Total Recall: Hayao Miyazaki's Best Movies
With Ponyo hitting theaters, we explore the works of the master Japanese animator.
Hayao Miyazaki's last three films (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl's Moving Castle) platformed in America to mild success. For his 10th and latest movie, Ponyo (the story of an ocean goldfish and her quest to become human), Disney will be granting it a more confident, nationwide release this Friday. Frankly, the more opportunity America gets to see a Miyazaki movie, the better: they expertly breach multiple genres and fulfill the visual promise of hand-drawn animation. But they also feel deeply personal. Always directing from his own scripts, Miyazaki can take any story and mold it to his likeness, creating across 10 films a thematically consistent, rich and rewarding universe. This week's Total Recall explores the career of Hayao Miyazaki, animation's grand auteur.
The film begins with a meek hat girl falling in love with a charming wizard and then being transformed into an old woman by a jealous witch. This is Miyazaki's lowest-rated movie (still insanely high at 86 percent), but let's not think for a second he's slipping in his late period. Howl's Moving Castle is his most challenging work, a patient movie with a purposefully diffused narrative. Even if you're confused by the plot (and it gets pretty weird in spots), it can be enjoyed for its stunningly baroque artwork and playful sense of mystery and wonder. Richard Nilsen of the Arizona Republic was bewitched: "The world it gives us to live in, for a couple of hours, is pure magic. It is one of those places we might wish never to leave."
The first film in Miyazaki's three-decade career, The Castle of Cagliostro is essentially a genre movie, an action/noir set in the canon of the long-running manga and anime series, Lupin the III. Miyazaki recreates the hero as a more humane, sympathetic thief than previous incarnations, while retrofitting the film with his more tactile interests: European architecture and creative flying vehicles. And like most genre flicks, production time was extremely limited (only four months!); it uses rough-edged animation that makes the action feel raw and kinetic, with a plot that breathlessly bounds forward. As Walter Chaw of Film Freak Central puts it, Cagliostro is "a light, irreverent slapstick exercise with a healthy share of nifty gadgets and derring-do."
Two young girls are transported to the countryside to be closer to their sick, hospitalized mother, and while there they meet several fantastical woodland spirits. And that's about it. In My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki frees himself from the heavy plotting presumed necessary to hold children's attention. Instead, he enthralls viewers young and old animating the smaller moments of everyday life, hoping the audience shares his (and his two protagonists') curiosity in exploring their world. Most movies don't treat adults with this much respect; seeing it in a movie designed for kids is simply remarkable. Kevin Carr of 7M Pictures calls it "a warm and friendly story that just made me feel good after watching it."
Castle in the Sky is set on an alternative version of Earth where all of mankind's cities once were skybound and have long since crashed to Earth. Save for one: Laputa. Its existence has entered into legend but a young boy continues to believe and his encounters a girl with a mysterious crystal sends them both onto an adventure towards its location. Light in theme and symbolism compared to Miyazaki's other movies, Castle in the Sky is his most accessible effort: a nimble, entertaining piece of work pieced together with the manic energy of a Saturday morning serial. Channel 4 agrees: "Miyazaki's flying contraptions are a sight to behold, rivaled only by the film's epic sweep and nonstop parade of action set-pieces."