Well, faithful Vice-squad, this week we're throwing caution to the wind, spitting in the face of common sense and doing the impossible... we're ranking the best of Miyazaki's movies!
One of the great things about this man’s filmography is that it speaks to everyone a bit differently. Ask any one of your nerdy friends, and they’ll all be sure to have completely different opinions about its highs and lows.
So, while I’m usually pretty confident in my choices for the TOP 5, this week, though, I'm welcoming dissenting opinions. For once, you may actually be right when you inevitably disagree with me!
NUMBER 5 == SPIRITED AWAY
This is the movie where everything changed, for better or worse. Many consider this to be Miyazaki’s masterpiece (which I find somewhat unimaginable) and the phrase “magnum opus” gets thrown around a lot. All the same, it’s pretty exciting when you can begin a countdown with what is undeniably a classic, and arguably a “masterpiece.”
This movie is packed full of great characters and situations that will stick with you long after the credits roll. It’s a film that seems to be bursting with good ideas. It almost feels like two movies worth of material, and I mean that as a pretty huge compliment. Miyazaki has so much affection for his characters (even the villains) that every one of them gets to shine in some way or another.
SPIRITED AWAY also marks a shift in the tone of Miyazaki’s movies. He had done all ages work before, but this feels a bit more like a kids movie in the traditional sense. This probably played some part in the film’s widespread success. The true-love-saves-the-day ending rang a little false to me, and I didn’t quite buy Chihiro being able to recognize her pig parents, but these are small complaints with an otherwise beautiful and genuinely affecting film.
There’s no denying the weight of scenes like the train ride, or the paper-dolls attacking Haku, or No-face devouring half of the bathhouse staff. Every new setting is interesting, and getting to know the bathhouse is intriguing and satisfying. SPIRITED AWAY may be the film that truly made Miyazaki a name in America, and it’s not hard to see why.
NUMBER 4 == PORCO ROSSO
PORCO ROSSO feels like a vacation. The setting is peaceful and picturesque, the colors vibrant but calming, and the tone relaxed if a bit melancholy at times. This is a film that never feels rushed or belabored at any point, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have conflict or action and excitement!
Also Porco is a pig who flies a plain. That should honestly be all you need to know to get you updating your Netflix queues but if you’re still unconvinced somehow, it’s also one of his more emotionally mature and relatable films, even if it does end with a big cartoony punchout.
There are some pretty light and fun moments in PORCO, like almost all of the sequences with the pirates, but nestled in between are some scenes with real emotional heft. The story of how Porco actually became a pig is pretty stirring, and a bit spooky to boot. Porco’s bristling contempt for Fascism also feels genuine and real, especially given the date and setting of the movie.
Any fan of Miyazaki's work will recognize early on that he has an open love of flight and aviation. Well, this movie certainly lets him play with those themes, and his love and enthusiasm for the subject matter shows through! This is a beautifully animated movie, with as much attention paid to the planes as the people - - a real love letter to an earlier age of flying machines. It’s almost as if Miyazaki decided he would just indulge himself with this one, and unsurprisingly the result is a joy to watch.
NUMBER 3 == MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO
Beyond just being the spokes-monster for Studio Ghibli, Totoro himself is an icon both in Japan and America. I’ve seen more merchandise, both licensed and un-licensed, more loving parody and tribute, by other creators and fans alike, for this movie and its characters, than anything else in Miyazaki’s oeuvre. This movie really speaks to people, myself included, and while it’s one of the more quiet titles in Miyazaki's body of work, it has a lot of WEIGHT to it - - due to some emotional heft and some downright breathtaking surreal moments.
This movie walks the line between grounded realism and totally out there fantasy. It’s a film that’s as much about starting to grow up as it is about crazy-enormous beasts in your back yard that help your plants grow, and invisible cat-buses that run on telephone wires. The most famous moments tend to involve the more out there elements (like the umbrella scene. Still gives me goose bumps!), but the more you watch TOTORO the more you’ll realize how important the realism is as well. Moments like when Satsuki and Mei are first exploring the house, or Satsuki’s interactions with the boy next door. It’s the balance of the two elements that really make this movie work. The result is a feeling as close to child-like-wonder as I can imagine having at 28.
TOTORO himself is the perfect simple design - - mostly just a big fat egg shape with ears, but still manages to be a bit intimidating as well as loveable. There’s a certain threat of danger present through the entire film, in fact.
Fear and uncertainty are a part of these girls’ lives. Their mother is in the hospital, they’ve just moved into a new house, and their father isn’t always able to be home. Totoro actually wind up helping Satsuki and Mei in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways, but there’s an intimidation there as well. The triumphant moments come as characters realize they aren’t at odds with their surroundings, or with these giant-mouthed forest spirits.
