Though best known in the West for epic fantasies like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki takes his final bow – he swears he’s retiring, for real this time – with the poignant historical drama The Wind Also Rises (trailer above).
Although this news put fans’ hopes for some promised projects (Ponyo 2?!) on ice (permanently?), it is the perfect moment to look back on the director, writer, and animator’s superlative career. Especially at the stuff you might have missed.
For every anime blockbuster that made it Stateside, there’s another Miyazaki-directed gem that didn’t quite get the big-screen love it deserved outside Japan – and that probably hasn’t gotten the love it deserves in your cartoon-watching line-up. Let’s remedy that now.
(Note: While trailers here are shown in English wherever possible, I of course advocate watching the films in the original Japanese with subtitles!)
1. Like Princess Mononoke? Try Nausicaä: In the Valley of the Wind
Overflowing with just as much pro-environment propaganda as Princess Mononoke (1997), Miyazaki’s second feature film Nausicaä (1984, trailer above) nevertheless manages to outdo its more famous younger sibling in every other way. This tale of future dystopia juxtaposes desolate landscapes with oversized secret gardens of magical jungle undergrowth. Characters ride giant beasts, fly, float, fall, and even walk on stalks of light. Mononoke’s spirit guardians have nothing on the creepily majestic giant Ohmu insects that rove Nausicaä’s world. Enjoy this pre-Ghibli gem? Good news: the story goes even deeper in the Miyazaki manga on which it’s based.
2. Like Howl’s Moving Castle? Try Laputa: Castle in the Sky
Miyazaki came out of a previous “retirement” to direct the 2004 Howl’s Moving Castle, which went on to earn an Oscar nomination. I’ve already noted that Howl shares a steampunk connection with Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986, trailer above), Miyazaki’s next film after Nausicaä. Clearly, the two films also share a “castle” of sorts – but where Howl’s moves around on gangly chicken legs and deranged magic, the lost city of Laputa floats through the clouds on the power of retro-futuristic techno blocks. Ultimately, both films also find redemption in destruction.
3. Like Spirted Away? Try Porco Rosso
1992’s Porco Rosso (trailer above) doesn’t at first seem to have much in common with the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away (2001). But both movies are about central characters enthralled to curses they didn’t cause. Both feature pigs. Admittedly, it’s difficult to stretch the similarities much further than that. Porco Rosso is a much more realistic tale (despite the man-pig), with an almost Old Hollywood feel. So, there is one more similarity: both feature stunning scenery on an epic scale.
4. Like My Neighbor Totoro? Try Kiki’s Delivery Service
Although Totoro (1989) never made a big splash outside Japan, it’s safe to assume Studio Ghibli fans are familiar with the fairytale of two little girls who get pulled into a fantastic world of cat busses and umbrella-wielding furries – after all, the highly marketable titular character is the Ghibli mascot. Fewer fans are familiar, however, with Miyazaki’s follow-up the next year: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989, trailer above). Although the main character is slightly older than Totoro‘s young sisters, the same innocent melancholy pervades the story. Kiki, however, doesn’t need an umbrella or a cat bus to fly – just belief in herself, natch.
5. Like Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea? Try The Castle of Cagliostro
Believe it or not Ponyo (2008) is Miyazaki’s highest-grossing film in America (with a US box-office total of $15 million). This trippy take on The Little Mermaid myth is the distillation of many storytelling influences gathered and filtered through the Miyazaki lens. (In short, it’s confusing and exciting and everything you hope for from anime.) Miyazaki’s first film, The Castle of Cagliostro (1979, trailer above), on the other hand is the influence behind many animations that followed, from Disney’s Atlantis to The Simpson’s Movie. In turn, Cagliostro, kinda based on the manga series Lupin III, gets its influences from classic Hollywood heists. With the Monaco setting and thieving premise, Alfred Hitchcock fans won’t be able to help thinking of To Catch a Thief (1955).
Bonus: Watch Miyazaki Hand Over the Reins to His Son
Miyazaki’s reluctance to make his son Goro’s path to animation glory too easy is one of anime’s more famous tales of anti-nepotism. Papa reportedly wasn’t impressed when Goro botched the 2006 Ghibli adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea after Miyazaki had spent years begging for the rights. (Nor was Le Guin, for that matter.) Which makes the father and son’s one and only collaboration on From Up on Poppy Hill (2011 [released two years later in the US], trailer above) all the more touching. It’s just a touching kind of film, about love, loss, recovery, teamwork, worries of incest…all the classic themes. (Ahem.) Seriously though, with the help of his dad’s writing and production, this time Goro got it right.