Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The 5 Best Miyazaki Films

I saw a headline on slate.com a few weeks ago which asked the question: Is Murakami the Japanese Walt Disney? I didn't read the story, mostly because I wasn't interested in Takashi Murakami but also because I was annoyed by the Disney comparison. If Murakami is the Japanese Walt Disney, he's the third Japanese Walt Disney we've had. The first was Osamu Tezuka, a Japanese doctor who, not wanting to practice medicine, created a whole new art form: manga. All of manga and anime can trace their genesis back to the day that Tezuka, inspired by his animation hero Walt Disney, first put pen to paper.

The second of the three Japanese Walt Disneys is the more recent animation genius Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki may be the world's greatest living filmmaker (although, Godard is still kickin'). Miyazaki is certainly the world's greatest living animator (competition: John Lasseter and Matt Groening, with Brad Bird a competitor in training) and may be the greatest animator of all time. Since becoming a director in 1980, Miyazaki has directed only 9 feature-length films (with a 10th coming out this summer in Japan), but not a single one of them isn't excellent, and most are masterpieces. Of the 9 films he's made, only one has received less than 4/5 stars from allmovie.com, and that one, Castle of Cagliostro, is the only one not based on Miyazaki's original source material. Furthermore, Miyazaki has a giant advantage over his Japanese contemporaries: Disney has picked up each of his films for localization, which means that the films are as enjoyable dubbed as subbed, as they feature voice talent like: Patrick Stewart, Mark Hamill, Billy Bob Thornton, Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal, Gillian Anderon, John DiMaggio, Anna Paquin, Shia Lebeouf, Dakota Fanning, Phil Hartman, etc.

Miyazaki is renowned for a number of reasons beyond his animation prowess. Each of his films are imbued with a sense of wonder at the workings of the worlds he has created, one that is simultaneously childlike and born of wise understanding of the working of things. From this sense of wonder comes one of Miyazaki's two most famous attributes: his appreciation for the environment. Almost every one of his films features a subtle or explicit message that humans affect the environment, and that science and progress must tread carefully in this area, or truly disastrous consequences await us all. His film's are also famous for their protagonists: every film features at least one, but usually several, powerful female figures, women and girls whose talent and strength of will overcomes that of the males around them, and who are as likely to be explorers, pirates, and generals as they are princesses or damsels in distress. On a lighter note, Miyazaki is also responsible for the creation of hundreds of fantastical creatures, which run the gamut from adorable and charming to outlandish and dangerous. But above all, as I started with, the Miyazaki name is synonymous with excellence in animation, with works of art that are simultaneously awe-inspiring, deeply wise, and beautiful to look at.

With that in mind, here are my top 5 (of only nine!) Miyazaki films, to be intertwined with Mrs. Moviesetal's top 5. If you haven't seen any of them, you're missing out on one of the three or four strands of great 20th Century animation (the others being, of course, Disney's two golden ages and Lasseter's Pixar.)

My #5: Castle in the Sky
Castle in the Sky is a fast-paced steampunk adventure that follows the adventures of a young boy, Pazu, searching for Laputa, a floating castle in the sky, with Sheeta, a girl being chased by air pirates and the military alike due to her mysterious connection to the legendary sky-city. It's probably the most action-packed of all of Miyazaki's films, filled as it is with a dazzling array of chases both on the ground and in the air. Steampunk and airship fetishists get a treat, as Miyazaki has outdone himself here by designing any number of creations which could probably never actually get off the ground but are a joy to behold, including some dragon-fly winged two-seat aircraft and a giant and fearsome air destroyer. Air pirates, evil military intelligence agents, a classic Miyazaki heroine and environmental message, and a beautiful, doomed steampunk robot from Laputa combine to make this film one of the most fun and moving experiences in the Miyazaki canon. It's also got a great deal of similarities to Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, so I'd recommend it for anyone who likes that trilogy.

Mrs.' #5: Princess Mononoke
While Princess Mononoke barely made the Top 5 on my list, I think it's a great Miyazaki movie to begin with for those unfamiliar with his work. It immediately introduces you to the important recurring themes listed in the introduction - particularly the conflict between human progress and the environment, and the conflict between races of people (or, perhaps better put, ways of living). The story is of the prince of a small village, Ashitaka, and his search to resolve the war and destruction caused by conflict between Irontown, a large human settlement, and its surrounding animals and animistic gods. The most touching character for me is San, a human girl raised by wolves, who meets Ashitaka and bridges the gap between mankind and nature. While Princess Mononoke is the most violent Miyazaki film, it is also one of the most loved - it was the highest grossing movie in Japan until Titanic.

