The Wonderful World of Miyazaki

Kiki’s Delivery Service/ Rated G/ Running Time: 103 min

My Neighbor Totoro/ Rated G/ Running Time: 86 min

Ponyo/ Rated G/ Running Time: 101 min 

Disney dominated my childhood.  Nearly every one of my movie going experiences in the 1970’s involved a film by the studio.  While live action Disney movies, such as “The Shaggy D.A.” or “The Cat from Outer Space”, captured my six year old imagination, the big events were the animated films.

Disney created a successful formula with their animated features.  Sometimes they were based upon familiar fairy tales.  Nearly always they included an innocent hero/heroine forced to confront a frightening villain with the help of cute animal sidekicks.  All the while they sang a few catchy tunes. 

Every animation studio since has used this formula as their backbone.  It makes comfortable entertainment, but it also creates specific expectations for the audience.  If a film lacks any of these elements, the audience may tune out.  However, there are animators who have created beloved classics outside of the formula.  Perhaps the most successful is the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.

I chose three of Miyazaki’s films to show to my kids.  The first, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is about a young witch in training who must live away from her parents for a year.  The second, “My Neighbor Totoro” tells about the interactions between two young sisters, dealing with their mother’s stay in the hospital, and a group of wood spirits.  The last is Miyazaki’s latest, “Ponyo”, a riff on “The Little Mermaid”, about a young goldfish who wants to become a girl.  Each of these movies is beautiful on its own, and taken together they show many examples of success outside of typical formulas.  

The most striking difference is the fact that there are no conventional villains in many of Miyazaki’s movies.  Most animated films boast a memorable villain who embodies our dark emotions.  The hero spends the film overcoming this characterization of greed, fear, or jealousy, often killing them.  Miyazaki films keep the struggle internal.  Kiki’s nemesis is her loneliness from living in an unfamiliar city and her need to belong.  In “My Neighbor Totoro”, the closest thing to a villain is the possibility that the mother may not leave the hospital.

Another difference is the way characters interact.  Many animated films show characters that are one note: “the mean girl”, “the shy boy”, “the wise old woman”.  Characters in these films are more nuanced.  “Kiki’s Delivery Service” shows particularly rich relationships.  Kiki’s female connections span from peer and rival to sister, mother and grandmother.  Just in real life, the characters will have moments where they are friendly or selfish, loving or jealous.  These complex relationships remind us of ourselves, grounding the stories in reality.

The films are also permeated by a love of nature.  In these worlds, the everyday scenes of nature are controlled by invisible magic lying just beneath the surface.  The Totoros are the protectors of the forest, and Ponyo’s father orchestrates the balance and beauty of the sea.  In fact, the main conflict in “Ponyo” stems from an imbalance in nature and the ensuing repercussions.

These films are joyous meditations on life.  The artwork is lush and fantastical.  Words can not do justice to the details of the cityscape in “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or the sea creatures in “Ponyo”.  It is best to immerse yourself in them and let these unique images wash over you.

All of the movies played well to a new generation of kids raised on Disney and Pixar.  My four year old daughter enjoyed “Kiki’s Delivery Service” the best.  “My Neighbor Totoro” was favored by my six year old son.  Perhaps most importantly, my 36 year old wife was able to put away her Disney baggage and loved them all.

Miyazaki will open your horizons and his unique style of animation will intoxicate you.  I may have spent most of my words highlighting some differences between Miyazaki and Disney, but there are nods to the formula.  Kiki’s smart-alecky black cat is a typical animal sidekick and the plot of “Ponyo” is somewhat goal oriented, like many of the fairy tales.  The films are different, but not so much that they should be frightening.  In fact, do you know who distributes Miyazaki’s films in the U.S.?  Yes, once again, Disney has put their stamp of approval on high quality family entertainment.  They have had me since birth, and I guess I’ll always be loyal to the brand.

What’s your favorite Miyazaki Film?

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19 Comments on “The Wonderful World of Miyazaki”

  1. Ann Rishell Says:

    My sentimental favorite is Totoro in the first version of english dubbing. It was the first Miyazaki film I saw with my daughter. My overall favorite is Spirited Away. I love Chihiro’s spirit and the other characters, the Stink spirit, the soot sprites, No Name, etc.

