While many people appreciate Hayao Miyazaki's ability to craft great stories, few realize the strange genre mashups he has constructed. With his latest, Ponyo, still in theaters, it's time to recognize the genre innovation of this visionary animator.
For each of Miyazaki's films with his lauded Studio Ghibli, he's grabbed things from a huge variety of genres, crafting a genre all his own. Each one below has an attempt to name their genre, a synopsis, and a brief note about some of the genre moments that stand out. Each also has a "see also" section, but bear in mind that no other movies have fully replicated the simple genius and wild inventiveness of Miyazaki at his best in these films.
The Genre: post-apocalyptic nature conservation parable.
The Story: In what most consider to be Miyazaki's first film for Studio Ghibli, the director took on environmental issues. The film is set years and years into the future, and some disaster of human creation has destroyed most of the planet. Individual human holdouts exist, but the world is mostly choked by a writhing, dark zone known as the Toxic Jungle. The Toxic Jungle can kill anyone that sets foot in it. The princess Nausicaä uses her gift, an ability to commune with the local giant insects, to relentlessly explore the Jungle looking for its secrets. She finds some of those secrets, discovering just what humanity has done to itself and her role in fixing things.
The Great Moments: Nausicaä is essentially a classic sci-fi story of humanity confronted with a hostile other, forcing them to come to terms with their nature. The great sci-fi moments, though, come as the princess Nausicaä flies around on her cool glider, exploring another of Miyazaki's classic lush, imaginative, strange alien landscapes.
See Also: Dune, Ferngully, Wall-E
The Genre: a forbidden-city adventure, with touches of a steampunk airship chase flick.
The Story: Pazu, a young Japanese boy, befriends a girl named Sheeta who falls from the sky. The two of them set out to find what Pazu's father was searching for when he went missing: the mythical city of Laputa, a city that floats on the air. The two embark on an adventurous journey to discover the secrets of the city and the mysterious secret of the young girl's past. When the eventually find the floating city, complete with long-dormant robot guards, they also find some surprising answers.
The Great Moments: The whole floating city is a sort of masterpiece of strange bio-architecture, the plants of the city forming the backbone of the sky metropolis. And the ancient guardians of the city are compassionate robots made of stone. That coupled with the exotic steam-driven airships that both keep the city afloat and keep those pursuing the city afloat are superbly imaginative.
See also: Steamboy, The Iron Giant, The Golden Compass
The Genre: mythical monster buddy movie.
The story: Two sisters move to a new house. Their mother is in a nearby hospital, being treated for a serious disease. The girls must therefore make their own fun. They do so by exploring the nearby woods. It is there that they find a giant playful creature called Totoro, and they embark on innocent adventures in the mythical monster's company.
The Great Moments: The highlight of the film from an urban fantasy standpoint has to be the catbus. It's a bus that moves like a cat and has the same sort of smile as Alice's Cheshire version. The catbus darts through the landscape, disturbing the local townspeople.
See Also: ET, The Water Horse, Alice In Wonderland
The Genre: coming-of-age story, or even fish-out-of-water story, with witches.
The Story: In Kiki's world, young witches must leave their families and strike out alone to become full-fledged witches. Kiki does just that, taking up residence in the distant city of Koriko. She befriends a local baker and begins flying deliveries all over town. But she loses her confidence, and her powers begin to wane. Throughout the movie, Kiki learns how to get the confidence she needs to grow up, keep her powers, and become a confident young woman.
The Great Moments: The film features a couple of scenes that show Kiki cruising through the town, saying hello to people and making her deliveries. The movie takes full advantage of its urban setting to let Kiki roam free and explore the surroundings. One scene even features a daring in-flight rescue.
See also: Spider-Man 2, The Harry Potter series, Teen Witch
The Genre: swashbuckling alternate history air-pirate adventure.
The Story: The film is set in an alternate version of Italy during the great depression. Porco Rosso is a former Italian flying ace cursed with the face of a pig. He's taken to flying for hire, guarding ships in the middle of the ocean from flying pirate gangs. Porco develops a rivalry with an American pilot, and he has to both outsmart the Italian authorities pursuing him and prove his worth to the woman he loves.
The Great Moments: It's a movie filled with fun air chases, but the scenes where Porco has to have is plane rebuilt and refurbished show just how different this alternate world is. In Porco Rosso's world, everyone is passionate about aircraft, and everyone pitches in to help him rebuild his beloved plane. Even the restaurants have fly-up docks for seaplanes, and the whole city turns out for a mid-air duel between Porco and his rival.
The Genre: steampunk-fueled allegory about man's hubris.
The Story: Ashitaka is the last in a line of princes in his small village, but he is forced to leave when a menacing beast infects him with an evil sickness. The sickness makes him much stronger, but it's eating away at him, so he has to search for the cause and cure of the sickness. In his quest, he meets Princess Mononoke, a wild young girl who is the princess of the untamed forests. Together, the two of them must teach humanity about the balance between progress, technology, and respect for nature.
The Great Moments: The town to which Ashitaka eventually traces the demon-beast is a giant wooden arms factory, powered by a combination of steam and sheer brute force. And the vengeful, rampaging forest god that eventually makes his presence known is an indelible image in viewers' minds.
See Also: The Lion King, Lord of the Rings.
The Genre: an epic adventure to save imprisoned parents.
The Story: Chihiro's parents are imprisoned as farm animals, and she has to try to save them from the witch that has captured them. To do so, she must work in a giant steamy bathhouse, befriend a nameless and faceless spirit, and journey across an endless expanse of water. She must also never forget her name, as that his how the witch gains her power over her victims.
The Great Moments: Probably the strange highlight of the movie is the multi-armed bathhouse operator and his soot spirits. His job is to carefully blend the ingredients to make the perfect bath for the patrons of the giant bathhouse, but he also has enlisted the help of sentient soot balls to keep his fire stoked and burning, all the while operating a grinder and selecting herbs with his multiple limbs.
See Also: Coraline, Labyrinth.
The Genre: a story of time-travel, jealousy, and magic-powered architecture.
The Story: A mysterious man named Howl takes an interest in a young girl named Sophie. A jealous witch, who has had an unrequited love for Howl for a very long time, transforms Sophie into an old woman. But things get complex when Sophie takes up residence in Howl's castle. The castle itself can walk, traveling from place to place, but its door also serves as a portal to other worlds. In dodging pursuing forces and avoiding the ill will of the evil witch, Howl and Sophie become bound up in each-other's lives.
The Great Moments: The castle is a giant, lumbering steampunk beast. As it chugs along, we see more and more of its inner workings. It's powered by an imprisoned firey spirit named Calcifer, and the whole thing is intricate, imaginative, and often quite beautiful
See Also: Beauty and the Beast.
The Genre: children's fantasy disaster movie, with a hint of young, everlasting love.
The Story: A young boy named Sōsuke discovers what appears to be a goldfish with a face on the beach. He names the little thing Ponyo, but after bonding with his new companion, what appears to be sentient ocean water drags her back out to sea. But little Ponyo has also taken a liking to Sōsuke, and she uses her magic powers to transform into a little girl and escape from the bubble in which her father has imprisoned her to seek him out. If the two can reunite and prove that their love can last, Ponyo can stay as a girl forever.
The Great Moments: In her efforts to escape, Ponyo unleashes a mysterious elixir into the ocean that transforms the coastal town in which Sōsuke lives into an underwater Atlantis, teeming with Devonian era life. Ancient lumbering sea-creatures travel down the submerged roads as Ponyo and Sōsuke travel above, on the surface of the water.
See Also: The Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo.