Miyazaki Films, From My Favorite to Least Favorite

Hot off the heels of my Princess Kaguya review, here are my rankings of the works of Ghibli’s former main man: Miyazaki.

This, unlike my other lists and rankings, will be fairly short and quick. I may do reviews of each of these movies in the future, but there is so much to love about Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in general. I would be loath to spoil these wondrous journeys for anyone (side note: if you haven’t already, don’t look at my villain list or my Kiki rant. There thar be spoilers).

And if you disagree, feel free to share in the comments.

(Also, please note: These are films that Miyazaki himself as directed, not his son Goro, Isao Takahata, or anyone else from the studio. Also, The Castle of Cagliostro and the short films are not included, because I haven’t yet seen them.)

 

Princess Mononoke

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One of lesser known films outside of Ghibli circles, but a classic must-see. I would argue that it is Miyazaki’s best in almost all aspects of film production and story telling.

Rated for an older audience (and for damn good reason), this film has all of Spirit Away‘s intrigue and exotic foreign flavor, but without relying on a well-known story like Alice in Wonderland as its base. It does, however, have a theme we who have lived through the 90’s can easily recite: Save the trees.

But Princess Mononoke does everything right that most environmental soapbox movies do wrong, and, compared to one of my least favorite films on this list, it is its fully matured sister story. The film has morally grey areas that keep many of the characters sympathetic and interesting, but flawed, and at no point is the audience talked down to or shamed, explicitly or implicitly, for “killing the earth” (see the likes of Disney’s Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, Avatar, and Fern Gully, among others).

It’s full of action, suspense, culture, and mythological references. The villain is complex, and she and her enemy are among the strongest antagonist/anti-hero female characters I’ve ever come across. I recommend it especially to Ghibli and Miyazaki completionists, Japanese culture buffs, animation enthusiasts, and action lovers. If you are one or more of the above, it’s a match made in heaven.

 

Kiki’s Delivery Service

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This is a good film, to be sure, but it ranks so high for me mostly due to nostalgia. I’ll wager that girls will relate to it more than boys, but it’s a great example of what I would describe as Studio Ghibli’s “Slice of Life with a Magical Twist” genre.

The magical twist often varies, but what I mean are typically smaller, slower stories with a lot of heart and detail, that build great characters and feel closer to real life than the giant fantasy epics. Magic may be related directly to the plot, or it may just come in the form of daydreaming or other great visuals (see Whisper of the Heart, which I consider the sister story to Kiki).

Kiki is by no means an ordinary girl, but at the same time, she is. At every major change in my life, I’ve thought back to this film and hoped to have even a fraction of the courage and optimism that she had. And I love and hate this film for making leaving home, having to survive in the real world, and finding your ideal career path look so fun.

Spoilers: It’s not really. There are fun parts, but it’s the most stressful thing I’ve dealt with yet.

Still, I forgive you, Kiki. Thank you for the persistent slice of childish optimism.

I recommend this film especially to girls young and young at heart. A bit idyllic, maybe, and not without its slow moments, but Kiki is truly a joy to watch.

 

Spirited Away

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As I said above, this film is Alice in Wonderland if it had been written in Japan.

I prefer to watch this one in Japanese, mostly because the main character Chihiro’s English voice actress, while good in her own right, was apparently directed to shout every line with all of the emotion of a tape dispenser. But either way, it’s a good story.

Like Kiki’s Delivery Service, it involves a girl being forced to grow up and learn how to face life’s plentiful cornucopia of difficult decisions and challenges; only this time, it’s forced upon the girl, rather than willingly undertaken. And the world is bigger and far more magical and alien overall.

After watching her parents be transformed into pigs and ending up getting trapped in a world with spirits and demons, Chihiro must find work in a local witch’s bathhouse in order to survive. While there – on top of learning more about the spirit world and overcoming her own fear and confusion – she has to find a way to escape with her parents before they all get served to the surreal and frightening guests as dinner.

The visuals alone are worth the price of admission. While the creatures aren’t as “creative” as Westerners might think (most, if not all, are based on common Japanese folklore), part of the draw is undeniably how “out there” the settings and the characters seem. And I really like the growth of the main character over the course of the story; she started off weak and annoying and then became truly admirable.

