The Ultimate Studio Ghibli Film Guide: 2005-2009

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The Ultimate Studio Ghibli Film Guide:
1984 - 1989 | 1991 - 1994 | 1995 - 1999 | 2000 - 2004 | 2005 - 2010 | 2011 - 2015

By 2005 Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli1 had truly established itself as being at the forefront of traditional and magical animated films, becoming the first studio to win the Best Animated Film Oscar for a film not originally in English for their phenomenal film Spirited Away (2001). The studio had been founded by two animators, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, producer Toshio Suzuki and with investment from Yasuyoshi Tokuma, head of Tokuma Shoten Publishing Co, Studio Ghibli's parent company. Tokuma died in September 2000 and his companies were sold off. In 2005 Studio Ghibli gained its independence with Suzuki becoming the company's first president.

Studio Ghibli films emphasise themes of belonging to one's environment, peace, magic, hard work, wonder, flight, strong and wise elderly women and determined young girls. The spirituality of all living things, as emphasised in Shinto polytheistic beliefs and customs, is particularly significant; all animal and plant life is respected. Other themes include magical castles, which may even walk or fly, travelling on important journeys by train, transformation and the threat of total or nuclear destruction. Heroines share a magical flying experience with their heroes. Military vehicles or locations tend to be horribly beweaponed, bristling with multiple gun turrets.

Miyazaki is a Europhile, and many of his films have European features. This includes both architecture and aircraft. Art nouveau and vehicles from the 1920s-1950s are strong artistic influences.

Studio Ghibli's success was now marked with uncertainty; both Takahata and Miyazaki were growing older and new directors were needed for the studio to continue, yet their previous attempts to inject new blood into the studio had failed to bring longstanding directors. The first film made during this period was directed by a first-time director found surprisingly close to home.

The Films

Below is a summary of Studio Ghibli's films during this period. Also mentioned is whether the films pass the The Bechdel Test. This can be summarised as whether the film involves two or more named female characters who have a conversation together that does not focus on one or more men. As well as the original Japanese actors to voice each character, the English actors are also listed.

15. Tales from Earthsea (2006)

DirectorGorō Miyazaki
PlotA prince murders his father for no apparent reason! Magic is disappearing from Earthsea, which is being affected by famine and decline, with the world no longer in balance. Only Archmage 'Sparrowhawk' Ged along with Prince Arren, Ged's friend Tenar and her adopted daughter Therru, are able to help find the cause of the imbalance: the evil wizard Cob who seeks to break the laws separating life and death to become immortal.
Length115 minutes
Dramatis Personæ
  • Ged aka Sparrowhawk, noble Archmage wizard (Japanese: Bunta Sugawara, English: Timothy Dalton)
  • Cob, evil sorcerer and warlord (Japanese: Yûko Tanaka, English: Willem Dafoe)
  • Prince Arren, 17-year-old haunted by his shadow (Japanese: Jun'ichi Okada, English: Matt Levin)
  • Hare, Cob's henchman and slave-trader (Japanese: Teruyuki Kagawa, English: Cheech Marin)
  • Tenar, Ged's closest friend who has a farm (Japanese: Jun Fubuki, English: Mariska Hargitay)
  • Therru, 17-year-old burn victim and Tenar's adopted daughter (Japanese: Aoi Teshima, English: Blaire Restaneo)
InspirationUrsula Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle (1968-2001). Though one of the books is a short story collection titled Tales from Earthsea, this film is not based on it.
English Release2007

Earthsea adaptations are like buses; you wait since 1968 for one, then two come along in the mid-2000s, following 2004's two-part miniseries Wizard of Earthsea2. Author Ursula Le Guin didn't particularly like either. This is unsurprising; Hayao Miyazaki had been trying to persuade her to let him adapt Earthsea for several years and, following the success of Spirited Away, she finally gave permission, only Hayao Miyzaki was busy adapting Howl's Moving Castle and his son Gorō Miyazaki made the film instead. This adaptation deviated widely from her Earthsea stories and included material from Hayao Miyazaki's graphic novel The Journey of Shuna (1983), particularly references to widespread famine. This graphic novel shares some overlapping themes such as declining civilisation and slave trading with later Earthsea novel The Farthest Shore (1972). The film is closely inspired by The Farthest Shore and the penultimate novel, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (1990), yet overall the film feels incoherent and is generally considered to be one of Studio Ghibli's weaker entries.

16. Ponyo (2008)

DirectorHayao Miyazaki
PlotA five-year-old boy called Sosuke rescues a fish who is stuck in a glass jar, cutting his finger in the process. He is unaware that the fish, who he names Ponyo, is the daughter of a once-human wizard and a goddess and that by her tasting his blood she is able to become human. Yet she inadvertently creates an imbalance of nature, causing a tsunami that threatens Sosuke's seaside town and potentially even resulting in the moon crashing into the Earth. Only if Sosuke is able to prove his love for Ponyo can disaster be averted, but can the fate of the planet be placed on the shoulders of a five-year-old?
Length97 minutes
SettingUnderwater and near a port in Japan, early 21st Century
Dramatis Personæ
  • Ponyo, aka Brunhilde, fish princess who wishes to be human (Japanese: Yuria Nara, English: Noah Cyrus)
  • Sōsuke, five-year-old boy and Ponyo's best friend (Japanese: Hiroki Doi, English: Frankie Jonas)
  • Lisa, Sosuke's mother who works in a care home (Japanese: Tomoko Yamaguchi, English: Tina Fey)
  • Fujimoto, Ponyo's sea-wizard father (Japanese: George Tokoro, English: Liam Neeson)
  • Kōichi, Sosuke's fisherman father (Japanese: Kazushige Nagashima, English: Matt Damon)
  • Gran Mamare, Ponyo's goddess mother (Japanese: Yūki Amami, English: Cate Blanchett)
Aircraft Numerous helicopters and aircraft at the end.
English Release2009

