My favorite Miyazaki movies

November 16, 2012

This all started with The Cart Driver's top 30 anime list; I wound up both thinking about what my own top 30 list would look like and raising my eyebrows that they only included one Miyazaki movie (my untempered first reaction was that basically all Miyazaki movies would make my list). In the end, while I like all of Miyazaki's movies that I've seen and think that they're all very good I'll admit that I like some more than others. I'm not going to try to rank them against other anime (not right now at least), but I'm going to list the ones that I've decided are my current favorites and picks as the very best of his work.

First, I haven't seen any of Ghibli's films since Spirited Away, including both Howl's Moving Castle and Ponyo; however, based on commentary I've read about both, I doubt that seeing either would change this list. Given that, my choices today are:

  • Tonari no Totoro: I can't possibly be objective about Totoro; I watched it at exactly the right time for it to settle firmly into my heart and as a result it's my emotional favorite of all Miyazaki movies. But beyond my personal attachment, Totoro is the Miyazaki movie that is most purely about joy and wonder, with essentially no plot or tension to distract you. The movie is all about Satsuki and Mei having a series of happy, joyful experiences, from discovering and chasing around the soot spots to Mei falling on Totoro's fuzzy stomach to waiting in the rain with Totoro to, well, almost every moment in the film. Even the ending climax is not really tense and is most memorable for the cat-bus's spectacular run (speeding across the fields with people not seeing it, trotting along the high-tension wires, and if you've seen Totoro your memories may be flooding back here too). It is sentimental in the best way.

    Or in short, Totoro is Miyazaki's love letter to the wonders of childhood, the distilled essence of wandering around and having marvelous things happen. And it is a very, very well written love letter.

    (Totoro also has what's probably my single most favorite moment of flight in all Miyazaki movies, and that's saying something given that Miyazaki movies are just full of spectacular flight sequences.)

  • Porco Rosso: I might not have listed this without the Cart Driver's prompting, but they're right. This is Miyazaki's most grown up and adult movie and at the same time also his most numinous; while other Miyazaki movies have more magic and more fantasy, in them it is more mundane, routine, and explicable than the one restrained, transcendent scene in Porco Rosso. Porco Rosso makes no attempt to explain the things that are not real and in doing so makes them more powerful. As his most adult movie it's also the one that's the most indirect and restrained, deliberately not showing us things and not giving us direct, clear answers.

    (As a result of this, Porco Rosso is the least straightforward and accessible Miyazaki movie, which is why I might have skipped over it initially.)

    I feel that this is the movie where Miyazaki most wears his heart on his sleeve. Miyazaki loves flight in general, but this film is filled with so much love for a particular realistic sort of flight (ie, between-war small airplanes) and for its time and place. Miyazaki also does us the service of not forgetting or ignoring what is in the background of this time and place, the way that might have happened in the hands of a lesser filmmaker.

    (There is nothing in the straightforward plot of Porco Rosso that required us to be carefully reminded of the growth of Italian fascism.)

  • Spirited Away: This is Miyazaki's best adventure story (Porco Rosso has an adventure but is more a meditation on Marco's situation) and best fantasy. It is about children (or at least a child) without being childish, and is not so much about growing up as about growing into yourself and into what you can do. As a fantasy it presents the best-realized, most interesting world of fantasy in any of Miyazaki's works, full with both beauty and terror, because Miyazaki understands that the fantastic is both; you cannot have the different without also having the disturbing and the dangerous.

Again, I like all of Miyazaki's films and think they're great. The other films are just not as great in various ways as these three; these are the ones that I think are the purest, most refined Miyazaki.

(I feel conflicted about Mononoke-Hime. There's a lot to like about it and maybe I'm underrating it, but somehow I feel that it doesn't completely click with me. Maybe I need to see it again. Call it something close to an honorable mention for now.)

PS: I don't think that Miyazaki's messages in Mononoke-Hime, Nausicaa, and Castle in the Sky are flaws in any of those films, although some people disagree with this view. I don't rate any of those as highly as these three for other reasons.

Sidebar: going outside of Miyazaki

I've deliberately confined myself to Miyazaki's films here. If I was to go outside of that to films by Studio Ghibli people in general I would immediately point you to Gauche the Cellist, an early work by Isao Takahata. If you like classical music (as I do), this is a beautiful 'sense of wonder' film that's well worth your time.

(That it's entirely built around classical music probably makes it inaccessible to people who don't at least somewhat like the music.)

Written on 16 November 2012.
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Last modified: Fri Nov 16 13:45:41 2012
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