Thursday, February 20, 2014

Ranking Hayao Miyazaki

If I had to pick I’d say that Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki is the greatest director of animation in cinema history. His last film, The Wind Rises which I saw at TIFF last year, will go into general release this week. Miyazaki announced it would be his last film – each of the last few films he made took longer and longer the complete and he worried that now that he’s in he is 73 he wouldn’t finish another one. He leaves behind an 11 film resume (and countless shorts, as well as work in TV and manga) – and each of his 11 films has something to recommend them – he really did not make a weak film in his career, although some are obviously better than others. Here is how I would rank his 11 films.

11. The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
Miyazaki’s debut film is an extension of a television series (which he directed several episodes for), which itself is an extension of a manga series. The film is an exciting action film, in which the main character Lupin, a thief discovers the money he has just stolen from a Monte Carlo Casino are counterfeit, and his pursuit of the truth leads him to a strange castle in the small country of Cagliostro. There really is nothing wrong with the film – it is an exciting film as far as this type of thing goes, with excellent action sequences (including a wonderful chase sequence). And there are hints at what Miyazaki would do later in his other films. But if I value it a little lower than his other work; it’s mainly because it doesn’t much feel like a Miyazaki film. The other 10 films feel more part of a group, with this one being a very entertaining outlier.

10. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Kiki is a young witch, and like all witches, she has to leave home and live by herself for a year when she turns 13. She flies off to the big city, with her talkative black cat companion, and while there experiences several crisis while trying to deal with normal adolescence, and a crisis of confidence. There is nothing wrong with Kiki’s Delivery Service – it is a beautiful film from beginning to end, and it tells its story with sensitivity. This is a Miyazaki film aimed more at children than adults though – everything here is perhaps a touch too simplistic, everything a little too cute for its own good. I look forward to showing this to my daughters one day, yet it never quite captures the magic of Miyazaki’s best work.

9. Ponyo (2008)
Ponyo is Miyazaki’s version of the Little Mermaid story about a small fish girl, who wants to see more of the world and ends up bonding with a little boy on land. The film is rather simple – it has been made to appeal to young children – and yet there are magical moments in it – not least of which is the wordless opening sequence, under the sea. The love story between what are basically two five year olds is a little strange to say the least – and yet Miyazaki makes it feel genuine. The film is beautiful from start to finish – and shows Miyazaki’s vast imagination and talent in every frame. If I rank it a little lower than most Miyazaki films it’s because like Kiki’s Delivery Service it is perhaps a touch too simple – and yet doesn’t quite have the same magical quality of My Neighbor Tortoro. It comes closer to Miyazaki’s best – but is still a notch or two below.

8. Porco Rosso (1992)
Porco Rosso is a little bit of a transitional film for Miyazaki. Made after two films made undeniably for children (My Neighbor Tortoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service), and before his move to darker, more adult fare in Princess Mononoke, came this film which is somewhat of a blend between the two. It is about Porco Rosso, a WWI flying ace who flew for Italy, who has been cursed to look like a human with a pig’s head. The story is relatively simple and straight forward – between the wars, Porco Rosso makes his living as a solitary bounty hunter of air pirates, until his supremacy is challenged by an American, and the two square off. But it’s themes are slightly more mature than that of his previous films – there is darkness at the edges of Porco Rosso. Porco is a little older than most anime protagonist – he has been worn down by life, by those lost in the war, and his grief over them. This is still a relatively simple film – beautiful animated as always by Miyazaki – but there are signs of where Miyazaki was going to go next in this film, that make it one of his most interesting, if not quite one of his best.

7. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Howl’s Moving Castle looks as beautiful and is as visually inventive as anything Miyazaki has ever done. The title castle – which as the name implies is owned by Howl and moves – is one of Miyazaki’s greatest visual inventions, and the source of never ending discoveries. The story, about a young girl cursed to look like an old woman, who seeks out the title wizard to try and reverse the curse, doesn’t quite live up to the best of Miyazaki’s movies. The story seems more like an excuse to hang his wonderful and exciting animated set pieces on – and when they come, they are truly awe inspiring. But the best Miyazaki movies are more than just a sum of great moments – they are about the perfect fusion of visuals and story, and Howl’s Moving Castle doesn’t quite achieve that balance. It is still light years better than most animated films you will see in any given year – but in terms of Miyazaki’s resume, it’s a notch or two below his best work.

6. Castle in the Sky (1986)
Miyazaki’s love of flying is on full display is this wonderful animated adventure about a young boy who saves a girl who is being chased by pirates, the army and secret agents – and have to race to find a floating castle. As with many of Miyazaki’s earlier efforts, the story here is fairly straightforward – you know where it’s going from the beginning, and it never truly surprises you. Having said that, this ranks among the most beautiful of all Miyazaki movies – and every frame of the film is filled with invention and something wondrous to look at. Miyazaki loves inventing strange machines – and the flying contraptions he comes up with in this film are among his best work. Much of the film is silly – wonderfully so – as the various bad guys are slapstick caricatures – but they work. It is only near the end of the film where Castle in the Sky gets a little more serious – and Miyazaki’s not overly optimistic view of humanity is on display in the final confrontation in that Castle in the Sky. Miyazaki would go on to deepen the themes in this film in later, better, more complete films – but for what it is, Castle in the Sky is still a wonder to behold.

