Studio Ghibli is one of the most celebrated forces in anime, but also one with which I have had a troubled relationship. I ignored their films for several years when I first got into anime and then the first few I did watch all turned out to be bad fits for me. It wasn’t until Nausicaä that I saw a shimmer of hope in their library, after which I discovered Kiki, Porco Rosso, and so many other fantastic films.
While I may no longer be a Ghibli Hater, I do still hold some strong opinions on their work. Today I wanted to dive into that and explore just why I dislike some these movies so much.
#7 Princess Mononoke
To kick this list off on a contentious choice—Lord knows this is a contentious list—we got Princess Mononoke. An anime that also starred as my 9th favorite Ghibli movie, which might raise a few questions…
While I admire its action scenes and its visual flair elevates it beyond its contemporaries, there is something inherently frustrating about Princess Mononoke‘s weak attempt at addressing environmentalism. It has a great protagonist in San, the feral girl who grew up among wolves and seeks to protect the forest from invaders at all costs. Except, the movie isn’t about her. It instead focuses on Ashitaka; a male warrior who tries to find a middle ground between the needs of a coal baroness and the mystical creatures that she is driving to extinction.
Because the villains of the story aren’t literally Hitler, Ashitaka attempts some half-assed reconciliation between the two extremely-opposed ideals. This leaves him as a very unconvincing protagonist of a movie that can’t even come close to matching the power of Nausicaä. A which addresses these same themes far better in spite of preceding Princess Mononoke by over a decade.
#6 Spirited Away
Spirited Away is a visual spectacle, let’s be clear about that. It’s a beautiful movie in every respect, yet also one that never even came close to intriguing me with its story
My dislike for this movie is not due to any specific fault, but rather a consequence of my complete disinterest in what it does. Its a movie steeped in Japanese folklore and spiritualism, as its young protagonist becomes a servant at a mystical bathhouse. To many this proved to be a captivating setting, but to me it was thoroughly uninteresting. Japanese folklore is just boring to me, so Spirited Away was doomed right out of the gate.
I let Spirited Away just kinda wash over me. I got to see some admittedly cool stuff, but I felt no connection to it in the slightest.
#5 My Neighbor Totoro
I remember the anxiety I felt when first publishing my review of My Neighbor Totoro. I’d criticized popular anime before, but an assault on Ghibli felt like a move that could cost me everything. Nothing happened though, so let’s give it another kick.
My stance on My Neighbor Totoro has not softened. It’s a movie about absolutely fucking nothing. It stars two unbearable child protagonists who have random, meaningless encounters with a giant, fuzzy creature. It’s a whimsical movie that makes for some iconic visuals, but it has no substance or objective, no adventure. Even the characters are utterly forgettable with boring personalities and little in the way of growth. Hell, even the titular Totoro doesn’t actually do much of anything throughout the film.
It’ll keep your kids quiet for a while, sure. But after all the hype, all the merchandise, and seeing its most famous scenes reposted a million times, I was shocked to discover just how little this film has going for it.
#4 Howl’s Moving Castle
While it’s themes and setting were certainly more appealing to me than those of Spirited Away, I ended up feeling much the same about this 2004 Miyazaki classic; complete and utter apathy.
Its story was off to a bad start for me. The opening scenes felt very strange and its protagonists, Howl and Sophie, didn’t have anything going on that interested me. Drama then struck before I got even the loosest grasp on what was going on and from there the movie took off without me on board.
Character motivations felt shaky to me and—like with Spirited Away—that left me unable to forge a connection with these protagonists. It also certainly didn’t help that I watched these two movies back-to-back…
#3 The Wind Rises
The Wind Rises feels like an amalgamation of Hayao Miyazaki’s usual fascinations. It’s an anti-war story about an airplane engineer, set to the backdrop of old-timey Japan. It’s Porco Rosso, but about a boring nerd and with none of the hilarity, joy, or action.
This is a miserable story that slowly drags its way through the sluggish career of its protagonist. Jiro Horikoshi is a young man fascinated with aircraft, who finds himself charged with engineering one for the Japanese army. This process takes up the entire 2-hour movie and comes with so few highlights that it feels like the film repeats itself at various points.
The movie feels so inconsequential and unfocused that none of it was even slightly memorable. As a result, its messages end up muddled and its few emotional moments failed to get any reaction whatsoever,
#2 Only Yesterday
I do not think it is possible to create a movie more boring than Only Yesterday without actively trying to. I literally can not fathom what worth anybody might possibly see in this film.
It’s a movie about the entirely uneventful life of 27-year-old Taeko. In the run-up to a family reunion, she reminisces about various moments of her childhood. This creates a framework clearly intended to be an exploration of Taeko’s character; showing us the events and trials from her youth that would lead to her growing up into her adult self. However, the flashbacks we get to see are so devoid of significance that this entire idea falls apart.
There is an incredibly prolonged chapter of the movie where Taeko’s family receives a pineapple and they tediously deliberate for several minutes on how you’re supposed to eat it. I can’t imagine a more ineffectual drama to dedicate a chunk of your feature film’s runtime to. Whatever merits Only Yesterday has are rendered meaningless by its willingness to waste your time on trite nonsense like this.
How dare they disrespect the noble pineapple with this mockery of a film.
#1 Pom Poko
Princess Mononoke is a good film that merely struggles with its intended message. Meanwhile, Pom Poko is is a horrible movie that ends up handling the same message so poorly, it can easily be read as an argument against it. Holy shit, I resent this film.
This woodland adventure deals with a band of racoons that come to realize that their years of blind feuding amongst each other has allowed Humans to encroach upon their territory, turning small villages and farmlands into ever-expanding cities. In a bid to protect what’s left of their homelands, the raccoons band together at last to sabotage, manipulate, and militarily oppose the evil humans.
It’s a basic plot about environmentalism, held back by its bizarre writing. The major successes of its cast are entirely ignored at times, even when it’s completely baffling to do so. The eventual conclusion to this conflict is also baffling. Princess Mononoke may be misguided, but Pom Poko is just straight-up advocating that the world is doomed and you should just grab what little profits you can reap before it’s your turn to die from it.
It’s a cynical, depressing movie dressed up like a funny adventure story about goofy racoon people. The less said about their giant ballsacks, the better.