Director Retrospective: Hayao Miyazaki
So…for this next installment of my ongoing “Director Retrospective” project, we’re doing something a bit different. Per a suggestion from a friend of mine, we’re looking at (a.) a foreign-film director, (b.) an animated-film director, & (c.) a director whose work I was totally unfamiliar with. [Actually…I’d seen one of his movies before, but it had been so long that I literally remembered NOTHING about it.] For this installment, I’m looking at works by the incredibly influential and much-loved director Hayao Miyazaki.
The Big List
Thus far, I’ve seen all 11 feature-length films by Miyazaki. Here’s the list: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979); Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984); Castle in the Sky (1986); My Neighbor Totoro (1988); Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989); Porco Rosso (1992); Princess Mononoke (1997); Spirited Away (2001); Howl’s Moving Castle (2004); Ponyo (2008); The Wind Rises (2013).
The Top Five
Princess Mononoke (1997) – Let’s get this out of the way: San (i.e. “Princess Mononoke) is, without a doubt, one of the best all-time bad-ass bitches to have ever graced the screen. Aside from being raised by wolves (LITERALLY), she has no problem cutting throats first and asking questions later. She is loyal, courageous, tough-as-nails, etc. She is the person we all want to be when we grow up. Now that we’ve established that, let’s talk about the rest of Miyazaki’s film, Princess Mononoke. In terms of plot, a young man named Ashitaka is wounded by a cursed boar and must, therefore, travel in search of a cure for his condition. During his travels, Ashitaka meets a mercenary named Jigo who has been hired by the emperor to acquire the head of the deer-god (which he believes can grant one immortality); Ashitaka also becomes embroiled in a local conflict between a mining community (led by Lady Eboshi) and a wolf-god and her cubs, which includes her human-adoptee San. With the exception of Billy Bob Thornton who I feel was miscast as Jigo, the voice-acting here is very strong with performances from Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Gillian Anderson, and Keith David (among others). And the animation…ooh boy! Princess Mononoke is definitely NOT for kids, unless you want to creep them out — i.e. there is a lot (a LOT!) of blood here and some pretty violent action scenes (e.g. both dismemberment and decapitation abound here). Still, the animation quality is absolutely superb, and there are many scenes — e.g. from Ashitaka’s opening boar fight to San’s assault on the mining fort to Lord Okkoto’s blood-rage, etc. — that will almost certainly leave an imprint on the viewer. Like a lot of Miyazaki’s other work, there seems to be a strong environmental message here; however, his exploration is more nuanced and complicated in this film, as you can sorta see the arguments from both sides (i.e. from the human workers and the nature gods). Animation or not, simply put: Princess Mononoke is one of the best fantasy-genre films ever made. Period.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) – Arguably Miyazaki’s most “famous” film today (perhaps because its characters came to represent not only this movie but also Studio Ghibli as well), My Neighbor Totoro is an absolute DELIGHT of a film. The plot involves a family (Professor Kusakabe and his young daughters, Satsuki and Mei) who relocate to the country because the girls’ mother has been moved to a nearby hospital for treatment. [It’s unclear to me and I don’t quite recall if the mother’s condition is ever fully explained — only that she’s been sick for quite some time and the girls are starting to doubt their father’s assurances that she’ll be coming home soon.] Upon exploring their new home, the girls discover a “troll” (Totoro) or, really, a forest-god living in an enormous tree located next to their property. Aside from amazing animation which one comes to expect from Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, My Neighbor Totoro features some unique and memorable creature design in the shape of the aforementioned Totoro (who sorta looks like a cross between a cat and a rabbit, flies around on a spinning top, naps a lot in the tree, and bellows these epic yawps) and another minor creature called “Cat-Bus.” [If you’re wondering what “Cat-Bus” looks like, well…it’s a giant cat that’s also a bus that the children can ride inside. Cat-Bus is amaaaaaaaazing! Basically the Cheshire Cat + Public Transportation.] In terms of voice-acting, real-life sisters Dakota Fanning and Elle Fanning play the fictional sisters (Satsuki and Mei, respectively), and Tim Daly provides a calm and very empathetic — almost Atticus Finch-like — presence as the father (Prof. Kusakabe). On the surface, one can watch My Neighbor Totoro as a weird kids’ film; but, upon closer examination, a lot of messy and complicated coming-of-age issues are here as well — particularly things like burgeoning sexuality, grief/anxiety, uncertainty and sadness and joy, etc. Apparently, this is one of Miyazaki’s most personal movies, as his family had to move to the country when he was a boy because his mother was sick with, I believe, tuberculosis. And those emotions really come through, as this feels like a deeply personal story to which fantastical elements have been added. One that everyone should watch at some point — especially those interested in coming-of-age stories and/or children’s literature.
