From Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) to Princess Mononoke (1997), here are all Hayao Miyazaki movies, ranked.
Miyazaki is one of the world’s greatest animation directors. Born January 5, 1941 to a well-to-do family that owned an aircraft-part manufacturing company, Miyazaki naturally had a fascination for aeroplanes. Flying imagery, in fact, is a staple in his films. One of the most impactful experiences in Miyazaki’s childhood was his mother taking ill to tuberculosis. Consequently, orphanhood and threat of losing a parent is another recurring motif in the legendary animator’s works.
As a child, Miyazaki showed interest in art, particularly drawing, inspired by the Japanese style of comics called ‘manga’. One of the important episodes in Miyazaki’s life is said to have happened at 17. In 1958, Miyazaki watched Japan’s first feature-length animated feature, The Tale of White Serpent. The anime left a deep impression on Miyazaki. Therefore, though he graduated with a degree in economics and political science he spent his free time drawing manga and eventually chose a career in animation.
In 1963, Hayao Miyazaki joined Toei Animation Studio. His remarkable drawing abilities and story ideas garnered a lot of attention in those days. It was in Toei, Miyazaki befriended the other legendary Japanese animation director, Isao Takahata. Their 50-plus years of friendship (Takahata passed away in 2018) and the illustrious studio they co-founded (Studio Ghibli) laid a rock solid foundation for Japanese animation movies. After working 15 years in the animation department of various studios, Miyazaki directed his first full-length animated film in 1979. Then on, he’s made 11 feature-length animation movies.
Each of those 11 films offer us an entry into a fantastic, magical world. When you experience a Hayao Miyazaki anime, you know it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. His astonishingly detailed hand-drawn animation, deep and ambiguous characters that often blur the line between good and evil, adventure-filled storyline, and endearing messages set his work apart from the majority of conventional animation films. Heck, there’s even a Ghibli museum for us fans! It’s designed by Miyazaki himself using storyboards similar to the ones he creates for his films.
Quickly then, here’s a look at all Hayao Miyazaki movies, from the good to the best:
11. Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
Lupin the Third is a popular multi-volume manga series written and illustrated by Monkey Punch. The manga has had numerous anime adaptations; the first of it was an anime series made in 1971. Miyazaki co-directed some of the episodes with his colleague and Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata. The manga focuses on the exploits of a gentleman thief named Arsene Lupin III. The success of the series led to a big-budget feature-length anime.
The Castle of Cagliostro is definitely far removed from the idiosyncratic fantasy worlds of Miyazaki’s later films. At the same time, it’s an entertaining adventure film, which includes Lupin saving a princess and pursuing a counterfeit mastermind. While the background animation is very simple, there’s a lot of wit, action, and drama in the narrative. The genius of Miyazaki is apparent in some of the standout moments of physical comedy. Overall, this pre-Studio Ghibli Miyazaki film might be totally different in terms of tone, but is still exciting.
Related: Howl’s Moving Castle Explained
10. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
On the outset, Kiki’s Delivery Service seems to have strong fantasy elements like Miyazaki’s three previous films. Kiki is a 13-year old witch-in-training. The young witch must leave her home for a year to train in witchcraft. Miyazaki presents us a world where witchcraft isn’t stigmatised. Witches and other supernatural beings are part of the community. Soon, the young girl flies away on her broom with her cat Jiji to a big city.
Subsequently, she struggles with the independent yet lonely life. Kiki also feels that she isn’t skilled enough to be a witch. However, the adolescent girl uses her flying skills and imagination to start up a delivery service. Kiki’s Delivery Service is an expertly crafted female coming-of-age tale, which also doubles up as a portrait of a creative and independent individual. Studio Ghibli fans might expect more out of the magical setting. But Miyazaki simply uses Kiki’s extraordinary skills to capture the identity crisis of adolescent years sans melodrama.
Where to Watch: Netflix
9. Ponyo (崖の上のポニョ, 2008)
Studio Ghibli anime effortlessly capture children’s sense of wonder. The animators from the studio have the knack to immerse completely into a child’s world that’s totally devoid of rigid adult perspective. While Miyazaki’s target audience varies slightly with movies like Princess Mononoke and The Wind Rises, two of his anime can be perfect entertainment for preschoolers. One, the enchanting classic My Neighbor Totoro, and the other, this feel-good adventure.
Based on The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, Ponyo tells the tale of young boy Sosuke who lives in a serene coastal town. One day, Sosuke finds a small, odd-looking goldfish and names her Ponyo. Soon, we learn that Ponyo is an off-spring of the sea, and transforms herself into a little girl to be with her friend Sosuke. The anime has several amusing comic moments and brilliantly imaginative set-pieces. It also withholds Miyazaki’s trademark environmental themes. The climax of Ponyo is tad disappointing, but the touching friendship between the two kids keeps us engaged throughout.
