Hayao Miyazaki: State of Wonder

by Marie

Fans of Hayao Miyzaki may know that this past January 5th marked the 72nd birthday of one of the most influential animators in the industry. For the uninitiated, Miyazaki has been well known for the films he wrote, directed, and distributed through Studio Ghibli (which he co-founded). In fact, you may even recognize the large forest spirit on the company’s logo as Totoro from My Neighbor Totoro—more on that in a bit.

the Studio Ghibli logo

Despite popular comparisons of Miyazaki as the Eastern Walt Disney (or John Lasseter of Pixar, who also happens to be a fan of Miyazaki), there are still those who still have yet to see his films. If you happen to fall into this category, then you probably have annoying friends/co-workers/well-meaning significant others who constantly pester you to put him on your Netflix queue. I would know because I am that annoying friend/co-worker/well-meaning significant other. The conversation would most likely go like this:

“Hey, have you seen Princess Mononoke yet?”

“Princess Who? I don’t even–”

“Oh my God! Why are you such a terrible person? Here, let me strap you down into this chair introduce you to the magic that is in Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Hang on, I’ll go get more duct tape so you can stop struggling.”

Or something along those lines.

Now granted, there may be those who don’t enjoy anime—and that’s fine, we all have our flaws (just kidding). But for those of you are genuinely interested in the genre should at least know how much of an impact that Hayao Miyazaki has made in terms of style and storytelling. Most of his films often feature rich worlds that are rendered with incredible detail. In fact the only way I could think of describing how rich they are is that the experience is less like watching a movie and more like walking into a fairy tale. And that’s pretty rad. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise, however. Back in the day, Miyazaki personally reviewed every single frame from each of his movies. With Princess Mononoke, he redrew 80,000 of the frames himself.

Nowadays, Miyazaki delegates most of his work to his staff and tries to keep a balance between hand-drawn animation and computer-animation. Even if you don’t like anime, you may at least appreciate his desire for his films to remain 2D. His overall respect for traditional animation was transparently stated in Ghibliworld, when he said, “hand-drawing on paper is the fundamental of animation.”

And if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, then maybe his themes and characters would. Miyazaki has often been labeled as a “feminist” by his colleagues, not only because of the almost deferential way he treats women, but also because most of his films feature strong female protagonists. A lot these characters were created with the intent of having someone that young girls could look up to, such as in Spirited Away .

Often, these characters would undergo an emotional journey through a fantastical landscape where the innocence of childhood is challenged by outside forces. The result is a wondrous “coming-of-age” adventure/drama. Oh, and did I mention that Miyazaki also happens to be a pro-environment, pacifist, and super into flight and aircrafts? Or how he legitimately believes in the power of love since that often plays a key role in how his films are resolved?

In any case, the following is a list of movies that are not only my personal favorites, but also a good introduction to those that are still on the fence. And without further ado, one of the first Miyazaki films that you should see are…

1.Spirited Away

the poster for Spirited Away

This is on the top of my list not only because it won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2002, but also because I think it encompasses a lot of the themes that I mentioned earlier: childhood, a coming-of-age, a fantastical landscape, and of course the power of love.

At first, you may not be taken with the ten-year-old protagonist, Chihiro Ogino. She can seem pretty ill tempered in the beginning since her parents decided to move to the countryside. While on their way to their new house, her parents take a wrong turn and walk through what looks like an abandoned amusement park. After crossing a dry riverbed, Chihiro’s parents unwittingly eat the food of the spirits that live on the other side. As a result, they become cursed and Chihiro becomes indebted to the witch, Yubaba who rules a bathhouse in this spirit world.

Along the way, Chihiro makes many allies—though not very easily, she often has to work for it. Among them are Haku, a river spirit who takes the form of both a dragon and a young boy; Lin, another worker in the bathhouse (whose voice actress in the English dub happened to also voice Megera from Disney’s Hercules); and Kamaji, a spider-like spirit (or yokai) who runs the boiler room in the bathhouse.

