If you've ever spent even 15 minutes exploring the otaku side of the Internet, you've come up against Hayao Miyazaki. Probably the most revered animation director in history, his films are generally described as "anime for people who don't like anime." No panty shots or annoying fanservice to be found here; just well-rounded characters and gorgeous flights of fancy.
But it's not enough to just point to the Miyazaki canon and leave it at that. A proper guidelist to each film needs to be established. And this is ours. NOTE: just because your fave is lower than you might've liked doesn't mean it's bad, just...less good.
There's nothing inherently, flat-out BAD about 2008's Ponyo. Far from it: it's an absolutely gorgeous film that has some of the best hand-drawn water animation since Pinocchio, building on the aquatic techniques of Finding Nemo. And the story -- about a five-year-old named Sosuke living on a cliff outside an isolated fishing town and the magical goldfish Ponyo who falls in love with him and wants to be human -- is downright charming.
But the film can't decide what version of that story it wants to tell. There's two competing movies on display here. One is a film full of gorgeous silent imagery depicting the wonder of the sea and equally lovely moments depicting the world as seen through the eyes of little kids. The other is a movie involving all sorts of crazy magic hullabaloo that disrupts all that. Again, it's by no means offensively bad. Heck, if I'd seen this movie at around 5 or 6, I'd have fallen hopelessly in love with it. But the final product ultimately comes across like an underwater rehash of Spirited Away. You've seen this before, and it was better last time.
It's a little weird to call a Miyazaki film "underrated" but that's precisely what this is. A pulp fable based on Miyazaki's short manga The Age of the Flying Boat, Porco Rosso centers on an ace WWI pilot turned bounty hunter and his run-ins with air pirates. Also worth noting: Porco Rosso happens to be under a curse that makes him look like a pig. Originally developed to be an in-flight film on Japan Airlines before growing into a full feature, this movie is short but packed with fun. It's a romp that, like Miyazaki's earlier Castle In The Sky, carries the same madcap energy of classic Popeye or Looney Tunes cartoons to a romantic view of flight.
The film's gender politics are a bit mixed, though -- due to the Depression forcing all men to leave for work, Porco Rosso (Italian for "red pig") eventually winds up with an all-female flight crew led by idealistic, young engineer Fio. This beat is rooted in actual history, but there's some weird sexist jokes that crop up. Either way, this is a breezy film with an exciting world that's fun to get lost in.
Before Studio Ghibli officially came together, the staff from the original Thundercats production house Topcraft came together with Hayao Miyazaki and his now-longtime producer Toshio Suzuki to make Nausicaa, yet another underseen gem. Based on Miyazaki's own post-apocalyptic manga of the same name (well worth tracking down from Viz Media), the film follows the compassionate, brave princess Nausicaa as she struggles to make peace between the remnants of humanity and the giant buglike Ohmu that have overrun the planet. A film full of some spectacular flight sequences (it's Miyazaki, what'd you expect?) is unfortunately dragged down by a dated, synth-heavy score from Joe Hisaishi and a truncated ending.
Speaking of flight sequences, this second "swan song" for Miyazaki -- before it was announced he was coming back in 2020 with the CGI Boro the Caterpillar --sees him heading into the realm of the biopic. The Wind Rises is Miyazaki's take on the life and career of Jiro Horikoshi, the aircraft designer behind the Mitsubishi A5M & A6M Zero, the primary air weapons of the Empire of Japan during WWII.
Given that subject matter, Miyazaki's well-documented total pacifism and Japan's long, storied history of downplaying or denying its role in the war, the film was met with no shortage of controversy, both from the Japanese far-right and here in America. But putting that aside as much as possible, the final film is a singular thing of beauty. Featuring sound effects mostly done by human voices and a gorgeous love story, this is a beautiful meditation on what you have to go through to achieve your dream.
Still another overlooked gem in the Miyazaki canon, Castle in the Sky is a rollicking adventure. Watching it now, you can sense that it owes as much to the high stakes and fine lineart of Hergé comics and the pratfalls and fistfights of classic Fleischer Studios cartoons (one of the key lodestones for the origin of anime) as it does to Miyazaki's love of flight.
Following the story of the mysterious Sheeta and young miner Pazu as they struggle to keep a crystal that holds the key to the floating island city of Laputa, this was the first full production of Ghibli proper. Since it was released in 1986, you can spot some fascinating thematic and design links with Nausicaa. Giving us one of the best villains in the Miyazaki canon in Muska -- particularly as voiced by Mark Hamill in Disney's dub -- this is a delightful film that never fails to engage when you put it on.
