. But it does contain one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema. When Seiji lets Shizuku into the violin workshop that he works at, they decide to sing a Japanese cover of Take Me Home, Country Roads.

Seiji knew that Shizuka had been working on translating the song to Japanese (it’s a whole sub plot) and he decided to play it for her and have her sing the lyrics she had written. What results is what I think to be one of the greatest scenes in all of cinema. If there’s one thing you can count on in Ghibli movies it’s that the music is gonna be great. And boy, was it great in this scene.

Even if you don’t watch the movie, I still recommend at least watching this scene or listening to the song from the OST. This scene and the song are pretty much the reasons this movie surpassed The Tale of the Princess Kaguya as my number 3 pick.

Maybe if that movie had a John Denver song it could have stood a fighting chance. They could have played Leaving, On a Jet Plane as Kaguya was being taken back into the heavens. Missed opportunity if you ask me.

To be honest, I don’t remember a lot of this movie. I should probably have rewatched it before writing this post—but, oh well. Story-wise, Whisper of the Heart isn’t that special. It’s really is just that scene that sells it for me.

There are plenty of stories that revolve around music—Beck being my favorite—but for me, none of them have really captured the feeling of making music together with people quite as well as this film did with this scene.

It made me think of all the times I played music while my classmates and friends sang along. I was always the guitar guy back in high school. I didn’t share in any of my friends’ hobbies. I didn’t play sports or multiplayer games. Playing music was one of the only ways I could have fun with all of them.

Music is a big part of my life, and this scene encapsulated my love for sharing music with others.

Unfortunately, Yoshifumi Kondou died just a few years after directing Whisper of the Heart. It remains the only movie he’s ever directed. Though it’s sad that we never got to see what else he had to show the world, he at least left us with this classic. It may not be as well known as other Ghibli films, but it’s just as well-loved among those who have seen it.

2. Only Yesterday

This is another one that’s a bit under the radar. This might actually be even more under the radar than Whisper of the Heart. I only found out about this film when I was looking through Isao Takahata’s filmography after watching Grave of the Fireflies. Like Whisper of the Heart, this is also an incredibly grounded slice of life coming of age story. This time however, the main character comes of age twice.

The story follows Taeko, a 27 year-old woman who decides to take time off work to go on a trip to the countryside to help out in her sister-in-law’s farm. This immediately makes it clear that this is a work of fiction. Everybody knows real Japanese people don’t take vacations.

Figures that even on her vacation, she still has to work, trading a desk job for harvesting crops.

She went on this trip to get away from the big city that she had always lived in. She takes in the fresh air, the trees, the crops, and everything else that rural life had to offer. She take this time to re-examine her life.

It won’t be long until she turned 30. Different questions flood her head. Will she settle down? Had she been true to her dreams as of her childhood self? Where does she go from here?

Throughout the movie, we jump between two periods in her life—her present self, and her 11 year-old self. This was what I meant by her coming of age twice. As she looks back on her childhood self, she tries to figure out where to go next.

Only Yesterday is a one of a kind movie. I can only really think of one other story that captures the feeling of being lost as an adult. That being a manga called Solanin from the same author as Goodnight Punpun. This is a very different story however. Only Yesterday is an almost meditative iyashikei story, deserving every bit of the label “healing anime”.

It has some of the most gorgeous animation I’ve ever seen. Ghibli has this unique way of making the most mundane things interesting through it’s extremely expressive animation without the need for moe.

In the film, Taeko reminisces over a lot of pretty mundane memories from her childhood. There’s one where Taeko’s dad brings home a pineapple and they’re all excited to eat it as it’s not a common fruit where they’re from. Upon taking one bite, they all realize that the pineapple actually wasn’t good, but Taeko decides to power through and finish her serving.

What was the relevance of this scene? I don’t know, but I love it so much. Taeko’s expressions as se forced herself to finish the pineapple were just precious. Ghibli could animate paint drying and I’d find it entertaining.

I think this is why I consider this film to be peak iyashikei. It perfectly captures the feeling and mood I look for in those type of anime and manga. I didn’t think any story could out-iyashikei Yotsuba&!, but this movie did it.

There was another scene where Taeko was confused on how fraction division worked. If you divide a cake in half, and you divide each piece in half again, you get 4 pieces, right? They why is 1/2 divided by 1/2 equals to 1? Taeko had me questioning my entire education in that one scene.

It’s those scenes that really ground Taeko’s story. It gave the story so much life. It made her feel like a real person who went through regular everyday experiences.

