Zachary's Favorite Scenes in Hayao Miyazaki's Movies

Three pieces in a row on the same topic?! Usually people expect something different and exciting, but since I’m cuckoo for Ghiblipuffs I should probably write what I’ve been meaning to for a while.

It’s no secret that I love Hayao Miyazaki’s movies; after all, I’ve already written two lists on his films (which you can find here and here,) right? However, they resonate so strongly with me, and today I’ll focus on something more specific: my favourite moments. This is especially interesting because Miyazaki’s known for not scripting his films, so certain parts are more memorable than others. I also like ranking stuff because of my OCD, and I figured I’d do that here too.

By the way, spoilers.

11. Howl’s moving castle - Howl’s Moving Castle

This was a hard one. My relationship with Howl’s Moving Castle, for those who don’t know, is incredibly complicated; on one hand, like I said when ranking Miyazaki’s films, the story is a mess with no sense of direction, which angers me. On the other hand, there’s too much that I enjoy to downright hate it. So while I love criticizing it for what it does wrong, at the same time it’s important to give credit where due. And the one moment that sticks out most is the film’s opening, where we’re introduced to what comprises a good chunk of the film itself: Howl’s castle.

What’s interesting is how it’s introduced. We get a foggy shot of the individual parts, only to zoom out and see it roaming across a field. The movie doesn’t waste its time, it simply throws you in and says, “Have fun!” There’s no build-up, no dramatic reveal, nothing. It’s a castle. A really weird and inventive one, but a castle.

I like this moment a lot. Where as most movies would build the surprise, here it’s given right away. I’d argue it’s not even a surprise, but an acknowledgement that this is the only part of the movie you’re gonna care about. It’s weird, surreal imagery with plenty of gears, steam valves and doors, all connected via constantly moving frog legs. It’s confusing if you’re not familiar with Miyazaki and are watching this for the first time, but you quickly adjust.

If it sounds like I’m stretching my description of this castle, it’s because it’s hard to accurately describe. It’s one of those moments that you have to actually see to understand. That, and the movie doesn’t give you much else to chew on. Actually, is that necessarily bad? I’m unsure, but either way it’s a trippy castle. And it’s a great way to start what’s a trippy and bizarre film.

This one’s also hard. In many ways, The Wind Rises shares that “difficult to describe” aspect of the previous entry, as it’s densely-packed and has a disjointed focus. Unlike Howl’s Moving Castle, however, it’s not hard to follow along. Being a biopic, it’s also more grounded than Miyazaki’s other films, making the stand-out moments reliant on finding the magic in the ordinary. Fortunately, I can, as the film’s littered with many such moments, and nowhere is this more apparent than in its most-charming scene.

The set-up isn’t terribly impressive in theory, as it’s nothing more than a paper airplane flying around a hotel. I’m sure we’ve all made paper airplanes at some point, but unless you’re bored with too much free time, it won’t wow for more than a minute or two. And yet, Miyazaki manages to make something so mundane captivating. As you watch Jiro and Nahoko fool around with his cut-out creation, you see the beginnings of Jiro’s master creation. Against all claims to the contrary, it’s amazing.

You also learn a lot about Jiro and Nahoko, a fact made better by being a montage of music and little dialogue; for example, Jiro attempting to collect his plane when it’s stuck on the roof shows how willing he is to dive into something without thinking of the consequences. The railing breaking under the weight of his foot shows that he doesn’t realize the consequences until it’s too late. The plane flying off without him is a reminder that we don’t always have control of what lies ahead. And Castrop accidentally crumbling the plane while trying to catch it, though humourous, is dark foreshadowing of what Jiro’s planes would be used for. All the while, you hear the soft music in the background.

The best part is how it encapsulates Miyazaki’s talent. Where as most other directors would keep this scene brief, or skip it entirely, Miyazaki holds on it. It’s a chance to breathe and admire the talent of the artists who made this movie possible, and it allows a level of detail not normally present in biopics. Because what’s the hurry? The movie’s not going anywhere, so why not take a moment to watch the mundane be magical?

9. The car chase - The Castle of Cagliostro

Steven Spielberg allegedly called this scene “one of the greatest car chases ever put to film.” It’s interesting because I didn’t think much when I first watched it. I didn’t think much of The Castle of Cagliostro in general when I first watched it, honestly! But I’ve seen it numerous times since, and while not a “masterpiece”, especially stacked against later films, I do consider it a good movie with some great scenes. In particular, the car chase from early on.

Several aspects about this chase scene make it stand out. For one, it’s small. A lot of the time in films, chase scenes are big, grandiose moments meant to shock everyone. They have loud explosions, big stakes and plenty of suspense. Here, it’s exact opposite: the explosions are small, the stakes are so small that you don’t know who Lupin and Jigen are chasing and why, and the only big moment is when Lupin and Lady Clarisse fall at the end. By keeping it small, it feels a lot more real than most chases.

