Hayao Miyazaki is a phenomenal filmmaker. I’ve seen several of his films, and many of them count among my personal favorite films.
The depth of the worlds he creates draws me in. For a time, they seemed to be the only oasis of quality children’s film making in the early 90’s. I think the popularity of Pixar’s early films have a debt to pay to Miyazaki.
My Neighbor Totoro was my first Miyazaki film and remains a favorite. I can only describe the film as magical. Spirited Away shares the childlike wonder of Totoro, but its greater sophistication appeals to older sensibilities as well. Its the only Miyazaki film I’ve seen in the movie theater, and I remember being amazed at the time that the film held not only the attention of my school-age son, but also the two pre-schoolers as well.
Howl’s Moving Castle is the darkest of his films thus far, brooding in themes of war, yet the strong characterizations of Sophie and Howl retain our interest.
I began to seek out his films and wasn’t disappointed. Kiki’s Delivery Service features Kiki, a strong female protagonist trying to make the most of her situation, and as such makes for an excellent role model. In a similar vein, I adore Sheeta and Pazu in Castle in the Sky, who form unexpected allies in a action-packed story.
One thing I admire about these films is that there are very few stereotypical bad guys. Jigo from Princess Mononoke is multifaceted, a hunter with connections who is both charming and dangerous. And, as in real life, the villains in these films are often just people working at cross purposes. Princess Mononoke’s Lady Eboshi is defeated when she discovers her understanding of Irontown and the situation is wrong.
Miyazaki’s films are not perfect. For example, my kids and I just watched Princess Mononoke for the first time, and I was almost compelled to stop the video and speak to Lady Eboshi’s reverse misogyny. I suppose one could argue, though, that Ashitaka is a good counterpoint to her dismal opinion of men.
However, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is the only Miyazaki film I had to work to like. I thought his later films like Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle tackled the material better. I thought the environmental theme was over done and the film’s pacing suffered for it. For me, the characters never gelled. Each was interesting in their own right, but they weren’t interesting together. I wonder if my opinion would be different if I’d seen them in the order they were filmed.
I’d recommend his films to children and adults alike. I’d start with My Neighbor Totoro. I think it’s the most straightforward and delightful of his films.