The works of Hayao Miyazaki are magical. And ever since his oeuvre, the simply named “Princess Mononoke” was released in the USA, he’s become something of a modern-day Walt Disney with a Japanese accent.
And all it takes to understand why is to watch one of hjs works. The best thing about a Miyazaki — and to a certain extent, any Ghibli — film is that it caters to virtually any age. Every one of them is a good family feature, and there’s plenty for the young and the old to enjoy. Miyazaki explores the simplest of human emotions — love, bravery, honor, and adventure — and imbues them into characters that will resonate with you for a very long time.
It isn’t easy to choose a good Miyazaki film, because they’re all good, and he has a lot of them. But here are four of the best films in the lot.
“Ponyo” is, according to Indiewire, a retelling of the “Little Mermaid.” If Disney is the cheerful, simplified version of this old tale, then “Ponyo” is the loopy, magical version of the same thing. “Ponyo” is the story of a magical fish girl who falls in love with a human boy named Sosuke and the unwittingly chaotic chain of events this attraction causes.
Despite the way that paragraph may sound, the movie is actually the perfect introduction to the world of Miyazaki for children. This movie is light-hearted and whimsical, and even the direst of circumstances is given a very light treatment that won’t frighten off the very young. If you’re new to the works of Miyazaki, or if you’re introducing him to your kids, then “Ponyo” is the easiest starting point.
“Howl’s Moving Castle”
This title might be familiar to some of you. That’s because this is an adaptation of a fantasy novel first published in 1986. Miyazaki doesn’t stick closely to the plot. Some elements, such as the roles of Sophie’s sisters, are left out, focusing solely on the relationship between Howl and Sophie and how their actions affect the characters around them.
While this shares the same whimsical tone one would expect from a Miyazaki film, “Howl’s Moving Castle” explores a lot of serious themes, such as the effects of war — Miyazaki himself has publicly stated that the film was a criticism of the Japanese involvement in the war on Iraq. But the characters are very relatable, and the dialogue has that quirky Miyazaki touch that makes this film a great treat for teens and older people.
How can an adventure film whose main protagonist is a pig be entertaining in any way? That’s one of the things that boggles the mind when you start watching one of Miyazaki’s old masterpieces, “Porco Rosso.” The name is, once again, very straightforward. It is about Porco Rosso, a humanoid pig, who flies a red biplane.
As far as his works go, “Porco Rosso” is the least bit magical in terms of actual content. It is set in the post-World War I theater, and the main setting is post-war Italy. But the film is all Miyazaki. If there’s anything the man has an intense affection for, it is the concept of flight, and a pig flying a biplane sends a tongue-in-cheek message that even pigs can fly.
This is a straight-up adventure movie that can give Tintin and Indiana Jones a run for their money. But as always, Miyazaki’s signature whimsical storytelling can be felt throughout the film, and that makes this movie more magical, even without the presence of magic.
If “Princess Mononoke” made Miyazaki a common name in the western world, then “Spirited Away” is the film that made the U.S. critics accept him as a master of the craft.
“Spirited Away” is the story of a girl who gets spirited away, hence the name, to a fantasy world of mythical creatures, where magic flourished in the simplest of forms. In this world, everybody did their part; and if you forgot your name, the person you work for owns you. This is a classic end of innocence film, and a lot of people compare it with Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” One can understand why.
This film has a wide and varied cast of characters—think a whole bath house full!—and there isn’t a dull moment throughout the film. Miyazaki read through a lot of girlish comics to get the mood for the film down, and it shows, but this film is a masterpiece for people of all ages.
Despite Disney’s reluctance to market the movie, “Spirited Away” was well-received by critics and even won the Oscar for best animated feature in 2003. This film is a testament to Miyazaki’s visionary career and remains, to this day, a classic introduction into the field of Japanese animation.
There you have it for Hayao Miyazaki’s four best films. Follow Movie News Guide (MNG) for movie updates.
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons / Natasha Baucas