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  • Writer's pictureEmily Pacini

Discovering Miyazaki in 2020

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

What has 2020 given me? If we look only on the bright side? 23 years into this life, I finally got around to watching Studio Ghibli movies! I’m not sure how or why it took this long - I imagine because much of my childhood was spent watching Food Network alongside my older brother - but I feel lucky to have stumbled upon so many spare hours for Hayao Miyazaki. If ever there were a time to be whisked away into magic, youth, and vibrancy, it would certainly be now. 

First, I took an instagram poll: ‘Which Miyazaki Movie Should be the First One I Ever Watch?’ 

I received contradictory advice. Some people were go-big-or-go-home, Spirited Away or bust. Other friends wanted to ease me in with Kiki’s Delivery Service or My Neighbor Totoro. One response was simply “Not Ponyo.” I admit, I did see bits and pieces of Castle in the Sky once at a sleepover when I was six. (Does that discredit this entire thing? I hope it doesn’t discredit my Instagram poll.) But ultimately, I took no advice at all. I read no descriptions, watched no trailers, had no prior knowledge - I simply dove right in. I scoured the internet, purchased a free trial of HBO Max, looked up “Miyazaki” and clicked on the first movie that showed up:

Spirited Away:

There are two perspectives from which I’m absorbing these movies: Present me, 23 and Past me, what-if-I-were-five? From both, they were mystifying. This one, specifically, had me in a trance. I wish I saved it for last, because it did seem to set itself apart with it’s own brand of fantasy and fear. Five year old me wouldn’t have been able to sleep for weeks. Sorry, No-Face, you seem sweet and all, but that face - or lackthereof - would’ve easily replaced Golem as the monster under my bed. (But in actuality, Golem was replaced by the house in Monster House, which is objectively the scariest movie of all time. Quote me on it.) 

Spirited Away has a strong voice. Greed has strength, gluttony has strength...but yes, so do love and trust. Chihiro and her giant steamed bun stole my heart. I appreciated her willfulness and bravery; I could only hope that if my friend suddenly became a dragon before my eyes, I’d have no problem recognizing them either. I also hope that in a similar situation, I’d know which pigs were my parents despite all odds - or at least which pigs weren’t. 

I really liked this movie, it was thrilling and visually stunning but honestly, I didn’t find myself as connected to the characters as I would’ve liked. Maybe it was because there was so much going on - because there was SO MUCH going on - but with some of the other Studio Ghibli films I watched after this one, my attachment to the characters was much stronger. 

Needless to say, I’m not here to argue with a 97% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Yes, this is an exciting and mystical fever-dream of an adventure. Yes, it had me on the edge of my seat. No, it was not my favorite. Yes, I will be watching it again. Probably soon. 

Some stuff watching Spirited Away led me to:

Spirited Away: Mythology & Folklore Revealed

The Big Steamed Buns From Spirited Away!

Castle in the Sky:

Castle! In the! SKY! I want to write fan-fic about this movie. I want to write about the castle while people lived there alongside those fabulous, long-armed robots. I want to write about the architecture and the sky-island’s (skyland’s) most trusted interior designer. I can only imagine how intricate and tasteful it must have been at its prime. Does anyone else stay up at night thinking about it… pretending they, too, are among the royal family of Laputa? 

Five-year-old-me would have stolen a crystal necklace from my mom and worn it under my clothes everyday in hopes that at some point, when I really needed it, I’d start floating. I also wouldn’t be opposed to befriending the endlessly precious Pazu, who nearly charmed me to tears. Pazu and Sheeta are the sweetest and they can do absolutely no wrong except it is unacceptable to stand so close to the edge of a floating castle and twirl around. Cinematically, I understand, but I felt like a mother on a trip to the Grand Canyon.

Also, I hope the general consensus upon watching this movie is that we all want to be Dola when we grow up. Teach me how to fly an aircraft, I’m ready!

This movie was really special, the anticipation leading up to the first time you see the castle is worth watching alone. Plus I gotta mention the man versus nature theme, tale as old as time, but it holds truer and truer everyday. 

Maybe it’s because I sort-of-but-not-really saw this movie as a kid, and when I heard the score I was immediately struck with that specific reminiscent nostalgia feeling, but I really loved this one. It is exciting and absolutely timeless and indeed, a contender for my favorite.

(How did it take me the entire movie to realize James Van Der Beek was voicing Pazu? Every single season of Dawson’s Creek and his voice didn’t ring a bell? I’m ashamed. Once James and I were at Disneyland at the same time but didn’t cross paths. I think about it a lot.)

Howl’s Moving Castle:

This movie filled a void I didn’t know I had. It honestly may have filled several. I will refrain from mentioning the -fact- that Howl is a dreamboat, and instead I will talk about my best friend in the whole entire world: Calcifer as voiced by Billy Crystal. The sidekick I never knew the world needed. Sidekick? Or is he running the whole show? Can one perhaps do both? I’ll argue yes.