It’s been stated that one of Hayao Miyazaki’s largest influences were Lewis Caroll, which makes sense since a lot of the elements in this movie are reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland. If anything, you should watch the film just for the bathhouse—it’s pretty epic in scale!

2.My Neighbor Totoro

a still from My Neighbor Totoro

You may not have seen the movie, but if you’ve probably seen plushies, figurines, and/or key chains of these adorably awkward creatures. On the whole, they look like a cross between a cat, a raccoon, and a panda. In my book, this translation for these creatures can also be, “the best things to hug ever.”

The story follows two young girls named Satsuki and Mei who are the daughters of a university professor. Like the protagonist in Spirited Away, these girls end up re-locating to an old house in the countryside so that they can be closer to the hospital where their mother is recovering. While there, the girls come in contact with many spirits that only they can see— not just the Totoro, but also the susuwatari (dust-like spirits that also incidentally appear in Spirited Away.

Another bonus perk is that if you are fond of cats, there is also a creature featured here call the Cat Bus. And amazingly, that is exactly what it sounds like.

3.Kiki’s Delivery Service

a still from Kiki's Delivery Service

Holy frak, get thee to a DVD player!

This one is made it my list because of how its themes largely have to do with self-discovery; going through a trial and finding out just what you’re made of. It’s a little like Harry Potter if Harry was a girl and was forced to study abroad during his third year at Hogwarts. In the world of this movie, it’s traditional for young witches to do just that when they reach the age of thirteen. Kiki (voiced in the English dub by a young Kirsten Dunst) is nothing but excited to take on the world and make a place for herself in it. So, along with her broomstick and smart-talking cat companion, Jiji, she embarks on a thrilling journey into the big city…where everything isn’t as she thought it would be.

Probably one of the most poignant moments in the film is where Kiki loses her self-confidence and as a result, her powers diminish. It takes her quite a few obstacles to overcome her ensuing depression, but I think it’s one of the things that make this film really resonate since it’s an issue that many young girls (and boys) often face. Again, you have a heroine that you can really look up to. If you have any little ones, this might be a good starter.

4.Howl’s Moving Castle

a still from Howl's Moving Castle

Two words. Christian Bale.

Yes, the Dark Knight steps in to voice the handsome and charmingly rakish wizard, Howl in Miyazaki’s adaption of Diana Wynn Jones’ novel of the same name. I never read Jones, so I’m not able to make the proper comparisons. But even if the worlds of the film and the book don’t entirely align, I think that the film at very least makes a great tribute to the magic (both literal, and figurative) of its literary counterpart. Also thankfully, Bale doesn’t resort to using his Batman voice when playing this character.

This is actually one of the few films that Miyazaki has been involved in which features older characters. Often, his characters are children so it’s a little refreshing to have an older hero and heroine (and actually get a satisfying on-screen kiss). In any case, Howl’s Moving Castle features a young woman named Sophie who works as a hatter in a kingdom that is currently in the midst of war. On her way home, she encounters the vicious Witch of the Waste who transforms her into an old woman (presumably since Sophie has come in contact with Howl, albeit unknowingly). Eventually, Sophie finds her way to Howl’s rather haphazard-looking castle that walks on chicken legs. This may or may not be a nod to the Russian fairy tale character, Baba Yaga, who was said to live in a hut that stood on chicken legs.

All that aside, Howl’s Moving Castle is definitely a must-see. If not for the wizard fights and spells that can only be broken with true love, then maybe for the voice of Billy Crystal and probably the best freakout by a guy over the color of his hair.

6.Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

a sketch of Nausicaa Valley of the Wind

This is one of many Miyazaki films that featured a princess as the main character.

The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting in which human civilization was nearly destroyed after an event referred to as “The Seven Days of Fire.” After this event, the surviving humans made settlements that are scattered around what is known as the “Toxic Jungle” which is home to a host of lethal things that include giant mutant insects. The Valley of the Wind is one of these settlements scattered around the jungle.