Two, it’s less than 5 minutes. (If you want to be technical, it’s not even 4.) It’s a really tightly-written, animated and edited action scene, meaning that every second counts. And they do, which was a testament to Miyazaki’s talent even then. Because of that, it’s also surprising, as you never know what to expect. Even the weapons used are out-of-nowhere, and yet they fit.

And thirdly, it’s a lot of fun. I consider The Castle of Cagliostro to be Hayao Miyazaki’s answer to a National Lampoon spy film, as it has that energy while still feeling small and personal. It’s hard to pull off, but that’s why this chase is so fun. Besides, who wouldn’t want to see two thieves chasing goons chasing a fleeing girl? Sexist or not, that’s amazing!

8. The plane chase - Porco Rosso

Another chase scene? Don’t worry, we have a third one coming up. This moment from my least-favourite Miyazaki film is also one of the best uses of piano music to create tension in an anime film, let-alone film in general. Why? Because despite being low key, the hurried clacking at the ivories makes for genuine suspense.

You know what helps? That it involves planes. On a river. In broad daylight. With the people doing the chasing being fascists. And the people who are chased being an anthropomorphic pig and a spirited teenager. That’s surreal enough to catch anyone’s attention.

However, like I said before, the kicker is that it meshes beautifully with the piano accompaniment. I believe that Porco Rosso’s major saving grace is its atmosphere, and this is another example of why. Where as most chases, like I said prior, are grand spectacles, here it’s quiet and downplayed. You’re only hoping that Porco and Fio make it out of Italy safely, and yet it’s nerve wracking how many close calls there are with Porco’s newly-refurbished plane. I’ve seen this scene in context five times, and each time I’m on edge and waiting for what happens next. It doesn’t matter that I know, I’m waiting.

This is another example of Miyazaki’s talent as a director. Think about it: it’s a chase scene on water involving planes, the secret police and a pig. That alone is stupid or hard to take seriously in theory. And yet it’s not, which is why I love it. Kudos, Miyazaki!

7. Mei and Satsuki plant the seeds - My Neighbour Totoro

My Neighbour Totoro is weird. It’s not even really a movie, but rather a collection of vignettes with a thematic link about childhood innocence and nostalgia. Not a lot happens until the last-third, and even then not until the last 15 or so minutes. It’s really a play-by-play of two girls’ lives in the countryside, which doesn’t sound all that appealing. Yet, somehow, it’s a lot of fun, really powerful and filled with simple, yet poignant, set-pieces, most-notably when Mei and Satsuki grow a giant tree in their backyard with Totoro’s help.

The scene starts slow and quiet, relying on atmosphere and not tension. You see Totoro and friends dancing around the spot where the acorns are planted, performing what I can only imagine is some sort of ritual. And then Mei and Satsuki join in, leading to one of the most hilariously-heartwarming (you heard that right) moments ever: the tree begins growing rapidly, all the while the soft music is heard in the background. As it grows, I admire how childish and imaginative it is to see something that bizarre. It ends with Totoro taking the girls on a top across the countryside, followed by playing ocarinas on a treetop.

If it sounds like something straight from an acid trip, it isn’t: that’s Miyazaki. And it’s amazing. Like so many entries here, it shouldn’t even be all that special, especially since it sounds so stupid. But that’s why it works: it’s not stupid, but a strong tapping into the audience’s youth. And who hasn’t imagined a tree sprouting rapidly as a child? I know I have!

Ultimately, the scene brings out the essence of being a child/child at heart. It’s more whimsical than The Catbus, which was already pretty cool. Or watching Totoro splash in the rain, which was equally freaky and spellbinding. Or even watching the soot sprites float away, which was entrancing. No, watching a tree grow in real-time is the highlight of My Neighbor Totoro. What else can I say but “this movie embodies childhood”?

Ponyo is a movie that, for whatever reason, is unfairly maligned. It’s not that the film is downright hated, but a lot of people either don’t like it, or consider it Miyazaki’s worst. I won’t elaborate on why that’s unfair, I’ve already done so on ScrewAttack, but it definitely has one of Miyazaki’s best scenes of recent years. Which scene, you ask? Easy: the wave riding scene.

It starts with Ponyo using her father's potions, perhaps unintentionally, to become a fully-realized girl. But that comes at a cost, so the skies get stormy and the world is flooded. And how does Ponyo react? By using this to track and find Sosuke. All the while, a tune reminiscent of Wagner plays.