Another reason to love this movie: Howl and Sophie are unmatched by any other tale of romance. 

For example:

Ryan Gosling could never.

Howl’s Moving Castle has no dull moments. It is a treasure through and through, another unique story. I wasn’t surprised to find out it was adapted from a book, because although it is equally as whimsical as Miyazaki’s other movies, the storytelling and the characters seem different and unique to their own narrative. 

This one, too, is coming in hot as a contender for my favorite because it is frankly a pleasure to watch, to be a part of, to take in - it is one of a kind. I might just watch it weekly, as an act of self-care.

My Neighbor Totoro:

I don’t have a sister, which has never before in my life seemed in any way a disadvantage. In fact, I have generally thought of it as a benefit. Mostly because I have, in my head, invented the character of ‘my sister’ and she is terrible. It’s not that we are opposites, it’s that she’s me but better in every way, and like, athletic too. My sister, my fictional sister, takes all my clothes and wears them better. She has the singing voice of a Whitney Houston-Maria Carey-Christina Aguilera mash-up. She is 5’5” and good at math. I digress. I have never, ever wanted a sister until I watched My Neighbor Totoro. I’m glad it was 23 year old me who came to this revelation and not five-year-old me because that would’ve been a lot of sad, sisterless years. 

This is a feel-good movie. Beyond that, it is a feeling movie. It will make you feel things. Even if those things, initially, are horror and agitation at the shrill voices of the Satsuki and Mei… but I promise you, give them not even two minutes and they will have your heart. My only complaint? Not enough Totoro! I demand less catbus and more Totoro. Okay, one more complaint: the theme song will likely be stuck in my head for the rest of my life. Everyday I wake up singing “To-to-ro To-to-ro” and I will admit it is getting old. 

My Neighbor Totoro, yet another gem. Doesn’t take the whole cake, but it certainly gets a slice.

Kiki’s Delivery Service:

Both five-year-old me and 23-year-old me are certain we’re witches, which is why I wish I had had Kiki’s Delivery Service in my life a lot sooner. Kiki is another strong-willed protagonist, a breath of fresh air, likes hanging out with old ladies, talking to her cat. This is very relatable stuff! Not to mention, this movie is just downright adorable. Charming, sweet, cute. I want to become a kindergarten teacher just so I can sit all the students down and make them watch this on a pull-down projector screen. I wish someone had done so for me. My take is that it’s sort of like Totoro in its inherent family friendly fun, but a little more mundane. Sure Kiki flies around on a broom but like, make a potion or something. She’s not witchy enough, as a matter of taste. I think I’d like a prequel about her fabulous mom...or a sequel where Kiki finally learns some spells. 

Don’t get me wrong I enjoyed it, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it again. I’d just rather watch Halloweentown given the choice. (but NOT with Sara Paxton as Marnie, that was offensive.)

Princess Mononoke:

To the folks who recommended this one: thank you, I love you! Princess Mononoke is really bad ass. It just is. The antagonist is as multidimensional as the protagonists are, which is so essential to good storytelling. Miyazaki made being raised by wolves cool! 

Once again, and I hate to even say it because it reminds me of my high school history teacher’s pretentious tattoo, we’re presented with man versus nature. Shown in a harsh light, the bright and scenic magic of the forest contradicting the drab mining town the people reside in. It feels entirely like two different worlds, like they cannot coexist beyond not knowing how to. This movie is different from the rest with it’s stark display of war and it’s true villain, hate.

Princess Mononoke was for 23-year-old me, it’s a two hour long movie but it felt like fifteen minutes because it was so captivating. I would call this one my favorite, but it’s in a league of its own.

There’s always more to the plot than a “villain” in Miyazaki’s worlds. In many of these movies, there simply isn’t a clear villain. Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Castle in the Sky all have villain-type characters but they aren’t one note. They are well-rounded and working toward something they think is valuable or necessary evil. He allows you to know and understand them, too, whether you like it or not. The real villain is always something inherently human, beneath the fantasy. It’s the displays of gluttony or hate or greed that the brave young characters are fighting against - typically with just sheer willpower and a strong moral compass. 

I am very grateful to have spent these hours with these characters, and to have been immersed in these worlds. If you are like I was, if you’ve never seen anything from Studio Ghibli, here is the order I’d watch them in:

Kiki’s Delivery Service, for a lighthearted good time

My Neighbor Totoro, to make your heart swell

Howl’s Moving Castle, to laugh and cry and swoon,

Castle in the Sky, because the castle is in the SKY

Princess Mononoke, you won’t regret it

Spirited Away, far far away.

And, no, I don’t think I can pick a favorite. (But it has Castle in the title.)


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