I think one of the things I really enjoy about Miyazaki's work is his narrative style, which reminds me greatly of serial cliffhangers. It's episodic, but not especially in the way American movies or tv shows are episodic. The stories evolve, mutate, and grow in their own directions. There's always an overall story arc, a beginning, middle, and end, but they're far less linear than what's expected in the West.
I think this is something that can cause confusion, especially with Howl's Moving Castle, which seems deliberately designed to throw off viewers who expected a Harry Potter clone. It's something that only became obvious to me the further I delved into Miyazaki and Isao Takahata's work.
His narrative structure was largely shaped by television: Lupin III, Future Boy Conan, and the landmark World Masterpiece Theatre productions of Heidi, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, and Anne of Green Gables. The two Panda Kopanda shorts (which, aside from Takahata's directing, is mostly his work) also fill out at around 35 minutes. It's not surprising, considering that his first directoral film was Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro in 1979, that the Miyazaki style had already solidified.
Conan, especially, is a signature Miyazaki anime, as it was purely his child, as well as his directoral debut. An adventure serial straight out of old Errol Flynn pictures, with generous doses of slapstick comedy, romanticism, action, and his own obsessions about human nature, civilization vs the natural world, yadda yadda, all wrapped up in 26 episodes. Hmm. It may be the definitive Miyazaki, situated perfectly between Horus and his Nausicaa graphic novel, which to my mind remains his masterwork.
His Ghibli films become less obviously episodic as the years go by, but I think he just became more skilled at scrubbing away the stitches. The last time I watched My Neighbor Totoro was when I was making come copies for family members for Christmas (I have the Hong Kong DVD, haha), I was struck by its darker, more somber tone in the final act. The movie revolves around the older daughter's growing awareness of her mother's illness; her awareness of death. It's not something Mei, the younger sister, can yet understand, and when she suddenly disappears, Satsuki's inner fear of loss is made manifest.
This, of course, is Miyazaki's personal filmmaking at work, and perhaps on one level the movie was his attempt to come to terms with his own mother's serious illness, his own childhood. Is it any wonder that Totoro is at once so nostalgic and yet so idyllic?
I don't think this awareness could have come about if a complete script was written at the very beginning; it had to come out during the act of creation. In the hands of most filmmakers, I don't think this sort of thing could ever work, but to Miyazaki, it's perfectly natural. It's just how his creative process has always worked.
We see this process play out similarly in many of his films, and I think that's why I like it more than the standard, American-style episodic structure. It doesn't merely spin its wheels in perpetuity, playing out endless scenarios like television, but evolves, serves an overall point, and often finishes at a different place than you expected from the beginning. It's either used dramatically (Castle in the Sky, Howl's) or comedically (Porco Rosso).
I should also point out that Isao Takahata's storytelling is similar, in films like Pom Poko and The Story of Yanagawa Waterways, his brilliant 1987 documentary. But I'm afraid I'm rambled on long enough. We'll save that for next time.