A Prelude to The Wind Rises: Miyazaki’s Magical Journeys

Hayao-Miyazaki

Japanese animation’s mercurial magician is without question my cinematic idol. The magnitude of his success is most recently recognised by fellow cartoon titan “The Simpsons”; paying homage to his greatest characters through the guise of Evergreen Terrace. From April, the British Film Institute will launch a ‘Studio Ghibli season’ spanning across two months, recognising the organisation’s glittering back catalogue.

As Miyazaki looks to step away from the canvas aged 73, he prepares to dip into the ink one last time, propelling his audience airborne with Academy Award nominated “The Wind Rises”. Whilst we await the UK Release (May 9th), I will cast my loving eye over his greatest productions.

castle of cagliostroCastle of Cagliostro (1979)

His career burst into life with an Italian cult classic, immortalising the charismatic manga criminal “Lupin”. Miyazaki in his humble beginnings, revives the seemingly clichéd ‘princess rescue’ narrative and produces a hero versus villain match, of the highest quality. Lupin scales the grand duchy in his trademark lemon Fiat 500 and battles against the scandalous Count Cagliostro, featuring what Spielberg allegedly described as: “One of the greatest chase sequences ever filmed.” Arsène Lupin III possesses an unassailable ability to never be wrong. I mean, he is never… wrong. With wit to die for, casino heists, runaway brides, dastardly royals, secret treasure, and every figurative stone of entertainment left unturned, Miyazaki built the foundations for a castle of his own.

IMDB Rating: 7.8

My Rating: 8

nausicaa

Nausicaä Valley of the Wind (1984)

That castle was the Studio Ghibli franchise and Nausicaä began to express the otherworldly imagination that the company would become renowned for. Two rivalling kingdoms fight for dominance in a post-apocalyptic world, where creatures of the “Toxic Jungle” and all that inhabit it are a danger to humanity. The Valley of the Wind’s adoring princess Nausicaä discovers she can befriend the creatures of the “Toxic Jungle” and tries to prevent the warfare, uniting man and beast before it is all too late.  Miyazaki’s affinity with aircraft was conceived through Nausicaä’s elaborate glider fights and with common appearances in his films; it is no wonder his final bow will be “The Wind Rises”. Whether your preference lies with American dub tracks or Japanese originals, the vocal performance of Patrick Stewart is flawless, working alongside Shia Lebouf, Uma Thurman and “Star Wars”’ Mark Hamill.  This film transports you to an enchanting universe with vibrant visuals, incredible mythical creatures and it was just the beginning for Hayao Miyazaki.

IMDB Rating: 8.2

My Rating: 7

Laputa

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Miyazaki’s experimentation with different forms of narrative really came to an end with “Laputa”. After creating two hugely fruitful films in both reality crime and fantasy, his only logical conclusion would be to combine both elements in this masterpiece. Pazu discovers a princess falling out of a plane wearing a magical crystal and together, they must find a legendary floating castle and evade Special Forces soldiers and pirates. A true Ghibli film has to feature an elderly woman in some form; be it with magical powers or perhaps an evil agenda, established in “Laputa” by the incredible baddie Mom.  Working with her hybrid henchmen sons, they provide great comedic moments in their bumbling attempts to catch the Princess and Pazu, whilst the audience deliberate who the real enemy is. Daring chases in magical locations with robots, fires and more, this comprehensive animation is to me: his first masterpiece.

IMDB Rating: 8.1

My Rating: 9

totoro

My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

Another general stock character of Ghibli productions is the young female, namely due to the reception of the adorable Mei and her older sister Satsuki. Voiced in the American dub by a young Dakota and Elle Fanning, a move to the countryside exposes the sisters to a fantastical world of incredible creatures that have since become cult heroes. There are Susuwatari, soot-like spirits that reside in the dark, the famous “Catbus” and of course, the oafish Totoro. Despite the fact I find Mei ever so slightly annoying, the film is arguably one of the company’s most remembered and its ingenuity made Miyazaki realise, nothing was impossible.

IMDB Rating: 8.3

My Rating: 7

kiki

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Another string to Miyazaki’s directorial bow is his ability to take a smaller story and ensure it is equally engaging. A teenage witch as rite of passage has to live alone and fulfil a year’s work in a human community, delivering mail on her trusty broom. Voiced by Kirsten Dunst, Kiki is a lovable thirteen year old whose attempts to survive independently are a struggle and the difficulties she faces cause her to spiral into depression. Her loneliness limits her ability to fly and working together with friends, she must rediscover her gift. Kiki’s feline companion Jiji (Phil Hartman) is a fantastic comedy counterpart with excellent humour and adorable affectations to boot. Miyazaki maintains an element of fantasy in a very socially conscious story, ticking all the right boxes.

