Even though I knew in the back of my mind that he wouldn’t make films forever, it still broke my heart when the news broke on a late Sunday night that Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of the legendary Studio Ghibli (along with Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki), creator of some of the worlds finest animated films, and one of my favourite directors of all time, was retiring from feature film making. The news was announced by Studio Ghibli president, Koju Hoshino, at the Venice Film Festival where Miyazaki’s last film, The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu) is entered in competition. The man has been called the Walt Disney of Japan (although he is not fond of that comparison). John Lasseter of Pixar fame is one of his biggest fans. Yes, this isn’t the first time has announced his retirement (he previously did so after Spirited Away, but came back to take over Howl’s Moving Castle), but this could very well be permanent, with his son Goro Miyazaki showing great promise after the lovely From Up on Poppy Hill.
It’s so rare to find a director whose films you find consistently moving and beautiful, but I found that in the films of Hayao Miyazaki. I laugh, I’m swept up in the adventure, and yes, I cry. I probably cry more than is really necessary, but you know…ahem… Whether it’s the gorgeous animation, the long-time collaboration with composer Joe Hisaishi, the well-drawn out characters, the story, or a combination of all of those (probably the combination) I have found a lot to love in all his films. I could go on forever. But if I love every one of his films, how do I choose a favourite? It was difficult, but here I have ranked Miyazaki’s directorial work (excluding for now The Wind Rises, but I have rarely anticipated a film more).
Note: This list only refers to his directorial credits, so whilst his influence is clear in films like The Secret World of Arrietty and Whisper of the Heart, he did not direct those; he only collaborated on the screenplays.
10. Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (Rupan Sansei: Kariosutoro no Shiro; 1979)
Miyazaki’s first feature film as a director was also the last of his films I saw. Lupin III was already a well-established franchise, a long-running manga and television series when Miyazaki came on board to direct the second feature film about Lupin in 1979. As such, the characters and settings were already pretty well established. Still, glimpses of the famed Miyazaki touch still shine through. It’s a fun, light-hearted adventure.
9. Ponyo (Gake no Ue no Ponyo/Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea; 2008)
The Ghibli take on what is essentially the Little Mermaid fairytale, and it’s one that is definitely aimed towards the younger audience. Ponyo is an unbelievably cute film. Seriously. Adorable. Miyazaki’s environmental message comes through clearly without being heavy-handed. It’s definitely one for the kiddies, but it’ll melt your heart.
8. Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro; 2004)
This is the one film that most easily falls into the romance genre, but this is Miyazaki after all, and as such, Howl’s Moving Castle is so much more than a fairy tale romance. With a distinctly European setting, and the fantasy flavour, the story of the aloof wizard and the shy hat maker, and how they open each other’s hearts up, is a tale that reaches epic proportions. It is also an example of some of the more intricately detailed animation and scenery that Ghibli has produced.
7. Kiki’s Delivery Service (Majo no Takkyubin; 1989)
Kiki is such a recognizable character, and her hero’s journey – the battling of self-doubt – makes Kiki’s Delivery Service one of the more life-affirming films you can see. It’s a perfect example of what Miyazaki is all about – his characters don’t just go on literal journeys; they go on journeys of self-discovery and personal growth. Now let’s move on before I become any more cliché. Also, sassy cat – who doesn’t love Jiji?
6. Porco Rosso (Kurenai no Buta; 1992)
If you didn’t already know (and it’s fairly obvious, once you watch any of his films), Hayao Miyazaki has a huge fascination with flying and flying machines. Flight and aircraft are present in nearly all of his works. Porco Rosso revels in that fascination and really delivers the sense of joy that comes with flight, all the while invoking a sense of noir, and of classic war movies.
5. Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Tenku no Shiro Rapyuta; 1986)
This is the first film that Miyazaki made after the founding of Studio Ghibli. It is instantly charming, and again, quite the epic tale, but what gets me is that this is a film in which a lot of first impressions are proved inaccurate: a gang of pirates, originally a threat, are proved goofy and more honourable than the army; fearsome robots are shown to be surprisingly tender and gentle. But what I love is the friendship between our two main characters, Sheeta and Pazu. They are the truest of friends, supporting each other, willing to die for each other even. It’s a pure, uncomplicated relationship and it warms my heart every time. The audience becomes heavily invested in every single character and I think that’s amazing.
4. My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro; 1988)
Released the same year as Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies – so you have on one side pain and anguish, and on the other indescribable joy. I saw this for the very first time on the big screen, and the cinema was full of parents taking their children along. I may have been the only twenty something in there. Bit awkward, but I wasn’t going to miss that chance. I expected cuteness (TOTORO!!!) but I did not expect to be overwhelmed with emotion the way I was. Maybe that’s’ just me, but the story of two sisters looking out for each other and playing together in the country side with their magical friend while their mother coalesced in hospital was so endearing and beautiful, that at some points, the tears just started. Also, Catbus.
3. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika; 1984)
The film that allowed the founding of Studio Ghibli (it brought in that much revenue on its release) is based on Miyazaki’s long-running manga series. Now, I haven’t read the manga (it’s on the list of things I’ve been meaning to get on top of, I swear). I’ve called other films on this list epic, but this is truly a film of mammoth proportions. Nausicaä herself has to be one of the most badass ladies Miyazaki has ever produced – a princess who actually leads her people, she rides the wind on her glider, is kind, a warrior, and seeks to learn and understand the world, rather than fight against it like others do. She is truly selfless. This is one of the films in which I cry every single time. I’ll have to stop here – I wrote a 5000 word essay on this once for uni, I could go on forever.
2. Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime; 1997)
It was tough deciding whether this should go ahead of Nausicaä or not, but in the end I think it is the more polished of the two films, and they both deal with the same key theme – environmentalism. No not, ‘we should never destroy any forests ever’ but rather, the idea of only taking that which we need, and coexisting with nature. It is about balance, not just with the environment but with all things. It is the most powerful demonstrator of one of Miyazaki’s key philosophies – that good and evil are not so simple constructs as most stories and fables would have us believe. Lady Eboshi, the closest thing to an antagonist in that her point of view often directly clashes with San, the Princess Mononoke, is not evil. She revitalized an entire township, saved countless women from a life of prostitution, and takes care of lepers whom most people would shun. She learns about balance by the films end.
1. Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi; 2001)
This isn’t number one simply because it’s the only Miyazaki film to win an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. I put it at number one because it was the very first Hayao Miyazaki film I ever watched, and it still sweeps me away every time I watch it. The growth and development of Chihiro (or Sen) as a character is remarkable. She goes from a spoilt brat to a brave, selfless girl, but she remains real through her childlike sense of fear at the world of spirits she and her parents have fallen into. I find it hard to put into words what I love about this. It takes you through moments of adventure and wonder, through to moments of loneliness and melancholy. It dazzles the eyes. It sparks the imagination. One moment always gets me – after a weird first night in the bathhouse of the spirits in which Chihiro has not had a moment to even gather her thoughts, she finally gets a moment to sit quietly and have something to eat with Haku, who seems to know her although she cannot remember. The reality of everything – her parents turning into pigs, the fact she may never get home, just hit her, and Chihiro starts silently crying while she eats. Tears every time…
And there you have it – let us know your favourite Miyazaki film in the comments! I do realise I’ll have to update this list when The Wind Rises is released, but hey, that is an effort I am happy to undertake. Hayao Miyazaki, I salute you and am forever grateful for the body of work you leave to the world. I look forward to the wind rises, and wish you a happy retirement.