There are certain themes that are so prevalent in the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, they’ve almost become trademarks: the tenacious heroine on the cusp of adulthood. A fascination with animals, countryside and nature. Flying is another staple of the studio’s animation – and Miyazaki’s interest in aviation is unsurprising when you consider his family history.
Both Miyazaki’s father and uncle were involved in the aviation industry, and made parts for the Mitsubishi Zero fighter – one of the most capable flying machines in the Second World War. The young Hayao Miyazaki’s love of aeroplanes never left him, and along with his other childhood interests and experiences, would go on to inform the films he’d make as an adult.
Although wide ranging in settings and genres, Studio Ghibli’s films – whether directed by Miyazaki himself, or other talented filmmakers like studio co-founder Isao Takahata or his son Goro – often contain flying sequences. In fact, 1997’s Princess Mononoke is one of the few Miyazaki films to not contain any flying scenes at all.
The fluidity and attention to detail in Studio Ghibli’s films mean that, when characters do take to the skies, the results are never less than breathtaking. The scenes listed here conjure up a range of emotions, from the horror of war to the freedom of childhood imagination, but they’re all unforgettable in their own unique ways.
Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind (1984)
Technically speaking, Nausicaa isn’t a Studio Ghibli film, since it was made before it was founded, but it is an early work of brilliance from Hayao Miyazaki. To date, it’s the animator’s only foray into post-apocalyptic sci-fi, and its world is so thoughtfully depicted, we’re still hoping he’ll one day return to it for a belated follow-up.
Nausicaa is a brave young princess who flies across a devastated, post-industrial landscape on a custom-built glider. While she and her people live in peace, a neighbouring kingdom and its army plan to use an ancient Giant Warrior to rule what’s left of the planet, and Nausicaa must find a way to prevent him from triggering a new environmental catastrophe.
A film full of terrific, quite savage action moments, the flying sequences are the most memorable – the best, perhaps, being the one where Nausicaa takes off on her glider to intercept a gigantic flying fortress. A rare example of a Miyazaki flying sequence taking place at night, the fortress is a real thing of weight and menace – illuminated by the glow of dozens of tiny portholes, it has an almost animal presence, and the quality of the design and animation makes us forget that such a behemoth would almost certainly never fly.
Laputa: Castle In The Sky (1986)
Hayao Miyazaki’s purest adventure movie since his pre-Ghibli feature The Castle Of Cagliostro, Castle In The Sky contains just about everything you could want in, say, an Indiana Jones flick: a lost kingdom, ancient technology, and an evil villain on the trail of a powerful artefact. It’s also full of wildly inventive flying machines, from the dragonfly-like contraptions the pirates fly, to the gigantic steampunk ships flown by the villains.
Castle In The Sky is second only to 1992’s Porco Rosso when it comes to flying sequences, and all of them are captivating. The best one? Arguably the scene where the young heroes Sheeta and Pazu are pursued through a storm by the evil Muska and his flying army. In the middle of all this storm and drama, Pazu guides his frail glider into the eye of a whirlwind, and there, in among the rain, buffeting winds and electricity, they find the title’s flying castle – all blue skies, green fields and soaring towers. It’s a stunning scene, where great storytelling and technical mastery create a moment of genuine wonder.
My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
The film that arguably cemented Studio Ghibli’s global reputation, My Neighbour Totoro is a flawless, fantastical gem. It’s about young sisters Satsuki and Mei, and their wonderment as they explore the Japanese countryside. There, they meet the rotund woodland spirit Totoro and his other supernatural friends, including the unforgettably weird Catbus.
Although it’s a film about tranquility rather than action, My Neighbour Totoro still has one truly exhilarating sequence: the moment where Totoro takes Satsuki and Mei on an enchanted flight through the night sky, his feet on a spinning top, his hand clutching an umbrella like Mary Poppins. As they fly across forests and fields, Totoro lets out a cry of pure, animal joy – and it’s a moment so perfectly animated, that sense of pure happiness leaps from the screen.
Grave Of The Fireflies (1988)
This isn’t a aerial sequence as such, but worth throwing in because it contrasts so starkly with the depiction of planes and flying in other Studio Ghibli films. Isao Takahata’s haunting, uncompromising film is about war from a child’s point of view, so it’s only natural that where most Ghibli films depict planes from a high viewpoint, Grave Of The Fireflies shows them almost exclusively from ground level.
As the city of Kobe crumbles into flame during the final weeks of the Second World War, we see the bombers rumble overhead, mere black outlines against a night sky. Far from the beautiful, majestic machines we see in Porco Rosso or Castle In The Sky, the bombers are like angels of death. Tellingly, we only get one proper shot of a plane from the air: we see a huge B-29 Superfortress from above, and how tiny the city is from its pilots’ perspective.
It’s a shot that reveals how insignificant individual lives are in a war like this – from hundreds of feet in the air, men, women and children are little more than specs of dust.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
A coming-of-age tale about a young witch who struggles to come to terms with her own powers, Kiki’s Delivery Service is full of great flying moments. The finest, perhaps, is its concluding set-piece, in which Kiki borrows a cleaner’s broom and flies off to rescue her friend Tombo, who’s become tangled up in a rope dangling from an airship. The drama and peril of the situation is masterfully related, with the sheer scale of the dirigible dwarfing Kiki’s little town and the people within. In a pleasing reversal of action scene norms, it’s the boy who’s left plunging, yelping, to his potential doom, and the girl who rushes in like Superman to whisk him to safety.