The seeds of the environmental themes prevalent in Miyazaki’s later films can arguably be traced here. The settlers in the Valley of the Wind, for instance, hold fast to a prophecy that tells of a warrior that will one day reconcile and reunite man with nature. In fact, the crux of the film hinges on Nausicaa’s struggle against the Tolmekians—warriors from a distant kingdom intent on destroying the Toxic Jungle with an ancient biological weapon.

Oh, and did I mention the awesome jet-powered hand-glider she uses? Yea, she uses one of those.

7.Laputa: Castle in the Sky

a still from Laputa, Castle in the Sky

This one holds some pretty significant importance since it was the first film produced and released by Studo Ghibli in 1986.

The film centers on around humans that built cities that flew in the sky. The movie itself contains a lot of aerial devices, specially designed airships, and flight sequences. It’s been noted that Miyazaki was largely influenced by the power of flight, since it is a form where people can defy gravity (in other words, achieve the impossible). In this film, most of these flying cities have been destroyed with the titular Laputa as the only exception.

The story follows a young girl named Sheeta who falls to the ground after her ship was
ambushed by air pirates. She survives due to the power of a crystal amulet she wears. While there, she meets a young boy named Pazu whose father has coincidentally been searching for Laputa. Eventually, the truth of Sheeta’s heritage comes to the surface. The discovery not only causes tension between her and Pazu, but also gives rise to the complications brought on by the many people who want to hold Sheeta captive.

There is also an amazing giant robot tossed into the fray.

And last but not least…

8.Princess Mononoke

a still from Princess Mononoke

This one holds a special place in my heart because it was one of the first Miyazaki movies that I saw growing up. Granted, it was probably a little too mature for my age but I think it worked out well since I kept seeing it from different angles as I got older. In other words, it’s a film that really “grows with you.”

The film takes place in feudal Japan and follows a young prince name Ashitaka who becomes cursed by a demon while defending his village. While the curse grants him skills like superhuman strength, he is told that it will eventually kill him. He is later told that his curse may be lifted if he asks for help from the Deer God (or “Forest Spirit” in the English dub).

On his journey, the prince becomes entangled in the conflict between the people of Tarataba (or “Iron Town”) and the gods who live in the surrounding forests. The town finds itself constantly under attack by the wolf god, Moro and her daughter, San (a human girl whom the locals call Princess Mononoke). What really struck me about this film was the way the characters are great composites of good and evil—each has their own capacity for cruelty and compassion. The film also does a really nice job of highlighting man’s complicated relationship with nature. The growing relationship between Ashitaka and San is another great selling point. As an outsider, Ashitaka is pulled into both sides of the conflict and like the viewer is unsure if he can save both.

  • Paula

    We’re working on a collection of Miyazaki movies – the kids (7 & 2) love them, and my teenage niece borrows them. Her favorite is Howl’s Moving Castle, which no, doesn’t have much resemblance to the book. I appreciate that they don’t dumb down or hold back the fantasy or the depth – they are more nuanced than Disney films but still retain a hopeful tone and for the most part don’t get so horrifying that they cause nightmares :) we’re holding off on Princess Monoke and Nausicaa, and the Earthsea series (cool, but… beheadings and that black tarry viscous curse-thing).
    Ponyo, I think, makes more sense if you aren’t trying to follow the dialogue. Characterization is really strong throughout all the movies, but they just nailed it with the portrayal of little kids in this one – in terms of characters, it’s right up there with Totoro.
    Arrietty – love that one! The detail and the creative uses of tiny objects are just amazing.
    I find that the characters, environments, and imagery are all stellar, but the plots don’t generally hold together like Western stories. Maybe that makes them more like real life instead of less :)

  • I love that you made this list. Miyazaki is a fantastic animator and director and everyone with the slightest interest in animation should check out his work. My favorite films by him would be Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky, and Howl’s Moving Castle because I’m weird and can’t get into Spirited Away as much as everyone else on the face of the earth. Probably because of something silly, like character design. Anyway, the non-Miyazaki Ghibli films are also worth checking out. I’ve had a slight obsession with Whisper of the Heart since high school and I recently saw The Cat Returns, which may quite possibly be a perfect movie. It’s also a bit different from other Ghibli films in the human character designs, which I found to be a nice change.