Culture

A Complete Guide to the Films of Hayao Miyazaki

Fill in the gaps of your anime knowledge with this 11-film must-watch list.

By 9 min read

Hayao Miyazaki is Japan’s greatest animator, a master craftsman whose name gets absorbed through cultural osmosis even by those who have no deep knowledge of anime. In the “who’s who” of great Japanese filmmakers, Miyazaki stands at the top of the pyramid with Akira Kurosawa.

With 11 feature films to his name — many of them classics known the world over — Miyazaki went into semi-retirement half a decade ago. He has since returned with a short film and is currently at work on his 12th animated feature, Kimi-tachi wa Dou Ikiru ka? (“How Do You Live?”).

In this post, we’ll be doing a crash course and primer on all 11 of his cinematic works, which hold lasting artistic value and have touched the lives of many people — especially here in Miyazaki’s home country.

Being familiar with Miyazaki’s films and their Japanese titles will give you a useful frame of reference for Japanese pop culture. Talking about movies, you might be able to bridge the gap between cultures simply by knowing how a title translates, recognizing a character’s name or understanding a cherished Studio Ghibli scene.

Without further ado, let’s dive chronologically into the filmography of Hayao Miyazaki.

1. The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

Photo:
Screenshot from The Castle of Cagliostro

The Japanese title is Rupan Sansei: Kariosutoro no Shiro.

Though his name is synonymous with Ghibli, Miyazaki worked as a director-for-hire before co-founding the beloved animation studio. His first feature-length animated film was an installment in the popular Lupin III franchise.

In this movie, the loudly sports-jacketed Arsène Lupin III’s gentleman thievery steers him down the trail of some counterfeit casino money. He eventually lands in a castle dungeon in a country ruled by the nefarious Count Cagliostro. The DVD cover for The Castle of Cagliostro contains a blurb from Steven Spielberg calling it “one of the greatest adventure movies of all time.” ‘Nuff said.

2. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Photo:
Screenshot from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

The Japanese title is Kaze no Tani no Naushika.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind marked Miyazaki’s first collaboration with composer Joe Hisaishi, who would go on to provide the musical score for all his remaining films. “Post-apocalyptic” isn’t necessarily the first word that would come to mind when most people think of Miyazaki. Yet this movie does employ such a setting.

This is Miyazaki’s Dune. Like Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel (whose own troubled film adaptation hit theaters the same year), the story features a prophecy about the rise of a mythic savior. In place of Dune’s antagonistic sandworms, overgrown mutant insects populate the landscape in this one.

Many of Miyazaki’s films are centered on female protagonists and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is no different. The title character, Nausicaä, is a princess who fulfills the prophecy.

3. Castle in the Sky (1986)

Photo:
Screenshot from Castle in the Sky

The Japanese title is Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta.

Also known as Laputa: Castle in the Sky, this is the very first Studio Ghibli film, which makes it landmark anime. Air pirates and a floating island color the backdrop of this adventure about an orphan girl discovering her royal heritage.

If you read our guide to Studio Ghibli movie locations you can visit in Japan, then you know that the long-armed robot from Castle in the Sky stands atop the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo. Fun fact: it was a TV airing of this movie in August 2013 that led to the most tweeted moment in all of Twitter history. During a climactic scene where the phrase is uttered, fans tweeted the magic word “balse” 143,199 times in a single second.

4. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Photo:
Screenshot from My Neighbor Totoro.

The Japanese title is Tonari no Totoro.

Surveys have shown this to be Miyazaki’s most widely seen film on the home front here in Japan. The story involves two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, who befriend a rotund, whiskered creature in the forest as their mother copes with illness.

Totoro is Ghibli’s mascot and both he and the movie’s phantasmagorical Catbus have become cultural icons. Technically, Totoro is also a Disney/Pixar character, having appeared as one of the sentient stuffed animals in Toy Story 3.

This year, My Neighbor Totoro is celebrating its 30th anniversary. The film is filled with indelible images such as the one of Satsuki and the fanciful beast Totoro holding umbrellas at the bus stop in the rain. If you haven’t seen any Ghibli movies, this might be a good one to get you started.

5. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Photo:
Screenshot from Kiki's Delivery Service.

The Japanese title is Majo no Takkyūbin, or “Witch’s Delivery Service.”

This film follows a young witch named Kiki who is sent out into the world to train with her talking black cat, Jiji. She utilizes her broomstick to start a delivery service and soon finds herself struggling with the witch’s equivalent of writer’s block, losing her ability to fly and comprehend her cat’s speech.

If you’re ever at a big Halloween party in Japan, you’re likely to see more than one Kiki. Her navy blue frock and the signature red bow she wears in her hair make for a popular costume.

Being familiar with Miyazaki’s films and their Japanese titles will give you a useful frame of reference for Japanese pop culture.

