For the past half-century, one name has stood a cut above the rest in the realm of Japanese animation: Hayao Miyazaki. With a dozen movies now under his belt, the famed co-founder and chief architect behind Studio Ghibli continues to exert an outsize influence on the cinematic landscape, inspiring generations of artists and capturing the hearts of audiences worldwide. From ecological parables to coming-of-age tales of rare insight and emotional depth, Miyazaki’s work often veers into the fantastical, yet speaks to our present reality, allowing viewers of all ages to see the world once again through a child’s eyes.
Despite announcing his retirement in 2013, the 82-year-old luminary is back in the director’s chair with The Boy and the Heron (originally titled How Do You Live), whose plot points remain top secret, set to make its debut in Japan on July 14. The animation maestro has yet to disappoint: beloved classics like My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Princess Mononoke (1997) turned the Japanese studio into a global powerhouse, while Spirited Away (2001) helped secure its cultural foothold overseas with a long-overdue Oscar nod. However, Ghibli’s vast back catalog offers a treasure trove of under-appreciated gems, the bulk of which has only recently become available to stream in the United States. Thus, a handful of Miyazaki’s masterpieces remain in relative obscurity in the West through no fault of their own. In honor of his new film and enduring legacy as a pioneering animator, we take a closer look at his lovely, enchanting worlds.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
If, like us, you’re a Princess Mononoke devotee, this early Miyazaki gem should be high on your watch list. A pointedly feminist fantasy saga released a year before Studio Ghibli was officially formed, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind imagines a future in which Earth has become a desolate toxic wasteland swarming with giant insects.
Based on Miyazaki’s own 1982 manga, the story revolves around a fiery 16-year-old warrior princess who must find a way to rally her people against invading forces and save the natural world from destruction. It’s a solid onramp for newcomers, as it matches the scope and audacity of Miyazaki’s most famous work while sporting the same anti-war and environmentalist themes he has spent his entire career obsessing over.
Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
For a deeper dive, a title worth seeking out next is Castle of Cagliostro. One of his lesser-known works, Miyazaki’s first directorial credit—something of a cross between James Bond and Tintin—is also among his most approachable and unabashedly fun.
Part modern-day fable, part swashbuckler caper, part road-trip adventure, and wholly pleasurable in how it effortlessly blends high-spun action with dashes of camp and slapstick comedy, Miyazaki’s pre-Ghibli debut is far better than it has any obligation to be. There’s a gentleman thief, a damsel in distress, lost treasure, high-stakes heists, rooftop chase sequences, with some stunning sword fight showdowns sprinkled in for good measure. What’s not to like? It sometimes gets a little lost in the Miyazaki canon, but Lupin is as good a place as any to dip your toes into his work.
Castle in the Sky (1986)
A tissue sample of Miyazaki’s boundless imagination, Ghibli’s first major production showcases the director’s singular ability to turn grown-ups into kids again in the space of a few frames. Set in the 19th Century, this high-flying coming-of-age tale follows a boy and a girl who embark on a quest to find the ancient floating city of Laputa while being chased by an army and a gang of short-fused pirates.
Overflowing with stunning visuals that match its heartfelt emotions, Castle in the Sky synthesized a number of key themes—innocence lost, humanity’s propensity for destruction, appreciation for the earth—that would later become Miyazaki’s stock-in-trade. Though best remembered as the breakout hit that launched him onto the world stage, it was also a watershed moment for the fantasy genre in a larger sense that would influence everything from Wall-E to James Cameron’s multi-billion-dollar Avatar saga.
Porco Rosso (1992)
Miyazaki’s fascination with flight, which harkens back to growing up in a family that owned an aircraft-part manufacturing company, has been etched into the background of almost all of his films. Among his most unconventional plot-wise, though no less profound, is the one concerning an ex-WWI Italian aviator cursed with a pig’s face who navigates the skies hunting down air pirates across the Adriatic Sea.
While a gruff, unsentimental anthropomorphic hog may not fit the traditional Ghibli character mold, Marco Pagot (superbly voiced by Michael Keaton in the English dub) undeniably warrants mention among the studio’s greatest creations. Add to the mix sweeping dogfight sequences that will knock the wind out of you and a damning takedown of fascism—which incidentally yields one of the most iconic lines in the Ghibli canon—and you’ve got a dazzling thrill ride that, like its fedora-wearing hero, is extremely good at what it sets out to do.
The Wind Rises (2013)
Miyazaki’s love for aircraft also pervades this 2013 masterpiece, a bittersweet meditation on the perils of creative ambition that was originally intended to close the book on his storied career. While we can’t help but be grateful that he’s coming out of retirement, this would have also been a fine way for the animation maestro to bow out.
A sharp detour from Ghibli’s saccharine impulses, The Wind Rises delves into the ethical consequences of pursuing one’s dreams through the story of a young aeronautical engineer, whose innovative work is ultimately used to build weapons of destruction during World War II. Though it certainly works on its own merits, this is a full six-course meal for the senses that benefits from some familiarity with Miyazaki’s other big-hitters. Unaccustomed viewers still working their way through Ghibli’s 30-plus year catalog should find a litmus test as to how well they’ll respond to the studio’s more adult-oriented titles.
Published on June 14, 2023
Words by Guillermo De Querol
Guillermo is a freelance entertainment writer based in Madrid, Spain. His writing and festival coverage has been published across various outlets, including Little White Lies, Taste of Cinema, Film Cred, and Certified Forgotten. When he’s not watching or writing about films, he’s probably talking about them on Letterboxd or Twitter. Guillermo hopes to continue to provide valuable features at JoySauce.