From Wolf Gods to Moving Castles, A Beginner’s Guide to the World of Hayao Miyazaki
At Pixar, when we have a problem and we can't seem to solve it, we often take a laser disc of one of Mr. Miyazaki's films and look at a scene in our screening room for a shot of inspiration. And it always works! We come away amazed and inspired. ‘Toy Story’ owes a huge debt of gratitude to the films of Mr. Miyazaki.
That’s Pixar head honcho John Lasseter raving about one of his own animation idols, Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. Lasseter’s not alone. Imaginative storytellers like Guillermo del Toro show obvious love for Miyazaki’s mystical creations with their own features. Watch ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ after binging on Miyazaki films, and you’ll think the magna master co-wrote del Toro’s script.
Miyazaki’s boundlessly stimulating animated films – produced under the Studio Ghibli banner – have influenced television shows, video games, comics and more. And yet, it’s very possible that casual animation audiences might not even know his name, his films or the power he has exerted on the colorful movies that they watch.
With Miyazaki’s latest (and now final) feature, ‘The Wind Rises,’ heading to theaters this fall, we wanted to help you brush up on the artist’s filmography. For those still unfamiliar with his work, here's a film-by-film introduction to some of Miyazaki’s better-known features.
Miyazaki’s films fall into one of two categories: (1) Simplified, emotional journeys tailored to open-minded children, and (2) wondrously overstuffed mosaics of mysticism and spirituality that sacrifice logic for imagination and social messages. ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ belongs to the former camp. It tells a streamlined story of a father and two daughters moving out to a home in the country so they can be closer to the girls’ mother, who is hospitalized. While exploring the grounds, the girls routinely encounter bizarre woodland creatures, namely the different-sized Totoros. An early Ghibli film, ‘Totoro’ has become the trademark of the studio, appearing amidst the opening credits of each feature. It’s the ideal introduction to Miyazaki – bright, colorful, warm and just strange enough to hint at what’s in store the deeper you get into his work.
Miyazaki, in several of his films, is drawn to the story of a young protagonist (often female) moving to an unfamiliar location, compelled to escape from perceived dangers and fears. Ten-year-old Chihiro Ogino’s journey in ‘Spirited Away’ begins almost immediately, as her and her parents encounter an unusual entrance in the middle of the road and are pulled into a magical world centered around a bathhouse for spirits. Freed from the confines of reality, Miyazaki is able to illustrate endlessly entertaining creatures (both harmful and helpful) who interact with Chihiro as she fights to recross a mysterious river and reunite with her parents ... who have been transfigured into massive pigs. ‘Spirited Away’ earned Miyazaki his first and only Oscar for Best Animated Feature and is considered by many to be the best of his “unhinged” animated features.
Miyazaki’s fantasy epic. Serious, mature and, as a result, more accessible, ‘Princess Mononoke’ introduces another popular theme from Miyazaki’s resume: the ongoing battle waged between nature and man. Here, a demonically infected warrior named Ashitaka (Billy Crudup) embarks on a journey to find a cure. Along the way, he’s caught up in a large-scale battle between human villagers and a clan of animal gods led by the title character (Claire Danes).The exciting combat saga puts Miyazaki’s enchanting imagination in service of an unexpectedly violent feature, with the director embracing the danger (and anger) that’s inherent in his war story. ‘Princess Mononoke’ also receives credit for advancing the use of CGI in animation. As summed up by Kenneth Turan in his L.A. Times review, this movie offers “animation as we’ve not experienced it before.”
We're back to family-friendly entertainment, as Miyazaki adapts Eiko Kadono’s children’s novel of the same name into a wondrous story of independence and of transitioning into adulthood. Kiki (voiced by Kristen Dunst in Disney’s English-language dub) is a 13-year-old witch who moves into the big city to begin training for her “adult” life. She encounters a few hardships but carves out a niche as a flying delivery person for a nearby bakery. When Walt Disney Studios began packaging Miyazaki’s films through a distribution partnership with the director’s Studio Ghibli, ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ was the first film they chose to show. Understandable, given how it expertly presents Miyazaki’s rich, water-color animation in a recognizable story of personal growth to which audiences of all ages can relate. The final sequence, an aerial rescue of Kiki’s close friend Tombo, is breathtaking.
