Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpieces “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” are now available on Blu-ray for the first time. Below, our TOH! ranking of the Top Ten Studio Ghibli films (hint: “Totoro” and “Howl’s” make the list).
As John Lasseter has been called America’s new Walt Disney, so is Miyazaki known as the Disney of Japan. Miyazaki and Lasseter share something rare: they are filmmakers in charge of animation giants in their respective countries, Studio Ghibli and Disney Animation/Pixar.
The two men are mutual fans and friends, going back to Miyazaki’s visit in the 80s to the U.S. around the time of the now classic “My Neighbor Totoro.” Where Lasseter has developed a strong collaborative ethic at Pixar, he reveres Miyazaki for dreaming up his stories and drawing much of the storyboards and characters himself. At Comic-Con in 2009, Miyazaki told the crowd the secret behind his artistry: “My process is thinking, thinking and thinking, thinking about my stories for a long time,” he said with a smile. “If you have a better way, let me know.”
When Lasseter interviewed Miyazaki in front of 6500 fans in Hall H, the Disney/Pixar chief praised him for running a “filmmaker-led studio dedicated to making great movies. That’s what it’s all about.” Backstage, Lasseter said that you could watch the films in Japanese with no subtitles and still figure out what was going on. The language only adds subtlety and depth. “I love the positive messages in all the films,” he said. “Miyazaki is inspirational. He celebrates quiet moments.”
At Lasseter’s Academy tribute to Miyazaki, the Disney animator provided commentary on his favorite Miyazaki clips: a rousing helicopter rescue operation in “Castle in the Sky,” a bar scene with pig-faced aviator “Porco Rosso,” the scary magic of “Spirited Away,” and the dreamlike catbus scene from “Totoro,” as the giant furry creature waits with two little girls in the dark rain at a bus stop. Miyazaki, who studied politics and worked his way up as an animator while always wanting to write manga comics, admits that he never wanted to make Totoro’s origins or powers crystal clear. He was thinking about the images in that film for ten years, he said. He doesn’t like spending time drawing villains, so he doesn’t do it much.
And the studio’s latest “From Up on Poppy Hill,” written by Miyazaki and directed by his son Goro, is also sublime; it whisks you into another stylized, hand-drawn 2D world. Miyazaki has always been able to capture the forces of nature and the great outdoors, in this case, a quaint 60s Japan just dealing with encroaching modernization.
With the release of critically praised “From Up on Poppy Hill” (review here), TOH! ranks the Top Ten Films by Studio Ghibli. (Written by Bill Desowitz, Beth Hanna, Ryan Lattanzio and Anne Thompson.)
10. “Ponyo” (2009) was a lovely departure for Miyazaki (and the largest theatrical rollout ever for him in the U.S.). While the story of a magical goldfish wishing to break free from her overbearing wizard father was more kid-friendly than Miyazaki’s previous movies, the Hans Christian Andersen-influenced fable enchanted young and old alike. The seaside village (much like the one in “From Up on Poppy Hill”) is a richly detailed and tantalizing paradise; and the hand-drawn waves are a delight (the secret was keeping the squiggly lines moving all the time). However, “Ponyo’s” strongest element is the precious bond between parents and children, who both learn to see the world through the other’s eyes.
9. “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989) Years before the “Harry Potter” series, Miyazaki gives us yet another feisty heroine as an engaging 13-year-old witch proves her independence by running a bakery courier service. She tries out her prodigious skills, including exhilarating aerial feats on her broom far above the verdant countryside, with talking cat in tow. Based on the 1985 children’s novel by Eiko Kadono, “Kiki” was the first Ghibli film to be released in the U.S. via Disney.
8. “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” (1986) Miyazaki’s gorgeous rip-roaring fantasy action adventure–sky pirates! magic crystal! airborne chases!– had a major influence on James Cameron’s “Avatar,” as it features an orphan girl’s quest to solve the mysterious force that keeps karst peaks aloft in the air, hidden by clouds.
