Famed and much beloved Japanese director of animation, Hayao Miyazaki, turns 75 this week, as of January 5th, with a grand total of eleven feature films under his belt, and a career upon which he can look back fondly into perpetuity. The co-founder of the seminal animation studio of the twentieth century, Studio Ghibli, has earned his place at the very top of the pack when it comes to being an animated filmmaker whose films are oftentimes better than their live action competition, with his studio just as good as Pixar Animation Studios in the United States and Aardman Studios in the United Kingdom.
On this most momentous of occasions for the celebration of both foreign cinema and indispensable technique in the ever popular anime filmmaking sub-genre, it becomes appropriate, nay necessary, to look back at Miyazaki’s entire filmography as a director. So sit back, relax, and let all of the magic, wonder, and seemingly effortless majesty of this particular filmmaker’s filmography wash over you:
The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
Perhaps the one film in his entire filmography that doesn’t quiet fit with the other productions that surround it, Miyazaki’s directorial debut sees a much younger director finding his footing in the industry. Based on a preexisting independent property from popular manga artist Kazuhiko Katõ, otherwise known as “Monkey Punch,” The Castle of Cagliostro borrows from the characters and world of Lupin III, a Japanese descendant of the legendary Frenchman of literary repute, namely French novelist Maurice LeBlanc’s Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Thief. While the film is remarkably well paced and displays a lot of its director’s skill as a master animator, it also rings a little hollow, and it wouldn’t be until the director’s second major work that the world would see a genuine picture as directed by the man behind Studio Ghibli.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Based on his popular manga series of the same name, Miyazaki’s sophomore outing saw the director entering into a feature length production consisting entirely of his own ideas and original characters. The world of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is brimming with color, life, and imaginative powers that would come to define the entire Studio Ghibli brand, and may be one of Miyazaki’s most unfiltered expressions of his own creative genius. The film often feels a little stunted in comparison to some of his other works, as its core narrative serves to tell only a small portion of his seven volume manga series upon which it is based, though much of the direcor’s socio-political leanings are on full display here, even if they came into fuller glory, both explicitly and implicitly, in later works.
Castle in the Sky (1986)
Miyazaki’s third feature film, the director traded in a lot of the political mysticism that sometimes plagued his last directorial outing, and offered a more straight forward fantasy narrative seemingly more in line with the classic children’s fables of Hans Christian Andersen. Featuring a whirlwind, romantic adventure of innocence lost and subsequently regain through the heroic feats of the film’s featured protagonists, and erstwhile young lovers, Castle in the Sky is perhaps Miyazaki’s first fully-formed original film that still stands as one of the filmmakers greatest, and perhaps most overlooked, works of his entire career. Featuring performances from actors as great as Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek, Cloris Leachman, Mandy Patinkin, and Mark Hamill behind the camera as featured on the American voice cast, Miyazaki’s third film is a quaintly remarkable adventure that is as sure to please viewers of all ages now as it was nearly thirty years ago.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Standing in as the flagship product and face of Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s feature of 1988 created a character and world that has been well neigh impossible to abandon in the intervening twenty-odd years since the film’s initial release. In My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki is at his most whimsically child-like, conjuring a world of pure imagination and beauty that teems with the fantasies of innocence most familiar to fans of the film’s titular woodland creature. The way in which the film seamlessly weaves a narrative of both personal and cultural meditation on loss and industrialization into what is an essentially fanciful, bedtime story is still unimpeachably brilliant, and the film still stands as indispensably necessary viewing to anyone who wishes to claim familiarity with animated feature films of the past quarter-century.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
In what is perhaps one of Miyazaki’s most unexpectedly delightful detours in a career that has otherwise built upon past successes, his 1989 film based on the 1985 Eiko Kadono novel of the same name is a bit of a diamond in the rough. Focusing the trials and tribulations of a young witch just coming into a full mastery of her own powers, Kiki’s Delivery Service is an off-brand, bildungsroman that shows off several feminist tropes that would continue to populate Miyazaki’s later films in characters that were equally unhindered by gender roles and expectations. Despite what at first feels like self-confidence and unearned individualism, Miyazaki’s teenage witch is still a heroine of the Studio Ghibli camp well worth revisiting.
