1. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

IMDB: 8.2/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%

Storyline: My Neighbor Totoro is a delightfully endearing story about two young daughters, Satsuki and Mei, settling into their new home in the country while their mother is in hospital. They meet a series of magical creatures, including a giant, friendly forest spirit called Totoro. The film explores their adventures together and the relationship between mankind and nature.

Why it’s a major movie: This film is Hayao Miyazaki at his most enchantingly whimsical. Mixing the worries of the real world with the magical wonder of childhood, My Neighbor Totoro is a masterclass in animated storytelling. The hand-drawn artistry and imagination on display set it apart as a timeless classic and a major testament to Studio Ghibli’s emphasis on intricate detail.

My Neighbor Totoro is globally recognized as one of the most endearing and important animated films ever made. Not only did it mark Miyazaki’s international breakthrough, but it also became synonymous with the Ghibli brand itself – Totoro is now the studio’s mascot. The universal themes of friendship, family, and respect for nature have endeared it to audiences around the world.

2. Spirited Away (2001)

IMDB: 8.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%

Storyline: Spirited Away tells the story of 10-year-old Chihiro and her parents who stumble upon a seemingly abandoned amusement park. After her mother and father are turned into giant pigs, Chihiro meets the mysterious Haku, who explains that the park is a resort for supernatural beings who need a break from their time spent in the earthly realm, and that she must work there to free herself and her parents.

Why it’s a major movie: This surreal, visually stunning film is a feast for the senses and perhaps Miyazaki’s most imaginative work to date. The imaginative visuals are backed by a poignant narrative about growing up, dealing with change, and understanding different cultures. The film transcends cultural origins, with messages that resonate with audiences around the world.

Spirited Away is not only a major movie in Miyazaki’s career but also in the world of animation at large. The film won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, the first and so far only hand-drawn and non-English-language animated film to win the award. Miyazaki’s attention to storytelling detail and superior craftsmanship sets this film apart, putting it among the most celebrated in the animation genre itself.

3. Princess Mononoke (1997)

IMDB: 8.4/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%

Storyline: Set in the late Muromachi period (approximately 1336 to 1573) of Japan with fantasy elements, the story follows a young Emishi prince named Ashitaka involved in a struggle between the gods of a forest and the humans who consume its resources.

Why it’s a major movie: Princess Mononoke is one of the most compelling and artistically significant films Miyazaki ever directed, famous for its rich, lush and complex animation. The movie probes big, universal themes like human relations with nature, gender roles, and the consequences of industrialization. Its epic narrative, adult themes and layered characters set it apart from other animated films, proving that animation can tackle any subject as effectively as live-action cinema.

Princess Mononoke was not only a critical success but also a box office hit, which had a significant impact on bringing more mature animated features to the forefront of filmmaking. It was also the highest-grossing film in Japan until Spirited Away (also directed by Miyazaki) took the title in 2001. Its success also played a major role in creating a global fanbase for Studio Ghibli.

4. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

IMDB: 8.2/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 87%

Storyline: Based on the novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones, the film revolves around a young milliner named Sophie who is transformed into an old woman by a witch’s curse. Her only chance to break it lies with a self-indulgent, yet insecure young wizard named Howl and his companions in his living, moving castle.

Why it’s a major movie: One of Miyazaki’s strengths is his ability to smoothly blend fantasy and reality into storytelling, and Howl’s Moving Castle is a prime example. This film’s magic lies in the detailed animation, complex characters and the metaphysical themes being explored, such as age, identity, and the destructive aspects of war.

The film resonated well with audiences and was a major commercial success, earning over $230 million worldwide, making it one of the most financially successful Japanese films in history. It further cemented Miyazaki’s reputation as one of the greatest animation directors.

5. The Wind Rises (2013)

IMDB: 7.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%

Storyline: A look at Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, one of Japan’s most infamous World War II fighter planes. The story depicts his love, perseverance, and the challenges he faced in his life.

Why it’s a major movie: The Wind Rises marks a departure from Miyazaki’s typical fantasy epics, engaging with more mature themes and historical drama. The film skillfully combines the vision of engineering and the horrors of war, presenting a poetic and realistic portrait of an individual’s fixation on creation amidst destruction.

While showcasing breathtaking animation and a compelling narrative, The Wind Rises also generated significant controversy which made it a particularly notable part of Miyazaki’s oeuvre. Some critics argued the film unnecessarily romanticized Japan’s involvement in World War II. After a career filled with fantasy and adventure, this film demonstrates Miyazaki’s ability to handle more complex, real-world narratives with elegance and sensitivity.

6. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

IMDB: 8.1/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%

Storyline: Nausicaä is a young princess who, in a post-apocalyptic future, tries to prevent two warring nations from destroying themselves and their dying planet.

Why it’s a major movie: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is particularly significant as it marked the establishment of Studio Ghibli. Here, Miyazaki sets the groundwork for themes that he would return to again and again, such as environmentalism, feminism, and pacifism.

Nausicaä was wildly successful and is often cited as one of the greatest animated films ever, delivering a strong message about the dangers of warfare and the harm humanity can inflict on nature. As a result of its success, Studio Ghibli was founded a year later, giving Miyazaki a platform to create his extraordinary body of work.

7. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

IMDB: 7.9/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%

Storyline: A young witch named Kiki moves to a new town and uses her flying abilities to earn a living. During her adventure, Kiki learns how to live alone and manage her own business.

Why it’s a major movie: Kiki’s Delivery Service stands out in Miyazaki’s filmography due to its simplicity and focus on the character’s coming of age. It is a heartwarming story about independence, self-reliance, and the ups and downs of adolescence.

Not only is it a critically acclaimed film in Japan but also it was well-received worldwide, helping establish Studio Ghibli’s reputation overseas. With its theme of self-discovery and growing up, it expands Miyazaki’s range, proving he can make excellent films without relying on epic narratives or fantasy elements.

8. Castle in the Sky (1986)

IMDB: 8.1/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%

Storyline: This movie tells the story of a boy and a girl named Pazu and Sheeta, and their quest to find a magical floating castle known as Laputa, while being pursued by pirates and an evil government agent.

Why it’s a major movie: Castle in the Sky is noteworthy for its potent mix of adventure, romance, fantasy, and the vintage charm of a silent film. It displays Miyazaki’s knack for creating compelling characters and thrilling action set pieces, further showcasing the potential of animation as a medium.

ATrich in themes of environmentalism, pacifism, and the pains of growing up, Castle in the Sky proved immensely popular in Japan and helped cement Miyazaki’s reputation as a master of storytelling. Moreover, it set the tone for later Studio Ghibli films, emphasizing the importance of strong heroes and heroines, and the power of imagination and kindness.