IMDB Rating: 7.9

My Rating: 7

porco rosso

Porco Rosso (1992)

Have I mentioned planes before? The Crimson Ace is an ex world war-fighter of famous gift, now occupying himself hunting down air pirates, all the while suffering from a mysterious curse that transformed him into an anthropomorphic pig. Porco is very much an anti-hero with acerbic tongue and despite his appearance; receives his fair share of female attention from Madame Gina and his unlikely sidekick Fio, his plane engineer’s enthusiastic young daughter. In a confrontation with a pirate gang, he succumbs to fight with high stakes: Either his debts are finally paid off, or Fio can be married by the malevolent gang leader Curtis. A more sophisticated film advertising the flight company “Piccolo”, Miyazaki plays on the periphery of fantasy with his pig fusion. It is an absurd concept that somehow of course, is heart-warming and lovable.

IMDB Rating: 7.8

My Rating: 8

princess

Princess Mononoke (1997)

“Princess Mononoke” is a visual war epic and a film that reaches the highest echelons of animated fight sequences. In a world where the Gods inhabit the earth, their raging war with humanity reaches its climax and can only be stopped by a talented warrior Ashitaka (Billy Crudup) and the Princess Mononoke (Claire Danes); raised by wolves with an inherent loathing of mankind. The film’s emphasis is concentrated towards the expansive nature of the battles; however the pair’s blossoming romance in a world of fear and violence is captivating. The first film from Studio Ghibli to be commercially successful outside its native Japan, it is considered by many as a ‘bucket list’ must.

IMDB Rating: 8.5

My Rating: 7

spirited

Spirited Away (2001)

The crowning jewel of Miyazaki’s career: Academy Award winning, No. 36 on “IMDB’s Top 250” (the highest rated Animation feature of all time) and most recognised Miyazaki production around the world, yet arguably overrated. Even so, it is still unmistakably spell-binding. Building on their pre-existing characteristics, Chihiro (Daveigh Chase) is a young girl who moves to a new neighbourhood with her parents. Exploring their new surroundings, they encounter an abandoned market and her parents feast on a glorious selection of meats left unattended. Their greed summons an array of mythical beings and curses them into anthropomorphic pigs. In order to restore the curse, Chihiro with the help of a local named Haku (Jason Marsden) must earn a living in this unfamiliar world revolving around a bathhouse for monsters. These bewitching creatures include the spider/man composite Kamaji (David Ogden Stiers), stink spirits, “No-face” and the return of the Susuwatari that truly unveil the pinnacle of Miyazaki’s imagination. Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette) with her rolling head henchman is the evil bathhouse witch and her attempts to apprehend Chihiro, all the while soothing her massive baby are amusing to watch. It is culturally acknowledged and deservedly so, nevertheless I insist there are many more Ghibli tales of equal and greater worth.

IMDB Rating: 8.6

My Rating: 8

howls

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Employing old women and young female heroines for one more time, Sophie (Emily Mortimer & Jean Simmons) is an 18 year old hat maker who is cursed into old age by a powerful wizard Howl (Christian Bale) for rejecting his romantic advances. Desperate to break the curse, she meets a sentient scarecrow called Turnip Head who directs her to the wizard’s moving castle.  There she meets Howl’s apprentice Markl (Josh Hutcherson) and a fire spirit Calcifer (Billy Crystal), who agrees to break Sophie’s spell in exchange for his own freedom. To achieve this all without arousing Howl’s suspicion, she becomes his cleaning lady and journeys with the trio through various villages in their extravagant transport. It is an unconventional love story, full of humour and emotion, as Howl partakes in the war that faces their nation and battles to stay in his own human form. One of the strongest Ghibli narratives with some of the strongest performances in Miyazaki’s characters, it is exquisite.

IMDB Rating: 8.2

My Rating: 9

ponyo

Ponyo (2008)

Finally, a film that can only be described as a cultured and elevated version of “Finding Nemo”, “Ponyo” is the story of a small fish that is trapped by her wizard father (Liam Neeson) under the ocean, whose yearning to see the world leads her to escape. Washed ashore inside a glass bottle, she is discovered by a young boy Sōsuke (Frankie Jonas) and their blossoming friendship convinces Ponyo to wish to be human. Narrative interplay between Sōsuke’s wish to be united with his father at sea (Matt Damon) and Ponyo’s education in the lessons of humanity, tug at the whole spectrum of emotional heartstrings. She is yet another lovable Miyazaki creation and if this could be considered a predictable and systematic procedure, then it is a crime worth committing. Disney’s influence in the Studio Ghibli Corporation is arguably most evident in this production and for the better, in one of the most endearing films I have ever seen.

IMDB Rating: 7.7

My Rating: 8

What should we expect from “The Wind Rises”? As you can see Miyazaki’s films are never short of magic and crafted fantasy worlds that expand our mind’s eye. Expect an old woman of great wisdom and an animalistic side kick with touching humour. Expect raw emotion and to find beauty in the simplicity of life. Expect a masterminded soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi and to be enveloped by an enchanting romance. But most of all, expect to be entertained.

Max Hilton

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