From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki

by The Playlist Staff
February 20, 2014 2:03 PM
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When it premiered at the Venice Film Festival back in August, "The Wind Rises," which hits theaters this week, was accompanied by the announcement that it would be the last feature film from director Hayao Miyazaki. It may be that that turns out to be premature—the filmmaker has said as much several times before—but if this truly is his last film, it'll prove to be a monumental loss to cinema.

Over the last three decades, Miyazaki, and his company Studio Ghibli, have been behind some of the greatest masterpieces that animated film have ever seen, strange wonderful pictures that couldn't have come from anywhere or anyone else, and have broken out of love from just the hardcore anime fans to enchant audiences and cinephiles the world over. Western audiences have caught on more recently thanks to the patronage of Disney and Pixar chief John Lasseter, perhaps the only figure who can stand alongside Miyazaki in the animated world.

We couldn't let the release of the last Miyazaki film (for now...) pass by without celebration, and so to mark the occasion, we've decided to try a near-impossible feat: to definitively rank the director's eleven feature-length features, from worst to best. Miyazaki never made a truly bad movie, and nothing here really ranks below a B- or C+, and most are much higher. But some great films are greater than others. Read on below to find out what we deemed to be the best of Hayao Miyazaki, and argue with our picks in the comments section below.

11. "The Castle Of Cagliostro" (1979)
Miyazaki's first feature as director, and a rare non-Studio Ghibli film, is undoubtedly the least of his major works, a somewhat anonymous franchise caper, but one that does at least show the promise of the master filmmaker that was to come. Based on Manga artist Monkey Punch's enduringly popular character Lupin III (the grandson of Maurice LeBlanc's gentleman-thief Arsene Lupin), derived from an anime TV series for which Miyazaki had directed a number of episodes, it opens with Lupin and right-hand man Daisuke Jigen pulling off a successful casino robbery in Monte Carlo, only to discover that their haul is made up of counterfeit notes. This ends up pointing them in the direction of the sinister Count Cagliostro and the princess Clarisse, who is meant to marry him. It's a rather convoluted and overstuffed plot, featuring ninja assassins, various associates and adversaries of Lupin's, faked deaths, Roman ruins, terrible secrets and a "You Only Live Twice"-style autogyro, and can sometimes feel manic, gag-happy and, well, cartoonish, in a reality-breaking way that isn't really the case with Miyazaki's other work, which feels anchored no matter how fantastical it gets. On the animation scale, it's definitely closer to Saturday morning cartoons than, say, "The Wind Rises." But all that said, it is wildly imaginative and beautifully executed, with a number of action sequences that would put any live-action film to shame—there's a cracking car chase early on, and things only improve from there. And while the production values are notably lesser than the Ghibli pictures, the trademark attention to detail of a Miyazaki film is very much present in the fantastical European setting, a gloriously romantic depiction of a world that never existed (one that would be returned to in spirit many times), that nods to classic French graphic novels, Bond and Tintin, among others. It's definitely a minor entry in the canon, disposable in a way none of his other films really are, but it's still a remarkably entertaining 100 minutes.

10. “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004)
What kind of a filmography can have a film as good as “Howl’s Moving Castle” nestle in the bottom half in terms of quality? But here it is, as splendid and beautifully imagined an animated film as we’ve seen, and yet low in our overall rankings. The reason for that is simple: while it’s a terrific film, it feels less pure, original Miyazaki than many of the others here, being loosely based on a book by English author Diana Wynne Jones, and featuring a steampunk-y vibe that, while well-realized, harkens back to the director's “Laputa: Castle In The Sky” made nearly two decades earlier. Still, transforming rather than transcribing the original story (which was a contentious issue for some fans of the book), the Oscar-nominated ‘Howl’ is a treat and a tremendous visual achievement: the story of Sophie, a plain young milliner who has a spell cast upon her making her old and who falls in love with a handsome, troubled wizard, as so often with Miyazaki films, it is the backdrop that really gives the film its unique texture. Here it plays out during a time of war, a war even those waging it admit is “idiotic” and which yet wreaks havoc on villages and fills the skies with fighter-airships dropping bombs (most of which wear hats). Miyazaki publicly stated that the film was a reaction to the widely unpopular Japanese involvement in the Iraq War, and even Marco Mueller, Director of the Venice Film Festival where it debuted, called it “the strongest anti-war statement we have in the whole festival.” But of course it’s more than possible to enjoy the film without reading in all that subtext—in fact we’d suggest that this film, while it may not be the purest, or weirdest, iteration of the director’s filmmaking, could function well as a “starter Miyazaki” especially for children raised on Disney movies. The synthesis of fabulously imagined visuals (the castle design is stunningly intricate and jokey) and grotesque or ambivalent characters with more recognizably “Western” elements like the transformative power of true love and a couple of helpful magical sidekicks (notably a talking fire and an ‘Oz’-like scarecrow), make it an easy way to get your feet wet in the world of Miyazaki, before taking the plunge proper.