 

Castle in the Sky

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A mythical lost city a la Atlantis: The Lost Empire meets kids on an epic adventure to find treasure and save the world. How could you not love it?

Castle in the Sky, also known as Laputa: Castle in the Sky, is pretty basic in execution, but it comes together nicely. The main protagonists and antagonists might be a bit too familiar in their respective generic “good and evilness,” but James Van Der Beek and Mark Hamill have some fun chewing the scenery, and I certainly had fun watching them.

The rest of the voice acting (at least in the Disney dub) ranges from good to barely passable; the latter unfortunately applying to the lead girl Sheeta, played by Anna Paquin, who is bland as toast. But the pirate gang, led by Cloris Leachman as Captain Dola, really shine through the fluid animation and the solid acting behind their mics. I would watch the film for them alone.

Also, because I’m not a fan of the minimalist music and audio of the original dub, I would definitely recommend watching this one in English. Purists may hate it, but look at it this way: without dubs, there wouldn’t be enough draw to bring so much anime state-side, would there? It’s the equivalent of what Marvel movies do for comics overall.

It is a basic story with basic morals, elevated only because of its gorgeous visuals (including Miyazaki’s aircraft designs and the near post-apocalyptic settings), character bonding and interactions, and the lovely score by composer Joe Hisaishi.

 

The Wind Rises

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A slice-of-life style love letter to all things that fly, The Wind Rises is a “based-on-a-true-story” drama about the life of Jiro Horikoshi, an aircraft designer working around the time of WWII. It is the last film Miyazaki made before he retired (again).

This movie is very slow, but you can feel the passion oozing from every pore. Jiro reminds me a lot of both film versions of Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing; quiet, thoughtful, full of love and devotion to his work, though not as noticeably different from his colleagues as those two seemed. The animation and music are standard (read: gorgeous) for Miyazaki films, and the love story is very cute, if a little bland.

 

Howl’s Moving Castle

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Based loosely on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle is a magical coming-of-age adventure for normal girl Sofie and the handsome, but childish wizard Howl. Sofie is cursed by a jealous witch after a chance meeting with Howl, and she sets out to either find him or the witch, hoping one of them can break the spell.

It’s very hard to describe more without spoiling things or hinting at other things. And while I do like it, the story feels a bit clunky, cluttered, and unfocused; it’s only a half-adaptation of its book, I guess because Miyazaki was on a big “war is bad” bender.

Certain elements of the story are given more focus than they need, while other, more interesting or crucial aspects are minimized or left to the wayside. JesuOtaku noticed this trend first, and I’ve since seen it ring true with my male friends: boys’ feeling towards the film are usually somewhere between dislike to “meh.” It tends to be more popular with girls, particularly those who relate to Sofie’s inner struggles.

It’s not a movie I seek out often, and its patchwork plot is kind of a mess, but the voice cast do a very good job with what they were given. Definitely one of Miyazaki’s weaker films, if not the weakest. Personally, I’d recommend the book more.

 

And now we come to the part where I prepare to dodge the rotten tomatoes:

 

Ponyo

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This film is what would happen if you crossed The Little Mermaid with My Neighbor Totoro, then added a pointlessly tacked-on, extremely hollow “world-ending consequence” that goes nowhere. Seriously, the bit at the end was unnecessary for such a small story.

I have a cuteness threshold, and this film more than crosses it. It’s okay; not my taste at best, and pretty annoying at worst. It’s movies like this where Miyazaki’s trend of having people and children underreact to magical phenomena becomes really distracting; only one old woman has a normal person’s reaction to anything (fear and suspicion), and she’s shown to be wrong. That seems like an odd thing to tell kids: “Stranger Danger is total BS! Everything is maaaaaaaaaaggggggggiiiiiccccaaaaaaaaallllll!”

The best part is, as always, the animation and music, but I also love the mother’s crazy driving. It’s just so real, and yet totally hyperbolic. Otherwise, I skip this one whenever possible.

 

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

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This movie, I will watch more often than the two films above it. And yet, it is definitely my second least favorite Miyazaki movie.

I give it props for essentially jump-starting Studio Ghibli, and hey, maybe the manga version is much better and worthy of being toted as one of the greatest manga of all time. I wouldn’t know, having never read it. I do know it took quite a few years to complete.

But Nausicaa the film is too black and white, bordering on Disney-eqsue, and Nausicaa the titular character is, at least in the English dub, a whiny, preachy, bland saint of a girl who virtually all of the other characters admire and side with. Or they don’t, and either become “villains” or misguided, stupid people to be corrected or forgiven by Her Highness of the Bleeding Heart Treehuggery and Whiny Sobs.

This movie is a proto Princess Mononoke; It is every environmental movie shaming you for killing the earth and misunderstanding nature, but it’s hard to get too mad at it because it’s pretty and because Mononoke exists.

But while yes, environmental themes are prevalent throughout Miyazaki’s work, this film’s themes are the oppressive, if not the most pointed as well.

Nausicaa is a bit of a bigger story than Mononoke, but the former’s characters suffer in too confined roles with too heavy-handed morals. I’d have liked this story much more if even one character besides Lord Yupa or Asbel had ever challenged Nausicaa, and the film had sided with them. Even just once.

Or if Kurotawa had more screen time. I want to see him twirl his moustache some more, literally and figuratively.

 

My Neighbor Totoro

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This film gives me diabetes and indigestion worse than Ponyo ever could. I don’t like it.

To be fair, I began by binge watching all of Miyazaki’s movies at fifteen, so when I got to this one, my expectations were beyond high. And I went into it totally blind; I was expecting an adorable but still epic adventure, because I hadn’t yet experienced some of the “slice of life” stories outside of Kiki yet.

So not only did this film annoy me, it was thoroughly underwhelming. It gave me nothing I wanted and less.

I’d like to try to watch it again sometime and give it a fairer shake, now that I am older and have more of a taste for the slower stories with no huge plot, but the little girls constantly running around and screaming and spazing (which is, admittedly, what real kids do) got on my nerves quickly. In real life, little kids do that with no greater point than just having fun, but in a movie, I had hoped it was going to, you know, lead to something. This is a Miyazaki movie, not Barney the Dinosaur with half of its structure and “substance” removed.

It’s great that they’re good kids and they’re having fun, but they’re loud and wild and Mei’s English crying voice sounds as though someone took a cheese grater to my ears. And even worse, it’s just boring. I feel like I’d rather sit staring at a wall and just imagining a random story in my head.

I can understand liking this film if you saw it as a kid, but unlike with Kiki’s Delivery Service, I have no idea how grown adults can watch this and enjoy it as adults, especially those who didn’t grow up with it. And I speak as someone who is very in-tune with her inner child (for reference, I was the kind of kid who could like Barbie, Batman, Disney, and Majora’s Mask all at the same time).

Totoro and his buddies are cute and iconic, sure, but the rest of the film feels like a slightly upscale Peppa Pig, with less educational value.

If somebody could explain it to me, I’d love to discuss it. As it stands, the thing I like most is the totally bs but still more interesting fan theory that Totoro is a god of death. No kidding here.

 

Porco Rosso

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While Howl’s Moving Castle was kind of bad, it was interesting and had elements that would have made a much better movie. Porco Rosso has plenty of the latter; an animal transformation, air pirates, a wise cracking pilot, etc. What the film lacks is pacing and interest. I don’t remember pretty much anything from this movie, and I definitely don’t feel like breaking it out again any time soon to find out.

I don’t think it’s bad, and I don’t have any particular animosity towards it. But I think most critics agree that bad isn’t always a problem. Being dull is a major problem, and that’s what this film was for me; boring and barely memorable.

If The Wind Rises made me care more about aircrafts and gave me a slow-paced, slice of life story, and Castle in the Sky gave me lovable, goofy air pirates, then this movie should have been able to and then some. How does one manage to make those elements, plus one pig-man bounty hunter seeking redemption, boring?

Maybe I’ll watch it again sometime and my opinion will change, but for now, this film is the “meh-est of the meh.” At least I can debate with Totoro fans; it’s not just the mascot of Studio Ghibli as a whole, it’s the flagrant attention whore of Ghibli as well. I haven’t even met any self-proclaimed Porco Rosso fans or defenders, and I don’t know where to look beyond blindly searching Google for forums.

Thankfully, for myself and them, I don’t really care enough to.

 

*All pictures, video clips, and other media belong to their respective owners. None of the images or sounds belong to me.

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