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'The Secret World of Arrietty' another anime classic

By Conor Fagan
On February 28, 2012

Studio Ghibli, the innovative Japanese animation studio fronted by Hayao Miyazaki, recently released its 17th feature in America with the February debut of "The Secret World of Arrietty." For nearly two decades, Ghibli has consistently crafted the finest examples of anime style filmmaking and has earned the distinction of being the only foreign film studio to win an Academy Award, with "Spirited Away" in 2002. Apart from grossing record amounts of money for an anime movie marketed in the United States, "Spirited Away" also acted as a gateway through which a new generation of moviegoers discovered the revolutionary catalogue of Ghibli films, the best of which I'll guide you through in the following list. Here are my top-five films by Studio Ghibli.

    For my number five spot, I would choose "The Secret World of Arrietty." Yes, the studio's newest production managed to break into my top-five with its charming re-imagination of Mary Norton's classic English folktale  "The Borrowers." Presenting an enchanted and intricate world inhabited by tiny humans and furnished with mankind's discarded belongings as only Miyazaki and his crew of animators could imagine it, "The Secret World of Arrietty" also features the hilarious voice work of Will Arnett and Amy Poehler as Arrietty's mother and father.

In position number four, I picked "Princess Mononoke," which is by far Studio Ghibli's most underrated classic. A tale of civility and savagery set in (where else?) feudal Japan, "Princess Mononoke" follows young traveler Ashitaka on his quest to cure his deadly curse while hindered by demons, mercenaries and creatures of ancient Japanese mythology. A large part of the movie's appeal is the blending of familiar Miyazaki themes about environmentalism and industrialization with shockingly brutal action scenes, which are unusual for the director.

My next choice, "My Neighbor Totoro," is arguably Ghibli and Miyazaki's most well known film apart from "Spirited Away." My list would be a complete miss without the mention of Ghibli's breakthrough success and the origin of the studio's popular iconography. The movie portrays the adventures of two young girls following their acquaintance with a friendly forest spirit named Totoro, and was the first piece of cinema to showcase the trademark combination of lead artist Kazuo Oga's warm, crisp animation and the heartwarming storytelling courtesy of Miyazaki himself.

Ignored by purists but loved by me, "Howl's Moving Castle" is yet another thematic reworking of a novel (by author Diana Wynne Jones) by Studio Ghibli. The startling visual complexity of the steampunk-inspired machines illustrated in the film pushes "Howl's Moving Castle" above the ever-celebrated "Totoro." As an added ironic bonus, Christian Bale plays a brooding, gravel-throated, recluse vigilante that's not Batman and Billy Crystal voices a whacky, belligerent demon.

Just when you thought Ghibli's entire body of work was nothing but a bunch of high-budget children's stories in which the predominant moral is usually a resounding "love conquers all", "Grave of the Fireflies" shatters all ill-conceived notions with its crushingly tragic themes. An uncharacteristically gritty and drab visual design separates this World War II story from the rest of Studio Ghibli's aesthetically vibrant collection, probably since Isao Takahata was the director instead of Miyazaki, fitting seamlessly with the heart-wrenchingly sorrowful events of the films plot.

Of course, there are many other great Studio Ghibli movies worth checking out, including "Castle in the Sky," "Kiki's Delivery Service" and "Porco Rosso." With such a stellar lineup of films, it's not surprising that Studio Ghibli is often referred to as the Pixar of Japan. A new film by them is practically a must-see for any animation fan, which is too bad as their films usually get shoved into limited releases, where they lose potential audiences that would certainly be able to enjoy something different from the animated norm.

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