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Of the films I watched growing up, very few were ever as delightful or entrancing as those of Hayao Miyazaki. Unlike modern computer generated animation, each frame of Miyazaki’s films is a hand-drawn work of art, and each story a fantastical exploration of what it means to dream. The settings range from mundane countryside to post-apocalyptic jungle, and the messages he conveys are equally diverse—encompassing everything from self-love to environmental consciousness to non-violence. Of his work, many people are familiar only with his more recent films, such as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, but his older films—like Porco Rosso, Whisper of the Heart, and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind—are just as creative and engaging.

The 1992 film Porco Rosso takes place in the Adriatic Sea during the interim of WWI and WWII. It follows the misadventures of Marco Pagot, a legendary pilot who has been cursed into the form of an anthropomorphic pig. In an interview discussing the film with Takashi Oshiguchi in 1993, Miyazaki says that he is, “disgusted by the notion that man is the ultimate being, chosen by God. But I believe there are things in this world that are beautiful, that are important, that are worth striving for. I made the hero a pig because that was what best suited these feelings of mine.” Although originally intended for children—as is most of Miyazaki’s work—Porco Rosso is particularly remarkable for its darker exploration of human failure, fascism, and what it means to outlive everyone you love. As a child, the references to fascism and other political affairs were over my head—even when Pagot explicitly says, “I’d much rather be a pig than a fascist.” But they have become more accessible with age. Miyazaki emphasizes cowardliness, violence, and other human flaws, but his ultimate message is that despite their outward imperfections, and sometimes because of them, people are still capable of as much kindness as they are cruelty. Pagot embodies this ideal by the end of the film, when he goes against his selfish nature and chooses to stand up for the people he cares about.

On a lighter note, Whisper of the Heart is a film built around its characters’ aspirations. The setting and people are entirely mundane; the film, however, is anything but. Contrary to many of his more fantastical works, the protagonists Shizuku and Seiji are regular 14-year-olds and avid readers. Eventually they come to realize that they are remarkably similar and that, without having known each other,  they had even been checking all the same books out from the library. After accidentally discovering Seiji’s grandfather’s antique shop, they begin to spend more and more time together, and eventually their friendship develops into love. Because Shizuku hopes to become a writer in the future, the film is layered with images from her imagination that serve to remind us that adventure can exist despite surrounding suburban monotony. Meanwhile, Seiji dreams of becoming a violinmaker and decides to leave school and travel to Italy to realize his aspirations. While Porco Rosso represents Miyazaki’s cynical view of the world, Whisper of the Heart’s characters are so earnest and relatable that it is hard to resist being drawn into their dreams. The film is made even more meaningful because the main character of Shizuka’s novel, the Baron, is revisited and brought to life in the 2002 film, “The Cat Returns,” as if her dreams have actually come true.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’s title character, Nausicaä, an independent young girl living in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world, is remarkable in her own right. The environment in which she lives has been so destroyed by pollution that it is impossible to breathe the air without a gas mask, and giant mutated insects inhabit a massive toxic jungle nearby. Nausicaä’s quiet village life is interrupted when an aircraft transporting a dangerous genetically engineered creature crashes nearby and kills all the passengers on board. After an invading army comes to claim the creature and destroy the jungle, Nausicaä rises to the occasion and must defend her people as well as the insects. Miyazaki not only raises the issue of environmental destruction, but provides a perspective to which children can easily relate. Interestingly, he is also never too quick to criticize or demonize his villains. The leader of the opposing army, also an empowered and commanding woman, has just as much reason to fight as Nausicaä does, making the conflict even more tragic. Miyazaki humanizes each of his characters, no matter their species or alliance, and in doing so complicates the traditional paradigm of good versus evil.

While each of Hayao Miyazaki’s films is strikingly different from one another, because they convey the same themes and sentiments, they work as a cohesive whole. His films are not only beautiful, but also politically mindful and convey meaningful, although sometimes difficult to understand, messages for children and adults alike. Miyazaki weaves his love of life into everything he creates and reminds his audience to always appreciate the world around them.