My #4: My Neighbor Totoro
Miyazaki's 1998 film My Neighbor Totoro probably bears inclusion on this list simply because it includes Miyazaki's cutest creations: the Totoros, adorable hamster-shaped forest spirits that rule the forest in My Neighbor Totoro, and range in size from rabbit to Mack truck. The largely plotless film follows two young girls who have moved from the city back to the old family home in the country with their father. Their loving father is frequently absent for work, and their mother remains in the city in the hospital, adding poignancy to this tale, so the girls explore the surrounding countryside and find the adorable, friendly, but unpredictable Totoros living nearby. Adventures follow, some of them involving another classic Miyazaki creation: the Catbus, which is exactly what it sounds like. My Neighbor Totoro is Miyazaki's most charming film, and its the one most suited for audiences under, say, the age of four. But its simplicity is its strength, and even it is not without its thrills and chills as the young girls try to reintegrate themselves to a countryside that has grown unused to humans, and must be persuaded, not coerced, to accept them.

Mrs. #4: Laputa: Castle in the Sky
If you're looking for action, Castle in the Sky is your answer. The movie kicks off in the middle of a chase scene - as pirates board an airship, we watch a man signal SOS, then get knocked unconscious by a desperate young girl named Sheeta who can wield a bottle. But as the pirates break in and try to seize her, she falls from the ship - only to float harmlessly to the ground through the magic of a powerful crystal pendant. There, a boy named Pazu finds and cares for Sheeta. But Pazu and Sheeta have many adventures to come as two different groups of adults chase Sheeta to try to steal her necklace. Along the way, Sheeta and Pazu learn the true importance and power of the magical crystal, which relates to a magical floating island called Laputa. Ultimately, Sheeta must decide how best to care for Laputa and protect it from greedy and evil men.

My #3: Princess Mononoke
Like many Americans, Princess Mononoke was the first Miyazaki film I saw, seeing as it was the first to be released in US theaters by Disney, with a strong marketing campaign. As the Mrs. pointed out it was a giant hit in Japan, and although it made less than $3 million at the US Box Office, it raised awareness of Miyazaki in American and did better on video. When I first saw it, I didn't like it very much, but everything I disliked about it then are the exact things I love about all Miyazaki movies now. It's environmental message and moral ambiguity confused me; I was never certain how the characters stood in relation to each other, or why Miyazaki kept insisting on showing different aspects of every character, ensuring that there was so simple way to empathize with various characters. Everyone in Mononoke is implicated, in one way or the other, in the violence that is sweeping the land - and it is violent, as Hilary pointed out. It's the only Miyazaki film I can think of that shows blood. But the violence, like everything else in Miyazaki, is problematic, and raises more questions than it answers. The harshest and most adult of Miyazaki's films, Princess Mononoke implicates everyone in violence and the disordering of things, and offers only provisional answers to these problems.

Mrs. #3: Kiki's Delivery Service
In contrast to Laputa, Kiki's Delivery Service offers a lighthearted romp through Miyazaki's magical universe. Kiki is a young witch, who must spend a year on her own to come of age and learn how to harness her powers and spells. During her year alone, she moves to another town and earns a living through her only unique skill - her ability to fly on her broom. She meets many interesting people through her delivery service, and through it all she's accompanied by her cat friend Jiji, voiced by Phil Hartman, who gives her alternating advice and wry commentary until he develops a crush on the fancy white cat who lives on a neighboring balcony. While Kiki's Delivery Service forgoes most of the environmental commentary we've discussed as a major theme in Miyazaki's works, the love of steampunk inventions that my "better half" mentioned as a theme in Laputa are included in a few amusing anecdotes. For this film, Miyazaki focuses on whimsy and character development more than the gorgeous vistas and philosophical statements that are also integral components of his aesthetic.

My #2: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
The first film made by Miyazaki and his frequent collaborators after leaving the studios to go their own way (technically made before Studio Ghibli, their house studio, was founded), Nausicaa is the film that establishes every feature of Miyazaki's films that we've mentioned so far. In a post-apocalyptic world, humanity is threatened, living in the few small pockets not poisoned by the insect forests that now cover much of the globe. One particularly adventurous human is Nausicaa, the young princess of the idyllic Valley of the Wind, who regularly flies into the insect forest to gather materials and explore the parts of the planet that humanity no longer regularly reaches. In true Miyazaki fashion, Nausicaa soon meets a companion, Asbel, and the two are caught up in a vast web of political maneuvering, as rival countries seek to use fabulous steampunk airships to gain advantage over each other, and some even seek to harness the powers that lead to the apocalypse a thousand years prior. While still suitable for children, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind has more in common with Dune than any Disney fairy tale; it's an engrossing, tense, and action-packed film that offered us our first glimpse into Miyazaki's vision of the world. Commence airships, plucky young heroines, and environmental messages!

