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Directors Cuts: Top 5 Hayao Miyazaki Movies

It seems I’m never quite done thinking about and wanting to write about Hayao Miyazaki. After doing big long essays on each of his 11 feature films last year (called Miyazaki Masterclass if you’d like to revisit them), I thought I had put the Japanese animation master more or less to bed. But, the recent release of Porco Rosso on Blu-ray rejuvenated my excitement, even if it had only taken a brief break. So, as difficult as this will be, I’ve decided I’m going to try to rank my five favorite Miyazaki movies and then live with it for a minute before surely second guessing myself. I do love all of them except Ponyo.

5) Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
This movie is as old as I am and is one of the last ones of Miyazaki’s I had to see, but the beauty and melancholy about it really stuck with me. In a post-apocalyptic world where most of the planet is uninhabitable and giant insectoid beasts rule the forests, a young princess named Nausicaä, who rides a cool air-glider thing, has to attempt to unite her kingdom with an invading one that seeks an ancient giant warrior to destroy the Toxic Forest, even though all the prophecies say this would be disastrous. One of Miyazaki’s most science fictional works, Nausicaä began his filmic love affair with protecting the environment and communing with nature while also being an adventure story with some great action in it.

4) My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Perhaps the filmmaker’s most iconic and famous film is also one of his most atypical. Most of his movies have very clear plots and arcs and the like, but Totoro is about childhood and experience. It’s only 88 minutes long but it feels longer, in a good way, because the movie really makes the viewer hearken back to those days when you can sit at home, or come home from school, and just daydream and play. The two sisters in the film badly want to remain kids, even though the world keeps trying to make them grow up too fast. Totoro and the magical critters around him represent that ever-present desire to remain innocent and it’s a delight to watch. This is also Miyazaki’s first film to represent contemporary Japan, and in a more rural area even.

3) Princess Mononoke (1997)
This was the first of Hayao Miyazaki’s films that I saw, and I remember not really knowing how to take it. It wasn’t as “badass” as I was hoping it was going to be, me being a 20 year old fan of Akira and Ghost in the Shell, but it definitely stuck with me. Watching it again, finally, last year, I saw what Miyazaki was doing, and was pretty troubled by it. It’s easily his angriest film, made at a time when he thought the world was going down the tubes and that children needed to know what was really going on. He made a film set in mystical ancient Japan and the war between good and evil and nature and machinery. It’s a very violent film, too; people get their limbs cut off with arrows and stuff. It seems slightly out of place with Studio Ghibli’s style of animation, but Miyazaki’s passion and the message he’s conveying are too powerful to ignore.

2) Porco Rosso (1992)
I think Porco Rosso just beats Princess Mononoke for me because of one simple fact: Porco Rosso is one of the most joyfully fun movies I’ve ever seen. One of Miyazaki’s passions is flying and airplanes and this movie celebrates both, and the classic planes of the turn of the century, with some of the most beautiful animated sequences in his whole catalog. It’s a weird story of a former WWI fighter pilot who gets cursed to be an anthropomorphic pig, but most of the movie isn’t about that; he just IS a pig and everybody’s okay with it. Porco Rosso, as he’s now known, flies around as an aerial bounty hunter in the Adriatic Sea, which provides some lovely backgrounds and locations. There are not real evil villains in the movie, just rivals who wish to defeat Porco in flight prowess. After his plane is destroyed, he teams up with his mechanic’s engineering-genius granddaughter to make the best plane in existence. It truly is a delight.

1) Spirited Away (2001)
Yes, I’m going to go ahead and be the most predictable person alive in choosing the lone film to win Miyazaki-san an Oscar, but you can’t argue with sheer brilliance, can you? I like to call this Miyazaki’s Alice in Wonderland in that it’s about a young girl who is separated from her family and taken to a magical realm with creatures and weird people and danger and things like that. Only unlike Lewis Carroll’s work, Spirited Away was not at all about drugs and entirely about Miyazaki showing that children, no matter how innocent, have to make do in this scary, unfamiliar world, sort of a more dangerous and inverted version of My Neighbor Totoro. The characters are all colorful, the creatures are suitably nightmare-inducing, and the story is one of the most redemptive and ultimately uplifting of any of his films, especially coming off of the relative bleakness of Mononoke. It’s just simply put one of the best animated films ever made and easily Miyazaki’s most accomplished.

And there we are, friends, and surely you disagree with me in some fashion. As I said, I truly like 10 out of his 11 films but for me, these are the five that best represent the Master and all his cinematic tricks and proclivities. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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  1. Mike says:

    I love all of his films all the way back to The Castle of Cagliostro but my personal favorite by far is Laputa.

