Five Essential… Films of Hayao Miyazaki

Tom Jolliffe selects his five essential films of Hayao Miyazaki…

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greatest animators in the world. The Japanese born artist has forged a successful 50 year career, starting from jobbing artist, to co-founding Studio Ghibli. Often referred to as the Walt Disney of Japan (which he hates) his films enrapture audiences.

Studio Ghibli since its formation has produced an array of truly dazzling films, and their big boss himself has directed a lot of the most memorable entries. Just re-released in cinemas coincidentally, to celebrate its 25 year anniversary is Grave of the Fireflies (not one of Miyazaki’s), which is an absolute must see.

Miyazaki’s films often feature fantastical plots, compelling characters and always feature achingly beautiful animation. Common themes include the conflict between man and nature, the environment, spirituality and childhood. The most common aspect of all of his work is to sweep the viewer away into some of the most imaginative stories on film. As good as even Pixar are they can’t even hold a candle to how creative the finest Studio Ghibli entries are, both in terms of story-telling and artistry. These are kids films which still manage to whisk adults away on rollicking adventures without even needing to throw in a few gags that will whizz over the youngsters heads.

Here is the essential Hayao Miyazaki…

5. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Japan: Kaze no tani no Naushika), 1984.

This was a tough choice. Very tough. Howl’s Moving Castle pushes it close, but Nausicaa is a simple mesmerising cautionary tale. This is possibly one of Miyazaki’s strongest eco films. A warrior woman who longs to find peace between two warring nations, in a future where mother-nature has evolved to eradicate humans (think The Happening but animated…and not rubbish). It’s of course brilliantly animated, absorbing and composer Joe Hisaishi (who features in most of Miyazaki’s films) provides a rousing score. There’s plenty of striking imagery, and certainly some homage to this was paid in The Matrix.

4. Castle in the Sky (Japan: Tenku no shiro Rapyuta), 1986.

A wonderful fantasy adventure about a Castle in the Sky. A young boy and girl team up for different reasons to find the castle, whilst pursued by Pirates who want to raid it for treasure and the Government who think it could have the capabilities of being an unstoppable war machine. Of course it looks wonderful. There are great chases, the design of the Castle itself is jaw dropping and there are brilliant character designs. The film is really heartfelt too, as are all of Miyazaki’s works of course.

3. Princess Mononoke (Japan: Mononoke-hime), 1997.

This bears some similarities with Nausicaa. There’s the struggle between man and nature again, the pollution of the wildlife. It’s a beautiful film. It is visually striking and dramatic. The film veers into some dark territory at times too, particularly for a film that’s supposed to be for kids. It’s arguably Miyazaki’s most mature work. As per the norm it looks amazing. The animation is truly wonderful. Joe Hisaishi’s music is also fantastic.

2. My Neighbor Totoro (Japan: Tonari no Totoro), 1988.

Currently having a brief stint back in cinemas (along with Grave of the Fireflies), My Neighbor Totoro is yet another triumph from Studio Ghibli. Two sisters struggle as their mother is hospital bound and away from the family. They find solace when they discover the forest spirits who live near them. Yet again it’s wonderfully imaginative. For those who cut their teeth with Spirited Away and then want to follow it up, then this is ideal. It’s got a real fantastical element to it with big, larger than life and likeable characters, particularly the titular Totoro. There’s real heart to the movie too. That fantastic balance that Mayazaki always strikes between reality and fantasy is in play again.

1. Spirited Away (Japan: Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi), 2001.

Okay, this might be the obvious choice but it is for a reason. As far as animated films go, this is a masterpiece. The story defies logic. Why? It’s just hard to conceive how anyone can come up with such wondrous ideas and imagery. It’s amazing. A young girl and her parents stumble on an old abandoned theme park. When the parents gorge in food that is left out, they end up being cursed and turned into pigs. The girl must enter the spirit world, where she tries to work off the debt and free her parents. That barely explains it but it’s a film that you need to see for yourself. A wonderful array of characters, some of the most amazing animation you’ll see, and all accompanied with Joe Hisaishi’s masterwork of a score.

As an action loving guy, well (well) into adulthood, I really shouldn’t like this film. The protagonist is a girl who spends the movie talking to frogs, giant radish’s, giant babies, and has a hamster and a bird follow her around for large parts of the film. It’s thoroughly engrossing though and despite all the fantasy, all the dazzling imagery, and spirituality, there’s always a firm and relatable grounding in reality underneath it all.

Agree? Disagree? We’d love to hear your comments on the list…

Tom Jolliffe

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  • DJ

    I like Princess Mononoke the most. I love the themes, the characters, the setting, the plot, and the music; pretty much everything about it. I can completely immerse myself in that movie and Spirited Away. I just watched Castle in the Sky today, and I really like it. I would say it is my third favorite Ghibli movie after Mononoke and Spirited Away. As for Nausicaa and My Neighbor Totoro: I enjoyed them, but I think the other films are superior. I will say, however, that I love the main characters in My Neighbor Totoro. I also think it is the most “realistic” of the Ghibli films.

    My opinion of the films is bound to change as I watch more accurately translated versions. I recently witnessed dubtitles replacing literal English subtitles in Disney’s release of Kiki’s Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky. So, even though I enjoyed the movies, I was very disappointed with Disney. To further my annoyance with Disney was the fact that Disney’s Atlantis shared many of the plot/character elements from Castle in the Sky.