There is also a real delivery service in Japan, Yamato Transport, which is known colloquially as Kuroneko (“Black Cat”) because of its famous black cat logo. This company actually helped sponsor Kiki’s Delivery Service and approved the use of its trademarked word for “delivery service,” takkyūbin, in the Japanese movie title.

6. Porco Rosso (1992)

Photo:
Screenshot from Porco Rosso.

The Japanese title is Kurenai no Buta, or “Crimson Pig.”

As a director, the eight-year stretch between 1989 and 1997 was a somewhat fallow period for Miyazaki. His sole output during that time was Porco Rosso.

This time it’s an anthropomorphic pig who takes to the skies to combat air pirates in the aftermath of World War I. Japan Airlines (JAL) was a key investor in Porco Rosso. In fact, before its theatrical release, this high-flying comedy made its premiere as an in-flight movie.

7. Princess Mononoke (1997)

Photo:
Screenshot from Princess Mononoke.

The Japanese title is Mononoke-hime.

This is my personal favorite Miyazaki film. In the West, it’s the one that served as his first big crossover success on home media. Miramax Films acted as the North American distributor for Princess Mononoke. However, its studio chairman was notorious for wanting foreign films chopped up into marketable stateside edits.

That chairman was Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced mogul whose downfall precipitated the #MeToo movement around this time in 2017. As the story goes, Miyazaki sent a katana sword to Weinstein with the message: “No cuts.”

One can well imagine him wanting to send the same message to deforesters. Princess Mononoke embodies the spirit of many Ghibli films in that it shows the clash between human civilization and nature. Spirits of the forest —  including wolf, deer and boar gods — find their realm threatened by the residents of Irontown. A cursed prince, Ashitaka, attempts to mediate the growing conflict.

8. Spirited Away (2001)

Photo:
Screenshot from Spirited Away.

The Japanese title is Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, or “Sen and Chihiro’s Spiriting Away.”

Spirited Away continued Miyazaki’s winning streak in terms of overseas exposure. This is the film that is generally regarded as his masterpiece.

Recent rankings in The New York Times and on BBC Culture have declared it the second and fourth best film of the 21st century, respectively. After becoming the biggest worldwide box office hit in Japanese history, the film won Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards.

This is Miyazaki’s Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz. The titular Sen (meaning “1,000”) and Chihiro (“1,000 fathoms”) are two different names for the same girl. Chihiro is her name before she enters the spirit world and Sen is her named after she starts slaving away at the bathhouse of the witch Yubaba — which is based on Dogo Onsen, Japan’s oldest onsen (hot spring spa), located in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture.

A strange fantasy where parents turn to pigs, Spirited Away also furnished another popular Halloween costume: namely, that of the masked No-Face.

9. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Photo:
Screenshot from Howl's Moving Castle.

The Japanese title is Hauru no Ugoku Shiro.

Howl’s Moving Castle bears all the hallmarks of a Miyazaki film: castles, a love of aviation, strong heroines, witches and restlessness with the overbearing technology and disconnection from nature that is bred by contemporary life.

This time, Miyazaki lit his thematic cocktail with an anti-war flame. The film came out during the Iraq War and Miyazaki incorporated his pacifism and preoccupation with aging into the movie’s colorful imagery. In this one, war machines peacock and pipe smoke over green hills, forming a cartoonish contrast with otherwise idyllic scenes of cottages and sheep herders.

10. Ponyo (2008)

Photo:
Screenshot from Ponyo.

The Japanese title is Gake no Ue no Ponyo or “Ponyo on the Cliff.”

In this movie, Miyazaki remixed The Little Mermaid into a Japanese fairy tale. Traditional hand-drawn animation had long since been overtaken by computer animation in the industry at large. Even Ghibli had employed CGI touches in its films, but for Ponyo, the studio went back to basics.

Everything in this film was hand drawn. The result is a whimsical, kid-friendly entry into the Miyazaki canon.

11. The Wind Rises (2013)

Photo:
Screenshot from The Wind Rises.

The Japanese title is Kaze Tachinu.

Intended to be Miyazaki’s swan song, The Wind Rises is a historical drama that just so happens to be animated. This one aims for a more adult audience. Call it “Jiro Dreams of Flying.” It’s about Jiro Horikoshi, the nearsighted Japanese engineer whose knack for the beauty of building inadvertently led him to invent the World War II “Zero” fighter plane.

With the exception of The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki’s films are not currently available to purchase or stream on digital services like iTunes or Netflix. However, they should be available at your local Tsutaya or wherever DVDs and Blu-Rays are rented or sold.

What’s your favorite Miyazaki movie? Which films of his would you recommend for Ghibli or anime newbies? Highlight your preferred selections in the comments section below!

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