Films of Hayao Miyazaki

Rumors of the closure of Studio Ghibli are not true, but it seems that Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro director Hayao Miyazaki may be done with feature filmmaking for good. In a career that spanned over thirty years directing features, Miyazaki refined his own storytelling and helped change the world’s idea of what stories animated films can bring to audiences of all ages. And yet even with the muscle of Disney behind them, the films of Hayao Miyazaki have been somewhat slow to hit DVD and then Blu-ray in the US. (For Blu-ray that is in part thanks to a measured release plan in Japan.)

With the recent US Blu upgrades for Kiki’s Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke, and the debut release of The Wind Rises on Disney home video, all but three of Miyazaki’s films are now on blu-ray in the States. (Disney will probably have Spirited Away out by Christmas 2015.) That’s as good a reason as any to look back at the filmmaker’s illustrious career. There aren’t any films on his CV you should not see — he has not made a bad movie — but below we’ll look at the films of Hayao Miyazaki in ranked order, to help you figure out what to prioritize, in the event you’re relatively new to his work.

Update: Disney has now also released Porco Rosso on blu-ray, along with excellent discs of Pom Poko and Tales From Earthsea. Disney’s blu releases of Miyazaki (and Ghibli films in general) have been excellent, and stand as essential upgrades from previous releases.

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11. Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
Scripted by Hayao Miyazaki & Haruya Yamazaki based on the manga by Monkey Punch and novels by Maurice Leblanc.

Miyazaki’s first efforts as director were for television, and his work on the Lupin III TV series — adapted from Monkey Pyunch’s manga about the adventures of the world’s foremost thief — laid the groundwork for this debut long-form story. The Castle of Cagliostro echoes the Pink Panther and James Bond movies, and prefigures Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films. It is a gleefully over the top vision caper movie with action and violence in the spirit of Looney Tunes cartoons, and which  awkwardly but charmingly blends the ridiculous and mundane. Perhaps because Miyazaki was working with a well-known character set, he doesn’t belabor the film with exposition, and Cagliostro is as breezy and entertaining as it is goofy and ridiculous. (New DVD release arrives in December with the Blu to follow shortly.)

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10. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Scripted by Hayao Miyazaki based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones.

The sumptuous animation of this odd fairy tale is not well matched by a script that often feels as if it is being spontaneously written as the film unfolds. With strong echoes of its vastly superior predecessor, Spirited Away, the story follows a cursed young woman who falls into the conflict between a tantrum-prone wizard and the government that demands his cooperation with an escalating war effort. A sense that Miyazaki is safely returning to tried and true material pervades as glimmers of several prior films shine through the thin story. Some truly excellent characters and ideas meander through Howl’s Moving Castle, but the third-act resolution is the closest the director has come to self-parody.

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9. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Scripted by Hayao Miyazaki

Visually, this is Miyazaki’s first feature that is truly recognizable as his own, which makes sense given that it is an adaptation of his manga of the same name, and also an ambitious sci-fi fantasy to stand alongside the best visual flights of imagination from the ’70s and ‘80s. It is also clearly an early work, lacking the quiet sophistication of Miyazaki’s best filmmaking and reliant upon excessive expository dialogue and well-worn fantasy tropes. Still, Nausicaä is a more impressive achievement than most would-be fantasists manage even at the peak of their powers, and its heroine is an early indicator of the director’s ability to create fantastic female characters. I’d almost say I’d love to see Miyazaki remake this early work, but that’s what Princess Mononoke is for. This is a promising indication of what was to come, but also perhaps most likely to be appreciated by fans of classic anime storytelling and those seeking the early stages of Miyazaki’s development.

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8. Ponyo (2008)
Scripted by Hayao Miyazaki loosely inspired by The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson.

The simplicity of this story is matched by some of the most endearing character designs of Miyazaki’s career, as a young boy discovers a goldfish with ambitions to be a human girl. Underwater, however, is where the film truly glows, as the designs and animation of innumerable sea creatures are the hidden jewels nestled within Ponyo. This is among the most simple stories in the director’s career, and one of the more under the radar family movies to debut in quite a while, but simplicity doesn’t mean that Ponyo is rote or underdeveloped — there is a genuine sweetness here, and a wide-eyed approach to the world that is as refreshing as time spent wading through gentle tidal pools.

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