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Today marks the eighty-first birthday of the beloved Hayao Miyazaki, and we’re here to celebrate his critically-acclaimed films. Known mainly for his work with Studio Ghibli, the animation studio he co-founded with fellow director/screenwriter/producer Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, Miyazaki’s made a huge impact on the international animation community and animation fans alike.
His original film Spirited Away is currently the eighth highest-grossing animated film of all time, five of his films place in the top ten highest-grossing anime films, and he’s won countless global awards and nominations for (including, but in no way limited to) the Tokyo Anime Awards, The Mainichi Film Awards, the US and Japan Academy Awards, the Annie Awards, Kinema Junpo Awards, and the Golden Bear Award. He’s also a Person of Cultural Merit, an official and high honor for those who’ve contributed to the creative advancement of Japanese culture.
Whether you’ve watched all his films, starting with Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, or you have that one comfort Miyazaki film that you turn to in times of need, the themes of humanity and nature, friendship and family, and all sorts of human emotions are sure to stick with you.
Many viewers still have that itch that only Miyazaki films can scratch, and while you wait for Miyazaki’s last film, based on Yoshino Genzaburo’s novel How Do You Live?, try these middle grade and young adult books based on your favorite Miyazaki film.
Pahua and the Soul Stealer by Lori M. Lee & Half World by Hiromi Goto for Spirited Away fans
Miyazaki takes the “journey to the underworld” archetype and times it by ten for heroine Chihiro in Spirited Away, throwing her into an abandoned amusement park that turns out to be the supernatural getaway for Shinto gods and spirits.
Lori M. Lee does something similar with Pahua in Pahua and the Soul Stealer, but instead of working in a bathhouse to help free her parents-turned-pigs, Pahua uses her warrior shaman powers to travel through multiple spirit worlds to save her brother’s soul. The book is based on stories from Hmong oral tradition and there’s more direct use of magic from Pahua herself, but like Chihiro, she meets plenty of friendly and unfriendly creatures, and notably, she’s courageous, kind, and sympathetic.
If you’re feeling brave and want to try a darker (and gorier) YA readalike, Hiromi Goto’s Half World and follow-up Darkest Light are also a solid choice. Half World was pitched as Coraline directed by Miyazaki afterall!
Buy Pahua and the Soul Stealer:
Buy Half World:
City of Secrets series by Victoria Ying for Castle in the Sky fans
In a nutshell, Studio Ghibli’s first film, Castle in the Sky, is a tale of two orphans working together to uncover the legendary floating city of Laputa, all while being chased by pirates and the military in an eye-popping steampunk world.
Orphans? Steampunk? Secret cities? Victoria Ying throws in similar themes, aesthetics, and narratives in her graphic novels, City of Secrets and City of Illusion. Pirates are replaced by rogues, the military by city officials (and spies?), and floating cities by underground city-workings (think gears and platforms and dungeon-craving-level booby traps). Our protagonists hold an important key to the city’s secrets, and there’s some old-timey robots that feel adjacent to the goliaths from the film. At the heart of it all there’s also an endearing friendship between the deuteragonists.
Buy City of Secrets:
Airman by Eoin Colfer for Porco Rosso fans
Porco Rosso isn’t often one of the top films that come to mind when viewers pick their favorite Miyazaki films, but this story of a former Italian World War I pilot turned pig (why does Miyazaki keep turning his characters into pigs?) is a historical and loving homage to aviation, similar to Miyazaki’s later The Wind Rises.
Best known for his Artemis Fowl series, Eoin Colfer focuses on similar themes to Porco Rosso in his middle grade Airman. This one’s set in the 1890s on the Saltee Islands off the coast of Ireland, it’s reminiscent of The Count of Monte Cristo in the time protagonist Conor spends in the jails of Little Saltee, but Porco Rosso fans will like this adventure nonetheless. Of course, there’s a focus on the art of aviation, both on the flying and the mechanics, and there’s similarly a vindictive rival, spunky and affectionate friends, and an emphasis on individual and intangible change (though both Porco and Conor go through physical changes as well).
