I have sometimes heard a term used when talking about Shakespeare called “Bardolatry”. Essentially it refers to the assumption that because he is Shakespeare, every single thing he wrote is a perfect masterpiece that we should be falling over ourselves to praise. A good example is “Titus Andronicus” a play universally considered absolutely terrible right up until the second half of the twentieth century, when people mysteriously “discovered” how brilliant it was. But it’s not. It’s terrible, Shakespeare or no Shakespeare.
Does this take away from Shakespeare? No, of course not. The five great tragedies (“Hamlet”, “Macbeth”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “King Lear”, and “Othello”) are even today unmatched masterpieces, and his best comedies and romances are brilliant as well. It’s just a good reminder that just because a certain name is attached to something doesn’t make it good by default.
This is all a preface for me to say that while I am trying to avoid engaging in “Miyazaki-dolatry”…it is REALLY hard. The truth is, the hype surrounding this guy was so huge that really, who could possible live up to it? I wasn’t *expecting* him to live up to it. It would be unfair to, really.
…And then, dammit, he did. He really, really did. He was as good as promised, and in some cases *better* (“Howl’s Moving Castle” particularly). After viewing his filmography in full, there are four main things I took away:
- The man is good at EVERYTHING. Slow moving and idyllic slice of life films? Brilliant. Biopics? Brilliant. Epics? Brilliant. Comedies? Brilliant. Action movies? Brilliant. He has movies that are powered mainly on the strength of his dialogue (“Porco Rosso”), movies powered by the strength of their action scenes (“The Castle of Cagliostro”), movies most notable for their scope and complex plots (“Princess Mononoke”, “Nausicaa”), movies carried by the sheer beauty of the animation (“Ponyo”), wonderful romances (“Howl’s Moving Castle”), and then movies that are so original, so purely Miyazaki, that you’re simply in awe at the uniqueness of his vision (“Spirited Away”). Never have I seen a director who isn’t just good at *something*, but who has mastered every aspect of his craft.
- The consistency of his brilliance is remarkable. There is not one single “bad” movie in Miyazaki’s filmography. His worst film, “Ponyo”, is absolutely gorgeous, has lovable characters, and bursts with atmosphere. “The Castle of Cagliostro”, probably his second worst movie by default, has action scenes that are still revered by directors today. In my “Spirited Away” review, I pointed out that I’ve seen at least six different films all ranked as Miyzaki’s best on one list or another – and every decision is completely defensible.
- He knows how to do female characters better than anyone else I’ve ever seen. Miyazaki creates female characters that are brave, tough, kind, beautiful, admirable, and very, very feminine. And all with distinct personalities as well; you can palette swap the average female Strong Wymyn Character in western media today and come up with basically the same character with a different name, but Miyazaki’s female characters are all *different*, yet all *admirable*. It is a little sad that this is so remarkable (a writer can create interesting and competent characters, stop the presses), but that is the situation we’re in right now.
- He is the most superversive director ever. I’m not really sure how you can dispute this. Every single one of his movies contains at least one moment of love or beauty that points the viewer towards away from themselves, and towards the divine. Miyazaki’s characters literally and figuratively look upward – towards the rising wind, towards something bigger than themselves, towards things worth risking their lives and making sacrifices for. He has heroes who are truly heroic, villains who are truly villainous, and characters with understandable goals and motivations that nevertheless are not excused for their actions, because they live in a world where morality is real and there is such a thing as making the *wrong* decision, both practically and morally. If C.S. Lewis is the patron Saint of superversive fiction than Miyazaki is the current king of the castle.
Ultimately I feel a little like I did when I discovered the excellent show “Justified” for the first time and learned there was still one season left: Very, very lucky. Miyazaki is not done: He is is still drawing, still writing, still creating. And I am absolutely thrilled to be lucky enough to watch him do it one more time, right in front of me, and experience his movie when it’s released as it’s meant to be.
And you can be sure when that happens, the retrospective will be updated again!
So what’s next? I am done?
Nah. I’ll move on to more Ghibli (but NEVER “The Grave of the Fireflies”). “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” should be in the mail right now, so that will probably be the next in the retrospective. Stay tuned!
Ah, and one last thing. My personal ranking (Note: Every movie is recommended, and all should be watched at least once)…
- Princess Mononoke
- Spirited Away
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- Castle in the Sky
- The Wind Rises
- Porco Rosso (Note: I rewatched it recently and liked it a lot more, but am still surprised to find myself putting it higher than a couple of these movies!)
- My Neighbor Totoro
- Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- The Castle of Cagliostro