Miyazaki: Master of Animation, Pt. 1

“It’s just a wonderful world that (Miyazaki) creates that’s just so different from anything you see out there today.” – Frank Marshall, Executive Producer, “Ponyo” English language version

Totoro toys

In my review of “Ponyo” earlier this week I mentioned that Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film, though excellent, might be a little off-putting to those who haven’t seen any of the Japanese animation master’s other films.

I decided to compile a list, complete with descriptions/recommendations, of all of Miyazaki’s films (available Stateside on Disney DVD) and his involvement in them, which almost always includes him being a main animator. At the end of this two-part list I’ll summarize why I think Miyazaki is the single greatest living animator today.

Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostrio (1979; adapted and directed by Miyazaki): An unverified quote in some reviews of the film says that Steven Spielberg considers “Lupin III” one of the greatest adventure movies of all time. While I’m not convinced of that statement’s authenticity, I will assert that it is a spirited romp: part heist, part action/adventure, and part fantastical mystery. It follows a popular figure in Japanese animation, master thief Lupin III, as he becomes embroiled in a greedy noble’s quest for a fabled treasure. The plot’s a bit complex for younger children, but it’ll make a great movie night for a family with older kids.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984; written and directed by Miyazaki): While the themes and general story of
“Nausicaa” are revisited and done better in later Miyazaki films, there’s still a lot to love about this film. It’s the first time (one of many to come) that Miyazaki presents a strong heroine, and displays his seemingly effortless ability to weave an environmental message into the plot without being too preachy. It’s a sprawling post-apocalyptic fantasy that contains a few surprises to the genre, but yet again its complexities make it more appropriate for a slightly older audience.

Castle in the Sky (1986; written and directed by Miyazaki): Here Miyazaki turns the Atlantis myth on its head, with villagers telling tales of and air pirates searching for the mythic Laputa, city in the sky. It stars Pazu, a fiercely independent but kind young boy who crosses paths with Sheeta, an enigmatic girl with a connection to Laputa. The two of them must evade the forces chasing Sheeta and unlock the secret of Laputa once and for all. “Castle in the Sky” is a great epic fantasy for animation fans at any age.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988; written and directed by Miyazaki): Considered by many to be Miyazaki’s masterpiece, “My Neighbor Totoro” tells the story of two young sisters who move with their father into the Japanese countryside, closer to the hospital where their ailing mother resides. Satsuki and her toddler sister Mei encounter friendly nature spirits, from shy dust mites to the huggable giant Totoro. This movie is like a warm mug of cocoa; it warms you up from the inside out. Though intended for a young audience, anyone can enjoy this film. Parents planning on taking their kids to see “Toy Story 3” this June should watch “Totoro” with their children first, as its title character will make a brief appearance in “Toy Story 3.”

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989; adapted and directed by Miyazaki): Based on the novel by Eiko Kadono, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is one of the first films that shows what a profound influence German architecture must have had on Miyazaki’s imagination. The castle in “Lupin III” is more European than Japanese, but the village Kiki chooses as her own in this film, especially the bakery she lives above, is distinctly Germanic. Because of that, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is instantly accessible for American audiences. This is a sweet coming of age story about a young witch that is perfect for preteens.

Porco Rosso (1992; written and directed by Miyazaki): This is one of Miyazaki’s more bizarre films, as it’s about dogfighting (of the aircraft variety) in the Mediterranean between the two World Wars, but its lead is a pig. More specifically, the protagonist is a pilot under an unspecified curse leaving him with appearance of an anthropomorphic pig. If you can get past that, however, “Porco Rosso” is a gem, one of Miyazaki’s most inimitable and playful films, great for any age.

On Friday I’ll wrap up my list of Miyazaki’s work and examine what makes him such a fantastic artist and movie maker.

Related Articles:

Review: Kiki’s Delivery Service

Ponyo Makes a Splash on DVD

Pushing “Up” into New Territory

Would You Let Your Preschooler Watch Violent Television?

Inside the Disney Limbo

“Toy Story” and “E.T.” Ready to Return to the Big Screen

*(This image by Shadowgate is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.)