Porco Rosso (1992)
Part revisionist take on the key plot points of Beauty and the Beast and part World War I fantasy adventure, Miyazaki’s first film about an ace fighter pilot is also one of the director’s most idiosyncratic works to date. Porco Rosso plays a little like a classic, mid-twentieth century European romance, and flies by on the boldness of said curious direction in spades. The way in which the magical elements of the film’s core narrative interweave with Miyazaki’s more personal interests and investments in aviation and post-war politics in general, make for one of the director’s greatest, and without a doubt most underappreciated, films ever made. Backed up by the voice of comic actor and Oscar-nominated lead performer Michael Keaton, as featured on the American voice cast, Miyazaki’s high-flying, international tale of love, mystery, and piracy is an adventure from Studio Ghibli that fans should be sure not to miss.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Miyazaki’s seventh feature film of 1997 was initially thought to be the director’s last, and as such it is still one of his greatest, most fantastically imagined, and rhetorically sound films of his entire career. Princess Mononoke is centered around an ecological epic that branches out of the past and into the present in ways that are unpredictable in their aesthetic fluidity and breadth of thematic scope. It still feels like the first time whenever you watch this particular film in the Studio Ghibili canon, and as such it could be considered the very best Miyazaki film to date. Thankfully, Miyazaki went on to produce four subsequent features after his 1997 opus, with each one building upon the mastery most clearly displayed and established in this fine piece of moviemaking history.
Spirited Away (2001)
Like Castle in the Sky and My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki’s 2001 feature film is a story akin to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as all three movies feature female protagonists engrossed with a world of pure imaginative fantasy with clear thematic ties to the one that viewers know so well in real life. In Spirited Away, Chihiro is a young girl who is enlisted into servitude at a bathhouse inhabited by the spirits that lie beneath and within the natural world, and finds herself in the process of her misadventures within said wonderland. Upon the conclusion of the film, the viewer is left pondering over whether or not anything they have just seen actually occurred, or was merely a daydream enacted upon the fevered mind of a young girl in a state of emotional turmoil and social transition. Either way, Miyazaki’s eighth feature is perhaps the director’s greatest work to date, despite being succeeded by three further works of comparable skill and beauty.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Based on the contemporary children’s fantasy novel of the same name by English author Diana Wynne Jones, Miyazaki’s 2004 working of contemporary fantasy is one of the director’s most immersive works of cinematic majesty to date. Howl’s Moving Castle is notable not only for its clever employment of the very same sort of bildungsroman previously engaged to full effect in Kiki’s Delivery Service, but also offers a certain novelty in the telling of its own story concerning an old witch and a young wizard, and the young, unassuming girl who soon finds herself in a position of power and dominance over the two of them. The film is supported by strong performances throughout, particularly from Christian Bale, Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall, and Emily Mortimer as featured on the American voice cast, and serves to stand as what may very well be Miyazaki’s last great epic fantasy, and an indispensable late entry in the seminal filmmaker’s collected body of work.
Miyazaki’s 2008 feature film can be seen largely as a return to the child-like whimsy of My Neighbor Totoro, or even a more literal translation of one of the many Hans Christian Andersen stories that Castle in the Sky only ever intimated thematically. Ponyo is a beat-for-beat narrative retelling of The Little Mermaid that offers plenty of the director’s stereotypically colorful landscapes and original character designs, and even features the likes of actors Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Tina Fey, and Lily Tomlin, as featured on the American voice cast, who collectively imbue the film with plenty of ingenuity and individual personality. However, even when the film generates genuinely surprising cinematic tableaux and vistas previously unexplored in Miyazaki’s larger filmography, it falls short of much of the originality that had previously served to define the films of Studio Ghibli’s co-founder’s more personally told pieces of cinematic invention, and feels out of place alongside the director’s other later and greater works.
The Wind Rises (2013)
The Wind Rises stands as Miyazaki’s last directorial work, and may very well go down as the final masterpiece from the filmmaker at the very height of his creative powers. Like Porco Rosso, Miyazaki’s eleventh directorial effort is part wartime drama and part love letter to the director’s other life’s passion for the art and majesty of aviation. The film tells fictionalized account of real-life World War II military aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, who was tasked with designing fighter planes for the Germans despite his own personally held views against violence of any kind. If this picture proves to be Miyazaki’s last work, so be it, as it would be hard to imagine the director producing another work half as personally effusive and aesthetically realized as this one is, making it a monumental achievement in contemporary animation.