By the end of MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, Satsuki and Mei have faced most of their fears and overcome them. There’s a bond between the members of the Kusukabe family, but just as importantly, a bond between the family and their surroundings. The world just feels like a more inviting place after watching TOTORO.
NUMBER 2 == PRINCESS MONONOKE
I’ve found that most dudes will claim this as their favorite and I was no exception for a long time. This is arguably Miyazaki’s manliest film (and not just because its one of the few that has a male lead), and certainly his most intense and violent. This is a straight up adventure movie, with more in common with NAUSICAA than his recent work, and that is by no means a detriment. MONONOKE stands out as a more epic, more intense, and more striking film, even in a body of work full of epic, and striking films.
MONONOKE’s opening sequence with the rampaging boar is an incredible feat of animation and storytelling and I can still remember the chills I got when I first saw it on the big screen. Hell, this movie still gives me the hair-raises and I’ve seen it about a hundred times. It’s a collection of powerful images, exciting showdowns, and epic-as-shit scenarios. No person, animal, or forest spirit is safe in this movie! Limbs and heads are severed all over the place!
I tend to think that one of the big things that set Ghibli movies apart is their attention to character and carefully observed portrayal of real human behavior. This one proves Miyazaki is just as capable when making a movie that focuses on spectacular, intense, action sequences. Not that there are no subtle moments in the movie, but the high points tend to be tense and action packed. It’s pretty thrilling to see Miyazaki really let loose and go for a sweeping adventure story like this one.
And, of course, it’s gorgeous. I’ve actually tried not to focus on this aspect as much for this article since it’s no secret that these movies are beautiful to look at. But god damn, you guys. The backgrounds in this film alone are some of my favorites from any Ghibli film. Do yourself a favor and try to take in every bit of the frame. There’s never a dull visual moment on screen.
NUMBER ONE == CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO
I can feel the internet turning on me even as I type this, but there is no doubt in my mind that CAGLIOSTRO is my favorite of Miyazaki’s films. I could watch this movie every day and not get tired of it, and if I walk into a room where its playing I find it very hard to leave before the end. This may not be Miyazaki’s most personal work, but his vigor and enthusiasm for the medium in his directorial debut is apparent in every frame. This movie is a classic for a reason.
Yes, this is a LUPIN film, so the characters don’t strictly belong to Miyazaki. However, he almost entirely reinvented them for this movie, in fact helping to create a new era of the LUPIN character. Some fans of LUPIN feel like this is unrepresentative of the characters, and when it was first released audiences in Japan had a hard time accepting this new take on the LUPIN franchise. Of course since its release the film has become a classic, and a sleeper hit in Japan.
Miyazaki breaths a life into these characters that’s so classically his own, but also feels completely fitting. To put it simply, this feels like best possible combination of MONKEY PUNCH’s original characters and Miyazaki’s ideas and approach to film making.
Its actually hard for me to choose favorite scenes since I’m tempted to just recount every one of them! The first “classic” scene in the film happens quite early on—after the short introduction and a beautiful opening credit sequence we’re treated to a kinetic and lively chase scene through the mountains. The tone is light with just enough real danger to keep things exciting, and the movement of the cars, and gestures of the characters are all top notch. This is a great introduction to both Miyazaki, and this movie.
Its almost unbelievable to me that this was his first feature film. CAGLIOSTRO is confident, extremely well paced, and riveting from start to finish. The entire 100 minute movie was done in 4 months (!!) and I’ve read that the tight schedule forced Miyazaki to trim the script down a bit to get it finished in time. I’m sure this was frustrating at the time, but I’m actually somewhat glad for it! The film is tight and lean, without any extra fluff that could be trimmed. This is something I can’t say for all of Miyazaki’s later work. I love the guy’s movies, but they tend to be LONG. It’s nice to see something so focused from him.
Sure, CAGLIOSTRO is a little bit less polished visually. It came out in ’79 in Japan (and I think it looks DAMN good for the time), and it didn’t have nearly the budget of his other films. This means there aren’t quite so many flourishes, but the core of what makes miyazaki’s films so beautiful is all there. The weight, gesture, animation, character, color, and movement of this film is everything you’d expect from a Miyazaki feature. In fact, I think there’s something charming about the way it looks. It is less visually explosive than MONONOKE or SPIRITED AWAY, but you’d have to be crazy to complain about what is here. Beyond the visual, the story has all the heart, excitement, and clever ideas of any of your favorite Ghibli films.
That’s right, CAGLIOSTRO has it all. Believe it or not, Miyazaki’s first film is his best.
Go on, let me have it in the comments section below. I can take it.
Alex Eckman-Lawn is an illustrator and comic artists from Philadelphia. Check out his site - -alexeckmanlawn.com - - rumble with his Tumblr - -dudenukem.tumblr.com - - and hit up his Twitter: @alexeckmanlawn