Every fan of animated film – in fact, any cinephile – knows the man’s work. Even if you are not fully aware of the name, on some level you know his work, and you probably already love it. With Hayao Miyazaki, you may be attracted to his work for its visual magnitude but you’ll stay for his impeccable storytelling. Making even one film that is accessible to the general public while having deep layers that inspire introspection is hard enough.
Well, Miyazaki has made countless films, every one of which achieves just that. Films that anyone can enjoy but many will fall in love with. Simply put, he is a highly intelligent artist and a pioneer in his domain. So, for everyone that is not yet a fan – or for those longtime fans that want their opinions reinforced, or challenged – in no specific order, here are 10 essential Hayao Miyazaki films every animation fan should watch.
10. Porco Rosso (1992)
Only Miyazaki can pitch a story of an anthropomorphic pig – who just happens to be a pilot who is a bounty hunter for air pirates – and receive high praise from the critics. At first this may seem like a silly, simple, entertaining story. And it is just that, for the most part. A man who is no longer a man but a badass human-like porcine bounty hunter dealing with his predicament with a sunny disposition. Every dogfight sequence is marvelously authentic and tension-filled.
The characters are charming, particularly the porcine protagonist. And if that were all – the entertaining misadventures of Porco Rosso – that would be enough. But there is much more to the film, as the third act shows. In a flashback, we discover what Porco Rosso sees every day in the mirror, and it is a touching moment that adds depth to the character. It works beautifully with what we already know of the badass porcine bounty hunter with the sunny disposition. Now, add the weight of his past regrets and what is currently going on in his mind, and it makes an unforgettable tale. Despite the spoiler, I will say that it has the happiest of endings and it succeeds in leaving you wondering how exactly to interpret the conclusion, unexpected surprises and all.
9. Castle in the Sky (1986)
Although, this isn’t the first time Miyazaki creates a great and new fantastic world in film, it is the first time you feel truly immersed. The concept of flying cities evoke a desire to live in such a place. It is difficult to apply a genre lable to this movie. It has elements of high fantasy, medieval adventure, political commentary, and Greek epic, among others. It raises the issue of a royal line and the problem with blue bloods. At the same time, it is a battle between those up there and these down here – in essence, the privileged and the non-privileged. And with the whole falling cities debacle, you get a sense of the classic myth the decline of on old kingdom falling to make way for a new, younger more prepared kingdom.
Theologically instead of having multiple cities in the sky, we have a singular one that reigns over everyone watching from the ground. But all of this is present in the background while the story follows the main characters’ exploits. This is where royal line is explored, through the various subplots and character-developing segments throughout the narrative. Now, even if the subject matter is not your cup of tea, you still have a visually inspiring film that cannot be fully appreciated in just one viewing.
8. The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) Co-written by Hayao Miyazaki
Even when he’s not directing, it is next to impossible to overlook his flawless writing, especially when adapting books. This is a character-driven emotional ride from start to finish. This film is a gem, despite having had a hard time from the critics. It definitely has all the usual Miyazaki particularities we have come to expect. It still haves everything that makes Miyazaki the great director and screenwriter we love and know, even if it has been wrapped in another kind of paper. The movie has very powerful characters, even though they differ from what we might expect. At times Arrietty may seem like the typical rebellious, reckless teenager but she’s actually a fully rounded character with a wide range of emotions.
Her drive leads her to believe she can do more for her family than she is currently doing, and her curiosity gets her in more trouble than she can bear. But even that complicated identity complex is not the focus of this narrative. What the audience cares about is Arrietty discovering that these terrible titans known to us as humans, aren’t the beastly behemoths their kind believe them to be. She discovers this by getting to know Shawn, a young boy with a heart condition that makes it dangerous for him to become too agitated.
The thing is, that while all that “You need to be with your kind, it’s too dangerous out there” plot is going on, Arrietty and Shawn’s relationship develops. They are interestingly different from each other, but both are basically under house arrest and when they break those boundaries, the consequences are grave. This means that not everything is sugar-coated, and the story maintains its feet set in the ground. All in all, it is a truly enjoyable movie.
7. Princess Mononoke (1997)
This is possibly the first Miyazaki movie most fans know, and with good reason. Again we can appreciate a nice subversion of stereotypes while traveling off to magnificent places. Mononoke is a no nonsense badass. Now that that’s out of the way, here’s why you should watch it. From the start, your pulse will race at the battles and the beautifully directed action sequences. Beneath the surface are themes of loss and acceptance. Nonetheless, this is a story about a warrior who will not stop fighting for what she believes. A tale of nature versus needs, or nature versus wants.
By the end, you will not have found a single flaw in the film. Only Miyazaki can wrap all this up and give you a multilayered experience which is very hard to forget. The cinematography is pretty solid, not many loose ends are left unanswered, and the visual cues that elevate the written dialogue are all in place. There is not one element in this film that outshines the other; it is really a case where all the elements taken together are what create a masterpiece.
6. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
This is Miyazaki’s first original feature film and it sweeps us off our feet. Even with an Earth that has deadly flora for every human, it maintains Miyazaki’s charming, and enthralling undertones. This is the movie that demonstrated what he believes in, and what he will defend with all the resources he has at its disposal. Even today, the visuals enthrall. Either that, or you get so immersed in the story that you don’t even notice. You have to ignore the preachy commentary on nature versus human, because even if that’s what the story is about, it is not the central engine of it.
This is as simple as a young woman taking charge and making a difference. Her resolve is amazing, she is fearless on her mission, and nothing can stop her from changing the world. And talking about the world, man is it beautiful! The detail on the grasslands that portray how mother nature took back her house to mend its injuries makes you even smell the possibly poisonous atmosphere. Finally, the main argument of the story is always a headache to answer without hesitation. Do we want a subpar life while benefiting the planet? Or do we want a luxurious life while draining our resources?