The Wind Rises (2013) – Officially (not officially) Miyazaki’s “final” film, The Wind Rises tells the story of a young man named Jiro Horikoshi, who is obsessed with flight and with planes. However, Jiro also has very bad eyesight, so he knows that he’ll never be a pilot. Instead, spurred by a mystical dream that he has in which a famous Italian plane designer encourages him, he completely dedicates his entire life into his work of designing the best possible airplane that the world has ever seen. [He goes on to design the well-known “Zero” model that Japan used during WWII, even though Jiro himself was pretty staunchly opposed to the war and preferred for his planes to be used for other reasons that would exemplify their artfulness and beauty.] Perhaps because it’s based on a true story, The Wind Rises is easily the most “realistic” of Miyazaki’s films, and it’s also one of his most emotionally stirring. Once again, the cast here is excellent and many of them fully embody these characters that they’re portraying — e.g. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mae Whitman, Stanley Tucci, John Krasinski, Martin Short, Mandy Patinkin, Emily Blunt, William H. Macy, and Werner Herzog (!!!!!!). This is a strange movie to talk about — not because of the plot but because of the complexity of feeling at work within the film. In terms of genre, this is a biopic, a war-film, a romance, etc.; but all of those classifications ultimately seem too reductive for this film. As time passes and you see Jiro’s evolution from a young child to a young engineer to a genius designer to a loving husband, you do really come to root for this character and to experience both those moments of exhilaration and joy as well as moments of trauma and heartbreak. While it’s Miyazaki’s “last” film, don’t put too much stock in that, as his last 4-5 films have supposedly been, according to the director himself, his “last” film. [In fact, a quick IMDB look-up shows that he’s already got another movie in pre-production. Ha ha!] Anyway…I think this movie is grossly underrated. It was nominated for the “Best Animated Film” Academy Award upon release but lost to Frozen, a film that’s not nearly as good as this one. [Nothing against Frozen. I liked that movie too, and it had the benefit of being a cultural phenomenon. But The Wind Rises, as a film, is far more ambitious and far better.] This is one that everyone should watch, even if you don’t care at all about animation — a deeply, deeply human work.
Porco Rosso (1992) – After I decided on my “Top Five” picks, I went and checked out some lists to see how others tend to rank Miyazaki’s films. Interestingly, Porco Rosso seems to usually fall in the bottom-half of Miyazaki’s work; however, I have to say that I totally dug it. Taking place in the time-period after World War I but before World War II, Porco Rosso tells the story of a legendary pilot who makes money by working as a mercenary of sorts as he flies around and foils various nefarious plots by pirates. There’s a love story here, as well as a competition between a couple pilots, a young pretentious engineer eager to leave home, etc. etc. It’s basically Miyazaki’s Casablanca-type noir(ish) film with planes. Oh…and the main character has a pig face. Whaaaaaat?! Yeah…everything about this movie is pretty realistic except for the fact that Marco (a.k.a. Porco Rosso, a.k.a. “The Crimson Pig”) has been cursed to live the rest of his life with a pig’s face. Honestly…I’m not even sure why he was cursed or how all that came to be. Not sure if the film even takes the time to explain it. But it doesn’t matter — just go with it. Dude has a pig’s face and is still an amazing pilot, and he don’t give no fucks. (Or does he?) The voice acting here is good — particularly from Michael Keaton (as Porco Rosso) and Brad Garrett (as the Pirate Boss, in what is just PERFECT casting for this role). The various dog-fights are legitimately fantastic and are some of the best of their kind in the history of film, animated or otherwise. A funny and action-packed film that hums along with very little excess fat on the script. Interestingly, this movie also has perhaps the most emotionally affective scene — at least for me — in all Miyazaki’s work when Porco is describing a near-death vision that he had of all his pilot-friends ascending to the heavens to join the dead who circle the earth. (It’s a difficult scene to describe and I’m not doing it justice here, but it’s an extremely sad, moving scene.) On another level, there are interesting interrogations of the importance of honor and also the grieving process. Overall, Porco Rosso is just a fun, engaging, weird, surprising, stylized period-film that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. Highly underrated.