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Starter Pack: Hayao Miyazaki

Starter Pack: Hayao Miyazaki

If you’ve spent much time around fans of manga and anime, you’ve probably heard the name Miyazaki thrown around. There are references to Miyazaki films all over the place, even Bob’s Burgers gave this classic filmmaker a tip of the hat in a Thanksgiving episode by alluding to Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro:

So what is it, exactly that makes Hayao Miyazaki films so special? In short, Miyazaki manages to burst through genre lines, delivering a movie with detailed, beautiful animation (and not the computer animation that is dominating the market these days); telling a story that is inspiring, compelling, and uplifting; and creating characters that stick with you long after the movie ends. Each Miyazaki film tells you an incredibly unique and imaginative tale, and brings characters that are diverse. No one makes movies quite like Miyazaki does, and he has a filmmaking style that you can recognize almost immediately. He’s a brilliant artist, and if you haven’t taken the time to explore his films, you should most definitely remedy that. The only problem is, that can be a bit intimidating. While it’s been reported that Miyazaki has officially stopped making new films, his career spans decades. Where in the world does one start trying to experience a canon of work that spans such a long period of time? The best way to become a fan of Miyazaki’s work is to simply start watching his films–regardless of where you start–but here are a few movies to get you started in the right direction:

Ponyo

This particular Miyazaki film isn’t for everyone, but it is still a beautiful film. Ponyo is an interpretation on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. It tells the story of Yuria Nara, a goldfish princess, that travels to the surface of the water and makes friends with a human boy–a relationship that, as it grows, turns the princess more and more human. I say this particular story isn’t for everyone simply because it’s definitely a cartoon aimed at children. Like I said, the film is beautiful, and in true Miyazaki style, the characters are quite compelling. However, some have found this film hard to love since it is aimed at a younger audience. However, Ponyo perfectly encapsulates Miyazaki’s brilliant storytelling, dynamic characters, and beautiful animation in such a way that makes this a must-have for any Miyazaki watch list.

Howl’s Moving Castle

Based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle tells the story of a young woman who is cursed by an evil, jealous witch. The young girl flees, and tries to find a way to lift the curse, she finds refuge in a mysterious, moving castle. As our heroine gets closer with the inhabitants of Howl’s moving castle, she starts to learn about a war of sorcery threatening the world, and works to stop it. This one is a really unique film. The plot is odd with a strong sense of fairy-tale, yet the story has dark undertones to it that makes the film appealing to audiences other than young children. The story is quite fantastical, and it immediately sweeps up audiences into its strange and exciting world. Howl’s Moving Castle is largely unlike any other movie out there, and shows Miyazaki’s unique, ground-breaking style of film-making.

Princess Mononoke

This steps away a bit from the traditional fairy-tale feel. In Princess Mononoke, a warrior named Ashitaka succumbs to a curse. As Ashitaka searches for a cure, he travels to the forest where he meets a young woman, San, who was raised by wolves. Ultimately, the story becomes a struggle between those living in the forest, and the humans searching for resources like iron and other resources to help them build industry. It’s up to Ashitaka and San to stop the fighting, to keep man and nature from destroying one another. This film employs Miyazaki’s classic, beautiful animation style, while also telling a very compelling and convicting story about man’s relationship with nature. Miyazaki manages to tell the story in a way that doesn’t feel preachy or heavy-handed. Instead, it’s just a beautiful film with a powerful message, and a definite must-watch for any Miyazaki fan, new or old.

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro is about two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, who have moved into a new home in the country. As they try to get familiar with their new surroundings, the sisters soon realize their new home is also the home to some interesting creatures–including Totoro, a guardian of the forest. This movie is absolutely beautiful. The storytelling is imaginative, and it aligns with the type of story you’d expect a young child to daydream about. It’s a light-hearted, beautiful film, and though it isn’t particularly long, Totoro has a ton of heart to it. It also happens to be on of Miyazaki’s most recognizable films, so it’s a great one to watch if you’re trying to get familiar with Miyazaki’s work.

Spirited Away

This film won an Oscar in 2001 for Best Animated Feature Film, and it was the first anime to receive this honor. Spirited Away most certainly deserves the praise its received.  The film tells the story of Chihiro–a young girl who discovers a world of spirits and sorcery–and follows her on her journey to free herself and her parents from the spirit world and return to the land of the corporeal. This movie is beautiful, and the story is rich and compelling, depicting the story of a young girl summoning her courage to save herself and her family. As with any Miyazaki film, the animation is gorgeous, but Chihiro’s story is what makes Spirited Away beautifully unique. Anyone looking to learn more about Miyazaki’s films should most certainly add Spirited Away to their watch list. It was a pioneering film, being the first of its genre to receive an Oscar, but it is also a gorgeous and heartfelt film. It’s Miyazaki at his arguable best, and it quite clearly depicts Miyazaki’s imagination as a filmmaker.

It can always be intimidating taking your first steps into the work of a well-established, highly-respected artist. However, Miyazaki’s work is so vast, and there is so much to choose from that you almost can’t make a bad choice in where you first attempt to engage with his work. Ultimately, his movies are worth watching, as his storytelling is unique, and his films tout some of the most beautiful animation out there. His films are truly modern animation classics, and will definitely be around for decades to come.

What was your first Miyazaki film, and what do you recommend to first-time Miyazaki watchers? What are your favorite Miyazaki films? Let me know in the comments!

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