This film was inspired both by Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid and Disney's adaptation of the story, with strong elements too from Richard Wagner's Die Walküre. Miyazaki was determined to create the most ambitious and stunning purely traditional animation film ever made, with the film using a reported and record 170,000 drawings, with the underwater scenes particularly stunning. Sosuke's home town was inspired by Tomonoura in Setonaikai National Park, near Hiroshima while Sosuke himself was inspired by Hayao Miyazaki's son Goro when he was five. Toki, an old women who lives in the care home where Lisa works, was inspired by Miyazaki's mother.

As well as the theme of Transformation being key, other Studio Ghibli traits are present, including the importance of valuing elderly women. This can be seen when Lisa abandons her own five-year-old son at home to rescue and care for the elderly vulnerable women who are stranded, isolated in their care home unless she can rescue them. Both children in this film are seen as hard working and caring, independent and resilient and able to look after others. No-one questions why two five-year-olds are crossing the heavily flooded towns on their own without adult guidance or supervision.

17. The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

DirectorHiromasa Yonebayashi
PlotShō is a boy with a heart condition who is convalescing before an operation at his mother's childhood home with his aunt Sadako. The only other human in the house is the sneaky maid Haru, yet they are not alone; little do they realise that the house is also home to a family of 'Borrowers', little people between five and six inches (12-15cm) tall. Sho befriends the family's daughter, Arrietty, a young Borrower girl coming to terms with finding her place in the world while under the threat of discovery by humans, particularly Haru who suspects the Borrowers' existence and wishes to trap them.
Length90 minutes
SettingA country cottage in early 21st Century Japan
Dramatis Personæ
  • Arrietty, a Borrower (Japanese: Mirai Shida, UK: Saoirse Ronan, US: Bridgit Mendler)
  • Shō (Shawn in US), young boy (Japanese: Ryunosuke Kamiki, UK: Tom Holland, US: David Henrie)
  • Homily, a Borrower and Arrietty's mother (Japanese: Shinobu Otake, UK: Olivia Colman, US: Amy Poehler)
  • Sadako Maki (Jessica in US), Sho's aunt (Japanese: Keiko Takeshita, UK: Phyllida Law, US: Gracie Poletti)
  • Spiller, a wild Borrower (Japanese: Tatsuya Fujiwara, UK: Luke Allen-Gale, US: Moisés Arias)
  • Pod, a Borrower and Arrietty's father (Japanese: Tomokazu Miura, UK: Mark Strong, US: Will Arnett)
  • Haru (Hara in US), Sadako's sneaky maid (Japanese: Kirin Kiki, UK: Geraldine McEwan, US: Carol Burnett)
InspirationThe Borrowers (1952) by Mary Norton
English ReleaseUK: 2011 US: 2012

Also known as Arrietty the Borrower and simply Arrietty, this film was the directorial debut of Hiromasa Yonebayashi. As befits a film from a new director, while this film is visually visibly Ghibli, it has a different focus and approach so many of the recurring themes present in Miyazaki and Takahata's films are absent. That said, Arrietty enthusiastically embraces the value of hard work and a tanuki from Pom Poko cameos near the end.

Yonebayashi's next film for Studio Ghibli, 2014's When Marnie Was There, would also transpose a mid-20th Century British children's novel featuring a convalescing child staying with relatives in the countryside who befriends a magical, mysterious friend into a story set in 21st Century Japan.

This is the fourth screen adaptation of Norton's Borrowers novels, following TV Movie The Borrowers (1973), acclaimed BBC television series The Borrowers and The Return of the Borrowers (1992-3) and film The Borrowers (1997). The story was adapted once again the following year by another TV Movie titled The Borrowers (2011). As the only animated adaptation to date it benefits from being able to seamlessly integrate the different sized characters into the same story. The only disappointment is that the setting for the original story has been changed to modern 21st Century Japan. It is hard to imagine that Japanese children today convalesce by lying in beds for weeks without any electronic devices.

Unusually there are two English dubs, one by Optimum Releasing, part of StudioCanal, was released first in the UK, followed the following year by the US Disney dub.

The Future

The studio had finally found two new directors who were capable of making films in the Ghibli style but taking the studio in new directions. Both would return to make more films alongside Miyazaki and Takahata in the years ahead.

1Pronounced 'Jib-Lee'.2Also known as Legend of Earthsea and simply Earthsea, this live-action adaptation starred Kristen Kreuk and Shawn Ashmore.

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