5. The Wind Rises (2013)
A pacifist aeroplane designer’s creations are adopted by the Japanese war machine causing a crippling crisis of conscience as the conflict escalates.
Incisive pondering of crafting something beautiful during wartime (“airplanes are not tools of war… they are beautiful dreams”), The Wind Rises is undoubtedly Miyazaki’s most mature film. It clearly struck a chord in Japan, incisively examining how the war’s effect on every profession and skill (whether they agreed to it being used to support the Pacific war effort or not), and it went on to become the biggest domestically-produced box office hit of 2013.
Miyazaki loves his flying machines almost as much as he despises warfare. It’s an artisan’s film about a prodigiously gifted craftsman and engineer, showing a fascination with mechanisms and portraying the dreamlike miracle of flight in bold expressionistic style while considering the tragedy of brilliant inventions being misused to bring death and destruction rather than wonder and enlightenment, as most certainly happened with the “Zero” fighter.
4. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
A brother and sister face a nightmarish and increasingly desperate fight for survival in Hiroshima in the final days of WWII.
Grave of the Fireflies is a heart-wrenching humanist drama somehow more upsetting in the medium of animation – the visualisation of innocence lost seems even crueller when hand-drawn in a medium that is so often used to entertain children. If you think Watership Down is the apotheosis of a traumatic cartoon to show children too young, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Takahata’s films as a rule tend to lean more towards the adult than Miyazaki’s, and none is more harrowing and unsentimental than Grave of the Fireflies. The unflinching depictions of wartime hardship from the point of view of a child, the horrible suspicion that this cannot end any other way but tragically, and the visceral war film sound design really leaves its mark. Seita and Setsuko, and the delicate way they are animated and voiced, also stay with you; these are two children who shouldn’t live to see such horrors in their lifetimes.
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3. Princess Mononoke (1997)
A cursed teenager and a warrior princess fight to save the forest and its animal and spirit inhabitants from the pollution, pestilence and corruption caused by industrialisation and preparation for war.
Princess Mononoke is an achingly beautiful environmentalist treatise. This is a full-on fantasy epic, Ghibli’s Lord of the Rings but informed by Miyazaki’s strongly held political views and Shintoism. The spirits of the forest clash: the warmongering, environmentally devastating and spiritually corrupting mankind facing the titular princess, her army of guardian wolves and a boy out to prove that he may hold the key to keeping a lasting peace in the balance.
Some of the most beautiful frames in animation are here, but the film also has large-scale action sequences in abundance, and violence and upsetting imagery on a level with nothing else in Ghibli aside from Grave of the Fireflies.