  2. Greg Says:

    Favourite is “Spirited Away” by far. Though I found Totoro charming and Howl’s Moving Castle a work of stunning imagination. 🙂

  3. zeft Says:

    Does ‘Whisper of the Heart’ count as a Miyazaki film? He wrote the screenplay, but he didn’t direct. If so, that’s my favourite.

    I’m also partial to Kiki’s Delivery Service and Porco Rosso.

  4. Spirited Away, I think, though all of them are wonderful. I’m glad to have seen each of them and look forward to the next. But Spirited Away is a marvel of imagination and unexpected wonders – even if you know something of Japanese mythology. He puts things on screen that, as a writer, I wish I’d thought of.

  5. kuratowa Says:

    My favorite for sentimental reasons is Nausicaa. It was my first Miyazaki film led me to reading the manga series.

    Having now seen most of his work, it is really a toss up for me between Howl’s Moving Castle and Totoro as his best work.

  6. J Ray Says:

    Great article, and I guess you earned the Ebert Bump of Approval ™ =)

    My favourites are Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke, but I’ve loved every one of Miyazaki’s films. The character relationships are what makes them so great, besides the fantasy character designs.

  7. Russ Says:

    Being a bit older(old enough to have kids but not) my favorites are ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ and ‘Princess Mononoke’. First one I every saw in a theater was the release of ‘Spirited Away’ which just blew me away.

    With the current dearth of bad CGI and 3-D animated movies it’s nice to know there’s someone out there making quality, thinking animation instead of corporate designed pablum for the attention span deprived. Even if they do run several hours.

  8. Favian Says:

    Disney fail. Love studio ghibli.

  9. Octopouss Says:

    My favorite was Laputa as a kid. Then in college I had to read the Nausica manga – the story continues past the ending in the film. I fell in love with it instantly. There’s always some kind of environmental theme to all of Miyazaki’s works.

  10. Erin Says:

    Spirited Away is one of my favorite movies of all time. I saw it when it was first in theatres in CA and loved it.

  11. Jen Says:

    As I watched Ponyo, knowing that Miyazaki’s stories include his insight as a father of young girls, I thought that it was more about a father unable to accept his little girl growing up. The “revert…revert” scene, especially, where he uses all his strength, holding her tightly, until she goes back to being what he’s comfortable with. But like most teenagers, when she got the chance, she changed anyway- and wreaked havoc!

  12. Otto Says:

    Personally my favorite – and one of the best movies ever produced in my opinion I’d Spirited Away. That film is so deep, dealing with so many issues, both adult and child….But I think my kids prefer Totoro, which I also adore. All are great though.

  13. tea_hon Says:

    I love Miyazaki’s films, as well. My favorites are My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.

    I love that his work respects children’s intelligence and doesn’t condescend, he shows reverence for the imagination. And I appreciate the complexity of the characters as you pointed out (especially the female characters, who don’t have a lot of complexity in classic Disney fare).

  14. mcavity Says:

    They are all great though I have to throw in a vote for Porco Russo.. [thought not a fan of the American dub]

  15. […] The Wonderful World of Miyazaki Kiki’s Delivery Service/ Rated G/ Running Time: 103 min My Neighbor Totoro/ Rated G/ Running Time: 86 min Ponyo/ […] […]

  16. natalie Says:

    For the ones I’ve seen:

    2)princess mononoke
    3)Spirited Away

    Can’t get enough of them!

  17. Joe Says:

    I tried showing Miyazaki’s movies to my young siblings. They did not like them. I blame Disney channel for corrupting kids minds. I like them all, Miyazaki is great, but you can’t forget Joe Hisaishi’s music which is nearly as important as the movie itself.

  18. Bobby Says:

    I may have seen each of his movies (including whispers of the heart) at least 4 times, and my favorite changes depending on the mood etc. But overall, I have to give my vote to Spirited Away, Totoro and Whispers in 1st. place followed closely by Mononoke, Kiki and Porco. Howl’s is great but the 3rd act felt rushed and kinda ruined it for me (shame). Nausicaa, Laputa and Ponyo are my least favorite but still rate at about 90% (that is how great Miyazaki and Hisaishi are!). If you haven’t seen his work… you can’t die!

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