Hayao Miyazaki is the most beloved Japanese animator in history. His work has touched the lives of millions of anime and non-anime fans worldwide for over 40 years. He is the Walt Disney of Japan in some respects, a cultural icon whose popularity will extend not just to his lifetime but to the lifetimes of generations to come. His films, ranging from adaptations of novels to his own original fantasy tales, focus on wide-ranging themes and coming-of-age stories, generally female characters who, rather than damsels in distress, are strong and empowered.
Born during the Second World War to a father involved in aviation design and manufacture, Miyazaki’s love for old fashioned airplanes features heavily in his work, giving all of his oeuvre a distinctive almost steampunk quality. War, and the heavy toll it takes, would be a prime theme of many of his films.
Miyazaki got his start in animation in his 20’s with Toei Animation, working on children’s programs. It wouldn’t be until the early 1970’s that he would gain traction working on one of anime’s most popular and enduring franchises, Lupin III.
After showcasing his directing chops with The Castle of Cagliostro and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki would co-found Studio Ghibli in 1985 and from there become an illusive and enigmatic sensation; a perfectionist always claiming his latest film will be his last...until it’s not.
In recent years he has publicly addressed his disenfranchisement with anime, basically saying it is made by people who do not actually reflect humanity in the works. If I may read into this without expressly putting words into his mouth, he seems fed up by the medium’s prevalence of sexual tropes. As one of the reasons anime has gained such international attention and become as popular as it has, Miyazaki's harsh critiques were a surprising, if not expected response to what the medium has become.
This series of articles will delve into each of Miyazaki’s and Studio Ghibli’s films, offering a peek into not only Miyazaki’s mind, but those of his collaborators as well.
We begin with Miyazaki’s first works, and Ghibli’s 80s output.
Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
The Lupin franchise follows womanizing thief Arsene Lupin III and his gunslinging partner Jigen on worldwide adventures. Dogged by INTERPOL inspector Zenigata and constantly falling for the tricks of his sometimes partner, always muse Fujiko, the series is James Bond meets Pink Panther.
Though not a Ghibli film, Castle of Cagliostro is Miyazaki’s first film in the director’s chair and worth a look as it features some of his signature style. From the gorgeous scenery to the characters so obviously of his design, as well as some unique aircraft, Castle is a good place to start for Miyazaki fans as well as those wanting to get a taste of what the Lupin series is all about.
In the film, Lupin and Jigen save a princess fleeing marriage to the wicked Count Cagliostro. She’s quickly returned to the castle from which she fled and locked in a tower. Lupin, who seems to have a past with the princess, brings along his friends to navigate a Scooby-Doo funhouse of a building, along the way learning of the Count’s nefarious counterfeiting operation -- and his scheme to steal the princess’s wealth.
The 100 minute runtime breezes by with plenty of inventive action and humor. The characters are a lovable group of misfits, their criminal behaviors tamped down as Miyazaki wanted to present a more wholesome and likable version of the iconic crew than the television series had.
As a piece of pure, unadulterated entertainment, Castle of Cagliostro delivers and is definitely worth a watch. It’s a gorgeous piece of animation unafraid to use the medium to its advantage, presenting goofy cartoon antics while telling a tale anyone can enjoy.
Just don’t watch the original English dub. It’s horrible.
3.5 out of 4 Stars
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Based on a manga by Miyazaki, the great success of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind would lead to the founding of Studio Ghibli.
In it, a princess named Nausicaa is forced to protect the denizens of her small kingdom, as well as a forest full of giant insects. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where giants destroyed the Earth, Nausicaa is riding a line between fantasy and sci-fi to middling effect.
To its credit, many consider Nausicaa one of the finest animated films ever. For me, I found it tepid. Despite great designs and some exhilarating aerial combat the story failed to hook me and I could not invest myself in any of the characters. Nausicaa as a lead is boring, lacking enough internal conflicts or even charm to be endearing. The villains don’t feel villainous and all extraneous characters are just kind of there.
It’s not helped by the world being the kind of dated post-apocalyptic fantasy that was a big deal in the 80’s. Though the mechanical and creature design is great, the ugly world makes it forgettable and dull.
Add to that a bizarre soundtrack that vacillates between classical, organ scores, and weird Miami Vice style synth and you have a movie I found scatterbrained and middling.
2 out of 4 Stars
Castle in the Sky (1986)
A young man catches a princess who falls from the sky and embarks on a massive adventure protecting her from sky pirates the military forces who want to use her power to unlock the mysteries of Laputa, the titular castle in the sky. Set in a typically Miyazaki steampunk-ish fantasy world and with even more airplane and airship action than any of his films so far, Castle in the Sky is one of the best animated features of all time.
Part of my love for the film comes down to how the medium is used to the fullest. Nausicaa wasn’t very humorous nor did it use the physics of cartoons to make for interesting action set pieces. It was too serious for me, but Castle in the Sky takes full advantage, offering up some amazing and gorgeous set pieces for its nonstop action.
