When it comes to Japanese animation, no name stands out quite like that of master director Hayao Miyazaki’s. In his films one is able to identify true art in the making, let it be from the exceptionally crafted frames or beautiful realization of nature and people. The stories of Hayao Miyazaki films always involve an element of magic, allowing anyone who sees his work to get transported by no real effort on their part to a world filled with wonder and possibilities. Although mostly directed towards children, I’ve been able to love his films now just as much as I did back when I was a youngster. There’s this sense of universality in all his films, and I think this is what sets him apart from other anime filmmakers. With that said, here is the list of top Hayao Miyazaki movies, ranked from good to best. Good luck finding some of these best Hayao Miyazaki movies on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.
11. The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
‘The Castle of Cagliostro’ is a very good film. Being Hayao Miyazaki’s debut feature, there are some noticeable flaws here and there in regards to the animation style and screenplay. The story is rather intriguing and keeps one wanting more. It is a part-action, part-comedy, part-romance feature about a thief and his gang who try to take hold of a secret treasure, causing them to have to rescue a princess from an evil count. Now while the use of colors and backgrounds are beautiful considering the time of release, the film sort of falters in that it feels entirely cliched and poorly executed from a narrative standpoint. It does have its merits lying in its captivating plot, but I felt as though most of its jokes fell flat and that it took a little too much inspiration from other films of its kind.
10. Ponyo (2008)
‘Ponyo’ is, above everything, a film about childhood. The imagination, creativity, innocence, and budding intelligence that comes along with that time so many look back on after it has passed is examined in this picture, and to the extent of a kids film, it is very enjoyable. I especially liked the way this picture incorporated magic into its story about a boy and his relationship with a goldfish princess. The film relishes in its simplistic nature, and it isn’t very difficult to follow. I’m not too crazy about it though, and that’s primarily because of it lacking the sense of connectivity to audiences of all ages present in pretty much every other Studio Ghibli movie. The third act was also pretty weak in comparison to the rest of the film.
9. Castle in the Sky (1986)
‘Castle in the Sky’ is one of the more adventurous experiences paletted by Miyazaki, and boy is it something else. While it does lack the beauty in style and execution that several of the man’s later work cherished, this film is a complete joy to watch from start to finish as far as I’m concerned. The characters are sweet and the central friendship is one that is both caring and believable. The film is about the voyage taken by a boy and a girl towards a legendary castle, and it highlights the enemies, sightings, and other discoveries they make along the way. The story is rather impressive and compelling, but what I’m most surprised by here is just how enjoyable it is. Maybe it has to do with all the aforementioned merits along with the beautiful score playing up over many scenes in the film. I don’t find this picture too memorable, but I’ve come to appreciate it more upon multiple viewings.
8. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Adapted from the popular Japanese comics penned by Miyazaki himself, I consider ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’ to be his first masterwork. The film is about a princess and her journey across scenic grounds to confront the raiders who attacked her home and the allies she makes along the way with whom she travels to a foreboding war. This film is breathtaking in its execution, and I’m most entranced by the nail-biting narrative structure of the piece. Many of its backgrounds and character designs do feel rather dated, and the animation isn’t always the best, especially when matched up with what Studio Ghibli pulled off in the years following the release of this film (it is interesting to note that ‘Nausicaa’ isn’t a Ghibli film though, as Miyazaki hadn’t headed the company at this time). That being said, the film is so creative, draining every imaginative source it might have come across during production that the end result still is quite the spectacle.
7. The Wind Rises (2013)
While most of Hayao Miyazaki’s pictures display the extraordinary and the magical, ‘The Wind Rises’ is a film completely grounded in reality, and therefore provides for a unique title in his directorial credits. The period of the film is set in the years leading up to the Second World War, and it tells a biographical tale about Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed fighter planes for Japan. It’s been called Miyazaki’s most mature endeavor, and I find its style very approachable and easy to follow. While lacking the grandness of many of his other movies, the viewer has to keep in mind that the story doesn’t ask for such an execution. It’s a simple tale with a powerful message about dreams and the need to achieve them, and it’s sure to sink deep within the hearts of its viewers. The animation here feels more minimalistic in comparison to other pictures in Miyazaki’s filmography.
