The Drifting Classroom (1987) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

Based on the horror manga by Kazuo Umezu, “The Drifting Classroom” follows a group of International School students in Kobe after their classroom is lost in a time-slip. Shou (Yasufumi Hayashi) leaves home after arguing with his mother, heading out to school where he meets up with his other classmates. Not long into the school day the building begins to shake. At first believing it is an earthquake, the teachers and children try to remain calm as they assess the damage. However, looking out of the window they see that they are in a mysterious desert-like world. They are later threatened by aliens attacking the school. They must learn to adapt and survive in this hostile new environment, while back in Kobe the people speculate about the sudden disappearance of the school.

“The Drifting Classroom” is a chaotic, action-packed, children’s adventure film with dark undertones. It shifts rapidly from a spirit of light-hearted comedy as the children explore this new world, their familiar surroundings made unfamiliar as they are now filled with sand, and terrifying horror as giant insect-like aliens arrive to terrorize them. The film mixes in other elements such as survival drama as they elect a leader and try to work out how to live on the supplies available in the school. The young cast do a great job, bringing a youthful exuberance to their roles. The primary characters are Shou, Mark (Thomas Sutton), Ayumi (Aiko Asano) and the youngest Yu, but the supporting cast do a fantastic job in creating a sense of barely controlled chaos, such as you might expect in a school full of children in such circumstances. Obayashi’s direction is suited to this bizarre blend of science-fiction, horror, and adventure, with the sympathetic camera moving wildly in concert with the cast. The ambitious story, involving time-slips, other worlds, and aliens, is achieved with a blend of CG special effects, green screen, and stop motion creature work. It is a story full of twists that is endlessly entertaining.

While the premise of the film, a school caught in a timeslip, seems like it would lend itself to a relatively slight fantasy drama, there is a dark subtext to “The Drifting Classroom” that sets it above a simple throwaway adventure tale.

If you wish to avoid spoilers, please check out the film before reading further.

Part way through the film, Shou finds a memorial in the desert with the names of all the teachers and pupils he is stranded with. Other hints in the film, such as a character telling Shou’s mother that “children always go to the future”, and the slow pull out shot at the end of the film, indicate that in fact these children are marooned on a hostile post-apocalyptic earth, devastated possibly by nuclear war (an earlier scene sees one adult shouting “they finally pushed the button”). The film doesn’t shy away from death, with many students perishing due to a lack of food, and the aforementioned memorial. It confronts it’s audience, primarily children, with these harsh realities about life. The filling of the school with sand is an incredible visual metaphor for the timeslip they have gone through. They are literally trapped in the sands of time, left abandoned by previous generations thoughtless or reckless actions. Though there is hope at the end of the film, it is slight, with the children abandoned to their fate on this inhospitable planet, presumably ruined by those that came before. The ecological, anti-nuclear message is never made explicitly, but it is clearly there. A fantastical adventure with a troubling message about the world we leave to future generations.

Ponyo (2008) by Hayao Miyazaki

5-year old Sosuke (Hiroki Doi) lives in a seaside town with his mother Lisa (Tomoko Yamaguchi), his father captaining a ship that is not yet due to return to harbour. While playing by the shore one day he discovers a goldfish whom he names Ponyo (Yuria Nara). This is no ordinary goldfish however; Ponyo is the daughter of the goddess of the sea herself and has escaped from her father, the wizard Fujimoto (George Tokoro). She uses her own magic to turn into a human. Her transformation sees a great storm blow up around the town submerging many houses underwater and Ponyo and Sosuke set off to help.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Ponyo” is somewhat unique in featuring a young boy as its protagonist. It perfectly captures the joy and adventurous spirit of childhood, with Sosuke’s mannerisms both charming and fun while also giving the character agency and intelligence. The opening sequence of the film is an incredible display of the talented animators, with shoals of fish and marine species brought to life. What the film does well is in having a simple yet expressive style. The first introduction of Ponyo is a perfect example, her design consisting of little more than a pair of eyes and a mouth, yet still able to capture a whole range of emotions. Another of the film’s strengths is the sense of movement and momentum. Being set by, on and in the sea, we have waves rolling and crashing, rain pouring, and a constant sense of flow that helps drive the plot forward and adds visual excitement. This follows through to other elements, whether Lisa’s car that swerves around the road, or Sosuke and Ponyo’s childish gambolling, everything keeps your eyes fixed to the screen.

As with many Ghibli films, Joe Hisaishi again provides a memorable, light-hearted score, riffing on the theme song that plays over the credits. It’s hard not to find yourself humming the heart-warming tune after a few listens.