9. "Kiki's Delivery Service" (1989)
How do you follow up "My Neighbor Totoro," the film that truly put Miyazaki on the map? With a sweet, low-key coming-of-age story that happened to precede the coming mania over young witches and wizards ten years before the arrival of "Harry Potter" (and, happily, also proved to be a huge hit, Ghibli's biggest up to that point). Miyazaki wasn't even originally supposed to direct "Kiki's Delivery Service," an adaptation of the novel by Eiko Kadono—he was busy with 'Totoro,' and had passed on the duties to colleague Sunao Katabuchi. But he was unhappy with earlier drafts of the script, and with 'Totoro' now in the can, Miyazaki took over, and the result is a film that couldn't be made by another director. Set in an alternate Europe (the imagery is based, at least in part, on Stockholm), it follows the titular Kiki, a 13-year-old witch in training, who, like other witches, has to spend a year living on her own before she can resume her training. With the help of her talking cat Jiji, she sets up shop delivering for a bakery, and befriends and falls for a local boy mad for aviation, but becomes depressed and starts to lose her power. Miyazaki's always been a director in touch with his feminine side ("The Wind Rises" is rare among his films for not featuring a female protagonist), but even when compared to the others, "Kiki's Delivery Service" is easily his least testosterone-y: a quiet, little film about a young girl learning to believe in herself, and overcome her insecurities—a sort of magical "Frances Ha," as it were. It's utterly charming and very sweet-natured, but to the extent it can sometimes come across as bland: the conflict is so internal that it feels a little undramatic in places, and while typically beautiful (not least in the stunning flying sequences), it doesn't come across as Miyazaki's most distinctive act of world creation. It's a lovely little film, of course, and a perfect jumping-on point to the director's work for young girls, but there are richer and more resonant films as you'll soon see.

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  • jimmie t. murakami | March 12, 2014 7:23 AMReply

    Hayao Miyazaki is a worthless pile of dog-shit, freshly excreted out of a mongrels arse.

  • The Doctor | March 18, 2014 10:31 PM

    If you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all.

  • Woowoo678 | March 17, 2014 6:15 PM

    Personally, I don't think wombats are as cute as everyone makes them out to be.

  • trikucian | March 6, 2014 11:46 PMReply

    In what universe is Princess Mononoke a kid's movie? It has tons of gore in it, which, as you can guess from a Miyazaki film, is terribly detailed. What makes it strong is that it is able to present fantasy and mythology in an intelligent and adult way. I strongly approve of this taking top spot on your list. I would have placed Nausica higher, but I like post-apocalyptic stuff.

    I would have put Kiki's Delivery Service at the bottom, it was so ungodly boring and dumb compared to everything else. Though, Ghibli's most boring has to be Tales from Earthsea, which was somehow worse than the live action Earthsea. I only watched Ghibli's Earthsea because Timothy Dalton voiced the lead in the English version.

  • Afifa | March 4, 2014 8:34 PMReply

    I am glad this list was based on personal opinion backed up with valid reason. Most lists would go by a poll of popular opinions or record sales and I liked to see the film looked at from different angles. It was also surprising to see Princess Mononoke at the top and most people wouldn't pick it (well at least everyone I have asked) and it is my all time favourite animated movie as well so I was doubly happy to see it at the top. The soundtrack always gives me chills especially when I imagine the world that was created for the backdrop.

  • Charles | March 4, 2014 11:54 AMReply

    Interesting list. The genius of Miyazaki is his ability to connect in different ways with so many, regardless of age, nationality or gender.