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6. Porco Rosso (1992)
It’s sad to know that whenever people mention the timeless classics directed by Studio Ghibli, more often than not they do not talk about ‘Porco Rosso’. I consider this picture to be an underrated gem. For starters, it looks absolutely stunning, with lush backgrounds and incredible attention to detail. The story follows a man named Porco who happens to be a pilot in the midst of the Second World War and is unfortunately cursed to look like an anthropomorphic pig. It deals with his adventures and hardships during this difficult period of time. I love how the picture can simultaneously apply elements of humor as well as elements of drama within its runtime. I think the themes of this picture are of an adult nature, though children may enjoy it as well.
5. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
There are normal feel-good films, and then there’s ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’. When this film ends, I’m always filled with this immense happiness and pleasure inside. It has to do with a very sweet story revolving around the problems faced by a young witch who has to try and survive in the real world all by herself. The troubles she faces are innocent, and the ways in which she solves them are charming and rather cute. That’s also how I’d describe the atmosphere of the picture as a whole – cute and adorable. Sure, some of the characters get a little too much screen-time, making them a bit annoying – at least for me – but looking past that, it’s easy to see a beautifully presented children’s film that surely will tug a bunch of your heartstrings. This is a very easy watch, and the experience of viewing it is so satisfying that you’d feel like ignoring each and every flaw you thought it had.
4. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Handling a much more serious approach towards his subjects than the rest of his filmography, Miyazaki’s ‘Princess Mononoke’ remains one of the greatest anime epics in animation history. The film follows the lead up to and happening of a prodigious war between Tatara (a mining colony) and the gods of the forest, and we see all of this through the eyes of a young villager named Ashitaka in search of a cure for a life-threatening disease. The cel animation in this film is beautiful, being vibrant and filled with both color and life. The attention to detail also allows ‘Princess Mononoke’ to be one of the finest looking films Miyazaki ever made in his glorious career. I do have a couple of issues with this film, relating to the pacing and lack of connection that I feel a story of this kind needs, but I believe most of it can be overlooked by the typical viewer looking for an immersive and captivating visual and emotional experience.
3. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
I think ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ may very well be the most charming film the Japanese director ever made. It’s story isn’t one that compels viewership, but Miyazaki’s poetic and imaginative approach makes the experience of viewing it all the more worthwhile. It takes its viewers on a fantastic and whimsical journey, jumping across beautiful landscapes and wonderful characters here and there, and has a narrative that allows for both hilarious as well as emotional moments to ensue. It is, overall, a film made for children, but I think it can be enjoyed by anyone who’s just looking for a picture to put a smile on their faces. This is something Miyazaki has done many times throughout his career – to invest in the trip rather than the story, and only a few filmmakers can pull it off like he does. I saw this film for the first time when I was very young, and I love that I can be left with that same sense of wonderment years later.
2. Spirited Away (2001)
Another aspect of filmmaking that Miyazaki excels at is character writing and development. Watching ‘Spirited Away’ again, one thing I noticed is how much I related to and felt for the characters involved. The setting is a luxurious bathhouse, and the protagonist is a young girl named Chihiro who gets trapped in there after she strays away from her parents. Strange creatures, weirdly shaped humans, and monstrous pieces of man-made contraptions fill the screen as this wonderful experience of a film both touches our hearts and embeds within our minds a sense of magic. There are several scenes in this film that touch artistic perfection, making great uses of sound and visuals, that those moments keep lingering in your mind even after the film has ended. I’ve seen this picture many times now, and though it doesn’t have the same appeal as it did on my early viewings, there must be some reason as to why I keep coming back.
1. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Each frame of this Miyazaki film is dipped in beautiful bright colors that leap out of the screen and into our minds, filling it with life and, for me as a child, a bundle of imagination. The story involving witches, portal doors, houses with legs, and a living scarecrow feels like something taken right out of a children’s story book, but the man behind the camera gives it that added touch which allows adults to enjoy it almost as well as kids. When you watch ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, you feel as though you’re witnessing an epic, and the experience is like nothing else out there.The film is a breathtaking work of art. Undeniably a masterpiece, this is definitely an anime highlight. I believe it to be the master’s greatest work.
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