This scene is awesome for two reasons: firstly, the imagery is grand and surreal. Remember how I said Miyazaki’s biggest strength is making the bizarre and/or mundane magical? Well, the bizarre part is there…but mundane this isn’t. It’s as big as they come, complete with giant waves, massive storms and a little girl prancing like she’s running a relay race. And yet, it’s never overkill. Miyazaki blends the perfect amount of grandiose, riding the waves, and small, chasing Lisa’s car, to make this scene work. Which it does, so much so that even the detractors have a hard time criticizing it.

And secondly, Miyazaki keeps it kid-friendly. Unlike a conventional film, which’d make the scene a powerful, scary moment, it’s played up for laughs. This is helped by the art style being kid-friendly, going for a colouring book aesthetic instead of a rougher sketching. Not to mention, the scene is Ponyo trying to reach Sosuke, which is all-the-more satisfying when they finally meet. In short, it’s grand, colourful and a spectacle to make any opera writer, or filmgoer, proud.

5. The Stink Spirit - Spirited Away

Spirited Away has a lot of great moments. There’s the scene where she meets Haku for the first time, and the subsequent trauma she experiences while trying to escape the spirit world. There’s the train sequence, which is easily one of the best uses of artistry and ambience to tell a story. There’s even the moment where Haku and Chihiro embrace in the sky, which was my favourite part for the longest time. However, the best bang for my buck is when the giant, polluted spirit enters the bathhouse, as it highlights one of the movie’s themes about respecting nature.

The scene begins slowly, with the spirit making its way through the rain. Everyone insists it leave immediately, but you can tell by the pain on its face that it's there out of necessity. Even once inside, there’s constant unease amidst the pity. You feel the discomfort of everyone else, but you also feel the pain of this spirit. This is complimented by the music, which mixes pain with suspense in keeping with the mood.

Perhaps the most unusual and interesting part is that Chihiro, this sweet, innocent protagonist, is forced to help him. She’s given a hard task right away and is expected to deal with it herself, reemphasizing how little respect the spirits have for her because she’s a human. You know this is nigh-impossible task for anyone, but it has to be done. Not to mention, there are some great jokes, like when Lin freaks out because her rice bowls turned rotten, or Chihiro immediately covers her mouth because the spirit smells so bad. Little bits of humanity like that are great.

My favourite part has to be the end, when everyone pitches in to help tug out the junk in the spirit’s body, showing the need for teamwork, only to reveal lots of trash. Miyazaki has stated that this scene was inspired by him cleaning a polluted river, and that no message is preached as a result is great in of itself. Because, really and truly, it doesn’t need a message. The scene speaks for itself about the dangers of polluting the environment, adding a message would be preaching. And you wouldn’t want that, right?

4. Tolmekians attack - Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Remember how I mentioned that there was one more chase scene? This is it. It’s also from one of Miyazaki’s "Holy Action Trifecta" films. How could I not include it? Not only does it kick off the climax, but it’s a scene, like the chase from Porco Rosso, that mixes music and imagery to create suspense. Except that, this time, everything’s big.

I know it’s about to start when Asbel fends off Tolmekian soldiers and demands that Nausicaa leave him. She reluctantly does, but no sooner is she in the air when a Tolmekian airship spots her and starts firing. From there, it’s a race to see if she can return to The Valley of the Wind and stop the Ohmu invasion before the Tolmekians gun her down. Which they come quite close to doing. And as this is happening, a frantic, fast-paced tune plays in the background.

Everything in this scene lines up: the animation is fast-paced and busy, with never a moment’s rest. The setting is in-between some toxic clouds, making the stakes high. The colours are dark and musty, making it hard for Nausicaa to see. There’s action all around her, raising the stakes even more. And, like I said in the previous paragraph, the music is frantic and heavy, drilling home that Nausicaa doesn’t have much time.

Of all those elements, however, it’s the music that really makes the scene. It would’ve worked without it fine, there’s no denying that, but the music adds to the, “will she, or won’t she?” factor and gets your heart pounding. It’s like the jingle in Sonic games when you’re running out of air: it’s nerve-wracking enough to make you panic, yet suspenseful enough that you want to survive. It doesn’t work as well without it. And it helps that the song is memorable, as a side-note.

3. “Fly.” - Kiki’s Delivery Service

While making this list, I deduced that I could call this “the climax” and be fine. But then it wouldn’t mean as much to me personally. Regardless, this is the big moment for Kiki and Tombo. It’s big for Kiki because she learns that inspiration is self-motivated, and that she has to find her own spark to make her skills mean something. It’s also big for Tombo because he’s in danger. But it’s also big for both of them because it solidifies how, even though she’s been a jerk to him for most of the movie, strong their friendship is. That, and it’s quite suspenseful for a “save the boy dangling from a dirigible” moment.