5. The Wind Rises (2013)
Miyazaki’s last film is his least fantastical – it takes place firmly in the real world, and although there are some dream sequences, even they do not contain his usual assortment of magical creatures and machines. Instead, he tells the story of a Japanese aviation engineer who spends his life making beautiful planes – and then watches as the Japanese military uses them as death machines in WWII. To offset this, the film is also a gentle love story between the engineer and the sickly woman he meets – first as a child and then years later. To some, Miyazaki wasn’t hard enough on the engineer, who creates flying death machines. To others, he was a traitor to Japan for calling them too militaristic and questioning what they did in the war. The fact that he angered both sides probably means he struck the right balance. While The Wind Rises isn’t the fantasy masterwork that most of Miyazaki's films are – that doesn’t mean the film isn’t full of wonderfully animated moments and sequences – the earthquake and fire in the first act in particular are stunning – or that this film is any less beautiful than anything else he has ever created. This film is sadder than most however – a fitting note to go out on for the master animator.

4. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
For a few of Miyazaki’s movies I have pointed out that there are rather simple – and that’s true. Perhaps none of his films is as simple and straight forward as My Neighbor Tortoro, but while I knocked some of the other down a notch or two because of their simplicity, I cannot do the same to this film. Yes it is simple – but its simplicity works in its favor. This is a gentle film about childhood – two sisters with a father who works a lot and a mother in the hospital, who invent some imaginary creatures to help watch over them (or perhaps the creatures are real). There is no false drama here, no bad guys, no action sequences, just a simple film that remembers what it was like to be a child, and get lost in your own imagination for a while in order to protect yourself from the world. It is also one of the most beautiful films ever made – by Miyazaki or anyone else for that matter. While Kiki’s Delivery Service or Ponyo are perhaps too simple, My Neighbor Tortoro gets the balance between simple and profound just about perfect. One of the first films I plan to show my daughters when they gets a little older.

3. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Miyazaki’s second feature is clearly the best of his early work – a complex film about a post-apocalyptic world where humanity is threatened with extinction at the hands of the giant insects that live in the jungle that surround their kingdoms. It’s been 1000 years since humanity all but destroyed itself – and the planet – and they have teetered on the brink of extinction since. The story focuses on Nausicaa, who lives in the Valley of the Wind, one of the few places still inhabitable by humans. Eventually, she will come into contact with two different kingdoms – one of whom wants to wipe out the forest and everything in it, and plans on releasing an ancient spirit to do so – a plan Nausicca is against. Like Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa is the story of a strong princess at its core, and also has a serious ecological message behind it. The film’s plot is complex – but never confusing, and the characters are always interesting. There really are no bad guys in the film – just people with differing perspectives. As always, the film is a wonder for the eye from beginning to end –with an amazing array of insects and flying machines, and some great action sequences. Miyazaki would take a step towards more childlike films for more than a decade after making this film – but this is the film that most clearly showed where he was heading – and it is a great film unto itself as well.

2. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Princess Mononoke tells an incredibly complex story – set during the dawn of the Iron Age, which according to the movie is when man and nature started speaking different languages, and threw the balance of power off. It centers on a prince, who we see fight a boar monster with the flesh of snakes and win – but become scarred in the process. He sets out into the forest to discover what caused such a strange creature – eventually meeting the title character – a child raised by a wolf god – and a village that is started work in iron – which gives them one kind of power, while stripping them of their connection with nature. Princess Mononoke is not a simple film – Miyazaki has always resisted such simplistic terms as good and evil – and would rather have complex characters, whose point of view we can understand, even when they are at odds with ours, and one another. He has also created one of the best looking animated films ever created. The story is complex, and has moments of shocking violence – but not in the way some anime is shocking with blood and gore, but because the violence shocks even the participants in the action. This was the first Miyazaki film I ever saw – and remains one of the very best.

1. Spirited Away (2001)
Would Spirited Away get my vote for the best animated film of all time? It just might. Miyazaki made several great films in his life, but none of them really come close to me to Spirited Away. Once again, the story seems rather simple at first – a girl and her parents are on a car trip, when her parent’s actions turn them into pigs, and the girl becomes a servant at a bathhouse – whose clients and staff represent pretty much every type of creature you can possibly imagine – and some you never could. She has her name stolen, and must get it back, or else she’ll be trapped forever. That’s the story – it’s probably the most fantastical and inventive of anything Miyazaki has done – but it’s only a small part of the film’s appeal. The rest of it is the gorgeous animation that fills every frame with images that would be impossible in live action – even with the best CGI imaginable. Miyazaki is not afraid to take his time with the story – in fact he often seems at his best in the film’s quietest moments. If this isn’t the greatest animated film of all time, it certainly ranks right near the top of the list – and for me, is easily the best film Miyazaki has ever made.

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