It seems I’m never quite done thinking about and wanting to write about Hayao Miyazaki. After doing big long essays on each of his 11 feature films last year (called Miyazaki Masterclass if you’d like to revisit them), I thought I had put the Japanese animation master more or less to bed. But, the recent release of Porco Rosso on Blu-ray rejuvenated my excitement, even if it had only taken a brief break. So, as difficult as this will be, I’ve decided I’m going to try to rank my five favorite Miyazaki movies and then live with it for a minute before surely second guessing myself. I do love all of them except Ponyo.
5) Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
This movie is as old as I am and is one of the last ones of Miyazaki’s I had to see, but the beauty and melancholy about it really stuck with me. In a post-apocalyptic world where most of the planet is uninhabitable and giant insectoid beasts rule the forests, a young princess named Nausicaä, who rides a cool air-glider thing, has to attempt to unite her kingdom with an invading one that seeks an ancient giant warrior to destroy the Toxic Forest, even though all the prophecies say this would be disastrous. One of Miyazaki’s most science fictional works, Nausicaä began his filmic love affair with protecting the environment and communing with nature while also being an adventure story with some great action in it.
4) My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Perhaps the filmmaker’s most iconic and famous film is also one of his most atypical. Most of his movies have very clear plots and arcs and the like, but Totoro is about childhood and experience. It’s only 88 minutes long but it feels longer, in a good way, because the movie really makes the viewer hearken back to those days when you can sit at home, or come home from school, and just daydream and play. The two sisters in the film badly want to remain kids, even though the world keeps trying to make them grow up too fast. Totoro and the magical critters around him represent that ever-present desire to remain innocent and it’s a delight to watch. This is also Miyazaki’s first film to represent contemporary Japan, and in a more rural area even.
3) Princess Mononoke (1997)
This was the first of Hayao Miyazaki’s films that I saw, and I remember not really knowing how to take it. It wasn’t as “badass” as I was hoping it was going to be, me being a 20 year old fan of Akira and Ghost in the Shell, but it definitely stuck with me. Watching it again, finally, last year, I saw what Miyazaki was doing, and was pretty troubled by it. It’s easily his angriest film, made at a time when he thought the world was going down the tubes and that children needed to know what was really going on. He made a film set in mystical ancient Japan and the war between good and evil and nature and machinery. It’s a very violent film, too; people get their limbs cut off with arrows and stuff. It seems slightly out of place with Studio Ghibli’s style of animation, but Miyazaki’s passion and the message he’s conveying are too powerful to ignore.
2) Porco Rosso (1992)
I think Porco Rosso just beats Princess Mononoke for me because of one simple fact: Porco Rosso is one of the most joyfully fun movies I’ve ever seen. One of Miyazaki’s passions is flying and airplanes and this movie celebrates both, and the classic planes of the turn of the century, with some of the most beautiful animated sequences in his whole catalog. It’s a weird story of a former WWI fighter pilot who gets cursed to be an anthropomorphic pig, but most of the movie isn’t about that; he just IS a pig and everybody’s okay with it. Porco Rosso, as he’s now known, flies around as an aerial bounty hunter in the Adriatic Sea, which provides some lovely backgrounds and locations. There are not real evil villains in the movie, just rivals who wish to defeat Porco in flight prowess. After his plane is destroyed, he teams up with his mechanic’s engineering-genius granddaughter to make the best plane in existence. It truly is a delight.
1) Spirited Away (2001)
Yes, I’m going to go ahead and be the most predictable person alive in choosing the lone film to win Miyazaki-san an Oscar, but you can’t argue with sheer brilliance, can you? I like to call this Miyazaki’s Alice in Wonderland in that it’s about a young girl who is separated from her family and taken to a magical realm with creatures and weird people and danger and things like that. Only unlike Lewis Carroll’s work, Spirited Away was not at all about drugs and entirely about Miyazaki showing that children, no matter how innocent, have to make do in this scary, unfamiliar world, sort of a more dangerous and inverted version of My Neighbor Totoro. The characters are all colorful, the creatures are suitably nightmare-inducing, and the story is one of the most redemptive and ultimately uplifting of any of his films, especially coming off of the relative bleakness of Mononoke. It’s just simply put one of the best animated films ever made and easily Miyazaki’s most accomplished.
And there we are, friends, and surely you disagree with me in some fashion. As I said, I truly like 10 out of his 11 films but for me, these are the five that best represent the Master and all his cinematic tricks and proclivities. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!