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3. The Wind Rises (2013)
Scripted by Hayao Miyazaki based on his manga Kaze Tachinu.

Miyazaki’s final feature is a reflection upon not only one of his great preoccupations — flight, and the machines that allow humans to take to the air — but also a consideration of the ethical complications of those machines. Jiro, a quietly brilliant young aircraft engineer dreams of his ideal airplane design, and finds work at Mitsubishi, where he applies himself to several projects while refining his own concepts. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 effectively opens the film, and is one of the most impressive sequences in any of Miyazaki’s work. The devastating result of that natural disaster is also echoed in Jiro’s nightmare of a post-war landscape following the culmination of his greatest aircraft design, which is among the film’s many subtle methods of engaging the morally difficult implications of Jiro’s engineering ambitions. The romance that shades the film’s final third is a fine concept through which to explore the film’s idea of the pursuit of dreams and the difficult process of reconciling pure desire with harsh realities. It is also, unfortunately, a pale addition to the story as a whole, which saps the film’s energy.

I’ll offer a heretical recommendation: watch The Wind Rises in its English dub. The Japanese voice actor for Jiro, Hideaki Anno (primarily a writer and director of anime) isn’t the greatest performer, and in the English voice track Joseph Gordon-Levitt does an outstanding job with the role. That English dub track maintains the quirky and unusual sound effects for aircraft and the earthquake, which use human-voiced sounds such as breaths and exhalations to pitch the film’s landscape somewhere between imagination and reality.

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2. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Scripted by Hayao Miyazaki.

Miyazaki’s fourth feature is his first attempt to explore the intersection between a the landscape of dream and folklore with a world that could be our own. It is also a quietly magnificent family story in which two young girls are given center stage as they learn the landscape around their new family home, with the shadow of a difficult situation hanging over them. The pitch-perfect characterization of the girls is matched by the depiction of a set of cute but somewhat inscrutable forest spirits that inhabit nearby woods. Two of the film’s creations — the Totoro spirit, and the wonderfully odd Catbus that transports it from one forest to another — are as close to perfect icons for Miyazaki’s own creative spirit as any artist could hope to achieve.

spiritedaway

1. Spirited Away (2001)
Scripted by Hayao Miyazaki.

This ultimate example of Miyazaki’s art is a jawdropping spectacle in which a young girl comes of age whilst trapped in a fairy land populated by spirits from Japanese folk tales. This synthesis of ideas old and new roots Miyazaki’s common interests — flight, young heroines, magical transformations — in a story concept rooted in dreams and tradition. Vividly visualized but never beholden only to spectacle, Spirited Away is own of the crown jewels of hand-drawn animation, even with its light use of computer-assisted embellishments. This is a film in which every movement reveals and reinforces character, and in which Miyazaki’s confidence as a storyteller truly steals the show. Simply watching the animated characters cross a bridge is a joy, and as the young girl Chihiro explores a bathhouse for weary fairy spirits Miyazaki and his animation team have the opportunity to create dozens of gloriously rendered characters . Spirited Away takes audiences to places we’ve never been, but which still feel strangely familiar.

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