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THE B-LIST: Mononoke, magic and Miyazaki

Ranking some of Studio Ghibli’s most mature films

Here in America, Disney may be king — especially after its recent acquisitions of Marvel and 21st Century Fox — but in Japan, Ghibli still reigns supreme.

With its feature-length anime films earning big box office returns and international awards, Studio Ghibli is often called "the Disney of Japan." Founded 33 years ago, the animation giant has become synonymous with one of its founders: the writer and director Hayao Miyazaki.

While others have written/directed films for Ghibli — primarily co-founder Isao Takahata ("Grave of the Fireflies"), Hiromasa Yonebayashi ("The Secret World of Arietty") and Hayao's son, Gorō Miyazaki ("Tales From Earthsea") — Miyazaki is the real power behind the name, a creator in love with airplanes, magical curses, nature and powerful girls.

In his own words, Miyazaki's heroines are "brave, self-sufficient girls that don't think twice about fighting for what they believe in with all their heart. They may need a friend, or a supporter, but never a savior. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man."

And unlike most Disney films, which take bloody stories and ruthlessly sanitize them to make them more palatable for young audiences, Miyazaki refuses to pander or pretend life is clean and simple. His movies are marketed and made for families, too, but they often contain death and violence, hard lessons and deeper, more mature themes; Miyazaki refuses to talk down to his audience.

This week, I'm ranking my five favorite Miyazaki films that lean more toward the mature end of the spectrum — next week I'll highlight his sweeter films.

5. "NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND" (1984). A thousand years after a nuclear holocaust, Earth is a toxic wasteland overrun with dangerous plants and giant insects. Nausicaä, princess of the still verdant Valley of the Wind, struggles to stop a pointless war and greedy human conquerors while reconnecting with nature and calming the rage of the Ohmu, huge trilobites that destroy entire cities.

Technically, this isn't a Ghibli film; it was made a year prior to the studio's founding. But it counts in my heart. Nausicaä is such a wonderful heroine, capable of fighting for her people and yet tender and kind, able to pity even huge bugs. Rife with Miyazaki's anti-war, anti-technology, pro-nature themes, there's senseless destruction and death aplenty, but an ultimately uplifting climax as Nausicaä teaches humanity how to live in harmony with the Ohmu.

4. "HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE" (2004). The young hatter Sophie is turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste, so she seeks out the infamous wizard Howl, who lives in a mechanical castle that moves about on Baba Yaga-esque chicken feet. Hoping Howl can break her curse, Sophie instead falls for the immature wizard and builds a family with him, his young apprentice Markl and the fire demon Calcifer as war breaks out in their steampunk world.

Based on Diana Wynne Jones' novel, "Howl's" isn't an accurate adaptation, but it's charming in its own right. The beauty and the beast story plays out nicely as Sophie's curse waxes and wanes and the handsome Howl begins to transform into a bird monster thanks to his magical dabbling. As with most of Miyazaki's films, the villains aren't wholly evil or irredeemable, and there's plenty of delicious food and satisfying cleaning montages (what is it about Ghibli food/cleaning that's so fun to watch?) in between beautiful landscapes and sweet found-family moments.

3. "SPIRITED AWAY" (2001). Ten-year-old Chihiro and her family stop at what seems to be an abandoned theme park on their way to their new home and fall into a magical world of gods and yökai (demons). With her parents transformed into pigs, Chihiro is forced to work in the spirit's bathhouse under the witch Yubaba, aided by the not-entirely-trustworthy dragon Haku and the yökai Kamaji and Lin.

"Spirited" was the first Ghibli film to win an Academy Award and is the highest-grossing film in Japanese history. The art is equally gorgeous and horrific, with the bathhouse's guests covering the gamut from cute to grotesque. The lonely No-Face is a complicated figure, a giant baby turns into an adorably fat rat, witches are surprisingly helpful, soot sprites eat star-shaped candies and Chihiro learns some valuable lessons as she grows up in a big way. Definitely one of the weirder Ghibli films, but an exceedingly rich and fun one.

2. "CASTLE IN THE SKY" (1986). The teenaged miner Pazu is swept into a world of sky pirates, giant robots, floating castles and dangerous government agents when the girl Sheeta falls from the sky with a magical crystal.

Also known as "Laputa," "Castle" is one of the more underrated Ghibli films — so of course it's one of my favorites. The friendship/budding romance between Pazu and Sheeta is precious, Mark Hamill gets his villain on as the evil agent Muska and there are sky pirates! Led by a hardcore old lady with pink braids! This is a steampunk-y adventure with sweet robots, floating cities and lost princesses with a mystical heritage; everything you could want in an animated film.

1. "PRINCESS MONONOKE" (1997). Cursed by a hateful boar god, Prince Ashitaka travels to a forest where the animal spirits are warring with the encroaching humans of Irontown, led by the determined Lady Eboshi. Ashitaka sympathizes with both sides — the humans are destroying nature, yes, but in order to live, while the animal gods are fighting for their own survival — but knows the conflict has to stop. At the same time, he's fallen for San, a vicious human girl raised by wolves and known as Princess Mononoke by those in Irontown.

There's bloodshed aplenty in this epic conflict between man and nature, but this is one of the most beautiful animated films of all time. Ashitaka is the noblest, most self-sacrificing of heroes, while San and Lady Eboshi are more than his equal when it comes to fighting. "Mononoke" is a grand, sweeping story, full of mythology, history and philosophy. It's my go-to introduction for Ghibli newcomers — and one of my all-time favorite films.

• ANGIE BARRY is a page designer and columnist for The Times. To suggest future topics for The B-List, which covers pop culture, history and literature, contact her at abarry@shawmedia.com.

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