Make Mine Miyazaki! 5 Top Films by the Animation Legend

PRINCESS MONONOKE, director Hayao Miyazaki, 1997

Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animator, storyteller, manga artist and director extraordinaire, turns 75 today, after devoting 53 of those years to his artistic career (thus far). To understand his importance to animation fans worldwide, as well as his stature as a filmmaker in his home country, imagine a combination of Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick—that’ll get you close to his impact on Japanese pop culture and box office. 

Through his production company, Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki has prolifically turned out hit film after hit film since the 1980s, all of outstanding quality and filled with original, supremely imaginative content. To celebrate the birthday of this animation hero, I give you an overview of five of his best movies, in my opinion. He truly is one of the most important filmmakers of his era, and I envy anyone encountering his work for the first time.

1. Castle in the Sky

As a kid, I had always wanted to be an animator, but by 1987 I had given up on the idea. Everything I was seeing in the U.S. was dismal: Disney’s Golden Age had passed, and its only replacement (as far as I was concerned) was cheaply made Saturday-morning cartoon shows. That is, until a friend lent me a bootleg VHS copy of Miyazaki’s Laputa (released as Castle in the Sky in the U.S. in 2003). The tape was in Japanese, with no subtitles, and it didn’t matter. I couldn’t understand the language, but I understood the movie, and I was riveted. I watched it three times that night; by the next morning, I had a new career in mind—or, rather, a revised look at an old one.

Perhaps for sentimental reasons, then, Castle in the Sky is hands-down my favorite Miyazaki. It’s got everything: action, suspense, mystery, pirates, spies, robots, the military-industrial complex, exiled royals, lost civilizations, fantasy and science fiction. Follow the young leads, Sheeta and Pazu, on their perilous search for the floating island of Laputa in this steampunk classic.

2. Spirited Away

Spirited Away (2001) is the closest thing to a horror picture Miyazaki has made to date. H.P. Lovecraft himself would’ve liked this, with its extradimensional shadow world of grotesque frog creatures, river spirits, devils and other amorphous menaces. When Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs after foolishly eating food from a ghostly restaurant, she must hide among the spirit folk, passing into their weird realm to save her parents from a witch’s clutches. This Oscar winner for best animated feature provides a tour of Japanese myth, legend and fairy lore that’s not to be missed.

3. Princess Mononoke

This movie doesn’t miss second place by much. Miyazaki can always be counted on for strong female characters and gynocentric story lines, and Princess Mononoke (1997) is one of his best examples. He repeatedly returns to themes of preservation as well, with new ways threatening the old. This film’s title character is like a female Tarzan: Raised by wolves (that talk, sort of) and just as dangerous, Mononoke fights to protect a vanishing world of magical creatures against preindustrial human encroachment. Suffering a similar fate is Ashitaka, a member of an indigenous human tribe. A curse put upon him by forest spirits forces him into the middle of the conflict, and he tries to help Mononoke in her struggle. This action-packed film is not at all for kids.

4. My Neighbor Totoro

Shifting gears here, I also really love My Neighbor Totoro (1988), the Miyazaki film that finally caught America’s (and Disney’s) attention. It’s pure fantasy for children about magical creatures, or kami, who live in sacred trees and other enchanted spaces. Totoro and his minions meet two little girls who have moved from overcrowded Tokyo to the countryside, where their mother is in treatment for an illness. When Mom suffers an emergency, the youngest daughter sets out for the hospital on her own, gets hopelessly lost and is sought by her older sister with the help of Totoro and an enormous cat that is also a bus. This fun Alice in Wonderland–style adventure is trippy, cute and your kids’ next favorite film.

5. From Up on Poppy Hill

Reflecting yet another genre of storytelling at which Miyazaki excels, From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) may disappoint his more action-oriented fans, but if heartwarming romance is your thing, this one’s for you. Written by Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa and directed by Miyazaki’s son Goro, this lovely film looks back at the life of a Yokohama teenager who awakens to romance as Tokyo prepares to host the 1964 summer Olympics. Her father was lost at sea years ago, and the maritime signal flags she habitually raises daily to guide him home attract the attention of a boy from her high school. Love blossoms, but one big problem threatens to keep the pair apart. It’s touching, nostalgic, innocent and beautifully shot.

There you have it: five golden offerings from my favorite filmmaker (really, you can’t go wrong with any Miyazaki movie). But there’s more: Miyazaki’s retirement announcement in 2013—his sixth such promise—has now been subverted by word of his next post-retirement project, “Boro the Caterpillar,” an all-CG short (a first for the director). And Miyazaki fans who find themselves in Tokyo should check out the Studio Ghibli Museum in nearby Mitaka. It’s not an amusement park, but it is a great place to visit for fun exhibits and cool merch. It even has its own beer! So happy birthday, Miyazaki-sama! You’ve made me a happy geek for many years.

Feature Photo: Everett Collection