Based on a novel by the legendary late British fantasist Diana Wynne Jones, though outright reinventing it, Howl's Moving Castle was something of a Hail Mary pass for Miyazaki. Originally, Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars, The Boy and The Beast) was to sit in the director's chair but he bowed out but left after many of his concepts were rejected, forcing Miyazaki -- fresh off the success of Spirited Away -- to step in himself.
The result isn't just the engrossing tale of Sophie, a hatmaker turned into an old woman by the vengeful Witch of the West. Nor is it only a story about the mysterious, jaded wizard Howl, coming to accept and love each other against the backdrop of a looming war. It's also a moving look at the day-to-day of old age and is, again, fairly damning in decrying the pointlessness and destruction of all armed conflict. In fact, given the timing of when this was made, this could arguably be called the first "anti-Iraq War" film. And what a film it is.
This tale of a young witch who heads off to the big city to make a name for herself as a witch with the help of her talking cat is as simple as it is endearing. Kiki's Delivery Service is just as noteworthy for what it has -- an abundance of heart, gorgeous animation and backgrounds and a lovely score by both Hisaishi and extra embellishments by Paul Chihera for Disney's dub -- as what it lacks: a central villain. But really, it doesn't need one.
Granted, a lot of Ghibli/Miyazaki films don't have central villains, but Kiki's stands out. Based on a 1985 kids' novel by Eiko Kadono, it's essentially the best Disney Princess movie Disney didn't make. Outside of Fullmetal Alchemist, it's probably the best European-set anime ever made.
If Totoro didn't exist, we'd probably have to invent it. A bucolic tale of two young girls and the giant forest cat they befriend, this is easily the most effortlessly charming of Miyazaki's films. Why? Well, chalk it up to his love for nature and keen understanding of children seeping through every single frame, for one.
For another, there's Totoro himself. Animation is brimming with funny animals but this guy stands out. One of the friendliest yet enigmatic characters put on a screen, Totoro's become ubiquitous since his debut -- from being part of Ghibli's logo to appearing in Toy Story 3 to being the face of a fund to preserve Japan's traditional agriculture to having both an asteroid and a worm named after him. Totoro is a marvel, and if you have kids, introduce them to him as soon as possible.
Like Nausicaa before it, this isn't a Studio Ghibli film, strictly speaking. It's also Miyazaki's only work-for-hire film. Made by Toho and TMS in 1979, this was Miyazaki's debut film after having worked as a director on Lupin The III television series. It underperformed initially in Japan, but its reputation today far outweighs its initial failure.
And with good reason: this movie is amazing. Not only is it a perfect introduction to the hijinks of master thief Lupin, crackshot Jigen, samurai Goemon and the wily Fujiko Mine, it's the best example of the master thief's exploits. From the opening heist sequence to an astonishing set piece involving sewers, this film is a joyride like no other. To anyone that says older anime films are cheaply made cash-ins, search clips of Cagliostro and find your notions slapped down.
As far as mainstream audiences are concerned, this is the Miyazaki film. Not only is it the only anime to win the Best Animated Feature Oscar, it was the first time anyone outside of hardcore anime circles had ever seen something with the Ghibli name on it. Despite a bungled Stateside release by Buena Vista, the film found its intended audience on home video and is finally recognized for what it is.
And what it is....is a masterpiece. Set in a fantasyland Japan where a girl named Chihiro is transported after her parents are turned into pigs, the film is a visual marvel from one minute to the next. It looks even better on Disney's Hayao Miyazaki Collection Blu-Ray set and each frame and detail pops with vivid color and life. No wonder The New York Times recently called it "one of the Top 25 Films of the 21st Century."
And yet, it's still not Miyazaki's best. That honor goes to...
Miyazaki's first supposed swan song, this 1997 dark fantasy was the first time he'd ever incorporated CGI into his work. That experiment evidently worked, as Princess Mononoke became the then-highest-grossing film ever in Japan and was the first anime to win the Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture.
One look at the film tells you why. Set in Muromachi-era Japan and following Prince Ashitaka, one of the last of Japan's native Emishi people, as he embarks on a quest to find the killer of the Boar God, this film is an apocalyptic war tale in the grandest tradition.
Featuring the best score of Hisaishi's career, astonishing animation and a compelling script (the English adaptation of which was penned by Neil Gaiman), Mononoke feels like the sum total of everything Miyazaki had to say about war, Japan, nature and humanity all wrapped up into one sweeping epic. And that's why it's the best film Miyazaki has ever made.