So I’ve had this big gap in my film knowledge for a long time. Sure, I’ve got plenty. Many of you will happily point out the other flaws in my understanding of cinema (and I sort of welcome that, always like finding new stuff) and I’ve known about it for quite a while. See, Japanese never felt like something I connected with. I’m not into the fighting anime, where lots of charging up leads to fights at the speed of light and excessive shouting. Apparently, you always have to scream the name of your move before you execute it, I don’t know. A variety of reasons kept me from exploring too far, only occasionally enjoying something I saw.
So then this podcast I love started covering Hayao Miyazaki. This guy is the king of Japanese animation, at least as far as I’ve been able to understand. Worlds were created by his company, Studio Ghibli, and they’ve been a staple in Japan ever since he first hit the scene. Some of you may have heard of his characters. Hell, Totoro is Japan’s Mickey Mouse. These films are wildly popular and some of the highest-grossing in the country each year they’re released. I started at the beginning and worked my way through all of the films he’s directed. Each one brought a new understanding and appreciation for the style and culture surrounding Miyazaki and I’ve since begun delving into further films and television series.
I want to get to this because I genuinely have deep love for a few of them. Let’s begin.
- Howl’s Moving Castle : So I want to say this first – I like all of these films. I just like some of them more. This is on the bottom of my list and has some weird pacing issues with it. The film is openly anti-war, a scathing look at the American presence in Iraq, and contains a lot of the director’s personal feelings. Most of his films feel that way, but this is kind of a rough take for the guy. See, around the halfway point the film just crashes. There’s a meandering feeling to the entire back half. It’s sweet, but it feels more like an essay on why we shouldn’t fight than it does a story about any characters. Bird-man aside, it doesn’t feel as whimsical to me as his other work and I think that’s to its detriment.
- Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind : Another film I couldn’t wholly connect with. I don’t know why, I like the themes, but it just didn’t all land for me. The film revolves around a young princess (the titular Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind) that stands between a warrior faction fighting some giant bugs with a horrible weapon in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The whole thing is about prejudice and ancient feuds, the meaning they carry on into situations that no longer call for them. With stories like this there’s a fine line to walk, one that has to end in understanding at all costs. I love it but the thing just didn’t come together for me. A good Miyazaki film is…well…it’s going to make you cry. This one didn’t land for me on that emotional level. Hey, look at that, we worked through my issues with that together.
- The Wind Rises : So through my research (and that podcast) I learned that Miyazaki has a fascination with a couple of things – human conflict and flying machines. This thing is dense, talking about WWII fallout and Japanese engineering. The planes in this are sort of the star, but there’s a strong emotional component as well. The creator of the machines, Jiro Horikoshi, is an actual figure of Japanese legend. The goal was simply to create beautiful airplanes as an art piece, but they wound up being used not only for war but on the losing side where they were devastated by bombings. Jiro’s wife, Naoko, is a strong presence in the film as well and really ties the heart of the film to the extraneous things. It’s a beautiful discussion and one that I think needs to be had. The West tends to demonize everyone they’ve ever been enemies with. We’re still talking about the Nazis, hell we still have them. Something we’re only starting to talk about is the hatred that was leveled towards Japanese people and culture in the post-WWII era and even to today. We’re talking now about Japanese internment camps and the suffering inflicted on people uninvolved in the war, but it’s a new discussion. This feels like a culmination for Miyazaki, tying all of his loves together in a fond farewell to cinema. This was meant to be his retirement film, but he’s got more to say so another one is on the way!
- Princess Mononoke : Another film that I love but found a bit…heavy-handed. Princess Mononoke surrounds the idea of humanity encroaching on nature and bringing our warlike nature to poison it. This isn’t brought by greed in the film, at least not by the main players. Desperation and a desire to survive a changing world is what moves us forward here, and it shows from all angles. Sure, there’s one character driven by greed, but mostly we focus on our hero Ashitaka and his absolutely majestic elk, Yakul. This kid is infected by the disease spreading through nature, He comes into contact with the fierce San, the titular princess, and together they work to save the forest spirits. Ashitaka is playing both sides, attempting to sue for peace, while San is viciously attacking humanity on behalf of her wolf-family. The first time I watched this I was put off by a lot of it, the message feeling like a beating from a hammer, but I grew to adore it on repeat viewings. This is one of the earliest Miyazaki films I saw as it grew popular in the US, but it took me over a decade to begin connecting with it.
- Porco Rosso : This is a film about a pilot that has been bewitched to appear as a pig in a post-WWI world. He’s competitive, he’s chill, and he’s the coolest pig on earth (screw Porkie, this is my boy). The film is very poignant, promoting an anti-fascist message in a world that has been teetering on the edge of a rise in that darkness. Porco states at one point that he’s happier being a pig than a fascist, and he promotes this idea throughout the film in his dedication to helping others and maintaining his individualism. This aside, the whole thing is an absolute blast to watch. It’s about an Italian pig getting his groove and plane back after a defeat; who doesn’t love that? You’re going to find better Miyazaki movies, but this one is way more fun than most of them combined. It’s bombastic, romantic, and reminiscent of the Indiana Jones character in great ways.
