It’s hard not to think about Hayao Miyazaki when choosing what anime film to watch. Known as one of the founders of the Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki has established a name among critics and audiences alike as an important figure in helping Japanese cinema reach a global audience with films that are suitable for all ages. So far, Studio Ghibli has only won one film in the Best Animated Feature category which is for Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away (2001) which, in my opinion, remains the best overall winner in this category. I do think there are times when a Ghibli production should have walked away with the award but sadly, releases directly from Disney Studios tend to dominate the category almost every year.
Ghibli is reliable and consistent, bringing out films that challenge our perceptions on the society we live in by incorporating more mature issues such as loss, mankind’s treatment of nature and identity. There are other directors who have also helped to bring Ghibli the reputation it has today such as Isao Takahata who I will also be writing a separate ranking for but in the meantime, let’s delve into the films of the one and only Hayao Miyazaki.
Here is a mini write up for each in chronological order followed by my ranking at the end of the article:
The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
Miyazaki’s debut comes in the form of this action packed adventure based on the Lupin III manga series following thief Lupin and his partner Jigen after they successfully rob the Monte Carlo Casino only to find that the money is counterfeit. They travel to Cagliostro, the rumoured source of the counterfeit enterprise in a bid to put an end to the ordeal. The film is credited with being an inspiration to the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Great Mouse Detective. It’s clearly not completely controlled by Miyazaki himself as it was made before Ghibli’s inception but there are some signature Miyazaki traits that are noticable in hindsight such as the exaggerated expressions and the mix of humour and drama. It’s a faster-paced film than the usual Miyazaki action films but it doesn’t feel rushed. Lupin is a great character and the writing ensures the audience is gripped. Another highlight in this film is the score by Yuji Ohno which has Pink Panther vibes and really helps to elevate the film-watching experience. I think that this film marks a very strong start to what was evidently the beginning of one of the most exciting film careers in Japanese cinema history.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
The first film created by the founders of Studio Ghibli comes in the form of this brilliant dystopic epic set in a world where the Toxic Jungle, a forest filled with giant, poisonous insects threatens to eliminate the last of the human race. Though released before Ghibli was officially founded, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is commonly considered a Ghibli and has been re-released under the Ghibli banner. The film follows the titular character as she strives to find a way for the insects and humans to co-exist. Based on the manga series of the same name by Miyazaki, who also adapted it into a screenplay, Nausicaä isn’t afraid to delve into deep issues and question its younger audience. Focusing on the themes of mankind vs nature which would prove to be an underlying topic in subsequent Miyazaki features, the film is also unafraid to showcase loss and fractured relationships. It’s also refreshing to see a female protagonist whose strength is never questioned and is accepted for what it is, another trait that Miyazaki showcases in each of his Ghibli produced films.
