Best Hayao Miyazaki Films

Several weeks ago, one of my all-time favourite directors, Hayao Miyazaki, released his final film before retirement, The Wind Rises. I saw it as soon as I could and now after seeing this final piece, I have witnessed every film this man has ever written and directed. I couldn’t help but feel a bit melancholy while watching it, even tearing up several times, because Miyazaki has a way of taking his audiences into a world not like the one we live in, but one that we should one day strive to become. Using his beautiful hand-drawn animation and water-colour background, I think that his love for the technique came from a sense of power he gained when in the director’s chair. With animation there are no limits; you can create a world out of anything, while live-action, even with all the special effects, is still limited to reality. This gift for storytelling was what separated this director from the rest, and why I fell in love with his stories. Here are my thoughts on each of Miyazaki’s incredible pieces of filmmaking.

My Neighbor Totoro

1. My Neighbor Totoro (1988).

This is a movie that shows us a world that we don’t see very often. It’s a pleasant and peaceful one; one without villains or scary creatures looking to annihilate the protagonists, but a movie that paints a wonderful and quite beautiful portrait of love and friendship. The story of a little girl and her baby sister who move into their new country home only to find that in the forest next door is a clan of mystical creatures, led by the eldest creature, Totoro. It captures the state of childhood innocence that we once held so dear without quite knowing. Simple, yet so incredibly powerful in its message, My Neighbor Totoro is an animation masterpiece, to say the very least.

 Howl's Moving Castle 2. Howl’s Moving Castle (2005).

Some people have said that Howl’s Moving Castle is somewhat overrated, but I completely disagree. This was the film that allowed me to fall in love with the world of Studio Ghibli (the animation house Miyazaki works with). With Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki crafts a world that seems as real as any world depicted using live-action filmmaking, maybe even more so. It also contains some of his most beautiful animation work and one of the best voice casts to date, which includes the likes of Christian Bale and Billy Crystal.

The Wind Rises 3. The Wind Rises (2013).

This is Miyazaki’s most personal film. Some may find it a bit distant or maybe even impassive, but I do not see it that way. I see Miyazaki in The Wind Rises and I think that’s what he was going for when he began writing this film, knowing it would be his swan song. The Wind Rises is the fictional story of a real-life Japanese aircraft engineer during the aftermath of World War I. I have no idea whether Miyazaki has any interest in planes or such, but I feel that he found a connection with this character, a character that can make almost anything he sets his mind to, much like how Miyazaki is with his filmmaking. Probably more touching and engaging to die-hard Miyazaki fans, he definitely wasn’t looking to please audiences with this final installment to his incredible legacy, which, I feel, is what makes this movie one of his best.

Castle in the Sky 4. Castle in the Sky (1989).

One of Miyazaki’s most action-packed pieces; Castle in the Sky is also one of his best. Sporting beautiful animation and a whimsical story about a young boy and girl in search of a hidden castle in the clouds, this seems to be one of the most influential of his many films.

Porco Rosso  5. Porco Rosso (1992).

Porco Rosso is a former World War I flying ace, who is also a pig… well, he wasn’t always a pig. With Porco Rosso, Hayao Miyazaki creates one of his most intriguing and enigmatic characters. He was turned into a pig after his whole squadron was shot down during an air battle, which he fled from, and now he feels that this is punishment for his cowardice. I feel that his current state is also a metaphor for greed and lust, which is what makes this character such an enigma for his complex persona. Porco Rosso also possesses a biting satire on political conflicts, especially the period immediately following World War I. Porco Rosso is a compelling character study and definitely one of Miyazaki’s more difficult films.

Spirited Away (film) 6. Spirited Away (2001).

While I don’t particularly believe this is as good as most people will have you believe; there is no doubt in my mind that it is a must-see for moviegoers of all ages. Miyazaki’s most commercially known film, Spirited Away, is a wondrous and mysterious ‘Alice in Wonderland’-like tale of a little girl trapped in a world full of strange creatures and bizarre tests of both courage and intelligence. This is definitely Miyazaki’s darkest film and one of his more thought-provoking for it grasps an engaging vision of lost innocence and, not unlike My Neighbor Totoro, the simple grace of childhood.

Princess Mononoke 7. Princess Mononoke (1999).

Costing $20 million dollars to make, this two-hour-and-15-minute epic is quite the experience. When you think of animated films, you tend to think of stories with a small scope and simple structure; well, Princess Mononoke does not pertain to those same rules. This is a compelling and fearless saga that creates a world all of its own, showing how Miyazaki’s storytelling abilities can craft a tale out of anything. Miyazaki truly has a way with animation, and this film shows it in an incredible fashion.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind 8. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984).

This fantastical and, at times, dreary post-apocalyptic fairy-tale is as politically astute as it is compelling to the eye. Covering such themes as anti-war and environmental awareness, it focuses on a world ravaged by a devastating atomic war that has both destroyed all human civilisation and turned our earth into a toxic jungle. It also shows us fear’s ability to manipulate our surroundings and affect our perspective on what’s right and wrong. This depiction of the apocalypse may hit a bit close to home, but that just makes it all the more effective, reminding us that our world is the farthest thing from immortal.

The Castle of Cagliostro 9. The Castle of Cagliostro (1979).

Miyazaki’s directorial debut may not be his best, but that doesn’t mean that it’s still not a piece of cinematic marvel. Based upon the popular Japanese manga series, this adaptation shows Miyazaki’s roots and has hard evidence of his unique style and strict attention to detail that will come into play in his later titles. It may not be his most sentimental, but it’s definitely one of his most entertaining and funny outings thanks to the hilarious writing and likeable characters.

Kiki's Delivery Service 10. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989).

This tale of a witch trying to get by on her own is entertaining, colourful, and just plain fun. Giving us an honest tale of the pains of adolescence and growing up, Kiki’s Delivery Service manoeuvres around cliché and manages to give us a unique and delightful experience. It’s simple, but oh-so engaging.

Ponyo 11. Ponyo (2008).

This spirited Miyazaki effort may be the last on the list, and my least favourite of his works, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a piece of animation beauty. Miyazaki is one of the few filmmakers who does not have a single blemish in his legendary filmography, and he managed to end his career still accomplishing that feat, and Ponyo, being my least favourite of his many fantastic films, shows just that. Ponyo is a beautifully animated and interesting film that doesn’t lack a human touch.

Written by Jacob Miller

One thought on “Best Hayao Miyazaki Films

  1. Superb list and write up – I’m seeing The Wind Rises on Tuesday – really looking forward to it.

    Personally Spirited Away is my favourite, but only just; maybe a little bit of sentiment for it being my first Miyazaki film, the score is one of my favourites of any film, the piece for the Train Station is outstanding.

    As good as Pixar and Disney are I get far more enjoyment and re-watches from these films!

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