7. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Scripted by Hayao Miyazaki.

The recent blu-ray release of this film is one of the things that spurred this list, and it is a treat to see this cheerfully optimistic coming of age story finally presented in the best version we’ve seen in the US. Kiki’s has a softly episodic approach to storytelling as we follow the eponymous young witch who, in accordance with custom, chooses a new home town and begins to develop not just her magic, but her personal character and place within the community. The supernatural trappings are really just an arch metaphor that allows Miyazaki to playfully envision a young girl’s first steps towards true adulthood and independence. (Kiki’s ability to fly — and her trouble staying in the air — also provide an opportunity for an unlikely action setpiece that is contrived and yet fully able to win over even the coldest audience.) Compared to his best films Kiki’s feels a bit under-developed, but plays like a zephyr of a pop song that brightens the day. Its big-hearted spirit is impossible to deny.


6. Porco Rosso (1992)
Scripted by Hayao Miyazaki.

This is perhaps the strangest film in Miyazaki’s oeuvre, as it riffs on Casablanca and wartime adventure movies while blending his interest in flight, world history, magic, and comedy. In the years after WWI, one of the greatest wartime pilots has been cursed to live in the form of a pig; the shape suits his demeanor and somehow does not impede his ability to pilot a plane. Yet its young heroine, a budding aircraft engineer, emerges as the true star of the film. Porco Rosso is the last feature Miyazaki directed before taking a five-year break. It effectively marks the end of the first half of his career, with sky pirate characters that echo the antagonists from Castle in the Sky and an overall sense of design that would be streamlined in future films. It prefigures The Wind Rises not only with an interest in aircraft, but in the exploration of the intersection between flight and warfare. Porco Rosso is an awkward film, but one in which Miyazaki’s love for every new facet is warmly obvious.


5. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Scripted by Hayao Miyazaki.

Looking at Miyazaki’s work as a whole, many of his films seem to fall into paired groups. There’s Porco Rosso and The Wind Rises; Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle; and Nausicaä and Princess Mononoke. Shedding the science fiction elements of Nausicaa, here Miyazaki pulls the conflict between man and nature into sharp focus. Violent in a way that is rare for the director, this story of the prince of a lost tribe who seeks knowledge in the Western lands once occupied by his people sets up conflict between multiple animal and human societies, but never loses focus on its grand vision of the impact human expansion and presumption has on the world around us. The film’s titular heroine emerges slowly, but her feral and uncompromising nature makes her unique not only in Miyazaki’s work, but in cinema as a whole.


4. Castle in the Sky (1986)
Scripted by Hayao Miyazaki.

Miyazaki’s second film (and the first Studio Ghibli production) is an energetic, inventive and gorgeous effort that demonstrates a significant leap forward in cinematic technique, and an equal increase in storytelling confidence. The story of a young boy and girl who follow clues in their family history to the discovery of an ancient technology is like a fusion of the best impulses of early- and mid-‘80s adventures from Amblin and Lucasfilm. Miyazaki trades in wonder but often avoids indulging in deep naivety and sentimentality. The somewhat unrefined sense of character design and script structure are charming more often than not. While a more elegant development of the story would probably help this play better for younger kids, the grand third act of Castle in the Sky can deservedly be called epic, with a perceptible influence on The Iron Giant.

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