For another wonderful – albeit brief – Kiki flying moment, look at the earlier bit where Tomo takes the young witch for a ride on his propellor-powered bike. Tomo clearly shares Miyazaki’s enthusiasm for flying – and with his glasses, even looks like a youthful version of the animator – but, hilariously, he entirely lacks Kiki’s superhuman ability.
Porco Rosso (1992)
Although it’s a fantasy film about a porcine aviator battling flying pirates, Porco Rosso’s full of realistic technical flourishes. Porco’s crimson plane is intricately realised, with every rivet lovingly depicted in certain scenes. Just look at how oil drips from the engine and spatters Porco’s face during the opening sequence; only someone steeped in aviation knowledge would have thought to put a detail like this in.
Even more so than Castle In The Sky, Porco Rosso offers a feast of aerial moments from beginning to end, and it’s difficult to pick just one favourite. But if we’re forced to choose, it would have to be Porco’s flashback to his combat in World War One, when he was still an ordinary human pilot.
Where most directors would have staged the battle sequence as loud and terrifying, Miyazaki gives the scene a balletic sense of grace, as the bi-planes fly around each other in an almost silent, deathly dance – until the first victims begin to fall from the sky in a streak of flame. In the next shot, we see scores of aircraft floating up above the clouds like dandelion seeds: they’re the souls of dead aviators, flying quietly into the afterlife.
It’s a wonderful, poetic moment, and filled with melancholy; Miyazaki may be intoxicated by the freedom of flying, but he’s mindful of its tragic side, too. Porco was the only survivor of that fearsome dogfight, and his punishment, he says, is to spend the rest of his days as a pig.
“The good ones are those who died,” Porco laments. “It could be that life as a pig is the same as hell.”
A great, incidental moment: at about the 35-minute mark, Porco visits a cinema and watches a Max Fleischer/Friz Freleng-like black-and-white animation featuring biplanes, a dinosaur, and a rabbit punching a pig – a fitting homage to the pioneering American animation of the 1930s.
Spirited Away (2001)
A box office hit and the winner of an Oscar for Best Animated Picture, Spirited Away is a visual delight. About a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro who finds herself working in a bathhouse in a far-off magical alternate world, the film’s packed with surprises at every turn – its characters are always in a state of flux, and you’re never quite sure what they’re going to turn into next. Case in point: the bathhouse’s most memorable customer, the spooky No-Face, a masked figure who reveals himself to be a grotesque stink spirit.
Then there’s Haku, a young boy who can transform himself into a pale dragon – a character who provides the film with a great aerial set-piece. As Chihiro rides on the dragon’s back through a moonlit sky, the heroine realises that Haku’s the spirit of the Kohaku river, and as she says this, the dragon transforms back into his natural form, his dragon body falling away in a shimmering haze of scales. It’s a moment of pure wish fulfilment that only great fantasy can provide.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
A gentle fantasy based on the story of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle is shot through with a streak of sadness. There’s something incredibly solitary and lonely about its central image, the strange, chicken-legged castle of the title. And then there’s Howl, a distant, mysterious wizard who transforms himself into a crow-like creature to intervene in a war between two rival nations, only to risk trapping himself in his animal form by doing so.
Huge, steampunk flying machines like those in Nausicaa and Laputa make an appearance in the film’s standout scene – an aerial battle and bombing scene full of movement and colour. More than any other Miyazaki film since Porco Rosso, Howl’s Moving Castle marries the filmmaker’s fascination with flying machines and creatures with a real sense of their destructive power. Howl’s Moving Castle may be an animated fantasy, but there’s a harshness and weight to the battles and bombardments that is anything but whimsical.
Tales From Earthsea (2006)
The debut from Goro (son of Hayao) Miyazaki may not have been the most successful or best reviewed of Studio Ghibli’s movements, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have moments of brilliance. Appropriately, the best of those moments involves flying, and comes right at the start of the film.
During a storm at sea, a boat full of sailors watches as a pair of dragons fight above the squall. In a film occasionally marred by somewhat uneven character animation, it’s a sequence of raw, elemental power.
The Wind Rises (2013)
A bit of a cheat, this entry, because we haven’t actually seen The Wind Rises yet. But given Miyazaki’s stunning uses of flying in the past, this period drama about the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter could well contain the most stunning aerial sequences yet. It’s also fitting that Miyazaki should finally make a film on this subject so late in his career, considering the history his family has with that legendary piece of war machinery. Certainly, the scene in the trailer where one of these planes disintegrates as it tumbles to the ground is as full of detail and energy as any of Miyazaki’s other works.
The film’s already been a huge hit in Japan, and we’re hoping it won’t be Miyazaki’s last film about flying, either; he once said that, if his post-Ponyo movies are hits, he’ll begin work on Porco Rosso: The Last Sortie, which will meet up again with the aviator in the Spanish Civil War.
Like Miyazaki himself, Porco will be older, but his consuming passion for flying remains undimmed.
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