  2. The Fisher King says:

    My daughter is watching Ponyo for the 25th (or so) time right now. I would rate Princess Mononoke as my favorite of all of his, and Howl’s Moving Castle as my least (just because the ending comes completely out of nowhere).

  3. Lacey says:

    I agree with your list. I would like to note that while ihave put a Great deal of thought into my ghibli film ranking i admit it is not constant, this list order is fluid and depending on my mood the order easily changes. FIRST,  It’s so hard to leave Laputa Off the list. I’d replace Porco Rosso with castle in the sky. Ahhh, but wait, my very favorite is Howl’s moving castle, so shouldn’t this be the top 7? HOW could we pick just 5? Yes. Ok top 7. HOWL is first, because i’m a sucker for love; followed by spirited away at #2, Then I’d make princess Mononoke #3, you know back to the love theme, purity and goodness triumph over all of course; personally Nausicaä is such an amazing female heroine that she can’t be at the bottom of the list so there, #4 Nausicaä of the valley of the wind, Laputa, Castle in the Sky is a strong #5, Totoro & Kiki tie for #6,  Porco Rosso #7, but Only because I’ve always wanted more from porco rosso. I digress, a huge shout out to Joe hisaishi for some of the most brilliant film scoring, dare I say, of all time? Yes I said it! Also for huge fans like me and my girls, nothing is better than replacing the garbage on the radio with a bad ass studio ghibli playlist. (I recommend them all. Porco Rosso soundtrack is so lovely, they all are). 

  4. John says:

    Hard do rank these top master pieces. I do love Ponyo a lot. Porco Rosso is the one I love “less” (though I like it 10 times better than any Pixar movie). Top 5 would be 1) Chihiro 2) Totoro 3) Kiki 4) Ponyo 5) Laputa

  5. Britt says:

    Laputa (castle in the sky) would have been on my list; very good choices all around though! 

  6. Pia says:

    top 5 for me (in no particular order) would be Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howls Moving Castle, Nausicaa, and Kiki’s Delivery Service

  7. ed says:

    I prefer MONONOKE-HIME to “Spirited Away”. There’s something more specifically ‘Japanese’ and mythologically fulfilling in the story, I think. (And sorry to Claire, Billy and Billy Bob, I like the original over the English dubbing.)
    “Spirited Away” might be Miyazaki’s masterpiece, though. PONYO was too cute.

  8. Philip says:

    Where can I access the masterclass ?

  9. Philip says:

    I come with the exact same ranking in my head before reading the article and I really don’t like being predictable 🙂

  10. Andrea says:

    I love Howl’s Moving Castle, but I really wish it matched the book. 

  11. Tim says:

    I would have Princess Mononoke as number 1, followed by Howl’s Moving Castle. 

  12. JE Smith says:

    We still don’t have SPIRITED AWAY on blu-ray. This needs to change, ASAP! 

  13. Johnny says:

    Thank you so much for bringing to light such an obscure filmmaker who has not received the accolades he so very much deserves.

  14. Haley says:

    Phew, I’m happy to say I’ve seen all of these (multiple times even)!

  15. Joe Pearson says:

    This is a perfect set of pick’s from the Master’s best. I would put Nausica at the top of the list and drop Rosso for La Puta, but still it’s an insightful set of choices.

  16. Joe Pearson says:

    This is a perfect set of pick’s from the Master’s best. I would put Nausica at the top of the list and drop Rosso for La Puta, but still it’s an insightful set of choices. 

  17. Josh L. says:

    Didn’t you guys even read the article? He said he didn’t like Ponyo.

  18. Kevin says:

    I am so happy to see Nausicaa on this list.  I still well up during the captured princess scene after the airship crashes.  By far my favorite Miyazaki.

  19. Sarah says:

    Wait. Which one don’t you like? 

  20. Nola G. says:

    I just want to know which one you DON’T like!

    • Josh says:

      He said he doesnt like Ponyo. No idea why though, I enjoyed it very much.

      • Mike says:

        I think there’s a lot to like in Ponyo, mostly in the innocence, the astounding animation and the incredibly rich visual aesthetic. As a film, a story, though…I (and most Miyazaki disciples I know) feel it is definitely his weakest. It seems like a film strictly meant for children. This is not a bad thing! But to me it meant that there wasn’t as much to take away and hold onto as there is from all of his other films.

      • Ian says:

        It doesn’t flow as well. Plus the ending is so short and abrupt.

      • Gaelwyn says:

        Ham! I loved that one. After Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Sevice and Ponyo are my favorites.