While the film is clearly pitched at a younger audience, with 5-year old protagonists, a story of magic, and plenty of humour, it treats them with respect. The story’s most clear influence is perhaps “The Little Mermaid”, with the story of a fish wanting to become a human and the love between Sosuke and Ponyo, but the film also has themes of environmentalism, self-sufficiency, the dangers of natural disasters, and the power of the ocean. At heart it is a story about humanity’s relationship with the sea. Ponyo’s restless energy seems to reflect the sea itself, as she rushes around, while Sosuke is almost a stand in for mankind. His affection for Ponyo shows us that we should respect and care for the sea. Sosuke’s bravery and kindness comes from him being a child and seeing clearly, as opposed to the adults around him, who have lost sight of what is important, succumbing to greed and laziness. Sosuke is not afraid of the sea, but sees it as a companion and something to be lived with as opposed to conquered. An incredible fairytale story with action, laughs and lots of heart.

Whisper of the Heart (1995) by Yoshifumi Kondo

Childhood romance blossoms in this light-hearted Ghibli film directed by Yoshifumi Kondo. Bookish schoolgirl Shizuku (Yoko Honna) is intrigued when she discovers the same name on a number of library cards. She decides to find out who the mysterious Seiji Amasawa (Issei Takahashi) is and is surprised to learn that he is at the same school as her. Their fledgling romance appears doomed to be short-lived however when Seiji reveals his plans to travel abroad to become a violin maker.

Based on a manga by Aoi Hiiragi, with a screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki, “Whisper of the Heart” differs from the more fantastical Ghibli films in having an entirely real world, non-magical setting. It excels in bringing the studio’s incredible artistry to urban city streets, creating a wonderful sense of place, with extreme care taken in depicting the quotidian details of schools and apartments. From the opening panoramic shots of the city to the final credits where we see cars and people passing, incredible efforts have been taken to create a believable world with all its peculiarities. This sense of capturing reality rather than creating it is heightened by the humble direction, that never feels as if it showing off the incredible work of the background artists, but allows you to notice the small things as the action unfolds. The movie is largely set around a real-world location in Tama city, which is depicted beautifully in the animation, including the hills and mix of buildings and greenery that typify this kind of residential area.

Shizuku’s family apartment with piles of books and papers and all the great confusion of life packed in there helps to completely transport you. Likewise, the way shadows play over characters, or the reflection in train windows, each moment is packed with many subtle yet startling details that help build a tangible and enrapturing drama. Shizuku is a likeable protagonist, as with many Ghibli heroines she is defined by curiosity and passion, with her first charming romance being the perfect subject for a young audience. The pace can be sedate at times, with Shizuku’s story having few twists, instead it revolves around a number of ‘moments’ that manage to beautifully capture the feelings of the protagonists without ever stating them explicitly. Surprisingly perhaps for a children’s film there is much more subtext than story. Some of the best moments involve the antique shop owner, Shiro (Keiji Kobayashi), as he shows her an old grandfather clock, and the statuette of an elegantly dressed cat known as Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. The film will spend time over these quaint moments, allowing us to truly feel a sense of wonder at things that might otherwise go unobserved. This does mean that is a film that will be appreciated more by those who spend time considering these scenes and their meanings, as opposed to expecting to be guided through a generic romance plot.

“Whisper of the Heart” deals with themes of personal growth and sundered love. Precious gems buried deep under rock is used as an analogy for individuals discovering their particular talents or uncovering what is most meaningful to them. The first love experienced by the youthful protagonist is beautifully depicted in its faltering, unsure nature, the uncertainty twinned with an indescribable happiness. The poignancy of Shiro’s story about his own unrequited love, separated many years prior, is one of the most touching moments of the film. The film can also be seen as a commentary on the power of art, song, sculpture and the written word. Shizuku’s love of books, and Seiji’s love of music, along with Shiro’s passion for restoring antiques all speak to the important connections they feel with these things, that represent some eternal emotion of humanity: love. A subtle yet powerful love-story that speaks to deeper emotions of human connection and kinship.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) by Hayao Miyazaki

The earth has suffered a devastating ecological catastrophe that has destroyed most of humanity. Humans live in small communities, suffering the ravages of war and starvation. Much of the planet is taken over by a poisonous forest populated with various insects including the mammoth molluscs known as Ohms. Nausicaa is a princess from the Valley of the Wind, a peaceful community living in one of the last safe havens. When a military airship from Tolmekia crashes in their valley, Nausicaa finds a young girl who has been held prisoner, who tells her to destroy the ship’s cargo. The Tolmekian’s intend to use the deadly weapon-like monster aboard to destroy the poisoned forests and the Ohms so that they can live in peace. However, things are not as simple as they seem, as Nausicaa discovers that it is not the forest that is poisoned, but the earth, and destroying the trees and insects would lead to almost certain annihilation for all people.

