Studio Ghibli is — much deservedly — probably the best known anime studio in the west. Spirited Away won the studio’s legendary co-founder Hayao Miyazaki an Oscar back in 2002, and The Secret World of Arrietty is currently wooing both critics and audiences during its theatre run in the U.S. It’s the 17th movie from the production house, first founded by Miyazaki and fellow director/animator Isao Takahata in 1985, but the pair’s careers stretch back much further than setting up the influential studio.
Jumping straight into a director or writer’s role in anime is largely unheard of, and the same was true for Miyazaki and Takahata, with both working on dozens of film and TV productions — some together, but often not — before being allowed to take the helm on a project. While many of these were less than inspiring TV adaptations or low budget movies, what is interesting is how many of them show glimmers of brilliance, hinting at the medium-defining works that the two would go on to create. With this in mind, here are just six examples — with video clips — that any Ghibli fan should try and track down.
Hols: Prince of the Sun/The Little Norse Prince (1968)
Isao Takahata’s feature film directorial debut — beating Miyazaki by a good four years — Hols (released in the UK as The Little Norse Prince) is a re-working of the ‘Sword in the Stone’ Arthurian legend set in Scandinavia, mixed with elements of Japanese folklore. Made during the height of a labour dispute at the famous Toei studios, it was an idealistic project by its young staff, who were aiming to make something that broke away from how anime had been defined by the studio — family friendly adventures that also featured mature themes, well-rounded characters and unprecedented production values. The movie opens with a genuinely tense scene depicting the young prince fighting off a pack of wolves, that sets the tone of fantasy-mixed-with-realism not only for the rest of the movie, but for what would become Ghibli’s trademark style.
The Flying Phantom Ship (1969)
Giant Robots. A haunted house. Tanks. A laser firing flying ghost ship. A conspiracy to take over the world based around soft drinks. A strangely familiar looking dog that is scared of ghosts. Lovecraftian giant squids.
Yeah, The Flying Phantom Ship looks like someone grabbed a bunch of cartoon tropes and threw them in a blender together, and ended up a largely nonsensical mess. Produced by Toei with an eye on breaking into the Soviet market, it’s slightly inexplicable plot is perhaps most noted for it’s huge and surprising scenes of death and destruction as a city is levelled by waring factions, and with the story’s true villains being revealed as unscrupulous businessmen. This anti-capitalist subplot not only pandered to the USSR, but also sat quite comfortably with the then left-leaning view of Miyazaki, who was the movie’s key animator and concept artist. Slightly unhinged it may be, but it’s worth tracking down not just for Miyazaki’s mechanical design work, but also because it’s pure, unadulterated fun. As my pal Dave Merrill said, over on his great blog Let’s Anime, ‘if this doesn’t push your buttons, you need to go to the doctor and get your buttons checked out.’
Panda! Go Panda! (1972)
Another joint effort between the two Ghibli founders, Panda! Go Panda! was actually directed by Takahata, though Miyazaki wasn’t slacking on the project; he wrote the script, designed the characters, drew the storyboards as well as doing some keyframe animation on the film. Made to cash in on ‘panda madness’ (Panda-mania? Panda-monium?) spawned by the arrival of some of the cuddly beasts from China for a breeding program, script-wise there’s nothing too exciting here; it’s a simple kids story about young girl Mimiko, who is living alone while her grandma is away, and lets two pandas move into the house with her. Unsurprisingly, hilarity and chaos ensue.
So the story might not be some of Miyazaki’s finest work, but the character designs – while also not his best – are undeniably his. Any fan catching just a glimpse of the two pandas will instantly see how they were a blueprint for the Totoros, and similarly Mimiko herself seems to be a precursor to the redheaded Mei of the same film. The quality of the animation throughout is pretty good, and although it lacks the sophistication of later Miyazaki and Takahata works, it’s still arguably better than a lot of the mass produced anime of that period. Plus it’s worth remembering what this is – not some undiscovered Ghibli classic, but an apparently hastily thrown together, opportunistic anime special meant to cash in on a passing fad. As such, the fact that it’s still as charming as it is to watch is yet more testament to the duo’s unique and lasting talents.
Future Boy Conan (1978)
Perhaps Miyazaki’s first big break as a director — or at least in being able to truly flex some creative control and vision — Future Boy Conan still stands up as one of his greatest works over 30 years later. After global catastrophes have threatened mankind with extinction, the 26 episode TV show tells the story of a man and his 11-year-old grandson Conan, the only survivors of a group attempting to flee Earth, but whom became stranded on a remote island after their spaceship crash landed. Believing themselves to be possibly the only remaining humans, their world is turned upside down when a young girl is washed up on the shore, perused by mysterious military forces.
What’s fascinating about watching the show now is how obviously and distinctly the 30 year old production feels like a more contemporary Ghibli classic. All the elements are there. Despite the obvious low budget and simple animation, the visuals exude the Ghibli magic, with the character and aircraft designs so clearly Miyazaki’s and the pacing and background vista shots so blatantly the product of Takahata’s storyboarding. Even more importantly it foretells the pair’s stunning gift for storytelling, with many of the themes of Ghibli’s output – environmental destruction, industrialisation, conflict and children facing up to their roles in the world – prototyped here. It’s a magical series that somehow manages to feel as much fresh as it does nostalgic, and one that should be shared with the whole family.
The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
Miyazaki and Takahata had worked on the ever-popular, long running Japanese franchise Lupin III — the story of a wise cracking gentleman thief — earlier in their career as both animators and directors on the first and second TV series. But it was their feature length take on the loveable rogue that would propel both them and the character to international recognition, with the Castle of Cagliostro becoming the series’ most recognisable chapter. And it’s very easy to see why — the movie is both beautifully made and endlessly entertaining, combing slapstick humour, quick-fire dialogue and edge of the seat action set-pieces that are reminiscent of the best of the Indiana Jones flicks. In fact Steven Spielberg lists himself as a fan, saying that the film’s cliffside car chase is one of the greatest in movie history. Personally my favourite moment will always be the film’s gorgeous opening titles, but the whole 100 minutes is pretty much perfect. A must see.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Probably the most surprising thing about Nausicca is that it’s not actually a Studio Ghibli production — especially as now it is often included in studio retrospectives and DVD collections. Originally a joint production between Topcraft and Toei, there’s a number of very understandable reasons as to why the movie is bundled alongside later Ghibli works. Based on Miyazaki’s own manga of the same name, the movie would become a blueprint for what Ghibli stood for; family friendly fantasy adventures, thoughtful messages and some of the highest production values that anime has ever seen.
Building on themes Miyazaki first explored in Future Boy Conan, it is set on a far-future Earth that has been ravaged by war and ecological collapse — a key theme in the director’s work at Ghibli. Alongside the strong female lead and the fascinating flying machines that would also become Miyazaki trademarks the movie has another important legacy — its bumbled US release. When New World pictures got their hands on the movie in the mid 80s they butchered it — heavily editing the story to remove it’s ecologically themes and leaving a terribly dubbed, dumbed-down shell they called Warriors of the Wind. Miyazaki was so dismayed with the results that he vowed to a strict “no edits” policy for all foreign releases when Studio Ghibli was formed — leading to the now infamous Harvey Weinstein story. Apparently upon hearing that the Miramax boss wanted to edit Princess Mononoke to make it more marketable, Ghibli sent him a Japanese katana sword with a brief, but clear message — “no cuts.”
When he’s not writing for Tor.com, Tim Maughan writes science fiction — his critically acclaimed book Paintwork is out now, and has been picking up support from the likes of Cory Doctorow and Ken MacLeod. So you should probably go buy it already.