Mrs. #2: The Castle of Cagliostro
Made in 1979, The Castle of Cagliostro was Miyazaki's first full-length anime feature. It lacks some of the polish and grandeur of more recent works like Spirited Away or Nausicaa, but it's a captivating story filled with exciting plot twists and surprises. Lupin III, a character already established by the time Miyazaki cowrote and produced this movie, is a young thief learning his trade in some of the richest areas of Europe. Unfortunately, he's not that successful yet - the movie opens with the revelation that Lupin's first major heist nets him only counterfeit bills. As Lupin tries to track down the source of the "goat bills" and find a more lucrative theft target, his travels take him to the Duchy of Cagliostro, where he meets a damsel in distress, a damsel most definitely not in distress, and many other interesting characters. The Castle of Cagliostro is so fun, you'll want to watch the other Lupin III movies -- but if you're like me, you probably won't ever get around to it, since they weren't made by Miyazaki.

My #1: Spirited Away
Spirited Away was the second Miyazaki feature that I saw; not coincidentally, it was the second Miyazaki movie that Disney brought to American theaters with a marketing campaign, this time getting $10.5 million dollars for their efforts. But I don't want to be concerned with such crass things, not right now.

I saw Spirited Away in the Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill, on my very first visit to Chapel Hill. Although I have been to the Varsity many times since then, my fondest memory remains the day that I wandered into Miyazaki's world and got stuck there. Spirited Away is probably the least plot-driven of Miyazaki's other films, and certainly the least violent of any of his more mature films. But that doesn't mean it's not unsettling. The film follows Chihiro, a little girl moving to a new town whose parents, taking a short cut, wind up gorging themselves at a deserted fairgrounds. Soon Chihiro's parents are pigs, under the influence of a spell, and Chihiro herself is transported to a different world, a world of magic and wonder, a world of potential malevolence and enslavement, and above all a world containing Miyazaki's most profoundly inspired fantastical creations. Nothing is as it seems in the new world Chihiro finds herself in; she seems to have allies and enemies, but who is which is not clear, and transformation spells mean that different people assume different shapes. In the world of Spirited Away, Miyazaki has created his most mature fantasy to date, the world that all children dream of, the like of which we saw in Pan's Labyrinth as well. It's a beautiful, mesmerizing, hypnotic world, full of all of the things that we dream of - including those terrors we'd rather forget. After seeing it, I was forever under its - and Miyazaki's - spell.

A final note: The best costume I have yet seen on Franklin St, on Chapel Hill's annual Halloween festival, is No-face from Spirited Away. Keep a keen eye out this October.

Mrs. #1: My Neighbor Totoro
While my Mr. has pointed out that Totoro is the Miyazaki creation best suited to those who, say, aren't yet potty trained, for me it's the most easily beloved for adults as well. The story encapsulates emotions that everyone can relate to -- uncertainty, family love, exploration and friendship, to name a few. That, paired with some of the most charming creatures ever imagined, makes Totoro a film that viewers of any age can not only appreciate, but instantly adore. One look at the poster image for the movie should sell those still on the fence - it shows a schoolgirl, standing at the bus stop braced against the night rain. Next to her is a giant hamster/owl/cat, with a tiny leaf on its head to shelter it from the downpour. The girl and Totoro both face forward, hardly acknowledging each other's presence. I don't know how much this all means to someone who hasn't seen the movie, but to someone who has it conjures up the hilarious and poignant scenes, most of which are silent, of a small child befriending a silly and magical forest creature. At a time when her father is at work and her mother is far away in the hospital, Totoro is a welcome friend in a world of lonely and often scary uncertainties. And really, don't we all wish we had a giant fuzzy friend that followed us around lending its support at all times, even in the rain?

Well, that wraps it up for the both of us. Let us know which ones you prefer! If you haven't seen any, go rent them (use my list, not Hilary's...)


Anonymous said...

good list but castle in the sky is my favorite it was just awe inspiring when they found the laputa

Anonymous said...

It's sort of a pity, because the Miyazaki film that I love is Kiki's Delivery Service, one that (to me) is very different from most of his work.

But it's a very good list. CitS sounds good.

Anonymous said...

My favorite movie is actually Howl's Moving Castle. I only found out there was a movie because of the book and now I'm obsessed with Miyazaki movies.

Anonymous said...

i think nausicaa valley of the wind is his greates work and i think his first feature length if im not mistaken, its just a breathtakingly beautiful film and i think looks way advance in animation considering the time of its release

Antonia said...

i really really really like howls moving castle. it was amazing. and my other favorites are castle in the sky, princess mononoke, totoro, and spirited away. he is just so amazing. new movie soon please!

Dart said...

My favorite is probably Kiki's Delivery Service, because it is one of the defining aspects of my early childhood. I mean really, I watched that movie about every day from age 2-6. However, I think Spirited Away is better as a film.