My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
Considered Miyazaki’s masterpiece, and certainly his best-loved work, its big-grinned forest-spirit star forming the basis of a huge merchandising empire in Japan. An intimate family tale set during one summer in ’50s rural Japan, it boasts astonishing attention to detail and delicate characterisation of two young sisters, Mei and Satsuki, who have moved with their father to a new house while their mother is away in hospital (Miyazaki’s own mother suffered from spinal tuberculosis). Few films better capture the joyful power of unfettered childhood imagination.
Miyazaki on Miyazaki “I can’t make films that are, you know — slay the villain, everybody’s happy. I can’t make those kinds of films. I think that when children become three or four years old, they just need to see Totoro. It’s a very innocent film. I wanted to make a film in which there’s a monster that’s living next door but you can’t see it. Like when you walk into a forest, you sense something. You don’t know what it is, but there’s a certain presence. That’s happened to me many times, you know? I recently spent two months in a big old house, alone, on top of a cliff by the sea, and I would be in one room but it felt like there were other people living in the other rooms. When I would go out for a walk, I thought they would be lonely, so I turned on my radio to entertain them while I’m out! “Please, feel free to enjoy my music!” (Laughs) Of course, you can explain it: “It must be some kind of fear, you’re insecure,” but I really feel there was something there. In some ways I’m a very insensitive person, but I have this sense sometimes in certain areas...
“During production when it’s very hard, and the staff are suffering, there is a sort of smell, like a bad scent. People are drawing and animating and then everybody goes home and we open the windows to change the air. Now, that scent doesn’t go away — it’s this bad feeling I can sense. I think maybe small infants can feel and receive it more directly than adults can. At the same time they’re very easily fooled with smiles (laughs) — you just have to show them teeth and they’re happy!”
Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
Based on the books by Japanese writer Eiko Kadono, this is Miyazaki’s first true literary adaptation, although, as with all his others since, it bears little resemblance to the original. Aimed at teenage girls, it is set in a modern world where witchcraft exists, and where young witches have to leave home at the age of 13. We follow the insecure Kiki and her sarcastic cat, Jiji. As with Totoro, there’s no bad-guy figure, no conflict; Kiki’s adventure is simply one of discovering self-confidence.
Miyazaki on Miyazaki “I was inspired by the struggle of young cartoonists to find work. It’s not simply about making money and earning a living — everybody does that. It’s about living your own life: how do you assert your individuality in this world? I think that’s what everybody was concerned about when we made that film. I think if we made the film now it would turn out different. So Kiki’s okay as a witch, but Tombo (the aeroplane-obsessed boy whom Kiki befriends) has to pass the exam, go to college, find a job, and then go to Kiki and ask, ‘Can you please go out with me?’ And Kiki, I’m sure, maybe she’s doing her delivery service and meeting people and she’s enjoying life and being a little mad. But nobody wishes Kiki would found a huge delivery service company and become its president. Nobody wants to see that! Maybe in China, Kiki would found a huge, delivery-service company... (Laughs) But not in Japan.”
Porko Rosso (1992)
If Totoro is Miyazaki’s movie for three-year-olds and Kiki for teenage girls, then Porco Rosso is for middle-aged men (most importantly Miyazaki himself). Its protagonist, Marco Pagott, is a mercenary collecting bounties for pirates in the skies above the Adriatic during the ’20s. It’s this film, more than any other, which reveals Miyazaki’s love for aircraft (his father’s firm was Miyazaki Airplane; Ghibli is named after an Italian fighter plane). And, appropriately, its origins are as in-flight entertainment...
Miyazaki on Miyazaki “Japan Airlines needed a short film to screen during their flights. At first, we weren’t up for it — when we said we’d like to show dogfights, we thought they’d say no. But then they said, ‘That’s fine’ (laughs). Really, it was based on my hobby, and I wanted to make something light. But then Yugoslavia collapsed and all these conflicts broke out in Dubrovnic, Croatia and the islands which were my setting. Suddenly in the real world it became a place where battle was happening. So then Porco Rosso became a more complicated film. It was a very difficult film and I was so disappointed that I’d made something for middle-aged men, because I’d been telling my staff always to make films for children and then what did I do?! Actually, the children came to see it and gave me the next chance to make another film. So when I started my next film, I was able to finally free myself of the curse of Porco Rosso!”