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) – Earlier, I mentioned that My Neighbor Totoro might be Miyazaki’s most “famous” film; however, while that film is probably better loved among Studio Ghibli fans, I actually think that Howl’s Moving Castle is probably a better-known and more “famous” film among the casual public — i.e. it’s likely been seen by more people simply because it was more readily available in the U.S. than some of Miyazaki’s earlier works. Based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle follows a young woman (Sophie) who meets a mysterious wizard (Howl) and then subsequently a jealous witch (The Witch of the Waste), who places a spell on Sophie that transforms her into an old woman but without the ability to reveal her condition to others. The “old” Sophie takes refuge with Howl and a cast of other characters (Calcifer, Markl, and Turniphead) in his magical moving home. Things escalate: another more powerful sorceress (Madame Suliman) is trying to capture Howl, two warring nations attempt to conscript wizards and witches into their conflict, Howl is slowly succumbing to a curse that is transforming him into a giant bird-beast, yada yada yada. On the one hand, Howl’s Moving Castle is a “love story” at heart, so you can sorta predict where things are going and how it’ll all wrap up. However, it still deserves mention because of its steam-punk aesthetic (something that Miyazaki uses in several works), its fantastic designs (e.g. the moving castle, the blob men, the feathered Howl, and so on), and the fact that it features, arguably, the richest and most memorable ensemble of characters in Miyazaki’s larger oeuvre. [Even the supporting characters here — like Calcifer, Markl, Turnip, The Witch of the Waste, etc. — feel very well-defined in their personalities and what they bring to the table in terms of the narrative.] Although I’m not crazy about Christian Bale’s voice-work as Howl and the accents of young/old Sophie (Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons, respectively) sound quite different to me, the rest of the cast is strong — particularly Billy Crystal as Calcifer, Lauren Bacall as The Witch of the Waste, Blythe Danner as Madame Suliman, and Josh Hutcherson as Markl. (To be totally fair, I actually think that Jean Simmons’s voice-work here is really good too; there just seems to be some dissonance between her version of the character and Mortimer’s version, which is weird since they’re the same character.) If you don’t scrutinize Howl’s Moving Castle too much and just roll with the narrative, then I think you can appreciate those fantastic design-elements and the excellent action sequences.
The Underrated One
Honestly, I think that either Porco Rosso or The Wind Rises is probably Miyazaki’s most “underrated” work; however, I’ve already discussed them above so I’ll go in a different direction here. Some might notice that I’ve not talked about Spirited Away yet, which might seem odd considering that it’s the only film of his that’s won an Academy Award for Best Animated Film. [Personally, while Spirited Away is a solid film, I do think it’s a tad overrated among his larger filmography — it’s got some legit WEIRD stuff going on but the characters are a bit annoying and the story just isn’t quite as interesting or the animation as compelling as much of his other work. I think his film The Wind Rises, which was also nominated upon its release, was more deserving of the Academy Award — though it lost to Frozen that year.] Instead, my pick for this category is a film that’s maybe a little less familiar to the uninitiated, Miyazaki’s second work: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984). While I think it’s not as polished or as fully realized as some of his other pieces, it does benefit from a good story and interesting themes. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind imagines a post-apocalyptic future where the natural world has created a “toxic jungle” that is slowly spreading poisonous spores and is populated by giant insects. Princess Nausicaa is a young woman who lives in an isolated village that has taken a very respectful stance toward the natural world and, as a result, Nausicaa develops all sorts of skills and techniques to help her survive in this world and to co-exist with nature. Unfortunately, a conflict between two other warring nations brings trouble to Nausicaa’s doorstep, and she must find a way to keep humanity from destroying itself via the wrath of overwhelming natural forces. The voice acting is, again, very strong here with Alison Lohman, Patrick Stewart, Uma Thurman, Shia LaBeouf, and Edward James Olmos leading the way. [Really…that’s one thing that I’ve really admired about all these films. Not sure if it’s the connection that Studio Ghibli has with Disney, but the English-adaptations of these movies feature, for the most part, very fine voice work and seem to attract pretty well-known talent.] The world building here is well executed and the creature designs — particularly with the giant, terrifying Ohmu bugs — is superb. Moreover, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind features probably my favorite Ghibli score, one that truly evokes an epic feeling to match the visual elements. [The film really seems like a surprising mash-up of the creatures of Dune + the special youngster of Star Wars + the environmental message of The Lord of the Rings, etc. etc.] And, most interesting in terms of the overall filmography, Nausicaa is the film where we really see the stylistic and thematic interests emerge that will come to define Miyazaki’s aesthetic in his subsequent works: young heroes/heroines, humanity’s relationship to nature, the beauty/freedom of flight, a mixture of future time-period with antiquated tech/clothing, and so on. An incredibly ambitious sci-fi fantasy film and especially impressive for such an early directorial effort.
