Honoring imagination: 5 of Hayao Miyazaki’s best movies

Miyazaki
Studio Ghibli/Courtesy

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In May, legendary Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki discussed iconic director and studio co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s latest, and allegedly final, work. The Japanese animator has come out of retirement for one more film, an adaptation of the novel “How Do You Live?” for which a release date has not yet been finalized.

If, however, you are craving your Miyazaki fix now, many of the director’s past works, as well as other classic Studio Ghibli films, just became available on HBO Max. 

Miyazaki’s movies have captured many imaginations, bringing fantastical worlds, characters and stories to audiences everywhere. Here are five of his best films — though it should be stated that all of his directorial efforts are worth watching and deserve an honorable mention.

“Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” 

“Nausicaä” is Miyazaki’s second directorial effort, but it’s the first movie that really feels like his later works. “The Castle of Cagliostro,” his directorial debut, is fantastic, cartoonish fun, but for many, “Nausicaä” is the true starting point.

A vibrant post-apocalyptic landscape — complete with a toxic jungle, aerial steampunk and a unique mythology — is established from the first scene, where a masked Lord Yupa (Goro Naya) comes across a dead village. A beautifully layered world with petty, squabbling citizens, dangerous insects and the fate of the human race awaits viewers. 

“Nausicaä” uses many of the director’s trademarks. The titular hero is one of the most inspiring characters put to screen, a balance of capable charisma and fighting cool, of kindness and capability. She needs no one’s help, but everyone needs hers. The movie’s environmentalist message is more relevant than ever. In “Nausicaä,” as in many of Miyazaki’s works, the real enemy is humanity’s ability to destroy itself.

“My Neighbor Totoro”

While “My Neighbor Totoro” does not have the same level of fantastical world building or high flying action as some of Miyazaki’s other works, it is still a wonderfully imaginative movie.

Miyazaki brought some of his most renowned and well-known characters to life in this 1988 film. You might have seen the Catbus, but even if you’ve never heard of Miyazaki’s name or of Studio Ghibli, you’ve likely heard of or seen the character Totoro, likely in plush doll form.

The movie follows the sisters Mei (Chika Sakamoto) and Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) as they move to a house in the countryside, looking at the world through their eyes. They soon meet Totoro (Hitoshi Takagi), their forest spirit of a neighbor, who shares adventures with them and helps them in their various endeavours. The movie hints at deeper themes, but it is ultimately a breath of fresh air and a harkening back to childhood — as well as a reminder that there remains a child in all of us.

“Porco Rosso”

A movie that is criminally slept on, “Porco Rosso” is set in the Adriatic Sea between World War I and World War II, and draws on many influences from the time. It’s a period piece, but with a dash of magical realism and seaplane pilots. Miyazaki brings to life curses and fantastic aerial dogfight sequences as its characters chase one another across the beautiful, island-dotted Adriatic.

Porco Rosso (Shūichirō Moriyama) seeks money, and eventually honor and love. Porco fights rivals in the skies and the secret police in Milan, while befriending American mechanic Fio Piccolo (Akemi Okamura) and introducing us to his eccentric enemies and allies, including the beautiful restaurant owner Gina (Tokiko Kato).

Porco also happens to be a pig. Literally. Don’t worry about it, though, because the movie works, capturing our imaginations as we come to understand why Porco is what he is, and containing some of the greatest scenes of all time. 

“Princess Mononoke”

“Princess Mononoke” introduced Miyazaki to many American audiences. A blockbuster hit in Japan, the film gained popularity in the United States as well.

It exhibits many of the director’s trademarks — environmentalism, a strong female lead and characters who must face their own faults — while also being one of Miyazaki’s more truly fantastical films. The world in “Princess Mononoke” is not ours. There are forest gods, monsters and magic, all contending with industrializing humans and their encroachments into nature.

Protagonist Ashitaka (Yōji Matsuda) is cursed and must wander west in search of a demon’s origin. He finds it in Irontown, a mining settlement at war with the forest that surrounds it, the gods that protect it and a girl adopted by wolves. Immortality and morality are on the line as each character comes face to face with their own fears and demons.

“Spirited Away”

Even if you haven’t seen “Spirited Away,” you’ve probably heard of it. It’s considered one of the best anime of all time, if not one of the best movies of all time.

Miyazaki layers symbolism, fantasy and beauty into a coming-of-age story as a girl is trapped in a bathhouse for the spirits. Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) must contend with those spirits, demons and witches as she tries to find her parents and escape back into her own world. Along the way, she makes friends and matures at each turn until she is no longer who she once was, a rare showing of vulnerability, change and, ultimately, growth in one of Miyazaki’s protagonists.

“Spirited Away” features more flying, more pigs, more environmentalism and more gorgeous animation. It’s a feast for the eyes; each scene is dazzling and captivating in its own right. You could watch this movie a hundred times and find something new on each viewing. But it’s more than the sum of its parts. Miyazaki deftly weaves in questions of life and death, friendship and love, and what it means to grow up and mature in a world we do not always understand.

Miayzaki’s films are available on HBO Max.

Contact Jasper Kenzo Sundeen at [email protected].