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Hayao Miyazaki is to the Japanese what Walt Disney once was to Americans: A national treasure. I’ve heard it said that Miyazaki never worked with an international audience in mind, but his movies, anime and manga have nonetheless continued to transcend national barriers, becoming huge hits abroad. Even if you don’t think you’ve ever heard of his films, that’s probably because you’ve seen them only since they were acquired by Disney. Whatever the case, anyone who loves movies should be familiar with Hayao Miyazaki. After finishing his latest movie, The Wind Rises, in 2013, Miyazaki once again claimed permanent retirement. In honor of his legacy, and with high hopes that he will return once again, it’s time to visit some of his best–and less than stellar–efforts.

Spirited Away

“Hands down my favorite Miyazaki film…”

Winner of the Best Animated Feature Academy Award in 2003, this film about a girl who gets whisked off to a weird spirit world where she must save her parents–and ultimately, herself–is hands down my favorite Miyazaki film. Amid all the fantastic imagery and often creepy interludes, at its heart this film contains a great message about the gluttony of modern society, and how people can make things better one day at a time. Fantastic.

My Neighbor Totoro

“The pleasure is in the visuals…”

The pleasure here is simply in the visuals, especially the design of the titular character and his environment. Some of the iconic imagery can be seen in Miyazaki’s other animated projects and films–just watch for it! Meandering plot aside, this film literally feels like a dream that you will wake up glad to have experienced. Watch it with the kids.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

“Surprisingly complex messages…wrapped up in a stunning visual feast.”

There is a war on sometime in the distant future between a human-like society on the brink of extinction and the creatures in The Toxic Jungle, which is uninhabitable by humans. To “tame” the forest, they must destroy the creatures within it–but is that the only way? Surprisingly complex messages about the environment, war and the rights of all creatures wrapped up in a stunning visual feast. A must-see.

Kiki’s Delivery Service

“Ordinariness speckled with magic…”

This light-as-a-feather romp follows the life of Kiki, a witch in the least evil sense of the word, during her life in a small quasi-European town. The ordinariness speckled with magic is what makes this work for me every time. The sequences of Kiki in flight are guaranteed to sweep you away–on a broom!

Princess Mononoke

“No explanations…see it for yourself!”

Miyazaki returns to his environmentally-conscious roots with this serious, sad and even gross but often action-packed story. I won’t even try to explain the tribal magic and mores of this universe–I simply encourage you to see it for yourself. Just a word of warning: The wolves here are some of the most frightening animated creatures I have ever seen, even if their hearts are in the right place.

Howl’s Moving Castle

“Stay for the atmosphere, but don’t expect to be fulfilled…”

This sumptuously drawn yet shallow Miyazaki entry probably suffers because it’s not an original story, but rather based on a book of the same name. All the ingredients–wacky characters, a charming universe, and at times, a sweet message–are there. But Miyazaki isn’t free to do as he likes in this place, and it shows. Stay for the atmosphere, but don’t count on fulfillment here.

Castle in the Sky

“Great effort. But count me out…”

Many die-hards would be right to chide me for putting “Castle in the Sky” so low on my list, and to them I apologize. It’s just that, with everything it has going for it, I can never help but get extremely bored during this movie. Yes, there are great flying sequences. And more great flying sequences. And more…well, anyway. Flying and shooting and anti-war messages abound, but I just couldn’t get into it. You might love it, though, if you can hang on and grab the Miyazaki essentials that are on display here. Great effort, but count me out.

From up on Poppy Hill

“A good place to start if you don’t know Japan…”

Supernatural atmospherics are completely eschewed in this later film, a straight-laced tale of highschoolers in postwar Yokohama Japan. There is a boarding house which is a character of its own, a bit of romance whether real or imagined, a smidge of mystery and fabulous recreations of Yokohama as it might have been in the 1960s. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this film. I just expect more from Miyazaki, and felt that his nostalgia might have interfered with storytelling here. If you don’t know anything about Japan or Japanese family life, though, this might be a good place to start.

Ponyo

“This was the master slumming it…”

I honestly can’t recall anything of note about this film, except the exquisite renderings of animated bubbles. It’s not that I don’t like ocean-based films; the original Little Mermaid (you know, the one where she dies) still haunts my dreams. There was something about a magical family of water-nymphs in here, but I couldn’t care enough to keep track. This was the master, enjoying the techniques at his disposal for creating great animated water environments. It was also the master slumming it, which every great person deserves to do every once in awhile.

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