Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
A princess with a powered glider and a love for animals must do whatever it takes to save her people and the land in a post-apocalyptic world.
The creativity and scenery of this movie are amazing, especially the burned land inhabited only by insects and giant fungus. The main character is just perfect, thoughtful and clever and brave and kind. Unfortunately there is too much story to fit into a two hour film, so it feels rushed and almost incoherent in spots. One of the inspirations was "The Princess Who Loved Insects," a 12th century Japanese story I am fond of. Some of the themes that show up throughout his movies-- flight, a young girl protagonist coming of age, nature vs. technology, the wisdom of elders, and an antagonist with complex motivations are already present in this.
Castle in the Sky (Laputa)
A girl falls from the sky into the arms of a young mine worker, and they must solve the mystery of the castle in the sky that her amulet points them towards while escaping from ruthless pursuers.
The setting of this is one of my favorites, and this is the most thrilling adventure plot of any of his movies. The main character is quiet. The robots are of an unusual design, and I loved the feel of an ancient and forgotten technology, whose story is only told wordlessly in the credits. I found the slapstick pirates obnoxious and not particularly funny, though they were clearly intended as comic relief. Some of the scenes, like her slowly falling through the air, the collapse of the castle, or the wakening of the robot are truly magical. The main musical theme is a memorable melody (Totoro and Ponyo also have catchy tunes.) All five of the themes I mentioned in Nausicaa are also present here.
My Neighbor Totoro
A family moves to an old house in the country, and while the mother is in the hospital, the little girls meet fantasy creatures in the forest.
This story actually has a strong plotline, though it is only apparent in retrospect-- the first time you watch it, you have no idea where it is going. The characters are younger, warmer, and behave more realistically than in the previous two movies, and their enigmatic fantasy life can hold its own with Alice in Wonderland or Calvin and Hobbes as one of the most memorable in works for children. It can feel slow-moving at parts, though it was one of the few shows I didn't mind re-watching at the age when my son liked to rewatch the same movies endlessly. There is a short, little-known sequel called Mei and the Kittenbus. Four of the themes are present in Totoro, though there is no antagonist at all.
Kiki's Delivery Service
A young witch moves to the city, starts a business, makes friends and gains confidence.
This story seems lighter and less meaningful, though it is still fun to watch throughout. Like many of the movies, it is a coming of age story. I don't really understand the crisis that makes her unable to fly or talk to her cat-- sure, one customer is ungrateful and she catches a cold, but she is resiliant and optimistic, it doesn't seem like those things should faze her. I must be missing something. Again, there is no antagonist, except occasionally people whose comments make her feel smaller. The other four themes are also here, though there isn't as much on environmentalism-- though her artistic mentor does live in the middle of the woods.
A flying ace turned gun for hire and pig recovers his honor.
This was set just after World War I. Porco Rosso being a pig is sort of a metaphor for his feeling branded with cowardice, but other than that there is nothing particularly unreal about the film-- I could see it being remade in a live-action, black and white, Casablanca feel. The story has a more conventional Hollywood plotline. The flight theme is central, and there is a girl who becomes important about halfway through the movie but I don't recall most of the others in this one.
A young man kills a rampant minor god turned demon, bringing a deadly curse on himself. He finds that civilization at war with the forest is ultimately the cause, and he has to find a way for everyone to live in peace.
This is playing at the deepest level of any of his films, addressing issues of duty, spirituality, environmentalism vs progress, morality, violence, community and so forth in a complex and meaningful way. It is in no way a film for young children, as they would be bored by the talking and horrified by the violence. Neil Gaiman's English translation is powerful, although I still prefer to watch it in Japanese with subtitles. The antagonist makes decisions with terrible cataclysmic consequences, but at the same time she's the only one standing up for the oppressed and undertrodden of the traditional society,
It's important to remember as you watch this that for Miyazaki, environmentalism is a religious position, that the nature gods of Shinto are as important to him as the Christian story of redemption is important to American narratives.
A girl and her parents visit an abandoned amusement park, but eat the food and fail to leave before dark, when the spirits come out.
A little horror, a little fantasy, a psychological drama, a coming of age story, this tale is complex and strange and thoroughly engaging. The traditional Japanese spirits are fascinating in their weirdness. I visited one of the tiny abandoned amusement parks when I was in Japan, and had that same uncanny feeling when I was there. The train running through the water was one of the most memorable scenes for me. All of the listed themes are present here.