Nausicaa is an action-packed film with a strong ecological message. It is interesting to see a post-apocalyptic setting based on an environmental disaster, showing both the dangers of war and climate change. The environments are incredibly well realised, with the ecology of the forests, poisonous spores, the various creatures that now inhabit the earth, the deserts and the human societies creating a rich background for the story. The film brings in several elements to its design, including medieval style armour, tanks and rifles from various periods throughout history. This highlights the timeless quality of styles in the narrative too as the story is a traditional romantic epic, complete with a prophesied hero, a princess, knights and pitched battles; while the themes are modern, hinting at the destruction of the environment through mechanisation. The artwork and design of everything from the costumes to the creatures shows clear thought to the practicalities of their situation and their evolution through time. The animation creates a great sense of scale, particularly in the shots of the valley and the vast marauding hordes of Ohm. There are also several fantastic action sequences, showcasing Miyazaki’s love of flying machines and air combat.

Environmental concerns are at the heart of what Nausicaa is about. The realisation that it is humans who have brought themselves to the bring of extinction is poignant and thought-provoking. The message that we must learn to live with the other animals on the planet, to embrace the natural world rather than attempting to destroy it is a powerful message. The film does not shy away from confronting us with the difficult truth that such a cataclysmic future is possible. The dwarfing of humans by the giant Ohm suggests that humans are of little importance in the grand scheme of things. If we were to make the world inhospitable, it is possible that other creatures would survive and become dominant. The film is also pessimistic about a human response to such a disaster, showing the human societies still warring and coveting resources despite their imminent extinction. A timeless story and an important message for every generation, “Nausicaa” is also a thrilling fantasy adventure with a superbly depicted post-apocalyptic world.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988) by Isao Takahata

A harrowing story of suffering in the aftermath of war. The film begins in September, 1945. A young boy, Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi), is slumped, exhausted, in a station as people pass by him. Seita tells us in narration that this is the day he died. Later a cleaner finds a candy tin full of ashes beside his body and throws it out. Fireflies appear from the tin and the spirit of Seita’s young sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) who warmly greets her brother as he heads off with her. We are then taken back to the two siblings when they were alive, living with their mother. Seito’s father is a navy officer away on duty. When their town is firebombed, Seita and Setsuko are forced to flee their home. Their mother later dies at the hospital and the two travel to live with an aunt in an unfamiliar town. The aunt is at first happy to provide for them, but soon grows impatient, begrudging them food and a roof as she cares for her own children. Finally growing tired of constant put-downs, Seita takes his sister to live in an air-raid shelter. The two struggle as food shortages grow and the town comes under threat from further attack.

Based on a semi-autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, “Grave of the Fireflies” is incredibly moving as we see the horrors of war as experienced by the two orphans, starving and alone. There are a few lighter moments as we see them playing together and the strength of their relationship. It is poignant to watch as Seita attempts to provide for his sister and protect her innocence by not telling her about their mother’s passing. Writer and director Isao Takahata crafts a story that is simple yet packed with the minutiae of everyday life, from daily chores to the children playing together each moment is carefully observed. The animation is very understated with a slow melancholic feel to it. The subtle details add great texture to the world, such as the itching of the characters that grows as the film progresses, and the small insects that come to symbolise the struggles of the two siblings. In lingering shots of a dying firefly, or brief moments of ants scurrying under cracked pavement stones, the fragility and beauty of everyday life is brought to the fore. Michiyo Mamiya’s classical score is used sparingly, welling up at times as an emotional release to the narrative.

“Grave of the Fireflies” captures a period in history that many would like to forget. The suffering of war is often romanticised, or sanitised in sepia photographs of fallen soldiers, or quiet graveyards. Here we are shown the true horror of war, with burn victims, malnutrition, frayed tempers, and people trying their best to survive an unbearable situation. The film also shows the importance of laughter and living. Though Setsuko’s life is short, each moment we see her laugh or smile with her brother we are given a sense of the importance of life. The metaphor of the fireflies, who burn brightly for a brief time, is unmistakable here, yet in the delicate depictions of the quotidian it never feels forced. As the war comes to an end, we see people returning to their hometown full of joy and relief at the end of their struggles, while Seita carries with him the weight of his sister’s death. This powerful message, about not forgetting the victims of war, is further emphasised in the final moments. Seita and Setsuko sit on a hill looking down on the skyscrapers of a modern city, in the darkness, forgotten to the world, yet watching over them. Far from an easy watch, this reminder of suffering carries an important warning to future generations not to repeat the humanity’s past mistakes.