10 Essential Hayao Miyazaki Films You Need To Watch

5. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Can you really NOT watch My Neighbor Totoro, when Studio Ghibli’s mascot and most iconic character comes from this movie? Totoro is hard not to love, and even harder to forget. If you’re one of those five people who has not seen this movie, then shame on your ancestors. If you’re just like everyone else, then you know that Miyazaki managed to create the icon for a movie studio, and make it a character. And he’s not just a cute adorable ball of fluff that makes squeaky noises and you melt. Totoro has his own arc, and his journey in turn moves the actual narrative of the story.

This is a very solid project – even if you nitpick, you cannot find fault with its narrative or direction. Even if you have seen it, see it again, there’s probably something you missed out on. It is a unique journey to discover every little detail Miyazaki put in there for us. Heartwarming and inspiring is the most rudimentary description one can give to this movie. Exceptional direction. Extraordinary visuals. And iconic characters. This movie became the formula for future movies in Studio Ghibli, so now you know who to thank. 


4. Ponyo (2008)


Ponyo is just another word for cute and adorable – at least that’s how they sell it. Miyazaki takes the story of a fish/girl hybrid with demigod powers who is infiltrating our land and tricks us into believing it is a story of friendship. Jokes aside, this is an enchanting tale of young kids adventuring that feels like an epic. Some critics have been vocal about their problems with this movie; however, even if Miyazaki experimented with some aspects of his storytelling, he doesn’t stride too far off his game. There’s still a clever subversion of roles, and surprises here and there that keep you guessing until the end.

Apart from the sound character development, the scope is immense. Ponyo’s mother is the goddess of the sea (or the moon) and while the whole world is topsy turvy, she just calms her husband down – and us, don’t lie – telling him to trust her. That is maybe one of the most beautiful scenes he has directed in his complete filmography. It is known, this is a weird movie, but then again, which Miyazaki movie feels normal?


3. The Wind Rises (2013)

the wind rises

Even though everyone thought this was going to be his last masterpiece but thankfully the man hasn’t retired yet and The Wind Rises is just another Tuesday for Miyazaki. A very reserved story by Miyazaki, more like a personal project that, ironically, stays grounded. It tells the story of a young man who dreamed of becoming a pilot but had to settle for designing planes. Not that it wasn’t satisfactory, it was more of an evolution of his dream. What makes this film stand out, is Miyazaki’s exploration of the protagonist’s introspection. The overarching themes involve dreams, success, failure, and the fear of success.

Not to give too much away, but realizing that your creations are being used to fight wars and end lives, could and will put your goals into doubt. So as a result you either have to stick to your current dreams, your resolve cannot falter, or you can establish new principles, and start to build on that for your future. The point is, that it is not a simple conflict to decompress, or a problem to solve from one day to another. Miyazaki manages to portray all its complexities, and consequences, in a masterful way. Again, very glad that he postponed his retirement.


2. Spirited Away (2001)

spirited away picture

Preferred by every critic that has ever hit wide recognition, Spirited Away, the spiritual journey of a young girl discovering herself, while making connections with the most unexpected persons, will stay with you. Because we’re talking Miyazaki, we need to tackle the visuals. They are always incredible, his ability to cluster a panel with all kinds of images is truly unique to him. This is a movie that you have to see at least twice. The first viewing to appreciate the story and all of its bizarre beauty. The second one, to just observe what’s going on in the background. It is remarkable, it almost chews out the scene. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first visible instance when his art is going everywhere and you could simple press mute on the TV and enjoy the visual imagery.

As I said at the start, it is a story of a spiritual journey. She is growing up, gaining other perspectives, making choices, and amazingly, the spectator gets a sense of growing up with the character. Every minor theme, or character is thought out extensively, leaving you to decide what was the resounding theme in the story. As usually with his work, Miyazaki doesn’t write a villain in this story, he writes characters whose goals conflict with others, characters with a mission, that ultimately are just as human as their counterparts.


1. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

Movie adaptations are not easy, and to adapt a novel and elevate the source material way beyond expectations is a one in a million gamble. Miyazaki beats those odds and tells a tale full of wonder and magic, while working the mundane struggles any one of us could have. In its most basic form, it is a film about Sophie Hatter, a soft-spoken young adult that can’t seem to find a spark in her day to day life. On the other hand, we have Howl Pendragon, a powerful and frightening wizard that may have all that might, but just like Sophie, has trouble defining his identity. This film has everything you need to call it a masterpiece: a great cast of characters, amazing visuals, an unbelievable world, and a captivating story.

What makes this movie shine is its scope. From the war with chimeras and biplanes, to wild chases from scene to scene, the spectacle is truly awe-inducing. Even with such a spectacle, Miyazaki’s usual symbolism and coherent metaphors are as present in the small details as they are in the big ones. For example, the curse inflicted on Sophie by the witch, makes her look as a raggedy old woman. Why? Because she was already living her life as an old woman would. It is not until she gets that spark, that little something that reminds her who she is, that she regains her youth, but not sans wisdom.

On Howl’s side, Miyazaki nicely works out his struggle with power, and the sacrifices behind magical rituals. All in all, this is a near flawless film that will warm your hearth (pun intended) and deliver a full spectrum of emotions. The narrative unrelentingly grabs you by your chest, takes you to a fantastic world, and mesmerizes you.

Author Bio: Giuliano Figueroa is a 23-years-old cinephile from Puerto Rico. Up to this moment he is a subgraduate in the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus studying Literature.