A Hayao Miyazaki Primer

Published Nov 18, 2015 (8 years ago)
Danger icon
The last modifications of this post were around 8 years ago, some information may be outdated!

I recently found out that Amazon is releasing a special “collected works” of most of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies (2020 Update: You can see them on HBO Max now too!). I also realized that with the large volume of movies out there, you may not know where to begin when watching them. While there really isn’t a “wrong order” to watching them, here are the first five I would recommend seeing and the order in which to do them.

Why Miyazaki?

Miyazaki’s films were the first foray I took into the world of anime. I think I was first caught by the sheer beauty of the animation in the films. The way in which clouds float through the sky or wind brustles along the grass evokes this amazing sense of awe as you move from scene to scene. The stories he tell are fabulous as well. They range through all sorts of genres and characters, but each one has a magic of its own. He has strong female characters. There are princesses that are working and fighting alongside their people, not just cooped away in a castle. There are girls who learn about bravery and who find their own value in their actions and growth, not through others. They provide great examples and talks with my daughters.

Overall there is amazing balance of strangeness and beauty I get when watching his films. They are strange to me because the storyline drives at a different pace than most American films I see. The movie will often find it’s climax, and then abruptly end, and you are left wanting to know more about the characters and what happens next. Sometimes you get a few glimpses during the credits, but often not. There are lots of Japanese folklore and cultural references that I’m unaware of, and at times can make you wonder “why are they doing or saying that?” But all of this is packaged in a wonderful story, with beautiful scenery and animation. It leaves me eager to get the next movie and to rewatch the same ones over and over again. What is really amazing to think about too is that most of the movies listed below were made in the 80s. It just goes to show you that great stories don’t need fancy computer graphics. 8^D

With that said, here’s what I would recommend as a “watching order” if you are new to Miyazaki’s films...

Spirited Away

This was the first Miyazaki film I ever saw. I think for a lot of people it was their first as well, since it won an Academy award for best animated film back in 2001. This is the story of a girl named Chihiro who is moving to the suburbs with her parents and a little scared about it all. They make a wrong turn and come across a seemingly vacant town, but it turns to life with ghosts, spirits, and a talking frog at night. Chihiro’s parents have vanished and now she is stuck here, not sure of what to do or how to get back to her parents. The journey she takes is full of wonder and personal growth and she works through it all.

I still remember the night my wife and I watched this film on the couch with a friend who was introducing us to all of this. All things that I love about these films immediately became apparent and we were immediately seeking out to get anything else he had made.

My Neighbor Totoro

Admittedly this movie isn’t necessarily as profound as most of his other films, but it is still my favorite. Two girls move out to the countryside with their father so that they can be closer to their mother, who has been in the hospital for a while. They have moved next to a ancient tree, and in there lives a giant troll, or a “totoro” (in Japanese). The daughters befriend the totoros and have some magical adventures together.

In a lot of ways I like the simplicity of this movie involved. There isn’t a lot of complex plotlines, and the tototro is just a cute looking thing. I admire the bond that the daughters share, despite their age, and also enjoy the “big sister / little sister” growth that they are sharing together. Their mother’s illness isn’t focused on a lot in the movie, but there are plenty of scenes where you get the feeling that it is still very real in their lives. This was the first movie my girls saw, and watched again, and several more times that first week. 8^D

Castle in the Sky


In a world full of flying machines (a gorgeous visual display in itself), a simple boy with big dreams named Pazu is whisked into a world of conflict and ambition when a mysterious girl floats down to here one day. While she isn’t sure herself of who she is, it is rumored that she is the last descendent of a people from Laputa, so advanced that they had a full land living in the clouds. Pazu remembers his late father saying he once saw a “castle in the sky” though nobody believed him. He sets out to protect her from both the military and secret organizations and see if this castle really exists.

This movie is my wife’s favorite. Again isn’t hard not to get lost in the beauty of the animation. This film has a bit of a “steampunk” like look to it, with the airships powered by coal/steam and not fancy jet engines. It also provides some good insights and discussion about how far technology can go to help (or ruin) us.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Most people consider this Miyazaki’s masterpiece. Humans have been pushed to the outskirts of the world as a result of a huge war and a “poison jungle” that continues to spread through the land. A mere spore from one of the poisonous plants can ruin an entire crop, and it is fatal to humans. In addition to this, huge insects protect the jungle and those that try to destroy it. Amidst all this is Nausicaä, the Princess of the Valley of the Wind, who doesn’t fear the jungle or the insects, but instead treats them gently and investigates the origins and the nature of the jungle. However, another nation is attempting to resurrect one of the ancient warrior beasts to eliminate the jungles once and for all, which angers the insects even more and leads to a conflict that could eliminate everybody.

It’s hard to figure out where to begin on what I like about this movie. I think the best way to describe things is having seen all of the previous movies and distilling all of the best aspects of each one is packaged in Nausicaä. I recently watched this again and found new depths to the relationship of the jungle and the humans that had slipped my perception before. The emotions are intense, especially at the end. I won’t tell you how it ends.

Princess Mononoke

This is the darkest of the movies that Miyazaki has created. I save it for the last I think to help provide a deeper connection with the topics in the movie, that you might not see if you’re new to anime in general and especially to Miyazaki’s works. This movie follows at young warrior, Ashitaka, with a curse on a journey to seek a cure. During his travel, he is caught up between the struggle of a mining colony and the spirits that guard the forest. Some of the spirits take the form of wolves and a human girl, San, rides one of them, though she resents humanity. The fight between the people and the spirits will bring Ashitaka and San together, but resolving this conflict is nothing simple.

With a deep investment into Miyazaki’s storytelling, it’s rather intense watching this movie. There isn’t any overt blood or anything like that, but rather you’re drawn in to the conflict early on and you struggle, on both sides, to find the resolution so a conflict that nodoby is really wining, though they seem like they are. This is the only film my kids (who are currently 9) have not seen yet, and we might wait a little longer before they do. It is a wonderful movie, but contains more mature themes that the other movies don’t have.

What’s Next?!

If you’ve seen all five of these movies, I think you have an amazing overview at the beauty, depth, and brilliance that Hayao Miyazaki brings to his films. You can find a full list of his films here. While the five listed up here could be considered his “best” movies, I don’t believe any of his films have been “bad” films and you will thoroughly enjoy all of them. I still have a few more to see! Let me know which ones are your favorites.

Back in 2013, Miyazaki announced that he was retiring and a fan put together a lovely 8 bit tribute video a short time after. I’ll leave it here to give you a glimpse of the characters you’ll see in his movies. 8^D


2020: Added Bonus!

Thanks to places like Spotify, you can easily enjoy the gorgeous music that accompanies all of these wonderful movies: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/0UAK0lTLywZE8PZpQ87Tx9?si=Pk-GcjszTtGRDOjBGU8glw