Miyazaki – artist, producer, director, and writer – has been called "The Japanese Walt Disney.” High praise, though I personally prefer Miyazaki’s work over Disney’s. Some might view my claim as outrageous, but watching a Miyazaki film is always an opulent, engrossing, and moving experience. His animation creeps up on you: at first it seems quite basic, but before you realize it, the characters turn from cartoon to compelling, living beings. And, as the minutes tick by, you suddenly realize that the world on the screen is nothing less than mind-blowing – you gasp at the spectacle of his vision, and your eyes grow wide in wonder.
In this age of CGI, one might be shocked to realize that Miyazaki doesn’t allow more than 10% of a film to be computer generated. By having most of his scenes lovingly drawn, he imbues everything with warmth and a sense of a day-to-day reality that most of us are no longer aware of. For example, when his crew was animating fire, some on the staff said they had never seen wood burning. This sense of having your eyes opened to simple but profound blind spots all around you is something that all his movies bring out.
The films we are about to glance at are rare in that they absorb adults and small children alike. By avoiding clichés of good and evil (in American films, evil is used to manipulate the audience, who restlessly waits for it to be punished), Miyazaki shows that the world is far more complex than mere black and white. In Miyazaki’s own words: "The concept of portraying evil and then destroying it – I know this is considered mainstream, but I think it is rotten. This idea that whenever something evil happens someone particular can be blamed and punished for it, in life and in politics is hopeless.”
This kind of wisdom permeates each and every movie he makes, and it has that magical ability to span mere age, allowing both child and grandfather to experience a reality that is both innocent and penetrating – this state of consciousness isn’t afraid to look at the ills of modern society, but it refuses to treat them in a vacuous manner. Again, Miyazaki jumps to the heart of the matter: "Well, yes. I believe that children’s souls are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations. It’s just that as they grow older and experience the everyday world that memory sinks lower and lower. I feel I need to make a film that reaches down to that level. If I could do that I would die happy.”
Parents that are looking for films to share with their children should rush to their video store (or online provider) and pick up a Miyazaki creation. Adults that dream of getting a taste of innocence long lost should do the same.
Here are a few of Miyazaki’s films. If you’re not watching with children, please watch them in the original Japanese with subtitles – you definitely lose something if you watch the dubbed version. I hope you watch them, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
Kiki’s Delivery Service
Synopsis: A young witch reaches the age where she must leave home and find her own town/city/village. Finding a suitable city, Kiki makes use of her broom’s flying powers and begins an air courier service.
Small children (young girls in particular) will love this. In fact, when I first started watching it I felt a bit embarrassed. Nevertheless, I soon found myself completely engrossed in Kiki’s life and adventures.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Synopsis: A father and his two young daughters move to the country (the mother is ill in the hospital). There they run into nature spirits and experience various adventures.
The scenes with the nature spirits are eye opening, but the richness of the forest and the simple calm of the surroundings make the whole thing magical.
Spirited Away (2001)
Synopsis: The adventures of a ten-year-old girl who, after moving to the countryside, wanders through a tunnel and ends up in a strange world full of wonder and magic.
The whole film makes you feel as if you are living a dream. Full of adventure and amazing characters (some humanoid, some not) that will keep your eyes glued to each and every mesmerizing scene.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Synopsis: A young woman is cursed and turned into an ancient hag. Her only hope of breaking the spell lies within a walking castle, filled with a wizard, a fire demon, and life changing self-discovery.
Once again Miyazaki takes us into a world of unparalleled wonder and deeply moving romance. And, as usual, we are treated to a visual feast.
Porco Rosso (1992)
Synopsis: A famed WWI pilot somehow turns into a pig/man mix. After witnessing the death of a close friend and fellow pilot, he leaves normal society and becomes a hero for hire.
An odd film with Italian locations, songs in French, and a pig for a hero. In many ways this is the most adult of Miyazaki’s films, with the pig reminding me strongly of Bogart and the whole atmosphere taking me back to Casablanca.
Funny, moody, and moving, I was (at first) a bit put off by the pig, but soon found myself hopelessly caught in the film’s endless charm.
Castle In The Sky (1986)
Synopsis: A young girl with a magic crystal and a heroic young boy join forces as they face off against pirates and unscrupulous government agents all bent on reaching a legendary floating castle.
It’s innocence vs. greed and lust for power. We get the usual striking visuals, while also seeing how characters we might have labeled evil early on take on new and surprising dimensions.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Synopsis: A young man finds himself in the middle of a war between a mining colony and the forest that the colony is rapidly destroying.
There are moments of true emotional and artistic magic here, and long periods of exciting/frenetic energy (courtesy of huge armies of wild boar and wolves), yet this is my least favorite of Miyazaki’s films. A huge success in both Japan and the United States, the subtle chords of his other work are more my style. However, since everyone else considers it to be his masterpiece, do check it out and make your own decision.