Where to Watch: Netflix
8. The Wind Rises (風立ちぬ, 2013)
It was a bittersweet experience to watch The Wind Rises (Japanese title: Kaze Tachinu), knowing it will be the last Miyazaki film. Thankfully though, the master has come out of retirement to make one more feature-length anime. Nominated as the Best Animated Feature at the 86th Academy Awards, The Wind Rises is loosely based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, an introverted aviation engineer. Miyazaki also weaves a lot of autobiographical elements into it, like the protagonist’s love for aviation. Jiro designed a Japanese fighter plane called Zero. It was used for kamikaze (suicide attack) missions during World War II, and once remained as the most feared fighter plane in the world.
However, Jiro is uneasy from the beginning about Japan’s military ambitions. Furthermore, he is devastated by the atrocities caused by his designs. The anime stirred political controversies within and outside Japan. But The Wind Rises is an adorably animated film about a complex individual and time. Hayao Miyazaki deftly showcases how innocent individual aspirations can be swept away by external forces and dangerously politicised.
Where to Watch: Netflix
7. Porco Rosso (紅の豚, 1992)
Porco Rosso aka Crimson Pig is based on Hayao Miyazaki’s own 1989 watercolour manga. The director’s preoccupations with war and aviation are the crux of his narrative about an airborne bounty hunter. The protagonist is a human with a pig face. In this story, Miyazaki mixes fantasy with the post-World War I history. Porco is dreaded by the air pirates of the Mediterranean region. Therefore, the pirates hire a rival American pilot named Curtiss to take him down. Porco fails for the first time. However, he befriends a young mechanical girl, Fio, and with her help confronts the pirates.
Porco Rosso might lack the sweeping vistas and fantastical elements of usual Studio Ghibli films. At the same time, Miyazaki narrates this simple tale with an abundance of charm and slapstick comedy. The period setting and rise of fascism provides compelling subtext to the proceedings. Nevertheless, there’s nothing weighty or depressing about Porco Rosso. It’s a fun film that chronicles an individual’s search for freedom in a desolate world.
Where to Watch: Netflix
6. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was made just a year before Studio Ghibli was founded by directors Miyazaki and Takahata and producer Suzuki Toshio. But it features the feel and look of a Studio Ghibli anime. The animated feature was based on Miyazaki’s own 1982 manga, which drew inspiration from Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel Dune. The anime is set thousand years in the future, where a toxic forest, full of man-made pollutants, threatens to envelop the entire world.
Nausicaä is the princess of a rural region that lies close to the deadly wasteland. The peace of her region is shattered when Nausicaä gets caught in a political conflict between two rival factions. Miyazaki breathtakingly and vividly creates an apocalyptic world. Courageous heroine, fascination with flight, environmental themes, and edge-of-the-seat thrills – all of Miyazaki’s trademarks are perfectly placed here.
Witnessing the narrative depth of Nausicaä for the first time would make you feel how conventional Western animation works are. Hayao Miyazaki brilliantly re-used some of his imagery and themes of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in his most accomplished work, Princess Mononoke (1997).
5. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Nominated as the Best Animated Feature at the 78th Academy Awards, Miyazaki’s sprawling fantasy epic is loosely based on Diana Wynne Jones’ 1986 novel. The story takes place in an unnamed place and era, although the atmosphere feels like 19th century Europe. In this world, the magic and the mundane co-exist. Howl’s Moving Castle revolves around Sophie, a young, 18-year old, hat maker whose life changes one day when she comes across the mysterious and handsome wizard Howl. Soon, she falls under a spell cast by Witch of the Waste that turns her into a 90-year old woman.
To find a cure for the spell, old Sophie enters as a housekeeper into the wizard’s gorgeous moving castle. Miyazaki mesmerizingly intertwines the journey of Sophie and the deadly adventures of Howl. There are no conventional villains or predictable romantic episodes in Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s a sublime drama that’s full of Miyazaki’s eye-popping visions of pastoral beauty.
Howl’s Moving Castle is a bit uneven and convoluted at times. Yet its stretches of imagination offer wholesome entertainment for the family. It’s Japanese title is Hauru no Ugoku Shiro.
Where to Watch: Netflix
4. Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta/Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
Laputa: Castle in the Sky is the first official Studio Ghibli film. It is thematically linked to Nausicaa, and unfolds as a thrilling action-adventure, similar to Castle of Cagliostro. Set in the late 19th century, the story revolves around an orphan boy named Pazu, who is skilled enough to build a flying machine. Pazu hails from a small mining town and dreams to fly away to the mythical floating island of Laputa. One night, Pazu comes across a beautiful girl named Sheeta, who literally falls from the sky.
