Total Recall

Hayao Miyazaki's Best Movies

With Ponyo hitting theaters, we explore the works of the master Japanese animator.

by | August 13, 2009 | Comments

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Hayao Miyazaki‘s last three films (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle) platformed in America to mild success. For his 10th and latest movie, Ponyo (the story of an ocean goldfish and her quest to become human), Disney will be granting it a more confident, nationwide release this Friday. Frankly, the more opportunity America gets to see a Miyazaki movie, the better: they expertly breach multiple genres and fulfill the visual promise of hand-drawn animation. But they also feel deeply personal. Always directing from his own scripts, Miyazaki can take any story and mold it to his likeness, creating across 10 films a thematically consistent, rich and rewarding universe. This week’s Total Recall explores the career of Hayao Miyazaki, animation’s grand auteur.


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The film begins with a meek hat girl falling in love with a charming wizard and then being transformed into an old woman by a jealous witch. This is Miyazaki’s lowest-rated movie (still insanely high at 86 percent), but let’s not think for a second he’s slipping in his late period. Howl’s Moving Castle is his most challenging work, a patient movie with a purposefully diffused narrative. Even if you’re confused by the plot (and it gets pretty weird in spots), it can be enjoyed for its stunningly baroque artwork and playful sense of mystery and wonder. Richard Nilsen of the Arizona Republic was bewitched: “The world it gives us to live in, for a couple of hours, is pure magic. It is one of those places we might wish never to leave.”

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The first film in Miyazaki’s three-decade career, The Castle of Cagliostro is essentially a genre movie, an action/noir set in the canon of the long-running manga and anime series, Lupin the III. Miyazaki recreates the hero as a more humane, sympathetic thief than previous incarnations, while retrofitting the film with his more tactile interests: European architecture and creative flying vehicles. And like most genre flicks, production time was extremely limited (only four months!); it uses rough-edged animation that makes the action feel raw and kinetic, with a plot that breathlessly bounds forward. As Walter Chaw of Film Freak Central puts it, Cagliostro is “a light, irreverent slapstick exercise with a healthy share of nifty gadgets and derring-do.”

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Two young girls are transported to the countryside to be closer to their sick, hospitalized mother, and while there they meet several fantastical woodland spirits. And that’s about it. In My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki frees himself from the heavy plotting presumed necessary to hold children’s attention. Instead, he enthralls viewers young and old animating the smaller moments of everyday life, hoping the audience shares his (and his two protagonists’) curiosity in exploring their world. Most movies don’t treat adults with this much respect; seeing it in a movie designed for kids is simply remarkable. Kevin Carr of 7M Pictures calls it “a warm and friendly story that just made me feel good after watching it.”

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Castle in the Sky is set on an alternative version of Earth where all of mankind’s cities once were skybound and have long since crashed to Earth. Save for one: Laputa. Its existence has entered into legend but a young boy continues to believe and his encounters a girl with a mysterious crystal sends them both onto an adventure towards its location. Light in theme and symbolism compared to Miyazaki’s other movies, Castle in the Sky is his most accessible effort: a nimble, entertaining piece of work pieced together with the manic energy of a Saturday morning serial. Channel 4 agrees: “Miyazaki’s flying contraptions are a sight to behold, rivaled only by the film’s epic sweep and nonstop parade of action set-pieces.”

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A cursed warrior-prince falls in love with a girl raised by wolves who has vowed to protect her forest (and the spirits within) from a local mining colony. After a long string of lighter fare in the mid 1980s and early 1990s, Miyazaki comes roaring back with Princess Mononoke: a startlingly violent, angry treatise on Miyazaki’s strongest obsession (man’s effect on natural ecology), with a finale that borders on pessimistic. If Terrence Malick and John Woo combined forces to make a cartoon, you’d get something like this. “It’s big and breathtaking, and it knows how to use music and silence in enthralling ways that make the characters in our animated films seem like empty-headed chatterboxes,” states Peter Brunette of Film.com.

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Having explored virtually every timeless aspect of youth across his long career, for Oscar-winning Spirited Away, Miyazaki tackles a contemporary dilemma: early disillusionment and cynicism. A spoiled ten-year old girl is transported out of modern Japan, into a bathhouse that hosts a revolving number of spirits and monsters where she must pass several tests in order to return home. Every moment in the bathhouse teems with detail and characters, representing stunning visual maturation for Miyazaki that he would carry over into Howl’s Moving Castle. Spirited Away “is a trip, in the literal, metaphorical and indeed lysergic senses of that word” states Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir.

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Upon release, Miyazaki’s second film was infamously chopped up, dubbed, and renamed Warriors of the Wind. It’s become widely available within the past few years and now we can see it for what it was meant to be: a big, imaginative epic, and an early catch-all for Miyazaki’s primary concerns (pacifism, nature, sweeping action, and deeply-characterized female heroes). It’s remarkable that he was able to pin down his general M.O. by the time of his sophomore effort, with the 1980s aesthetic (parts look like Yes album covers) giving the film a stark, ominous presence. Nausicaa “is in some ways a grim and serious film, but it mixes a sweet optimism into its horror-filled lessons,” wrote Tasha Robinson of the A.V. Club.

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Miyazaki’s most romantic movie stars his most decidedly unromantic hero: an Italian Air Force pilot transformed into a cynical anthropomorphic pig. Porco Rosso hangs out inside a remote island in the Adriatic Sea, scuffles with local pirates, and discusses life and love with his would-be romantic interest, a lounge singer named Gina. Set during the years after World War I, Porco Rosso is Miyazaki’s soaring tribute to that period’s adventurous spirit: aerial battles, submarine shootouts, honor-saving duels and fistfights. And it’s his funniest movie to boot. “Animator/fabulist Hayao Miyazaki pays homage to Hollywood’s wartime adventure films in this masterwork built around the adventures of a high-flying pig,” writes Robert Pardi over at TV Guide.

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In the world of Miyazaki’s fifth film, witches are real and, at age 13, they ceremoniously leave home to find a town unoccupied by another witch. Teenage witch Kiki, cheery if insecure, settles seaside in a city called Koriko and begins an air courier service. The film is beloved for its warm characters and metaphors on growing up (adolescence drains Kiki of her powers, and it’s a test of courage and faith to get them back), but extra praise should be lavished on its design. Koriko is a lively, bustling amalgamation of several European locations, effectively creating a city as a secondary character. James O’ Ehley, one of the Movie Gurus, muses, “With so much nasty and unpleasant stuff floating around in contemporary culture, something as good-natured as this comes as a surprise.”