Castle in the Sky (1986)
The first official feature to be released under the Studio Ghibli is the action-adventure Castle in the Sky. The film follows Pazu, a young boy who works in the mine of his local village who comes across a girl, Sheeta, who floats down from the sky. They are soon chased by pirates and government agents in a bid to track down the secret locating the mysterious floating island, Laputa, that Sheeta may hold the key to find. I have written a fuller review on this film that you can read here but it is truly a dazzling achievement. The scope and detail in the animation is remarkable and the score by Joe Hisaishi feels timeless. Although it is not as popular as Miyazaki’s later films, I think that Castle in the Sky is such a thrilling and impactful film that has a lot to say on mankind’s relationship with nature, the importance of the environment and people’s relationships with each other. Both protagonists work together to find a peaceful solution against the people who want to use Laputa and its materials for weaponary and world domination.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Arguably the most iconic Studio Ghibli film, My Neighbor Totoro follows sisters Mei and Satsuki as they move into an old house with their father so they can be closer to their mother who is recovering in hospital from a long-term illness. The two girls eventually encounter an array of spirits, including one that lives in the nearby forest who Mei names Totoro and the enigmatic Catbus that provides transport for the spirits. It’s a wonderful film that provides the perfect introduction for younger children to Studio Ghibli. Unlike its predecessors, My Neighbor Totoro is a lot more innocent and childlike in its design and message. This doesn’t prevent it from being a brilliant film, however, as it does a great job on touching on family dynamics, childhood and loss. It has a lighter feel and very striking design, particularly the Catbus who conveys the tone of the film without even saying anything. What is brilliant about Miyazaki’s world is how he integrates traditional Japanese folklore with his own imagination and artistry and My Neighbor Totoro is a beautiful example of this.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Following on his successful streak, Miyazaki brings another film geared towards younger children in this lovely tale about a younger witch, Kiki, who sets off to find out what she wants to do with her life. Accompanied by her cat Jiji, Kiki is fascinated by the normal human world and understandably finds it hard to fit in as she is not like them. The film is all about understanding accepting our differences and how we can use them to the our advantage. Kiki is a great protagonist for the younger demographic as she is a strong female who is flawed but she works on those flaws. She is a well-rounded character and it showcases Miyazaki’s strength in being able to create characters that audiences of all age can relate to on some level. It’s not the strongest installment in Miyazaki’s filmography but that doesn’t mean it is a bad film at all. Miyazaki’s work is of such high calibre that it just misses out on the top tier of films for me but it is still an absolute joy to watch.
Porco Rosso (1992)
The last film Miyazaki to be made before he took his first hiatus is a more detailed look into the filmmakers interest with aircraft. Porco Rosso follows the titular character who was a human but was cursed and is now a pig who works as a pilot bounty hunter who catches pirates in the Adriatic Sea. It’s a fun-filled adventure that has inklings of Castle in the Sky with the over the top pirates and allows Miyazaki to go deep on his own family heritage of working in aircraft. Joe Hisaishi’s score is fantastic as always and strikes the right upbeat tone that the film has. For me the film’s highlight comes in the scene in which Rosso sees his dead friends flying in the sky in his own version of heaven. It’s a fantastic scene that lifts the whole standard of the film. It is my least favourite Miyazaki film as it does have some flaws that I cannot overlook particularly the treatment of Fio, a teenage woman who aspires to engineer and make planes. A few jokes and quips made by the pirates are thrown her way that I feel are inappropriate for the younger audience. Fio herself is strongly written and is a brilliantly resilient young woman who is unfazed by working in a strongly male-dominated industry but the comments made by other characters could have been removed and still maintain the toxic masculine environment that Miyazaki was wanting to portray.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Miyazaki returned after 5 years to make this brilliant epic based on traditional Japanese folklore and spirits. Princess Mononoke is fable on mankind’s takeover of nature and the subsequent consequences that this has. Following Eastern Prince Ashitaka who is cursed by a giant boar god who he kills, he must venture West to Irontown, a place filled with revolutionary industrial technology that threatens to takeover the forest by mining the sources underground. On arrival, he comes across San, a human girl raised by the Wolf gods who violently attacks and attempts to kill the leader of Irontown, Lady Eboshi, any chance she can. The film is by far Miyazaki’s most violent and graphic film thanks to its abundance of blood and graphic injury from the offset. Miyazaki always has a large scope in his imagination but Princess Mononoke has such a richness in detail that I think brings it to another tier. From the larger than life forest spirits to Joe Hisaishi’s spectacular score which is my favourite soundtrack from any Studio Ghibli film. I have written a longer review that you can read here. Despite its Medieval Japanese setting, there is a timelessness in the message that Miyazaki it wanting to convey and I think that that is why it resonates with so many people.