Crystal-craving airborne pirates? Magical kingdoms concealed by thunderstorms? Impossible missions to reach unchartered lands? ‘Castle in the Sky’ is another of Miyazaki’s compelling man-destroying-nature movies with an action-packed plot the director wraps around yet another headstrong female protagonist. From its riveting opening sequence – where Sheeta (Anna Paquin) escapes from a large airship – through the bombastic finale, ‘Castle’ is an empowering fantasy adventure that’s both futuristic and antique, blessed with a strong storyline and a touchingly epic score by Miyazaki’s long-time composer, Joe Hisaishi.
If there’s anything Miyazaki loves more than the emotional struggles of pre-teen Japanese girls, it’s elaborate fantasy epics set in war-torn environments. Seeds of ‘Princess Mononoke’ can be found in ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,’ an early Miyazaki effort (from 1984) that also follows a young warrior caught in a battle between a Japanese kingdom and a race of jungle creatures – in this case, mutant insects. A little heavy-handed in its message uniting man with Mother Nature, ‘Nausicaa’ is also one to watch later on in your Miyazaki journeys because of its basic, rudimentary animation techniques, which were age appropriate in 1984. Animation eventually would catch up with Miyazaki’s imagination. It just hadn’t happened yet by the time he released ‘Nausicaa.’
And now for something completely different. Miyazaki tries his hand at making a classic Humphrey Bogart spy thriller with ‘Porco Rosso,’ adding dashes of Herge’s ‘Tintin,’ Nino Pagot’s ‘The Dynamite Brothers’ and Steven Spielberg’s ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ With all of these references on display (and countless others, undoubtedly), ‘Porco’ doesn’t feel quite as fresh and original as Miyazaki’s finest, even though it’s centered around a no-nonsense, WWI fighter pilot (voiced by Michael Keaton, no less) who’s cursed to wear the face of a pig. Political and social commentary can be found beneath the surface of ‘Porco,’ but Miyazaki just seems to be blowing off steam with a stripped-down, fun bounty-hunter thriller that exists as a throwback to serial pictures of our youth.
‘Ponyo,’ Miyazaki’s latest feature, took a beating from the director’s faithful fans for being too simplistic and soft, with an obvious aim at entertaining the youngest of audience members. Taking some inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid,’ it tells the tale of a goldfish who dreams of becoming a human girl after befriending a 5-year-old boy. Critics championed the film, as they do most of Miyazaki’s movies, with the late Roger Ebert calling it “magical.” But if you are going to start your children on a diet of Miyazaki, launch that feast with ‘Totoro’ and save the visually spectacular, but lightweight ‘Ponyo’ for a later date.
'Howl's Moving Castle' is easily my least favorite of Miyazaki’s films, despite its gorgeous visuals and boundless stretches of imagination. Here’s where I begin to fall out of line with Miyazaki enthusiasts, many of whom don’t mind when the director goes “too weird” in search of fantastic animation. To me, ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ has no real story to latch on to, no through-line we’re asked to follow as the animator guides us across admittedly stimulating worlds that are rich in detail. Based on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, ‘Howl’s’ leaves the plains of reality almost immediately, transforming, via a witch's curse, a teenaged hat maker into a 90-year-old woman who must then embark on a journey to restore her youth. The 2004 feature recycles recognizable elements from ‘Castle in the Sky,’ ‘Princess Mononoke,’ ‘Spirited Away’ and more. With so many other breathtaking Miyazaki movies, the convoluted ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ should be an afterthought in your Miyazaki adventures.