7. “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988) Isao Takahata’s animated wonder is a tragic remembering of Kobe, Japan after a US-staged firebombing in World War II. In spite of its grim story of two orphans’ struggle for survival after Japan’s surrender, this an aesthetically hopeful, vividly rendered film which put Ghibli on the map. The titular insects are a metaphoric, and literal, light to guide brother and sister Setsuko and Seita as they navigate a ravaged world without their parents. “Fireflies” is, at times, unbearably sad, a eulogy for a bleeding nation but also a hugely imaginative tale that reminds us of art’s power to lift us from the ramparts of our own devastation.
6. “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) is Miyazaki at the height of his trademark visual technique: richly conceived textures, emotive characters and a steampunk-inspired “moving castle” that anthropomorphizes in proto-3-D fashion. Bewitched by an unlucky curse, teenage hatmaker Sophie transforms into a haggard old woman. Her quest to break the spell acquaints her with wizards, demons and a leggy scarecrow, all of whom have endearingly complex personalities. This Cinderella story contains plenty of magic and wonderment for kids to appreciate, but its dark coming-of-age themes are what make “Howl” one of the most mature entries in the Miyazaki catalogue; it earned Miyazaki’s second Oscar nomination for best animated feature.
5. “Princess Mononoke” (1997) Set in 14th century Japan, Miyazaki’s visually sublime fable packs more
imaginative breadth than a dozen Hollywood animated fantasies. The
story of a prince who must bridge the gap between animal gods and the
greedy humans devouring their land, “Mononoke” is no cuddly children’s
film. Rather, it is an ambitious ecological parable that deftly avoids
pandering, a film whose animals don’t so much talk with their mouths as
they do communicate telepathically. Yet in spite of its lofty themes,
brilliantly conceived sequences in a shadowy forest or a brawling
village elevate the film to the level of pure cinema.
4. “Whisper of the Heart” (1995) You’ll never hear John Denver’s “Country Roads” the same after seeing this elegant, epic drama, storyboarded by Miyazaki and directed by Yoshifumi Kondo (who, sadly, died in 1998, leaving this one stunning work on his directorial resumé). Awkward teen Shizuku is grappling with stressful high school entrance exams, her crush, her parents — oh yes, and a rotund magical cat she meets on a commuter bus who runs a mysterious antique shop. One of the best films ever made about the soul’s need to etch out an identity.
3. “Only Yesterday” (1991) This gorgeously evocative double period-piece by Isao Takahata, produced by Miyazaki, follows listless twentysomething Taeko as she makes her way to the countryside where her sister’s husband’s relatives live. A series of parallel flashbacks reveal Taeko’s ordinarily turbulent adolescence as she struggles with puberty, difficult subjects at school and — what else? — boys. While Ghibli is typically known for its dazzling fantasy lands, this stirring, subtle portrait, along with “Whisper of the Heart,” prove it’s one of the most nimble, intelligent studios to deal with the coming-of-age genre.
2. “Spirited Away” (2001) The girl-in-wonderland subgenre can serve as an intelligent method for exposing the ludicrous and corrupt nature of those in authority. In “Spirited Away,” Miyazaki’s sublime and wondrously
haunting film about a child’s quest to save her family, an indictment of society’s burgeoning greed emerges. In one of the finest scenes of the film, the pint-sized girl
is confronted by a nasty client at a fantastic bathhouse, a previously svelte water
spirit who has gorged himself on the bathhouse’s luxuries and is now a bulging,
man-eating Goliath, determining his next meal based on who foolishly accepts
his gold coins. This film won the best animated feature Oscar.
1. “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988) This Miyazaki classic evokes a magic summer countryside as a lonely girl and her younger sister explore their new home, complete with whimsical dust bunnies and a giant tree that harbors Totoro, an over-sized genially grinning fuzzy yet scary forest spirit who protects them as their hard-working father cares for their hospitalized mother. When they are stranded in the rain at a dark bus stop, Totoro conjures up a 12-legged furry cat bus to ferry them home. A must-see.
Watch below backstage interview footage from Comic-Con 2009 of Lasseter talking about making the English-language version of “Ponyo.”