On the outset, it feels like a constant cocktease: Tombo is in danger, Kiki tries to rescue him. Kiki grabs a janitor’s broom she’s never used. The broom keeps failing her while she’s in the air. Even once she’s within reach of Tombo, she keeps missing him by an inch, making the final catch sheer happenstance. It’s tedious, it’s annoying, it’s obnoxious to watch. And it’s brilliant.

Why? Because it adds to the suspense in a way that feels real and earned. It’s real because it’s what’d actually happen with a witch in training, and it’s earned because it’s the ultimate test of Kiki’s character. I’ve heard claims that Kiki’s Delivery Service has no villain, and I respectfully disagree. Kiki’s self-doubt is the villain, and her trying to save Tombo is her overcoming it. That not only makes the ending earned, but incredibly satisfying.

But if that’s reading too much into it, then it’s also really entertaining. We know how terrifying flying can be, and this embodies that. And it does so in a manner that’s safe and unthreatening. Unless you’re threatened by the scene somehow, in which case I can’t help you. Either way, it’s a great moment, only topped by the next two entries.

2. San and Lady Eboshi fight - Princess Mononoke

Now we arrive at the big show-stoppers. You’d think with its status as “greatest anime film ever” that this’d be higher, as it’s an amazing 9 or so minutes. But it’s at #2, and you’ll see why soon enough. For now, San’s invasion of Iron Town, duel with Lady Eboshi and subsequent exit on the shoulders of Ashitaka ranks as one of the greatest scenes I’ve ever witnessed in film. A powerful statement, yes, but I wouldn’t be saying it if it weren’t true.

Where do I begin? Do I start with how well it’s paced? Do I start with the lighting and angles? The lines that hold as much weight as anything from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy? The fight scene itself? The brilliant choice of music? The chilling finale? Or that this was when Princess Mononoke, which was a good movie beforehand, became great?

I think all are worth mentioning: it’s an expertly-paced 9 minutes. The lighting and directing, even during close-out shots, are fantastic, really drawing out the tension and suspense. Every line, nay word, is cleverly chosen, which only adds to the gravitas. Lady Eboshi and San’s fight, though not breathtaking, is an example of the film’s theme of nature vs. man in physical form. The music selection is some of Joe Hisaishi’s best, most-notably when San makes her move and when Ashitaka carries San’s out of Iron Town. The finale is the right kind of anti-climactic, as it emphasizes how both sides are misguided and blinded by evil. And yes, this was where the movie went from good to great, as the first-half felt like set-up.

You know what’s the best part? Every second counts. To reiterate a point I made in an old list on ScrewAttack, Miyazaki doesn’t waste any second of film. Even drawn-out scenes like this, which’d easily be filler in a lesser-production, are put to good use, with each frame playing a part in the grand design. If nothing else, this is proof that Miyazaki has no equal. So what could possibly top that?

1. Robot blows up fortress - Castle in the Sky

To answer my question: this scene from Castle in the Sky. And I don’t mention that lightly; after all, entry #2 is an iconic scene from an iconic film. It’s from a movie that landed on the late-Roger Ebert’s Top 10 Movies of 1999 list. How do you out-do that? Leave it to the director of that movie to do so with this one, except keep the focus smaller and the run-time longer. Together, you have an action scene for the ages.

What I like about this scene is it signals a major tonal-shift into darker territory from the more goofy and light-hearted action scenes prior. It did that without feeling forced too. It simply starts with Sheeta mumbling a spell she learned as a child, and it ends with her being rescued at the expense of all the chaos and destruction caused by a robot. In-between all that, it builds and builds, so much so that it’s really three, smaller action scenes merged into one, much greater action scene, accompanied by a chilling, dark tune that’s memorable even separate from the film.

That’s the key: it builds. It starts with the robot making its way to Sheeta to rescue her, but does it end once she flees? No, because it emerges at the top of a tower to try and rescue her again. But does it stop when the robot is blasted in the chest and Sheeta is knocked out? No, it gets back up and starts wrecking everything left-right-and-centre. A lesser-film would have the robot be this chaos-ensuing maniac, but here it’s played sympathetically. It wants to help Sheeta, and you feel badly when it’s destroyed.

Of course, the scene ends on a triumphant note with Pazu and The Dola Gang rescuing Sheeta, but even then it’s grand! Which is great because, again, not a single frame is wasted in these almost-12 minutes. Every angle, detail, even intersperse of sound, it all plays a part. When this scene happens, I pay attention. When it’s over, I applaud. It’s the most-satisfying moment in any Miyazaki movie, and it’s easily one of my favourite scenes in film. I simply love it that much!

There you go: my favourite scenes in Hayao Miyazaki’s movies. Feel free to share your favourite moments, but for now, well…join me next time when I write a piece that’s not Studio Ghibli-related.


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