Howl's Moving Castle
A girl is transformed into an old woman by a spiteful witch, and becomes the servant of an eccentric sorcerer.
The best parts of this are near the beginning, where it respects the source material more closely. The climax becomes strange and unmoored and completely leaves the themes of the novel. The idea of a young girl cursed to become an old woman and the appearance of the moving castle itself were my favorite parts. Again we see each of the themes.
A daughter of the sea goddess turned into a human girl brings disaster on the community until peace is made with the sea.
This is aimed even younger than Totoro, if that's possible. It was enjoyable and odd, but not one of my very favorites. The animation of the active sea was fascinating. It's chaotic and sweet, without much of a sense of danger.
The Wind Rises
A young engineer makes beautiful airplanes and falls in love.
This is a combination of a biographical film based on the autobiography of the inventor of the Zero plane, and another book that provides the love story. It treats the engineer and inventor as an artist (which is more respect than we ever get in American movies!) It is kind of slow compared to the other films on this list, and only of interest to adults or high-schoolers, at least.
Castle of Cagliostro
Miyazaki's first movie, I haven't been able to find a copy yet.
Bonus: Non-Miyazaki Studio Ghibli
The Borrower Arrietty (The Secret World of Arrietty)
A family of tiny people living under a house are discovered, leading to trouble.
This one feels like one of Miyazaki's movies. Arrietty herself is the same kind of adventerous, vulnerable girl, and all characters but the antagonist are full of kindness. The wild boy she meets is reminiscent of Mononoke hime. The animation is rich and careful. Frankly, after watching it I assumed Miyazaki himself had made it.
Whisper of the Heart
A girl about to enter high school learns about the nature of art and choosing your path in life and falls in love.
There area few minutes of fantasy in the main character's story she is writing, but for the most part this is a straightforward real-world love story (between 14-year-olds) and is focused mainly on the courage it takes to choose your own path and become an artist. (Which is a little self-indulgent story to tell for a group of artists, but oh, well.) I appreciated the realistic representation of the Japan I remember, and the humanness of the characters. As a girl's coming of age story, this also seems like a story Miyazaki might have made.
Magical forest creatures fight to preserve their home from development.
This movie will never be released in theaters in the U.S., for the simple reason that the silly raccoons use their enormous scrotums in a variety of ways throughout the film. Actually, they are tanuki, and most of the time the kind of tanuki you see sculptures of on rural porches than the actual animal. It is funny in a childish way, and the climax was visually interesting, but I've only watched it in Japanese without subtitles, so I may not have a full picture. The sequence near the end where they pretend to be traditional Japanese ghosts is the high point, in my opinion. Definite environmentalist themes again, though the others I mentioned are missing.
The Cat Returns
A girl saves the life of a cat, who invites her into his realm.
This had its moments of magic-- the part where she is carried away by a wave of cats, for example, and the eerie scenes where the cats parade through town-- but is an uneven blend with a more standard anime, to the point of engaging in anime cliches like a girl with cat ears and a tail, or over-the-top reaction shots. It's the story of being taken to faerie, but told in a thoroughly Japanese way. There's an odd connection to Whispers of the Heart in the character of the Baron.
Tales from Earthsea
I can't even remember the plot.
I was disappointed by this, since I'm a fan of both the Earthsea books and of studio Ghibli. They kept some character names from the books, but that's about all. The story is just a standard anime plot of a prodigy becoming a monster.
Grave of the Fireflies
A powerfully tragic film about two children orphaned by their city being destroyed in World War II.
Maybe the saddest movie I've ever watched, and I'm including The Mission, Mosquito Coast, and Schindler's List in that estimation. This could never have been made by Miyazaki because it is missing the hope that permeates even the darkest of his films, but is a classic in its own way.
The following famous actors have done English voice-over acting for Ghibli movies:
Christian Bale, Shia LeBeouf, Billy Bob Thornton, Matt Damon, Kristen Bell, Anne Hathaway, Billy Crystal, Liam Neeson, Tim Curry, Dakota and Elle Fanning, Kirsten Dunst, Saoirse Ronan, Gillian Anderson, Patrick Stewart, Amy Poehler, John Krasinski, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Chloe Moretz, Willem Dafoe, Mark Hamill, Anna Paquin, Tina Fey, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Cate Blanchett, Michael Keaton, Timothy Dalton, Elijah Wood, Christina Hendriks, Ron Howard, Betty White, and Uma Thurman.