Hayao Miyazaki is a genius filmmaker. He has continually created masterpieces, infusing the cinematic world of animation with a vigor and magical realism that it hadn’t seen before his touch. His animation is intricate and worked on with painstaking detail, he creates otherworldly universes while planting very relatable characters in their midst’s, he’s always viewed female protagonists as real humans deserving of as much care as their male counterparts-a rarity in cinema.
His vision is solid-he’s left his imprint on film history. You watch one of his films and wait for the airplanes, or respect of nature to make an appearance. He’s an auteur in an animated world.
I’m hesitant to rank his films. There is something of worth in all of his outputs, managing to imbue sincerity into all of his stories, but there are films of his that are obviously more definitive of his work as a whole.
This isn’t as accurate of a list as it could have been-I’ve yet to see any of his short films, his very first movie or anything he’s done in television and while I will be first in line at the theater this Friday night I’ve yet to see The Wind Rises but I’ve ordered ten of his films in the places I think they belong.
The arrival of his last film, the aforementioned The Wind Rises drops February 21st and until then, sit back and watch some of your old favorites.
The Secret World of Arriety (2010)
I’m cheating slightly with this one as he’s only got a co-writer credit on the film but I needed to fill the ten spaces and in all fairness, there is a quiet, special quality about this film that got overlooked due to an English dub that softened the story. It’s a twist on the old The Borrowers tale; a story about a young girl, hardly bigger than a thumb tack, and her family scavenging to survive in a dangerous world. Arriety meets a sickly boy who wishes to help her, changing the course of her life forever. The relationship is never allowed to go very far but both help enlighten the other and that plus the animation-especially the shots of Arriety walking through the gardens-are just stunning.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
This is a favorite of many due to the thematic material but ranks low for me due to the tiresome pacing. However, there’s much to love. The film centers on the titular Princess who as a pacifist must discover a way to stop two warring nations as they battle it out as their planet is eaten up. It was an allegory for pollution-as Nausicaä drives us through the story we take in her dying planet and the pockets of humans who infest and destroy it as much as the targeted vermin. The message is strong and clear and leaves an impact.
Castle in the Sky (1989)
This movie would have been higher had it sped up the first half because by the halfway mark the story is rejuvenated, almost seeming like an entirely different film. It’s a story about a young boy who comes across a girl with a magic crystal. In their search for a legendary floating castle they must fight pirates, agents and the environment surrounding them. Possibly Miyazaki’s most unabashedly outlandish film, it’s an exciting race and the entire sequence on the island is a thing of beauty. Also worth mentioning that it was one of his very first instances of showcasing a female/male friendship in an un-romantic way-a rarity in animated films where the love story takes the biggest chunk of storytelling time.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
The sugary sweetness of this film is nearly unbearable until you remember the somber undercurrent that roots it back to earth. Despite the cat buses, the mythical beings that live in the forest and befriend two young sisters, the backstory revolves around a mother sick and hospitalized. Totoro are the girl’s means of escapism and the movie proudly displays this by allowing us to see the world through the two young girl’s eyes. Its simplistic beauty overcomes the slow pacing, allowing for the little moments to shine through.
Porco Rosso (1992)
If there’s a film that takes some convincing to watch based on the premise alone, it’s this one. It tells the story of the adventures of Porco Rosso, a veteran WWI pilot in the 1930’s Italy who has been cursed to look like a humanoid pig. Despite the character’s appearance, this film is more grounded in reality than most of Miyazaki’s who didn’t utilize a magical realm setting like he so often does. The imagery, the setting, the characters and the story were all relatable-and it soon came to be that so was Porco.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2005)
For some reason this film often seems to be dismissed as one of the directors lesser creations, possibly due to the abundance of romance that hasn’t taken place in his other films. However, on a visual standpoint, this film is impeccable, riddled with such detail it takes multiple viewings to catch the intricacies. The world is marked by vanity and corruption and a want for power and Howl is arguably one of Miyazaki’s most interesting characters to date. He’s self-centered, insecure and rash but his love for Sophie and her bravery despite her own shy nature allows him to persevere. There are many layers to this film and the romance is simply one of them.
Whisper of the Heart (1995)
This one is another cheat as yet again his credit is writing not directing but the script for this story is what holds it together and makes it one of my favorites. Completely choosing to forgo the mythical or fantastical this movie gets right down to the heart of the matter and coming face to face with a young, misunderstood girl who needs an escape. She ends up meeting a boy who’s checked out all of the same books that she has and grows closer to him, spending much of her time in his grandfather’s violin shop. The movie showcases a love for dialogue, music and youthful introspection.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
A young witch finds it difficult fitting into a new community while on her mandatory year of independent life, all the while running an air courier business to support herself. It’s a true blue coming of age story through and through and those are some of my favorite stories because when they’re done right, they stick. Kiki’s story is relatable who anyone who’s had the stark realization of what growing up entails. It’s relatable to anyone who’s ever felt isolated and lonely, to anyone who’s gone through changes in the life paths. It has one of the more child friendly titles, but the message goes much deeper.
Spirited Away (2001)
I know many will find me crazy for not having this as my number one but just know that it was an extremely tough decision and in my mind, the two likely tie. The movie amidst the grandeur and spectacle is about a universal theme: discovering and then holding on tight to your identity. And the struggle is placed on to the shoulders of a young girl. The spirit town once the sun goes down comes to life off the screen, creating an entirely foreign world for our lead protagonist to explore. There are boys who turn into dragon spirits, one of the most beautifully shot train rides I’ve ever witnessed on film, one of composer Joe Hisaishi’s most whimsical scores and an uplifting message that refuses to sugar coat.
Princess Mononoke (1999)
There a number of reasons why I adore this film but the thing that sticks out in my mind is how it just feels like an epic. Despite it being animated, the film could stand the test of time with the more classical takes on what an epic is. It’s one of Miyazaki’s most ambitious to date due to the abundance of thematic weight that goes into the storytelling (if you haven’t gotten his love of nature until now this movie will drive it home). It has an amazing duo of females with the antagonist breaking her archetypal sketch and showing a humanistic side of a so called “villain”. The male lead takes a back seat to the “villain” as well as Mononoke herself. The animals are all innovatively thought up and every forest spirit you come across has a unique personality. The last 30 minutes are a roller coaster with some disturbingly beautiful imagery that will likely stick in your mind days later. It’s a movie worthy of re-watching, just so you can take it all in.