    I feel the apex of this 'genius' was Spirited Away. Since than the tone and scope of his films has been very sedate and middling. Not bad, just not what we had come to expect in a "different world" kind of way.

    Totoro is my personal favorite, along with Nausicaa (for personal reasons). But because his genius connects in so many ways, it's impossible to rate all the films. Kiki, Spirited Away, Porco Rosso.....they all have a beautiful otherwordly appeal that lets us escape our own worlds for a brief moment. One of the rare director's whose work I have no problem rewatching numerous times (which goes for a few of the Studio Ghibli work as well).

  • Chris | March 23, 2014 12:25 PM

    Agree that his work has an appeal to different generations. I really enjoyed Mononoke, but my toddlers love Totoro. They literally enjoy watching it once a week. They've seen it dozens of times.

  • Dustin | March 4, 2014 8:08 AMReply

    Great list! Kiki ranks a tad higher for me personally. There's something so tender and sweet about that film that resonates with me. Let's say it's not a "best to worst" list, but rather, a "greatest to great" list. ;-)

  • hedelex | March 3, 2014 11:00 PMReply

    I agree that Mononoke is awesome... but Totoro was so boring for me I watched it only once, can't understand why it is in second place; sure, Tororo and Catbus are pretty characters and make lovely plushies but... really? O_O
    My personal favorite is Howl's Moving Catle too.

  • The Doctor | March 18, 2014 10:35 PM

    I understand how you don't love Totoro like most Studio Ghibli fans, after all it didn't really have a good plot, and it is more of a little-kids movie.

  • jake | March 3, 2014 10:41 PMReply

    it hurts me that you said howl's moving castle was worse than kiki's delivery service and spirited away

  • Matt | March 3, 2014 10:21 PMReply

    This list is insane, Howl in 10th was a good sign that this list was far from reality, so I took it all with a grain of salt. Then Totoro getting number 2, that just made me laugh and sigh. That movie is horrendous with the exception of Totoro. I mean, there isn't even a bad guy, could've been amazing movie though.

    Porco was great, but def not #4 material. Nausica and Castle in the Sky are my favorite least seen Ghibli movies for sure, glad they did well on the list. And as long as Mononoke got number 1, my nerd rage was able to be contained.

    Wind Rises sounds terrible, and as a big Miyazaki fan I'm not going to watch it after the huge disappointment of the last two Ghibli movies and the boring premise. Still, glad he's going to get some more peace and relaxation in his life, he deserves it.

  • Duder NME | March 5, 2014 1:46 AM

    Totoro is the only animated film to treat children as adults, not in terms of complexity, but of patience and empathy. It trusts children and adults alike to see with similar vision - that people don't have to grow out of a sense of wonder to enjoy life. I'm tempted to put it at #1.

  • jacob | March 3, 2014 10:46 PM

    I guess my 4th grade teacher was wrong. Someone's opinion can be incorrect. For your education: a movie does not have to have a bad guy. To say such a thing invalidates your point from the start. My Neighbor Totoro was an amazing work and to say it was bad just means you aren't a Miyazaki fan.

  • FilipL | March 3, 2014 2:35 PMReply

    Loved this list. Hopefully one for Studio Ghibli films period can be found here.

  • DaveB | March 3, 2014 11:01 AMReply

    I saw an early print of Princess Mononoke in Japanese with English subtitles in Ann Arbor at a Manga film convention prior to the Weinstein deal. I was totally blown away. For me it is still his best work.

  • MarkVH | February 27, 2014 1:49 PMReply

    I'd swap #1 and #2 (I think Totoro is his masterpiece), but in general I'm on board with this ranking. Good stuff.

  • Arwen | February 26, 2014 6:02 PMReply

    Im going to have to disagree with this slightly, due to the fact that Grave of the Fireflies didnt make the list. That film broke my heart. It was so amazingly told and hardhitting. i really felt for the characters by the end and thats what made it so sad. I would have put that in over Howl's Moving Castle any day :/

  • Katie | February 26, 2014 7:40 PM

    Grave of the Fireflies was not directed by Hayao Miyazaki, so that explains why it was not included on this list.

