Ranked

Every Hayao Miyazaki Film, Ranked

The legendary Studio Ghibli filmmaker turned 80 this month. But which of his many masterpieces rises to the top?

Few filmographies are as immaculate as that of Studio Ghibli animator Hayao Miyazaki. Often (somewhat lazily) categorised as “Japan's answer to Walt Disney,” the filmmaker has spent the best part of the last five decades turning out gorgeous and unforgettable animated works that have captured the imaginations of millions.

Miyazaki's films are renowned for their meticulous attention to detail, for heroes as strong as they are vulnerable, and a seamless blend of visuals and music. There's also the refusal to brand anything as plainly “good” or “evil” and the frequent push for a better, more harmonious world. Or perhaps it's the Japanese notion of “Ma” that best defines Miyazaki's work, in moments where time slows down and a small or seemingly insignificant detail is emphasised: a cloud passing, water trickling over a rock.

Miyazaki has made 11 feature films to date, and not a dud among them. Which makes ranking his output a lot harder than it is with less consistent directors. In honour of Miyazaki, who turned 80 this month, it's a task I've committed myself to regardless, if only as an excuse to gush further about his canon. Basically, though, each and every one of these movies is worth your time, many of them likely to change the way you see the world in unexpected and profound ways…

 

11. Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

Where to watch it: Netflix

Based on the work of British children's author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle finds a young girl named Sophie on a rollicking steampunk adventure after she's accidentally transformed into an elderly woman. Had it come from basically any other filmmaker, this would probably be considered a total masterpiece. For Miyazaki, though, it's a minor work, despite touching upon themes of anti-violence (it was a response to the invasion to Iraq, according to its creator). It's beautifully detailed and there are memorable characters in abundance; but there is something slightly missing in the execution and storytelling. Maybe because it's based on an existing property?

 

10. The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

Where to watch it: Netflix

Without question the most overtly wacky of Miyazaki's films, this is basically the film that earned the filmmaker the right to the rest of his career. Based on the long-running manga franchise, it tells the story of gentleman thief, Lupin, and his sidekick, who operate in the “very loveable anti-hero” territory. As Miyazaki's directorial debut, it encapsulates a lot of the tropes he would carry into his later films: lost treasure, a princess in peril, a towering castle. It's such a blast, though, with a level of kinetic energy and imagination that puts its old-fashioned Disney contemporaries to shame.

 

9. Ponyo (2008)

Where to watch it: Netflix

Miyazaki, so frequently hung up on the sky, switches things up for this water-logged tale loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. Much of Ponyo takes place under the water, presenting the animator with the chance to bring the entire ocean to life in a mind-blowing amount of detail that only Miyazaki would commit himself to. So it's an ocean teeming with creatures, particles, fish and wondrous lifeforms of all shapes and sizes. A more child-like sensibility stops this from making it higher up the list, but it might be his most visually appealing film. Also, it has the best Miyazaki sub-plot, which involves Ponyo's relentless, adorable quest to eat ham.

 

8. Porco Rosso (1992)

Where to watch it: Netflix

Only Miyazaki could bring to a life a film about a Humphrey Bogart-inspired pirate pig who flies a plane at the height of World War II. This film blends elements of real world history with marvellous scenes of air-based buccaneering to gloriously entertaining effect. This was probably the last movie Miyazaki made that retains some of the “goofiness” of his earlier works, what with its overblown fistfights and bickering pirates. The aerial combat sequences are extraordinary, though, and there's an emotional core running through Porco Rosso that makes for surprisingly poignant viewing.

 

7. Castle in the Sky (2004)

Where to watch it: Netflix

A dizzying and hugely influential work of steampunk adventure, Castle in the Sky is Miyazaki at his most relentlessly entertaining, a kind of bridging of the gap between The Castle of Cagliostro and his later, more contemplative works. This film doesn’t take a breath for a second of its 124 minute runtime, bridging together imaginative set-pieces both on the land and in the sky, as a young hero tries to shepherd a princess to her rightful home. This is not as subtle or as spiritual as some of the master’s later works – he would learn to slow down, for one thing – but the mountainside landscapes, towns and villages are as evocative as anything in, say, Star Wars. The set-piece on the train tracks is one of the best scenes in the Miyazaki canon, and who can deny the sheer beauty of Joe Hisaishi's dreamy score?