Nightlights series by Lorena Alvarez for My Neighbor Totoro fans
Everyone knows Totoro—whether it’s from peaceful nights, watching My Neighbor Totoro, curled up with a fuzzy blanket, from the famous Studio Ghibli logo, or from his sneaky cameo in Toy Story 3. My Neighbor Totoro is one of those films that sparks the imagination of young viewers and leaves a special Totoro-shaped mark on their hearts.
Lorena Alvarez does the same with her Nightlight graphic novels where stars visit main character Sandy each night and turn into wonderful creatures she replicates in her daily drawings. Though the creativity of Nightlights is as beautiful as that of My Neighbor Totoro, the sequel, Hicotea, is especially ripe for the films’ fans as the conflict is lighter and narrative overall more explorative. Sandy travels into a turtle’s shell, explores a beautiful museum of the natural world, and must help the turtle complete a painting. The adventurous and nostalgic feeling of Sandy’s journey is akin to that of Satsuke and Mei’s exploration of their new house and the surrounding woods.
Beast & Crown series by Joel Ross for Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind fans
Not technically a Studio Ghibli work, as it was created before Ghibli was founded, but Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a Miyazaki work through and through. It’s based on Miyazaki’s 7 volume manga by the same name, and it’s a biting tale of ecological disaster and the ever-present hope that humans can do better.
Boot boy Ji, from Joel Ross’ Beast and Crown duology, may be more cynical and hesitant than Nausicaä, but he’s heroic nonetheless. Though Nausicaä fights for the coexistence of humans and nature and Ji for the freedom and survival of his friends, both put their lives on the line for their purpose again and again. Both live in a divided world, Ji’s between humans and beasts (ie. goblins, ogres, mermaids, etc.) and Nausicaä’s between humans and nature, and both end up being the key to unifying their worlds. Also, without any spoilers, the endings of both the film and book have a notable gut-punchy feeling to them that leave you both hopeful and ready to do better.
Are you a manga reader? Try the first volume of Miyazaki’s manga!
Buy Beast & Crown:
Buy Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind volume 1:
Eva Evergreen series by Julie Abe for Kiki’s Delivery Service fans
A young witch moves to an unfamiliar town for at least a year to help the community, test her magical capabilities, and come of age. Throw in some quiet conflict surrounding the young witch struggling with her abilities, and you’ve got the simple and appealing narrative of Kiki's Delivery Service.
This could also describe Julie Abe’s Eva Evergreen series, especially the first book Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch. Eva relocates to a town to help the community for a year, but unlike Kiki, her magical abilities are a regular issue from day one (ie. she falls asleep if she overextends her magic). She must also earn her rank of Novice Witch before her thirteenth birthday or she loses her magic forever. But luckily, like Kiki, she has her trusty (and chaotic) animal companion Amber and the power of both friendship and determination on her side.
You could also always try the book Miyazaki’s film is based on: Eiko Kadono’s Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Buy Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch:
Buy Kiki’s Delivery Service:
Speaking of book to movie adaptations, did you know these other Miyazaki films are based on books?:
For Whisper of the Heart fans: Whisper of the Heart manga by Aoi Hiiragi (published by Shueisha).
For Howl’s Moving Castle fans: World of Howl series by Diana Wynne Jones, including Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle in the Air (not to be confused with The Castle in the Sky), and House of Many Ways (published by Greenwillow Books)
For Earwig and the Witch fans: Earwig and the Witch, also by Diana Wynne Jones (published by Greenwillow Books)
For The Secret World of Arrietty fans: The Borrowers series by Mary Norton (published in the UK by Dent and in the US by Harcourt)
For Ponyo fans: The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson (this copy published by Pushkin Children’s Books)