Hayao Miyazaki's masterpieces "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Howl's Moving Castle" are now available on Blu-ray for the first time. Below, our TOH! ranking of the Top Ten Studio Ghibli films (hint: "Totoro" and "Howl's" make the list).
As John Lasseter has been called America's new Walt Disney, so is Miyazaki known as the Disney of Japan. Miyazaki and Lasseter share something rare: they are filmmakers in charge of animation giants in their respective countries, Studio Ghibli and Disney Animation/Pixar.
The two men are mutual fans and friends, going back to Miyazaki's visit in the 80s to the U.S. around the time of the now classic "My Neighbor Totoro." Where Lasseter has developed a strong collaborative ethic at Pixar, he reveres Miyazaki for dreaming up his stories and drawing much of the storyboards and characters himself. At Comic-Con in 2009, Miyazaki told the crowd the secret behind his artistry: "My process is thinking, thinking and thinking, thinking about my stories for a long time," he said with a smile. "If you have a better way, let me know."
When Lasseter interviewed Miyazaki in front of 6500 fans in Hall H, the Disney/Pixar chief praised him for running a "filmmaker-led studio dedicated to making great movies. That's what it's all about." Backstage, Lasseter said that you could watch the films in Japanese with no subtitles and still figure out what was going on. The language only adds subtlety and depth. "I love the positive messages in all the films," he said. "Miyazaki is inspirational. He celebrates quiet moments."
At Lasseter's Academy tribute to Miyazaki, the Disney animator provided commentary on his favorite Miyazaki clips: a rousing helicopter rescue operation in "Castle in the Sky," a bar scene with pig-faced aviator "Porco Rosso," the scary magic of "Spirited Away," and the dreamlike catbus scene from "Totoro," as the giant furry creature waits with two little girls in the dark rain at a bus stop. Miyazaki, who studied politics and worked his way up as an animator while always wanting to write manga comics, admits that he never wanted to make Totoro's origins or powers crystal clear. He was thinking about the images in that film for ten years, he said. He doesn't like spending time drawing villains, so he doesn't do it much.
And the studio's latest "From Up on Poppy Hill," written by Miyazaki and directed by his son Goro, is also sublime; it whisks you into another stylized, hand-drawn 2D world. Miyazaki has always been able to capture the forces of nature and the great outdoors, in this case, a quaint 60s Japan just dealing with encroaching modernization.
With the release of critically praised "From Up on Poppy Hill" (review here), TOH! ranks the Top Ten Films by Studio Ghibli. (Written by Bill Desowitz, Beth Hanna, Ryan Lattanzio and Anne Thompson.)
9. "Kiki's Delivery Service" (1989) Years before the "Harry Potter" series, Miyazaki gives us yet another feisty heroine as an engaging 13-year-old witch proves her independence by running a bakery courier service. She tries out her prodigious skills, including exhilarating aerial feats on her broom far above the verdant countryside, with talking cat in tow. Based on the 1985 children's novel by Eiko Kadono, "Kiki" was the first Ghibli film to be released in the U.S. via Disney.
8. "Laputa: Castle in the Sky" (1986) Miyazaki's gorgeous rip-roaring fantasy action adventure--sky pirates! magic crystal! airborne chases!-- had a major influence on James Cameron's "Avatar," as it features an orphan girl's quest to solve the mysterious force that keeps karst peaks aloft in the air, hidden by clouds.
6. "Howl's Moving Castle" (2004) is Miyazaki at the height of his trademark visual technique: richly conceived textures, emotive characters and a steampunk-inspired “moving castle” that anthropomorphizes in proto-3-D fashion. Bewitched by an unlucky curse, teenage hatmaker Sophie transforms into a haggard old woman. Her quest to break the spell acquaints her with wizards, demons and a leggy scarecrow, all of whom have endearingly complex personalities. This Cinderella story contains plenty of magic and wonderment for kids to appreciate, but its dark coming-of-age themes are what make “Howl” one of the most mature entries in the Miyazaki catalogue; it earned Miyazaki's second Oscar nomination for best animated feature.