The One to Avoid
Let me first say that I don’t think there’s actually a “bad” Miyazaki film; they’re all very well-made and enjoyable in one way or another. That said, there were a few that I wasn’t as interested in. The Castle of Cagliostro is often mentioned as Miyazaki’s “worst” film because it’s his first one. However, while it’s rough around the edges and its animation isn’t as mindblowing as some of his other work, it’s still a fun watch and features some really good action scenes. Castle in the Sky didn’t really do much for me, though I know that a lot of other people really like that movie. Perhaps it boiled down to when I watched this film, as I needed a break from another movie about kids, pirates, flying, etc. and needed something a little more intense than what this movie provided. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a solid movie, but, again, it wasn’t necessarily my personal cup-of-tea. But for my pick here, I’m going with Ponyo (2008). There’s some really nice animation at work here, especially in a couple of the bigger action scenes; however, this film felt primarily (maybe exclusively?) aimed for children. Nothing wrong with that obviously — I just would’ve preferred more dimensions with which to engage on an adult-level. Good cast though with Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Betty White, Cloris Leachman, etc. It’s sort of a Little Mermaid type story but with more of an emphasis on balance among humans and nature, etc. etc. Again…not a bad flick — just not one that I’d probably watch again. To be totally honest, I’d encourage anyone to watch all of Miyazaki’s films; but, if you had to skip one (for whatever reason), I think Ponyo would be one that you could probably get by OK without having seen. *shrug*
The Place to Start
So…I know that I just criticized Ponyo (and even Kiki’s Delivery Service) for being too aimed at kids. Therefore, it’s a little hypocritical for me to recommend starting with another Miyazaki movie that’s very kid-friendly: My Neighbor Totoro. But despite it’s kid-friendly quality, there’s another emotional layer here — one dealing with the sickness and eventual death of loved ones and the loneliness of grief in childhood — that just really resonated with me in a way that those other aforementioned films didn’t. My Neighbor Totoro also has the benefit of introducing a couple of instantly iconic creatures (i.e. Totoro & Cat-Bus) that you won’t be able to forget, all while providing some great drama, comedy, and animation. Starting with My Neighbor Totoro will acclimate you to the Studio Ghibli style, and then you can jump into darker fare like Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, or Spirited Away. I think that a film like The Wind Rises — which I adored — should probably be saved for later in the process. (It isn’t as visually adult as some of those other films; but it’s probably the most emotionally mature film in Miyazaki’s oeuvre and takes some building up to.) But yeah…My Neighbor Totoro is a good, safe place to begin exploring and then go from there.
The Final Word
I’m very grateful that a friend of mine recommended that I do a retrospective on the works of Hayao Miyazaki. While I do enjoy and appreciate animation, I have to admit that I’m certainly not an “expert” on that mode of filmmaking. I’d always heard of Miyazaki — and I’d even seen Howl’s Moving Castle before, though I didn’t really remember it at all — but I’d never sought out his movies. When you watch a bunch of his films, there are definitely some recurring themes and interests that keep popping up: flight, nature, technology, steam-punk, etc. etc. He’s often referred to by some as “Japan’s Walt Disney.” While I “get” that comparison (after all, he also does the thing where most of his movies follow a young heroine on an adventure of danger and discovery, etc.) and while I think that it’s meant to be praise, I also feel like it doesn’t quite give Miyazaki the full credit he deserves. Miyazaki isn’t Disney; Miyazaki is Miyazaki. He’s a truly, truly revolutionary director with a composite style and aesthetic that feels distinct and memorable. [That’s not a knock on Disney Studios. Overall, I tend to like most of their movies too — I just think it’s of limited use to analogize the two when they’re really their own thing.] What results is an amazing filmography that firmly cements Miyazaki as one of the greatest directors of all time.