Spirited Away (2001)
The film that finally gave Miyazaki a long-awaited Oscar, Spirited Away is usaully the go-to film that beginners to Ghibli go for and with good reason. Following Chihiro, a young girl forced to move away with her parents and is sad to leave her friends, Spirited Away sees the family accidentally trespass on the land of the spirits. After her parents are turned into pigs, Chihiro must work in the Bathhouse while she figures out a way to get her parents back and return home. This film is nothing short of a masterpiece between the wide array of memorable characters as we venture in the spirit world including Haku, a young man who befriends Chihiro and No-Face, a mysterious spirit who suddenly appears and causes mayhem. Everything about it is iconic and it really is a beautiful film to watch. I have done a longer review which you can read here but words really don’t do this film justice.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Probably the most accessible Miyazaki film storywise, Howl’s Moving Castle is based on the best-selling book by Diana Wynn Jones and follows SOphie, a young woman discontent with her appearance who is cursed by the Witch of the Waste and turned into an old woman. She is then picked up by the mysterious Moving Castle and agrees to work as a cleaning lady for wizard Howl. The film is gloriously magical and is filled with whimiscal design which has made it a favourite amongst fans. The Wales-inspired landscapes are beautiful and vast and some maintain a very high level of detail that remains captivating long after the first viewing. This world that Sophie lives in differs to that of Howl, who longs for beauty and perfection in a world ridden with darkness and chaos. He refuses to take part in the war that is tearing the country apart and provides a bleak backdrop to the natural beauty where the story takes place. Hisaishi’s score is wonderful as always with the main theme waltz reminiscent of a merry-go-round piece. What Miyazaki does so well that he incorporates into this film particularly is showing how blurred the lines are between good and evil.
After his second hiatus, Miyazaki returns with another film geared towards the younger audience that follows Brunhilde, a goldfish who lives in the sea with her father and sisters, who escapes and is captured in a glass jar by a young human boy called Sōsuke. Brunhilde develops a desire to become human and changes her name to Ponyo after she is accidentally fed blood after Sōsuke shatters the jar which cuts him. Based on The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson, Ponyo is a less traditional retelling of the fairytale but still maintains Miyazaki’s vision and charm irregardless. It is an adorable film about friendship and love and despite there being hints towards a negative shift in the balance of nature due to Ponyo’s wishes, it still remains upbeat. Despite her young age, Ponyo is a strong-willed character who knows that she is out of place at the start but doesn’t understand why and makes it her mission to discover where she belongs.
The Wind Rises (2013)
The lastest Miyazaki feature to be released is absolutely astounding and comes in the form of The Wind Rises, which follows protagonist Jiro Horikoshi, an aircraft designer who works for Mitsubishi during World War II. Based on the manga by Miyazaki, it clearly is a project that the director is passionate about and I think this is emphasised by his realistic approach and design. The film tells the story of an aspiring pilot who eventually becomes an aircraft designer due to his poor eyesight and shows him falling in love with a young woman he meets. The Wind Rises is absolutely beautiful and everything about it from its writing and character design to the score by Hisaishi is flawless. Like most of the other Studio Ghibli films released since the inception of the Best Animated feature Award at the Oscars, this was nominated and it expectedly lost to Frozen but I personally would have given my note to this film because the passion that is conveyed goes beyond Miyazaki’s previous projects.
Unlike a lot of directors, there aren’t as many films that Miyazaki has directed in his 40 year career but that is because creating his films is time-consuming due to his insistence that they stick to hand-drawing their images. In the last 3 years, only 36 minutes have been created for his next feature How Do You Live? which Miyazaki has advised is his last film before retiring for the third (or fourth?) time. The calibre of his films is so high so even the ones that rank a bit lower are so strong in quality. Miyazaki has a reputation that many film-makers and lovers dream of and I have seen these films multiple times and will undoubtedly watch them again and again.
Anywho, here is my final ranking:
1) Castle in the Sky (1986)
2) The Wind Rises (2013)
3) Princess Mononoke (1997)
4) Spirited Away (2001)
5) Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
6) Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
7) Ponyo (2010)
8) My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
9) The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
10) Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
11) Porco Rosso (1992)
So there we have it! What do you think of my list? Which Miyazaki film is your favourite? Let me know in the comments below!