- Castle in the Sky : This is adorable. Two children, Sheeta and Pazu, are sent on an adventure to find a missing castle that hovers in the sky and is almost impossible to locate. There are cool space pirates that aid in their adventure, led by an overbearing mother-figure that cracked me up throughout the film. Look, I adore this one. It’s some of the most charming and sweet fun you can have in a film. The children are adorable and lovely, finding awe and glee in their time together as they go from the ground to ascend into the sky. There are robots covered in vines! How cool is that? The architecture of the film is the real star here, showing off just what animation can do with machinery and building structure. That’s a dorky way to look at it, but it’s just kind of beautiful to behold and it pairs well with the cuteness of the plot.
- My Neighbor Totoro : So this has been hailed by a lot of people as one of, if not the singular, great films of all time. The story follows two young girls that move to a rural home with their father so that they can be close to their mother, who is living at a hospital improving from an unknown illness. The mother is going to be fine, she’s just recovering. I think there’s a lot to be gleaned from the big fluffy chongus himself to the absolute horror of being a child. While there are wildly charming moments (Catbus!) the entire thing truly finds grounding in the idea that kids need an anchor. Both of them fear for their mother despite her prognosis (I think I got that right?) and they react in different ways. Anyone who has been a kid, dealing with the possibility of death for the first time, should be able to connect with this film and find the beauty within it. It’s hard to discuss the plot because it’s a series of whimsical scenes instead. It is truly one of the most beautiful films ever made, and I hope that it works for you.
- The Castle of Cagliostro : This literally has a final scene right out of The Great Mouse Detective, how was I not going to love it!? This is a charming film about a gentleman thief working to steal a hidden treasure from a kickass castle. Oh, and there’s a fair maiden that’s in love with him. She’s also betrothed to a dude that just reeks of villain. It’s so much fun. There are gadgets, failures, cool underwater henchmen that have flippers and claws…look, I just adore this whole thing. This is one of the most fun films in Miyazaki’s queue and I think it’s worth all of your time. I’ve watched it a couple times, giggling like a small child at how ridiculous it is and absolutely overjoyed at the way the visual style is realized. This was the director’s first film and it’s been one of his best to this day.
- Ponyo : So do you like The Little Mermaid? Yeah? Then you’ll like this. It’s a Japanese version of the tale, told through the lens of Japanese culture and a younger protagonist. Little Ponyo escapes her overbearing father (who is still a good dude) to meet Sosuke, a sweet kid with a mother that’s in a tough marriage. He’s caring, kind, and takes the young fish under his protection. The two develop a pure love for each other and this begins to change the little fish-girl. Ponyo loves two things – Sosuke and ham. I can relate, as the kid is adorable and ham is absolutely delicious. It took me quite a while to come around to this one. I saw it on release and found it so sugary that I nearly got diabetes. After a few viewings I’ve grown to find it sweet, charming, and supremely adorable.
- Spirited Away : I just…I can’t. I can’t do it. How the hell do you talk about the majesty of Spirited Away? This isn’t my favorite Miyazaki but it’s his best for damn sure. I cried buckets at a couple of points in this film and I can’t tell you why, you just have to experience it for yourselves. A cute little girl, Chihiro, finds herself lost in a spirit world after her parents drag her to explore an abandoned amusement park. They turn into pigs and she is indentured to a witch with a HUGE face. You know, spirit stuff. The absolute insanity of the visuals in this only serve to cover the emotional underside, led by a ten year old girl that feels real. She is nervous, scared, but determined and adaptable to the new situation. The rules of the world are defined with an odd perfection, leaving enough open to interpretation to delve your own meaning. There are dragons, stink-spirits, and a sweet but crotchety older spider-person (you know I love the crotchety old man bit). Every moment of this is done with care and beauty that takes the breath away. Oh and remember…just love the rivers.
- Kiki’s Delivery Service : Y’all had to know this was coming. Hell, I did a whole article on why I love it. This is so personal to me, eating at the absolute depths of my soul. It’s about a young girl that struggles to make it in a wider world but it’s also about the struggle of an artist. If you’re a painter, a writer, or a witch that only really knows how to fly, it doesn’t matter. We all experience artist’s block at some point and have to clear our heads to find a way back to the ground. Inspiration strikes from love and friendship, not hardship and suffering. The film actually paints those as detrimental, leading to a more positive view of how to create and use your creations. Kiki is a solid witch, able to fly but not great at it. The kid uses this to establish a business but she just doesn’t have it in her after turning the thing she loves into a career. I just…c’mon, I know you get it. When your passions become work things tend to turn sour, but once you find that spark of inspiration you’ll get your groove back. It won’t be the only time it happens, but as long as you keep going you’ll find your love for it.
That’s my list on Hayao Miyazaki! I’ve grown to love him and to have an appreciation for Japanese animation. If you’ve seen his films I urge you to join me for some discussion. If you haven’t…welp, you gotta buy them on blu-ray because he doesn’t allow streaming or digital purchase (dude is dedicated, I’ll give him that). The Castle of Cagliostro is on Netflix due to rights issues and you’ve gotta see it while it’s there!