Today, animated films can be seen as a powerful storytelling tool to explore complex and heartrending issues and for many a cinephile, that's thanks to Hayao Miyazaki.

"Miyazaki-san is the greatest animator in cinema history, both in terms of his direction, but also his artwork itself," says Jesse Wente, head of film programs at the Toronto International Film Festival.

"A Miyazaki film is an artwork on multiple levels. I think he's one of the great masters of movie making, right up there with the other greats one might name, from Kurosawa and Bertolucci to Spielberg and Scorsese."

The Japanese master, who announced his retirement earlier this fall, is being celebrated in Toronto with a retrospective devoted to Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, the influential animation house he co-founded.

The 18-film showcase, screening through Jan. 3 in Toronto, runs the gamut: from rarely seen titles like Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday to classics and worldwide favourites such as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.

TIFF's Wente answered a few questions about the iconic animated filmmaker (interview has been edited and condensed).

Q: Though he's long been an icon in Japan, it's only Miyazaki's most recent works (including Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Ponyo on a Cliff) that are best known internationally. How has his filmmaking evolved over the years?

A: You can tell it's a Miyazaki movie within moments of any screening. The films present a striking unity, especially when seen together in this sort of retrospective, whether it's the hand drawn animation with painterly backgrounds, the epic adventure grounded in the natural world, the central characters who are drawn but never caricatures and are often girls in empowered roles, the orchestral score, and of course the abundant fantasy.

Certainly the films are more precise now than earlier, and the animation even richer and more dense; but the heart and soul of Miyazaki's films remains the same.

Q: Miyazaki tackles quite serious themes: the environmental impact of industry, war and peace, familial duty. But he's explored them within entertaining, appealing stories. Can you speak a bit about this?

A: That's one of the central appeals of a Ghibli film: the ability to address very large human issues and do it in the guise of children's movies. While we see this in other animated films, especially from Pixar, few are as ambitious as Ghibli and Miyazaki.

Great cinema always tends to speak to large issues, although not always within such a commercial sensibility. If Ghibli movies were live action as opposed to animated, I think it would be less surprising that the films are so thoughtful and thought-provoking, as we often enter an animated film with expectations that it will speak more to our children than ourselves.

But these movies are great art and that transcends such notions and it’s what has allowed these films to attain such exalted status around the world and in cinema history.

Q: In North America, many still associate animated shows or films with children. It's different in Japan. Why are these not just kids movies? Why should every serious movie buff see at least one Miyazaki film?

A: Anyone who loves movies — who fell in love with movies because of the wonder and magic that they can create — should see a Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli movie. These films are pure movie magic that will transport you to that place when being awestruck was easy and wonder was around every corner.

View images from some of Miyazaki's best films in the attached gallery.