There are few animation directors as acclaimed as Hayao Miyazaki. With his film studio, Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki ushered in a new era of anime films, which became immensely popular in the west. Back in January, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association honored the 77-year-old visionary with a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award. There couldn’t be a more fitting time to celebrate the best scenes in his filmography. The emotional maturity and slice-of-life quality of his works separate Miyazaki’s scenes from that of any other animated film. These moments range from striking feats of animation to emotional tear-jerkers, and somewhere in between.
Nausicaä Breaks Down — Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Nausicaä is an intelligent, thoughtful warrior princess who puts the safety of her people in the Valley of the Wind above all else. But it’s her pacifism that’s her defining trait — she even refuses to harm the giant, wild insect known as an Ohmu — who, when berserk, can destroy entire settlements. The young princess’s peaceful nature is put to the test when invading soldiers murder her sick father. The sudden loss sends her into a blind rage where she kills several of his attackers.
After her rampage, Nausicaä breaks down in front of her friend Lord Yupa and confesses that she’s afraid she’ll kill again if provoked. In this tender scene, we learn that even someone as strong as Nausicaä can be flawed and give in to their worst instincts. From then on, she vows to never kill again, cementing her arc for the rest of the film.
Tour of Laputa — Castle in the Sky
Miyazaki has always been fascinated with the marriage between nature and technology, and nowhere is that more apparent than the introduction of the flying city of Laputa in Castle in the Sky. Up until the final act, the film builds up the legend of Laputa in the audience’s mind. The young protagonist Pazu‘s goal to find the flying island naturally drives viewers to that destination as well.
Halfway through the film, Pazu and Princess Sheeta crash onto the island and are given a tour by a moss-covered robot. The unexpected beauty of the overgrown island perfectly ushers the film into its fantastic third act. The robot guardians make this scene, with their soft, jingling strides offsetting their enormous stature. Seeing them at peace with the foliage and animals fills the audience with the same sense of wonder as the children experiencing it.
Waiting for the Catbus — My Neighbor Totoro
This quiet, atmospheric scene is the epitome of what makes My Neighbor Totoro such a great film. On a rainy night, sisters Satsuki and Mei wait at their father’s bus stop when the titular animal spirit Totoro appears to them.
Typically, the sudden appearance of a giant furball would be frightening, but the scene does a great job of easing viewers’ anxiety. It’s difficult to fear Totoro after witnessing how thrilled he is by the sound of raindrops on an umbrella. Totoro’s as childlike as the sisters, which makes his presence in their lives all the more comforting to audience members. And as if the scene couldn’t be anymore wondrous, the iconic Catbus dashes in to give Totoro a ride.
Kiki Delivers the Pie — Kiki’s Delivery Service
Kiki’s Delivery Service will celebrate its 30th anniversary this July. The film follows Kiki, a charming young witch trying to make her way out in the big scary world. She eventually lands a job as a delivery girl, and down the line, she must deliver a sweet old woman’s homemade pot pie to her granddaughter’s birthday party.
Kiki and the old woman bond while making the special treat. We see every bit of effort that goes into the baking, including Kiki building a fire in an old brick oven when the electric stove breaks down. So it’s disappointing when the granddaughter ends up being a spoiled brat who doesn’t appreciate her grandmother’s gift. As a depressed Kiki slowly flies home in the rain, we must face the harsh reality that people can let you down.
The Forest Spirit Loses Its Head — Princess Mononoke
Princess Mononoke contains some of the most beautifully designed deities in animation history. The breathtaking centerpiece of these creations is the Forest Spirit, a benevolent god of life and death. The Spirit’s mighty presence builds an invulnerable shield around itself in the audience’s mind.
This shield shatters in the climax when Lady Eboshi decapitates the Spirit with a firearm. Seeing this powerful, peaceful god harmed by a small, human weapon is the most disheartening moment of the film. The final, crushing blow comes when the headless Spirit goes on a rampage that destroys its beloved forest.
The Train Ride — Spirited Away
Spirited Away puts 10-year-old Chihiro through a series of terrifying, bizarre trials. Her parents transform into pigs, a witch takes her name, and angry spirits constantly harass her. Before she can leave the Spirit Realm, she must travel by train to one more destination.
The train ride is a much-needed break from all the chaos. It’s a nearly wordless scene underscored with soft piano music and dripping with atmosphere. The serene beauty of the passing sights mixed with the faceless spirits on the train creates a sense of ambiguity. Chihrio’s not out of the woods yet, but at least she’s been granted one moment of respite.
The Sleepover — Ponyo
In a film about wizards and fish people, Ponyo‘s standout scene involves a simple childhood activity. The friendship between the young boy Sosuke and the fish girl Ponyo is adorable on its own, but when Miyazaki adds Sosuke’s mom, Lisa, and a power outage to the mix, he manages to recreate the pure joy of having a sleepover at a young age.
Ponyo’s overbearing father, Fujimoto, forbids her from returning to the human world to be with Sosuke. In the ensuing argument, Ponyo breaks free from her father by using magic that’s so powerful it creates a tsunami that floods Sosuke’s little fishing town. Lisa invites her son’s new stranded friend into the house where they indulge in some tea and ramen. It’s a nice break from the plot that allows our characters time to breathe. The kids running around the house while helping mom prepare the tea and food will stir up childhood memories in the most hardened moviegoer.
The Earthquake — The Wind Rises
Miyazaki’s most recent film, The Wind Rises, a fictionalized biopic about aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, contains the scariest scene of the filmmaker’s career. During the film’s first act, the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake strikes Tokyo as Jiro is traveling to university.
But it isn’t the quake itself that makes this scene so frightening but the lack of buildup before it strikes. It comes out of nowhere, does a catastrophic amount of damage, and ends as quickly as it began. The sound design adds the spine-chilling finishing touch by using human voices to fill in for the cracking earth and uprooted houses.