With The Wind Rises, the apparent final film of legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki, finally arriving on British shores a couple of weeks ago, this is the best time to look back at what has been an exceptional career. While one of the best films to come out of Studio Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies, was not Miyazaki-directed, all 9 of his films under the Ghibli banner are classics, not just of animation but of film.
Indeed, the real appeal of any Miyazaki film is the number of levels on which it exists. As animation, his films appeal to the younger generation for the colourful nature of what occurs on screen and the likeable characters portrayed. Yet, unlike a lot of Western animation, Mizayaki also injects very adult and important themes into his work, with the controversy in Japan over the political aspects of The Wind Rises a prime example of this.
Here then, with a heavy heart at having to pick between them, is but one take on the top five Miyazaki films:
5. My Neighbour Totoro
Perhaps the most child-orientated of the Miyazaki films, Totoro – whilst being of course supremely entertaining – is still a very interesting film. Concerning two girls who have moved to the countryside in 1950s rural Japan, it also features the character who has come to literally symbolise the playful creativity of Studio Ghibli – Totoro (or technically O Totoro) himself, a giant fuzzy creature who features prominently in the film. Totoro also highlights a recurring theme in Miyazaki’s work – the environment and humanitie’s relationship with it.
4. Porco Rosso
On sheer political value alone, Porco would probably be top of the pile, given how its plot revolves around the interwar period, and more specifically Italian fascism. Porco the character, an Italian fighter pilot who woke up an anphromorphic pig during WW1 after crashing on an island, is shown to abandon the air force, dissilusioned. War is of course a key theme, but so too is how Porco is alienated from the society he is part of, noting at one point how he’d “rather be a pig than a fascist”, reflecting Miyazaki’s noted anti-war stance (he snubbed the 2003 Oscars over the War in Iraq) And again, if the politics doesn’t sell it, then there’s the standard Miyazaki inventiveness and entertainment factor on show.
3. Laputa: Castle in the Sky
The first offical Studio Ghibli film (though Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is now seen as part of the canon in official material), and a personal favourite, Laputa: Castle in the Sky is perhaps the most simplistic of Miyazaki films; there are heroes and villains in an obvious sense, and an adventurous spirit to the piece. Yet it succeeds because the environmentalist concept is so wonderfully realised through the breakthtakingly beautiful Laputa of the title, a floating island castle (in the sky), the last of many such airborne cities. The bildungsroman (coming of age) element is also wonderfully played out, as in many Miyazaki works.
2. Princess Mononoke
If one Miyazaki film is most like live action, it is perhaps Mononoke, due to the sheer size and scope of the film. Set in feudal 16th century Japan, it shows a world where humanity is trampling over the forestland of the various animal clans, including the wolves, led by the adopted human, ‘Princess Mononoke’. Her rejection of her human birth shows her ashamed of the actions of our species, likely another allegorical statement by Mizayaki himself. Yet the protagonist Ashitaka’s efforts to pacify the human-animal conflict could also be seen to show the director’s belief in the power of negotiation above war. The envrionmentalist theme is also more prominent here than in any other Miyazaki film, and it’s portrayed wonderfully through the ‘Forest spirits’ supremely rendered giant form.
1. Spirited Away
The most recognisable and celebrated Miyazaki and Ghibli film, Spirited Away is also the most well-rounded and layered too, and rightly regarded as one of the best animations of any kind in history. The plot shows 10 year old Chiroro stumble with her parents into a fantasy world, which shortly after finds her stripped of her name and working to survive and find a way back home. This central journey is the best example of the coming of age element of Miyazaki’s work, with Chihiro growing up into ‘Sen’, the new name she is given. On top of this, the social commentary of the film is very clear, with the creatures Chihiro meets shown to be greedy and prejudiced against her for being human. But, equally important to a Miyazaki film, this is all wrapped in striking visuals. If one is looking for a place to start with Miyazaki and Ghibli, there’s nothing better than Spirited Away.