When it premiered at the Venice Film Festival back in August, “The Wind Rises,” which hits theaters this week, was accompanied by the announcement that it would be the last feature film from director Hayao Miyazaki. It may be that that turns out to be premature—the filmmaker has said as much several times before—but if this truly is his last film, it’ll prove to be a monumental loss to cinema.
Over the last three decades, Miyazaki, and his company Studio Ghibli, have been behind some of the greatest masterpieces that animated film have ever seen, strange wonderful pictures that couldn’t have come from anywhere or anyone else, and have broken out of love from just the hardcore anime fans to enchant audiences and cinephiles the world over. Western audiences have caught on more recently thanks to the patronage of Disney and Pixar chief John Lasseter, perhaps the only figure who can stand alongside Miyazaki in the animated world.
We couldn’t let the release of the last Miyazaki film (for now…) pass by without celebration, and so to mark the occasion, we’ve decided to try a near-impossible feat: to definitively rank the director’s eleven feature-length features, from worst to best. Miyazaki never made a truly bad movie, and nothing here really ranks below a B- or C+, and most are much higher. But some great films are greater than others. Read on below to find out what we deemed to be the best of Hayao Miyazaki, and argue with our picks in the comments section below.
11. “The Castle Of Cagliostro” (1979)
Miyazaki’s first feature as director, and a rare non-Studio Ghibli film, is undoubtedly the least of his major works, a somewhat anonymous franchise caper, but one that does at least show the promise of the master filmmaker that was to come. Based on Manga artist Monkey Punch‘s enduringly popular character Lupin III (the grandson of Maurice LeBlanc‘s gentleman-thief Arsene Lupin), derived from an anime TV series for which Miyazaki had directed a number of episodes, it opens with Lupin and right-hand man Daisuke Jigen pulling off a successful casino robbery in Monte Carlo, only to discover that their haul is made up of counterfeit notes. This ends up pointing them in the direction of the sinister Count Cagliostro and the princess Clarisse, who is meant to marry him. It’s a rather convoluted and overstuffed plot, featuring ninja assassins, various associates and adversaries of Lupin’s, faked deaths, Roman ruins, terrible secrets and a “You Only Live Twice“-style autogyro, and can sometimes feel manic, gag-happy and, well, cartoonish, in a reality-breaking way that isn’t really the case with Miyazaki’s other work, which feels anchored no matter how fantastical it gets. On the animation scale, it’s definitely closer to Saturday morning cartoons than, say, “The Wind Rises.” But all that said, it is wildly imaginative and beautifully executed, with a number of action sequences that would put any live-action film to shame—there’s a cracking car chase early on, and things only improve from there. And while the production values are notably lesser than the Ghibli pictures, the trademark attention to detail of a Miyazaki film is very much present in the fantastical European setting, a gloriously romantic depiction of a world that never existed (one that would be returned to in spirit many times), that nods to classic French graphic novels, Bond and Tintin, among others. It’s definitely a minor entry in the canon, disposable in a way none of his other films really are, but it’s still a remarkably entertaining 100 minutes.
10. “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004)
What kind of a filmography can have a film as good as “Howl’s Moving Castle” nestle in the bottom half in terms of quality? But here it is, as splendid and beautifully imagined an animated film as we’ve seen, and yet low in our overall rankings. The reason for that is simple: while it’s a terrific film, it feels less pure, original Miyazaki than many of the others here, being loosely based on a book by English author Diana Wynne Jones, and featuring a steampunk-y vibe that, while well-realized, harkens back to the director’s “Laputa: Castle In The Sky” made nearly two decades earlier. Still, transforming rather than transcribing the original story (which was a contentious issue for some fans of the book), the Oscar-nominated ‘Howl’ is a treat and a tremendous visual achievement: the story of Sophie, a plain young milliner who has a spell cast upon her making her old and who falls in love with a handsome, troubled wizard, as so often with Miyazaki films, it is the backdrop that really gives the film its unique texture. Here it plays out during a time of war, a war even those waging it admit is “idiotic” and which yet wreaks havoc on villages and fills the skies with fighter-airships dropping bombs (most of which wear hats). Miyazaki publicly stated that the film was a reaction to the widely unpopular Japanese involvement in the Iraq War, and even Marco Mueller, Director of the Venice Film Festival where it debuted, called it “the strongest anti-war statement we have in the whole festival.” But of course it’s more than possible to enjoy the film without reading in all that subtext—in fact we’d suggest that this film, while it may not be the purest, or weirdest, iteration of the director’s filmmaking, could function well as a “starter Miyazaki” especially for children raised on Disney movies. The synthesis of fabulously imagined visuals (the castle design is stunningly intricate and jokey) and grotesque or ambivalent characters with more recognizably “Western” elements like the transformative power of true love and a couple of helpful magical sidekicks (notably a talking fire and an ‘Oz’-like scarecrow), make it an easy way to get your feet wet in the world of Miyazaki, before taking the plunge proper.