 

6. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Where to watch it: Netflix

Miyazaki based this film on his own comic book series, which predates Studio Ghibli but is generally considered to be part of the official canon. The result is a gorgeous, spiritual meditation about living in harmony with those around us – a theme he'd reprise to an even fuller extent for 1997's Princess Mononoke. There is a strange psychedelic quality to the action here, in what might be the most overtly science-fiction orientated film of Miyazaki's works. Think Starship Troopers, but nice. Elsewhere, the creature designs are gorgeous, and I love the way Joe Hisaishi's score merges synth sounds with classical. It's a little rough around the edges, but that's honestly part of the appeal.

5. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

Where to watch it: Netflix

This is such a lovely, life-affirming film about everyday hardships and not giving up. For what is essentially an animated film about a witch-in-training, it perfectly taps into that strange period between childhood and adulthood, where nothing seems quite right, in such an unexpectedly moving way. At times, Kiki doesn't want to get out of bed in the morning. Yet she keeps going – and Miyazaki's gorgeous film is a testament to the spirit of ploughing onwards, even when life gets on top of you. Visually, it's a treat: there are countless delicious pastries on display here, and the setting – a kind of composite of various European cities – is one of Miyazaki's most brilliantly memorable. Basically, I would like to live inside this film.

 

4. The Wind Rises (2015)

Where to watch it: Netflix

After screening The Wind Rises for his staff for the first time, Hayao Miyazaki admitted it was the only one of his films to have ever made him cry. Doesn't that say it all? By far his most thematically ambitious and adult-orientated film, it's also his most personal. Inspired by the story of Jiro Horikoshi, a gifted engineer whose beautifully designed planes were harnessed as instruments of war, it was also based on a similar plight faced by Miyazaki's own father – another plane obsessive. Miyazaki has spent much of his life struggling with the juxtaposition of planes as both pieces of art and as killing machines. You can feel his thoughtful touch within every frame of this quietly affecting, anti-war masterpiece.

 

3. My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

Where to watch it: Netflix

Basically, simply, one of the loveliest movies ever made, My Neighbour Totoro might just be the best film about the power of imagination, as two young girls relocate to the countryside with their father while their mother recovers in a nearby hospital and find themselves caught up in a series of low-stakes adventures with the cuddly creature of the title. Barely anything happens in this movie – there is a singular, somewhat tense scene right at the end – but that’s what makes it such a joy. There's a reason why Totoro has become the mascot for Studio Ghibli, while the American dub has the nice addition of being voiced by the Fanning sisters, Dakota and Elle, who spin their natural rapport to endearing effect. Basically if you dislike this movie, there is something very wrong with you.

 

2. Princess Mononoke (1997)

Where to watch it: Netflix

If one Miyazaki film deserves to be labelled “epic,” it's this one. Set in 13th century Japan, Princess Mononoke tells the story of a cursed prince who sets out from his quiet village on an unforgettable quest and finds himself caught in the centre of a war between an industrial town and a spiritual realm. This is absolutely Miyazaki's definitive statement on our species' ransacking of the natural world, yet the message never feels heavy-handed: Princess Mononoke is packed with rip-roaring action, unforgettable creatures, and the sort of intimate details that make this fantasy world as fascinating to go back to time and time again. It's certainly Miyazaki's darkest film, with more bloodshed and disturbing sequences to its name than any other, but it's just as gorgeous and evocative.

 

1. Spirited Away (2001)

Where to watch it: Netflix

Not just Miyazaki’s best film – but perhaps the best animated film ever made, period. If that sounds like pure hyperbole, consider the infinite joys this stunning, endlessly imagination feelgood fantasy provides on even the hundredth viewing (and I’d know). Arguably no other animated feature quite captures every facade of the medium’s capabilities as Spirited Away. It is a deceivingly simple story about a young girl who accidentally travels to an alternate dimension inhabited by spirits, a kind of twist on Alice in Wonderland – namely a bathhouse where the otherworldly entities go to, well, relax. Every frame of this is lovingly crafted, dense with emotion, subtext, and artistry. Throw in Joe Hisaishi’s best and most poignant score, plus unforgettable characters who beautifully avoid the labels of “good” or “evil,” and you’re left with an animated masterpiece that – quite frankly – is yet to be matched since it was first released twenty years ago.

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