  • Sara | February 23, 2014 8:18 AMReply

    "10. Howl's moving casttle" really? And the second Totoro!?? please, it's good okey and the ranking is something very subjective but in fact is the most overrated film of studio ghibli. Ponyo, Nausicaa and Sipirted Away are better. You don't have judgment or something else.
    But Mononoke obviously is the best.

  • Cody | February 26, 2014 5:22 PM

    Completely agree with every word you typed.

  • nick | February 22, 2014 6:28 PMReply

    I would put spirited away second though

  • Mafer | February 22, 2014 4:53 PMReply

    I knwe it!

    Mononoke is teh best!! It's my favorite Ghibli Movie!! It's gorgeous!!!

    Oim totally agree with this rank!

  • Yop | February 22, 2014 4:26 AMReply

    I'm actually agree with your rankin without any doubt, his best film is Princess Mononoke :)

  • chalkycliffs | February 22, 2014 3:12 AMReply

    There is an error for the Totoro entry - the man can be closer to his ailing mother.

    She was the man's wife and the girls' mother.

  • Daniel Thomas MacInnes | February 21, 2014 11:44 PMReply

    It's really weird how so few Westerners are aware that Hayao Miyazaki actually had a career before Studio Ghibli was founded. You guys skipped out on half the man's career - which would go a long way towards connecting to a film like Castle of Cagliostro. We really ought to send you guys some DVDs and fansub copies of his 60s and 70s work.

  • arnold | February 21, 2014 7:25 PMReply

    The first Miyazaki film I watched was the "Americanized" Warriors of the Wind. The one with the flying unicorn in the VHS box cover and some He-Man type guy riding the mheve holing up a laser sword. Yes, the box cover was so bad I actually passed on this movie for a long time until my brother told me how great it was. So no flying unicorns and laser swords made me love the movie. The second movie I saw was Laputa which I really enjoyed more. Reading the Nausicaa manga though, I wish Studio Ghibli or Miyazaki would do the entire story as a tv series. A few people seem to know that Miyazaki had a great series called "CONAN: Boy of the Future" or Future Boy Conan. Great series that i wish would get a US subbed release.

  • Jaime | February 21, 2014 4:57 PMReply

    During the past 2-3 years, my wife and I borrowed and watched all the movies in this list because we found we loved Miyazaki so much, but when it came down to buying some of them to have for ourselves, one Christmas we picked Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Nausicaa, Howl's Moving Castle and Castle in the Sky.

    Our least favorite was definitely Princess Mononoke. Just didn't click for us.
    To each their own.

  • Alex | February 21, 2014 1:33 PMReply

    Although I love Princess Mononoke, I'd say it's a tad overrated. Porco Rosso on the other hand...what a beautiful film. That's my personal number 1.

  • João | February 20, 2014 5:54 PMReply

    Worst? What worst??

  • forthington | February 20, 2014 4:03 PMReply

    Love this list. Your rankings always feel very thought-through and well defended (Pixar one as well). Mononoke is probably among my 4 favorite movies and in my opinion his definite masterpiece.

  • Christina Schnabel | February 20, 2014 3:31 PMReply


  • Xander | February 20, 2014 3:21 PMReply

    As a huge Miyazake fan, I applaud your efforts at ranking his work. I agree that even his "worst" is heaps better than most cinema (especially animated work) today. I would be amiss though if I didn't point out a few places where you got it wrong. I know it's among the most celebrated (stateside, at least) of his works, but Mononoke is not his best film. I would actually place it somewhere in the middle of the pack. It shares many of the same elements of his other works, but doesn't do so as purely. I would bump Spirited Away up to the second spot and stick his big adventure in the Valley of the Wind at number one. Nausicaa is one of the best characters ever created for film--it is impossible to watch her movie and not want to change your life for the better. Any story that can do that, deserves more recognition.

  • Dan | March 3, 2014 10:18 PM

    I totally agree with putting Nausicaa number one. All of his movies are amazing but that one in particular really blew me away.

  • vart | February 20, 2014 3:04 PMReply

    I love how you compare Kiki's Delivery Service to Frances Ha, two movies completely, altogether unlike. Is the collective memory/knowledge of the writers on this site so poor that no films older than a year and existing below a certain threshold of megahype cannot be called upon?

  • Art Garfunkle | February 21, 2014 4:16 AM

    Gee, what a great contribution youve made here, if you dont like the site then dont read it,

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