9. “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989)
How do you follow up “My Neighbor Totoro,” the film that truly put Miyazaki on the map? With a sweet, low-key coming-of-age story that happened to precede the coming mania over young witches and wizards ten years before the arrival of “Harry Potter” (and, happily, also proved to be a huge hit, Ghibli’s biggest up to that point). Miyazaki wasn’t even originally supposed to direct “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” an adaptation of the novel by Eiko Kadono—he was busy with ‘Totoro,’ and had passed on the duties to colleague Sunao Katabuchi. But he was unhappy with earlier drafts of the script, and with ‘Totoro’ now in the can, Miyazaki took over, and the result is a film that couldn’t be made by another director. Set in an alternate Europe (the imagery is based, at least in part, on Stockholm), it follows the titular Kiki, a 13-year-old witch in training, who, like other witches, has to spend a year living on her own before she can resume her training. With the help of her talking cat Jiji, she sets up shop delivering for a bakery, and befriends and falls for a local boy mad for aviation, but becomes depressed and starts to lose her power. Miyazaki’s always been a director in touch with his feminine side (“The Wind Rises” is rare among his films for not featuring a female protagonist), but even when compared to the others, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is easily his least testosterone-y: a quiet, little film about a young girl learning to believe in herself, and overcome her insecurities—a sort of magical “Frances Ha,” as it were. It’s utterly charming and very sweet-natured, but to the extent it can sometimes come across as bland: the conflict is so internal that it feels a little undramatic in places, and while typically beautiful (not least in the stunning flying sequences), it doesn’t come across as Miyazaki’s most distinctive act of world creation. It’s a lovely little film, of course, and a perfect jumping-on point to the director’s work for young girls, but there are richer and more resonant films as you’ll soon see.
8. “Ponyo” (2008)
Inescapably and somewhat unfairly described as
one of the director’s “minor” efforts (the word means a lot less in a
catalogue as strong as Miyazaki’s) “Ponyo” is in fact a deliciously weird take on “The Little Mermaid,”
following a young fish-girl-thingy named Ponyo, who dreams of becoming a
human girl (or at the very least more human-ish), much to the chagrin
of her father, a formerly human scientist who now exists as a kind of
Neptune-ish lord of the sea. What makes “Ponyo” so fascinating, besides
how utterly bizarre it is (particularly towards the end), is that it’s from a
director who has long been obsessed with the transformative power and
enduring legacy of flight, dealing with a movie that is largely set
underwater. The result is one of the filmmaker’s more deliberately
trippy exercises, full of giant underwater fish and spirits that control
the wind and waves. (The seaside town where the human characters live
is so gorgeous and charming that you want to buy a house there). While
the movie looks, outwardly, like one of the director’s more kid-friendly
projects, it’s pretty complex, thematically, with the father/daughter
dynamics explored to their fullest, most emotional levels and the
relationship between man and nature (in this case, the sea) given
typical importance. It might not be the filmmaker’s best film, but it’s a
visual feast full of some of the most stunning animation Studio Ghibli
has ever produced, and is laden with deceptively nuanced storytelling.
If there’s a little one in your life obsessed with Ariel and Sebastian, show them this. It’s a lot weirder, but it might end up being just as beloved.
7. “Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind” (1984)
Miyazaki channeled Jim Henson for the 1984 adaptation of his own manga series “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” and not the Henson who created the Muppets but the one who was interested in the surreal, blackly tinged science fiction fantasy worlds of “The Dark Crystal” (released just two years earlier and a perfect companion piece). This is Miyazaki at his most sprawling and imaginative, set in a post-apocalyptic landscape where a toxic gas and creeping jungle (not to mention giant, carnivorous bugs that make the worms of “Dune” seem like a minor inconvenience) threaten to wipe out what little of humanity is left behind. Nausicaa is a young girl who is able to quell the angry insects and lives in a land protected by a natural wind barrier (she also, like a number of Miyazaki characters, is obsessed with flight), who finds herself caught in between warring factions as they struggle for survival. Although only his second feature as a director, “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” represents a number of the themes and ideas that would grow to define his later work—an emphasis on pacifism as opposed to combat, an environmental message, a strong young female protagonist, and prolonged flight sequences. It’s a remarkably assured and complicated work that only occasionally gets bogged down in its own abundant mythology and occasionally knotty plot mechanics. The film deserves to stand alongside other ’80s science fiction landmarks and in many ways feels even more ahead of its time than the ones that are regularly heralded. While certainly not the best of the director’s lavish fantasy films, it’s still mind-boggling, made even more so by the fact that the director made it so (relatively) early in his career.
6. “The Wind Rises” (2013)
Miyazaki’s last film is also one of his most quietly affecting. While peppered with fantasy sequences, “The Wind Rises” eschews the magical inclinations of many of Miyazaki’s most iconic films, instead presenting a relatively straightforward biography of Jiro Horikoshi, a real-life Japanese airplane designer who was responsible for the Japanese Zero Fighter in World War II. This subject matter has lent the film an undue amount of controversy, with many claiming that the movie sweetens and makes sympathetic a deadly warmonger who knowingly built killing machines. But this discussion misses the point entirely, since the movie is mostly about the limitless power of imagination and the way that designs can transcend their purpose, which, frankly, has been a recurring theme of Miyazaki’s for decades with less than a murmur of protest. The director has spent his entire career communicating his feeling for flight as a tantalizing, romanticized experience full of wonder and awe, and that impulse does perhaps reach its culmination here: the flight sequences in “The Wind Rises” might be his best ever. Jiro is so obsessed with flight and his designs that he imagines himself in the planes, or talking to famous figures in aviation, while there’s a love story too, at the heart of “The Wind Rises” that is equally as compelling as the story of the aviator’s quest for design perfection. If this truly is Miyazaki’s final film, he’s ended his filmography on a high note—one of sweeping beauty and historical importance that works just as well as a tiny, human story. “The Wind Rises” soars not because of its incredible flying sequences but because it lets you understand, so completely, how one man’s boundless imagination can be co-opted for outside purposes, and because we can’t help but see Miyazaki reflecting on his own creative life in the story.