Another part is the characters. Sheeta and Pazu, our leads, aren’t necessarily the most fully realized characters but they are fun, easy to invest in, and their relationship has a kind of pure sweetness to it. Then there are the sky pirates, led by Dola, the mother of all the pirates, played by Cloris Leachman who steals every scene she’s in. Starting as a villain and becoming a good friend along the way, I love, again, the purity of it all, showcasing even a seeming villain as a kindhearted person.
But the main villain is a true villain, a coldhearted and evil person who you want to see get his comeuppance. That dynamic of all the characters making you feel some way really helps the film invest you in its world and story.
And what a world by the way. Offering hints of World War 2 style military societies side by side with bizarre Mezo-American inspired robots and castles; there is always something new and interesting to discover alongside our heroes.
Funny, heartfelt, and emotional, offering a condemnation of war as well as even more environmental themes; Castle in the Sky is the best Miyzaki movie yet and one of my personal favorite anime films.
4 out of 4 Stars
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
The first non-Miyazaki film out of Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies comes from director Isao Takahata, who produced Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky. While the animation style offers the same detail and grounded character design, the tone and content of this film is a far cry from anything the studio had produced and is the only Ghibli movie I can say, without a doubt, I would not let a child watch.
At the end of World War II, as American bombers lay waste to the Japanese mainland, a young man, Seita, and his even younger sister, Setsuko, become wandering orphans after their mother dies and their soldier father is presumed dead. In an increasingly hungry country, lacking resources and starved of empathy, these two fight to survive in the hellish wasteland where once they were allowed a childhood. A simple tin of candy becomes their only connection to when they had a home and parents, having sold off all their other possessions just for rations of rice. It’s part character study, part Dante-like journey through the wartorn desolation, and part a cry for peace.
It’s important to emphasize, once again, this is not a children’s movie despite the PG rating. Appreciation of the film has to come with a cursory understanding of history and an emotional maturity that I can’t see even a younger teen having. Even though this story focuses on two children, seeing their journey as a child would only be rather horrifying and nightmarish, I’d think, and not present the message or theme that Takahata intends.
Were I to delve any deeper into the plot and dynamics of the two children it would spoil a movie that you have to watch only knowing it’s going to make your tear ducts work overtime in a way few anime films will. Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most powerful animated films ever made.
4 out of 4 Stars
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Reviewing this film is tough because it is so obviously not for me, and I want to say that up front. It’s a movie meant for young kids and, unlike Kiki’s Delivery Service (which we’ll get to), doesn’t portray characters having to grow up or something I can connect with. Instead we get a pair of young sisters who move to the country with their father so they can be close to their hospitalized mother. Outside their new home they come across a gateway to the realm of nature spirits and meet Totoro, a giant raccoon-like creature who acts as a kind of guardian of the local flora. The movie is focused more on the rambunctious excitement of youth, with a dramatic third act to add a little heft to the narrative.
The main point of interest of the film is Totoro, a character so popular he became Ghibli’s icon and even non-anime fans know the name. For being as iconic as he is, he doesn’t do much in this film. In fact, very little of the film revolves around the forest denizens, focusing more on human drama and the relationship between the two sisters. It made the movie a hard sell for me because I was more interested in the Shinto aspects of Totoro and Miyazaki’s reverence for nature than the human characters.
That said, those kids are there and act the way they do to be a vessel of discovery for younger viewers and I am sure it works in that respect. Had I seen this as a child and not watched it for the first time this viewing (Egads!) I’d likely have a deeper respect and love for it.
The soundtrack is pretty great and the character designs are superb. It wasn’t boring like Nausicaa but My Neighbor Totoro misses the mark for me.
2 out of 4 Stars
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
The final Ghibli film of the 80’s, Kiki’s Delivery Service provides a sweet and compelling portrait of a youth. Kiki, a thirteen year old witch, goes off on the journey all witches must, a year long sabbatical to a foreign place to discover themselves. Along with her mother’s trusty broom and her black cat companion, Kiki winds up in a seaside town where she shacks up with a kindly baker and opens a delivery service.
The film doesn’t offer a very strong story, instead giving a slice-of-life, looking at Kiki as she faces some of her inner angst and finds her place in a seemingly uncaring city. Here, there are no villains and everyone, even snobby characters, are given some positive quality. Miyazaki’s intent is to create a timeless and joyful story that anyone can enjoy, and because of that, Kiki’s Delivery Service has a certain magical purity that is infectious as it gets. A good-natured film like this is something everyone can use at some point.
On top of that, Kiki may be Miyazaki’s best realized heroine so far. She is lovable in all the right ways, a three-dimensional character with a wide range of emotions who you can’t help but cheer on. There is something in her that anyone can relate to and that’s what makes the film a timeless classic.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is nowhere near Miyazaki’s most ambitious film but it’s one of those rare animated movies that manages to have more humanity to it than 95 percent of cinema altogether. This is another Miyazaki classic that anyone can enjoy.
3.5 out of 4 Stars
Next: Pigs that fly, a racoon family, and a giant wolf
You can view all of Studio Ghibli's films (with the exception of Grave of the Fireflies) on HBO Max.