Sheeta is on the run from air pirates as well as wicked government officials. They’re all after the magical artefact that belongs to Sheeta which might unlock the myth of Laputa. Miyazaki took the name Laputa from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The novel also had a similar flying island of the same name. Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta has plenty of fantastic chase set-ups and actions. But the pleasure of watching it lies in how Miyazaki captures the small details and mood. And the soothing music of Miyazaki regular Joe Hisaishi enhances the filmmaker’s humane touches.
3. Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し, 2001)
Hayao Miyazaki often tells the tale of young girls in search of their identity. The Japanese title is called Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi. In the master’s Academy Award-winning anime Spirited Away, we witness the coming-of-age of Chihiro, a sullen and spoiled 10-year old. The film opens with the young girl and her parents moving to a new town. Chihiro is hesitant to move for fear of adapting to a new environment. Adding to the girl’s annoyance, the parents take a detour and stumble upon an abandoned theme park. Chihiro wanders around and as the night falls, she sees ghostly forms. Soon, she finds her parents. But wait! They are transformed into pigs. The rest of the story is about Chihiro navigating her way around the mysterious spirit world to save her parents.
Through the narrative, Chihiro becomes a stronger and self-dependent person. In Spirited Away, Miyazaki defies the conventions of storytelling. He gradually immerses us into his fantasyland. There’s grouse that the film drags and the story gets hazy. But I’d say that the quiet scenes of inaction and unpredictable moments add layers to Chihiro’s journey of self-discovery.
Multiple viewings will help you appreciate the dazzling animation and close attention to detail. Spirited Away was the highest grossing film in Japanese history.
Where to Watch: Netflix
2. Tonari no Totoro or My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
The giant gentle spirit Totoro is the mascot of Studio Ghibli. It’s one of the most popular animated characters in Japan and around the world. But during its release, My Neighbor Totoro received lukewarm response at box-office. Nevertheless, a year later when it was aired on TV, it captivated the Japanese audience. Still, it was only after the international breakthrough of Princess Mononoke (1997) that Miyazaki’s early classics got recognition in the West.
My Neighbor Totoro is one of the best children’s movies. At the same time, it’s for everyone who retains a child-like sense of wonder. The anime has a simple plot. Two little sisters move to a bucolic countryside with their father. They have moved to stay close to the mother, who is recovering from an unspecified illness at a hospital. One day, Mei, the younger of the two, wanders around the idyllic setting and comes across a grey bear-like creature, who she names Totoro.
Miyazaki understands a child’s psyche like no other. His mesmerizingly fleshed-out animation showcases how nature possesses the power to heal. Overall, My Neighbor Totoro offers many sublime moments that’d make you yearn for your childhood days.
Where to Watch: Netflix
1. Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫, 1997)
The ‘Princess’ in the title might tempt you to think ‘Disney classic.’ But this film was a stark departure from usual Miyazaki’s films. It had moments of graphic violence and dealt with an immensely sad story of deforestation. Mononoke–hime revolves around Prince Ashitaka, who is cursed during a battle with a worm-infested boar. A seer asks the prince to make a journey into the forests of the west in order to find a cure.
During his pilgrimage, Ashitaka gets caught up in the conflict between the people of an industrialised town and Princess Mononoke, a young woman raised by a wild wolf-god. The conflict pushes us to draw parallels with the numerous battles between frontier communities and indigenous people. Besides, Miyazaki once again profoundly details how mankind is the sole reason for turmoil in this world. As in all his anime, Princess Mononoke features multi-dimensional characters that can’t be easily categorised as heroes and villains.
Hayao Miyazaki has long shied away from using CGI animation. In Princess Mononoke, he is said to have generated 10 percent of imagery using CGI. The rest of the 144,000 frames were all drawn by hand.
Where to Watch: Netflix
Here we are then! That’s my ranking of all Hayao Miyazaki movies. Miyazaki announced his retirement from feature-length filmmaking right after the commercial and critical success of Princess Mononoke. But a year later, he had developed the story for Spirited Away. Nevertheless, when he announced retirement before the release of The Wind Rises (2013), it was widely believed to be Miyazaki’s swan song. Eleven highly heralded animated feature-films in 34 years! In 2018, Miyazaki made a short film titled Boro the Caterpillar. Subsequently, Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli fans were rejoiced to hear that he’s working on a feature-length film. Titled How Do You Live? the anime is based on Miyazaki’s most favourite novel of the same name by Genzaburo Yoshino.
Over to you now! What are your top three Hayao Miyazaki films?
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’