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Why my Studio Ghibli ranking is bad

Art by Renee Modina

As I write this, it’s been almost a year and a half since I published an article in which I ranked all of the 23 films made by Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli. Since writing it, I’ve come to realize that I have quite a few qualms with this little ranking of mine. As I’ve reflected on it more (thanks, International Baccalaureate) I've come to really disagree with a lot of the opinions presented in it. I think a lot of factors went into this: The ranking was a bit overambitious, I had never really looked at films critically before and I for some reason thought I would be perfectly fine ranking twenty-three at once. I didn’t really have a consistent criteria; I didn’t judge each movie on the same basis at all (more about this later). I watched the movies over an insanely short time period (about two months, I would often have four-or-five day stretches where I watched one every day), which isn’t necessarily bad, but for someone who, as I just mentioned, had never done anything close to this, it felt like a bit of a drag.

That’s another thing: I watched many of the movies with the mindset of “let’s just get this over with, I said I would watch all of these so now I have to.” I’ve had a similar attitude affect my experience with a piece of media before, the game Undertale. Having been a self-proclaimed fan and designer of video games for a while, I felt it obligatory to play a game that made such a massive impact on both players and designers. My sole reason for playing it was so I could say I had played it, so I sat down and forced myself to do so when I didn’t really want to, reminding myself that the point was just to get it done.To put it clichély, my focus was on the destination and not the journey. After almost telling people I thought it was a bit overrated (which I’m glad I didn’t), a few weeks later (in no small part thanks to an influx of memes and analysis videos thrusted onto my YouTube page) I found myself wanting to play through it again, not so I could assure people I was cultured, but so I could truly experience the game by interacting with its great characters and [other stuff you do]. All this to say, I think something similar happened with the Ghibli movies, especially the big ones like Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away, because I had never seen them and, to be honest, felt a bit embarrassed about it.

That’s not to say the article doesn’t have a bit of sense in it. There are some things I still stand by, from general consensus opinions held by everybody to maybe a hot take or two. So, here they are:

Earwig and the Witch and Tales of Earthsea are by far the worst two. Which one is worse than the other, however, is something I would have to rewatch both movies to decide, but even worse, I’d have to think about them. And that’s something no one should ever subject themselves to. They’re probably the only two films the studio has produced that I would advise against watching ever in your life. There is no reason to waste your time watching these. This is something everyone knows, though, so it’s barely worth saying.

When Marnie Was There is really good. Maybe not as high as wherever I ranked it, but still, I enjoyed it a lot. My statement that “this movie made this whole article worth it” is something I still stand by, because it’s one I probably wouldn’t have watched without doing an entire ranking. I would have watched Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke and Ponyo and all the other most popular ones eventually, but I’m glad to exist in a timeline where I’ve seen When Marnie Was There.

Still on the underrated front is The Secret World of Arrietty. Maybe “underrated” is a bit of an overstatement, as most people I’ve talked to also agree that this is one of their best lesser-known films. By that alone, it seems like it can’t be underrated. Maybe a better term for it is “fan-favorite?” People who aren’t very familiar with the studio as a whole only watch (and enjoy) Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, but everyone who has taken the time to become more acquainted with the studio’s entire output enjoys this one greatly. I am among those people, and if you haven’t seen The Secret World of Arrietty yet, please give it a watch. It’s chill, but not boring, and the world it takes place in manages to convey a feeling of childhood wonder in a way not quite like anything else I’ve experienced. Everyone wonders what it would be like to be really really small and have saltshakers be the size of skyscrapers, but this film explores this so well with its beautiful art and characters.

One I put pretty low was The Cat Returns, and way more people than I thought got mad at me for putting it so low. I guess I was just really taken aback from the seemingly sudden shift from magical-realism-slice-of-life type beat to an absolutely bizarre adventure through a cat-inhabited dream world thing.

What’s also bizarre as hell but enjoyable all the way through is Pom Poko. If insanely unique visual sequences and shape-shifting testicles are up your alley, you should really check this one out. I also really enjoyed the ending, it’s unexpected but in a lowkey way; it’s not something crazy and trippy for the sole purpose of “subverting your expectations” without being meaningful. The film is a bit all-over-the-place though, so I suppose you could call me hypocritical for criticizing The Cat Returns for this but giving it a pass here. I think that’s another thing that ultimately went into the whole ranking being bad, is that I didn’t evaluate the movies in a consistent way at all. To be honest, I didn’t really “evaluate” each movie, I kinda just went off of whatever random things I felt immediately after watching it and didn’t attempt to give it much critical thought. Like I said earlier, I think this is also something that stemmed from this being my first attempt to judge films in this capacity.

To me, the biggest unanswered question is why I decided to try to do this in the first place. I think I must have liked the idea of doing a really big project and being able to see it to the finish (and the fact that that project was about something so culturally prominent made it even more appetizing). To be fair, that ambition is something that I still (and probably always will) have. The fact that I followed it through all the way is somewhat typical of me, I for some reason have too strong of a tendency to (often to my own detriment) stick to things I’ve committed myself to for no particular reason, even if quitting would have literally no effect on anything or anybody else. Finishing things is good, but I’ll often get burnt out working on things that nobody expects (or maybe even wants) me to do. I hate to get all introspective on you out of nowhere (talking about myself just makes my writing worse—my brain seems to forget all the words that, before, it had so easily been able to come up with in order to try to get my point across), but like I said earlier, you can blame the International Baccalaureate for that. I also hope that the sheer amount of parenthesis in this paragraph hasn’t rendered it completely unreadable, and that your faith in my taste in movies is somewhat restored (or more likely, it was in tact before you saw this article, and then when you went back to read the old one you got completely enraged).

As of writing this, I haven’t actually rewatched any of the films in question, and maybe that just invalidated everything you just spent the last five minutes reading, but I guess that’s what I get for being honest. At first, I wanted to keep this article free of actual movie-related takes, but I hope there’s enough other stuff in here that’s salvageable. As this reflection upon my reflection comes to a close, I want to tell you that if you ever find yourself wanting something to watch, Hayao Miyazaki won’t let you down, and that you don’t have to write a 1400 word article to validate something you said a year ago just because you feel like other people might judge you for it. Whoops, looks like I failed at that last one.

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