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FILM: tectac's Hayao Miyazaki, Ranked

Let me get this out of the way up front: I do not love this beloved filmmaker the way so many other do. I do, however, greatly admire him and his craft as an unparalleled animator, even if I think his skills as a writer are in a far, far lower class, which often results in the undoing of his pictures (for me, anyway). I would still encourage any budding cinephile to check out his work, regardless of my personal opinion of him, as he's objectively one of the most important and relevant directors in the history of animated film. Just don't be surprised when I'm not gushing over his very notable movies - I apologize in advance.
Mystic Echo From a Funeral Dimension


Overdue for a revisit and revaluation, but from memory: This culminates from Miyazaki’s worst tendencies as a writer who struggles to give his fantastical machinations a (comparatively) “real” exoskeleton upon which to rest. To my mind (as you’ll see) he’s a world-class animator and a masterful creative force, but a second-tier penman, and that deficiency is further highlighted as the chasm between logic and fantasy widens. There’s simply too much going on here and nothing resembling focus—a bungled narrative with bland characters that, when coupled with the overlong run time, has constantly failed to hold my attention for more than ten minutes at a time, despite how much I revel in the gory (but superfluous) details. Hardcore Miyazaki fans will crucify me for this one, surely, but I can confidently assess this as my least favorite of his films, largely based on its narratively lopsided complexity-to-substance ratio.
10Drive Like Jehu
Yank Crime

>> PONYO (2008)

Well this is a strange adaptation of THE LITTLE MERMAID, innit? Combating directly with my thoughts on PRINCESS MONONOKE, which finds Miyazaki struggling to tether fantasy with realism across an impossibly massive gap, I also tend to think his total lack of narrative momentum is equally dangerous for different reasons, mostly that it results in a nonsensical hodge-podge of shit that happens “just because.” Pick literally any single element of this film and explain to me *why* it is the way it is. I dare you. Not that imagination or artistic liberty should be muzzled, but there must be some greater purpose it’s all serving, otherwise what’s the point? This, more than any other picture, just feels like Miyazaki digressing at will into the mystical wilderness of his imagination for the sake of animating random scenarios he dreamt up but didn’t know how to elegantly weave into a movie. Human-faced goldfish with a sea goddess mother and scientist-wizard father - why not?
9Bang On A Can All-Stars
Renegade Heaven

>> THE WIND RISES (2013)

Bleh. Gorgeous to look at, per usual. Muddled, unstable narrative, per usual. Loved the first thirty minutes or so, when it felt like Miyazaki was attempting a (somewhat) realistic biopic through his kaleidoscopic animation, and was slowly disheartened when, as time marched on, he grew more and more extravagant and baroque, devolving into his typical mode of throwing a bunch of shit at the wall and hoping it gets written off as purposeful, creative jungle juice. Even the more tangible parts of the story are relatively weak, though—e.g. anything involving Naoko, whose presence is essentially a way to engineer forced sentimentality into a story that is already kinda sentimental to begin with. Might be Miyazaki’s best-looking picture, honestly (though I might be biased - I love the construction of the planes), but it’s yet again girdled by an unwieldy welter of a narrative; more of a chore to keep up with than it should be.
Free Rain


In a word: Boring. Which is something I never thought I’d say about a Miyazaki picture. (Even the ones I actively dislike a bit more than this were never “boring.”) It gains momentum after the first forty-five minutes - an extended opening with laborious setups, convolutions, and uninteresting characters - but remains a somewhat middling affair, not jamming my gears in any notable way, but never really escaping the runway, either. It probably doesn’t help that I did not view this chronologically (in fact, it was one of the last Miyazaki films I saw), meaning I was consciously aware of how he’d already improved many of the components here with subsequent, superior films, right down to the fundamental concept of children being innocent and pure, fighting against a slew of evil, power-hungry adults in a corrupt world that’s formed them as such. (The backgrounded environmentalism also feels like warmed up NAUSICAÄ leftovers.) *Shrug.*
7At the Drive-In
Relationship of Command


But what good is an impregnable protagonist? It’s one thing to create a film that’s free of conflict, but this is decidedly a chronicle rooted in action and altercations - be it with enemy troops or mutant creates or natural toxicity - and having a hero whose skillset is both endless and guaranteed to be successful is unexciting. Gazing at this relentless thematic helix of anti-war + environmental conservation and its meteorite-esque subtlety—not to mention the many amateurish details e.g. Nausicaä weirdly narrating most of what she’s doing aloud…to seemingly no one—I spent way too long wondering why Miyazaki never bothered to hire a supplemental writer, and yet again finished with an aftertaste subsisting solely on aesthetic bliss. Were I watching this on mute, I’d be convinced that I was watching one of my favorite animated films of all time, unaware of the weighty dialogue and useless house-of-cards plotting encumbering its potential.
6Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica


Or: A little less Satsuki, a little more Tototro. The fuzzy, titular beast might be Miyazaki’s single most enrapturing creature to date, and his presence in the movie is distressingly sparse. I even love what he (she?) represents i.e., a whimsical embodiment of the security and safety we seek in our imaginary childhood companions. His (her?) large, luminous smile is contagious, his (her?) big, fuzzy belly an oddly reassuring source of comfort. And the cat-bus is a perfect amalgam of cute, creepy, and downright awesome. Shame that the lion’s share of the film is dedicated to watching two sisters…act like two sisters: chasing each other, doing chores, worrying over their ill mother, etc. It’s a film that’s literally about nothing (nothing urgent, anyway), and when Totoro spackles the edges of its nothingness, it thrives as a formless beacon of mystical enchantment. When it’s focused on sibling banality, though, it deflates a bit.
5Cat Party
Cat Party


A film I want to physically occupy, but - strangely enough - not one I thoroughly enjoyed sitting through. At least, not for the typical reasons one might enjoy watching a Miyazaki joint. Here’s my biggest problem: The movie is too damn cute. Yes, I realize cuteness (and outright eschewal of anything resembling conflict) is a huge selling point on Miyazaki, and a reason so many others love and admire his filmography unconditionally. Instead, I admire him from a great distance. Or, rather, I admire him greatly….from a distance. The nonstop charm is heartwarming at first, but soon produces a Novocain effect, so that by the time something *does* happen, I’m numb. If I completely ignore the existence of this film’s fictional narrative and pretend it’s a master animator’s sketchbook of loosely-related abstractions, I dig it. But trying to get me to suddenly care about Kiki’s loss of power so late in the game feels like shallow emotional pandering.
4Fire! Orchestra


Howl’s castle might me my favorite Miyazaki set piece, and I remember when the collaboration of its meticulous animation (the haphazardly walking assemblage of screws and bolts and pumping and churning etc.) and high-minded concept (door-cum-portal to various worlds) hit me, I was legitimately excited for where Miyazaki would take the concept. Alas, not exactly where I hoped it’d go, which is my usual complaint with the guy (as I’m sure you’ve noticed by now). Again, things are jutted into one of two directions - [1] ham-fisted and boundlessly saccharine developments, or [2] a domino-chain of increasingly arbitrary digressions - neither of which excite me all that much, no matter how enrapt I am with the animation in front of my eyes, especially when a laundry list of questions remains unanswered by the end. Kudos to Billy Crystal, though, who does the American dubbed version justice as Calcifer - the best character in the cast imo.
323 Skidoo
Seven Songs


My chronic problems with Miyazaki persist, even in his consensus masterpieces—if I had a dollar for every time I was visually stunned and taken aback by the pure, contextless ocular pleasures, I’d be a millionaire. If I lost a dollar for every time I caught myself wondering what the hell all this stuff is supposed to represent, thinking about how flimsy and feeble the narrative bridges are, or tending to the bruises left by symbolic cudgels…well, I’d be fucking poor all over again. And yes, I know these are “kids” movies, by definition, but exposition is high, characterization is low, and that’s not a favorable ratio. Parts and people I genuinely adore either undernourished, or start off promising and fizzle out like a malfunctioning firework. (Case in point: No-Face’s design and mystique is exquisite, but its resolution - if you want to call it that - is frustratingly weak by comparison.) A dazzling mural of unctuous design and color; sadly, not much else.
2The Sword
Age of Winters


Is it mere coincidence that one of the two Miyazaki film’s I’ve graded higher than a B-minus includes this fetal extravaganza viz., his introduction into full-length pictures, wherein the slight discomfort of unfamiliarity caused him to lean on conventionality more than in his later, established movies? Probably not. And this is easily the “least Miyazaki” thing in Miyazaki’s oeuvre, more reminiscent of traditional (but not necessarily generic) Japanese anime than the very specific style he pioneered and grew his eventual roots into. Which means, simply: There is a palpable story here whose arc I can appropriately trace with my finger and follow without pausing to ask myself who’s who and what’s what and “why the fuck is x-random-thing even happening?” I’m aware of how blasphemous it all sounds - this is the equivalent of saying SPARTACUS is one of your favorite Kubrick movies - but this has the balance I need. The balance I crave.
1Electric Wizard
Come My Fanatics...

>> PORCO ROSSO (1992)

Ah, what is there to say about [plants flag] my favorite Miyazaki film, the only one I genuinely, unabashedly love with no caveats or qualifiers necessary? This, to me, is the optimal intersection of his capabilities as a writer (which often has him overcompensating and straining for depth) and his endless inkwell of imagination. Boiled down to its essence, this is Miyazaki’s most patently “normal” film with one glaring exception: our porcine antihero. And what makes the induction of Porco’s anthropomorphism so successful is that it’s never met with gaping reactions—everyone else in the movie, i.e. humans, simply accepts it/him as if a walking, talking, airfighting pig were no big deal, despite it being the only thing built on a purely fictional construct. Yoked to jaded insouciance, blatant but calcifying misogyny, and a resistance to form conclusive details about the transformation, he becomes Hayao’s most interesting and sublimely realized character ever.
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