I loved every bit of this movie. Everything felt so tangible. I felt like I was in the countryside with Taeko, reflecting on my life and all of the decisions I’ve made.

If you don’t like slice of life and iyashikei stories, I doubt you’ll enjoy this very much. There really isn’t much of a plot here. However, if you’re a fan of these type of stories, you’ll find yourself with a lot to love in this movie.

1. Grave of the Fireflies

Unlike the first two films in this list, Grave of the Fireflies is not at easy film to watch. Not because it’s bad—it wouldn’t be on my number one spot if it was—but because of how harrowing this movie is.

This film follows Seita and his younger sister Setsuko as they struggle to survive after losing their parents during the final days of the second World War.

We start at the end. Seita dies of starvation in a train station, his last remaining possession being a tin can containing the ashes of his sister. The rest of the movie tells the story of how they got there.

I have a soft spot towards stories about people taking care of a child amidst poverty. It’s probably because I knew how little we had when I was a little kid. It’s the same reason The Pursuit of Happyness got to me.

This film knew all of my weak spots. It knew exactly how to break me.

It’s in the struggle of these two siblings that the movie cuts to the heart of what it’s like to live once you’ve turned your back on society, and once society has turned it’s back on you. How easily everything falls apart when we no longer have anybody else to rely on.

Despite director Isao Takahata denying that his was created as an anti-war film, it’s impossible to see it as anything but. I’ve never seen another story capture the tragedy of war quite as well as this film. It isn’t about the soldiers fighting in the battlefield, it’s about the civilians caught in between. There’s no glory to be had here, just the tragic truth about the suffering that war inflicts on everyone involved.

I can’t even begin to explain what this movie made me feel. Isao Takahata is a master of making movies that feel so real. Just like Only Yesterday, a film he also directed, everything here is so tangible. The difference is, this is a world I didn’t want to take part in.

Just like how Taeko’s experiences in Only Yesterday felt real, so did the struggles of the two siblings in this movie. Seita tries his best to provide for his sister and to make her smile despite all of the terrible things happening around them. He tries to make her feel that everything was still alright. That everything was still normal. Every bad hand they were dealt, he puts a positive spin on for the sake of his sister. When her sister ran out of her favorite candy which they had been rationing, he adds water to the can and delights her with some “candy juice”.

It reminded of the times when I was a kid when I would eat rice with powdered milk and sugar. At the time, I thought it was the greatest thing ever. I didn’t realize that it was because we didn’t have money for food. It takes a certain kind of strength to keep a child happy knowing that you’re not in the best of situations.

I didn’t cry during this movie. This was when I learned that whether or not I cried wasn’t an accurate measure of how deeply a story affected me. My eyes were dry, but I was completely heartbroken. The only other story that left me with such a hollow feeling in my chest was Bokurano (the manga, not the anime). But whereas certain events in Bokurano offered me someone to blame for the tragedy that had unfolded, this movie doesn’t. Humanity is to blame here.

The most tragic thing about this movie is that it’s based on a real story. The original short story was written by Akiyuki Nosaka, based on his own experiences during WWII. He wrote it as an apology letter to his younger sister whose death he blamed on himself. Ultimately, it was just one of the many losses he suffered during that war, all of which led to the creation of Grave of the Fireflies.

I honestly can’t think of a purer example of art as a form of self-expression than that.

I mentioned how this is a tough movie to watch. But it’s so well-made and well-directed that it’s hard to take your eyes off it. This is Ghibli in all of its beauty, but in a completely different way than what you might be used to.

Final Thoughts

If like me, you’ve never connected with Miyazaki films, it might be worth checking out what else Ghibli has to offer. There’s a lot more. I recommend the works of Isao Takahata, director of Only Yesterday and Grave of the Fireflies.

As I mentioned earlier, another one of his films, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, almost made it into my list as well. I might not have the same emotional connection to it, but I consider that film to be the greatest animated movie of all time. That movie feels like it was created as a love letter to the medium of animation. You’ll never see another movie quite like it. It says a lot about a director when they can make two films thirty years apart that can both be considered his masterpiece (this, and Grave of the Fireflies). It was also the last movie he ever made before he died. As far as swan songs go, Isao Takahata did mighty fine.

Admittedly, there are plenty of Ghibli films that are more grounded in comparison to the popular fairytale type ones. I just haven’t gotten around to watching them. A lot of them are on Netflix, so there isn’t really much that’s getting in my way. One of these days, I’m definitely gonna do a Ghibli marathon. Who knows, I might find myself replacing one of the films on my list with a different one.