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Depending on who you ask anime is often either praised or put down. Responses vary from “Spirited Away is one of the best films I’ve ever seen!” to “Aren’t they those cartoons where all the guys have weird hair and the girls strip for no good reason?” The fact is both statements are true but this article is about the former. Articles on the latter can be found on any run-of-the-mill pop-culture site. I wrote “Spirited Away is one of the best films I’ve ever seen!” because it’s true and Hayao Miyazaki, the master behind it all, is who this article is really about.
Hayao Miyazaki was born in 1941 at the height of Japan’s imperial age. Growing up in Tokyo in a relatively wealthy family the war and its after effects made a deep impression on the young boy. As he grew up Miyazaki developed a profound hatred for war, a fascination with mechanical flight and a love for nature and the spirituality inherent within it. These themes found their rightful homes in both his animated and illustrated works.
Hayao Miyazaki has written and directed eleven feature films, even more short films, and the odd music video. None of his features are rated below eighty-five percent on Rotten Tomatoes which is an achievement few directors can match. His films are among the highest grossing animated films in both Japan and the wider world. He is the first anime director to receive both an Academy Award and an Honorary Academy Award. In fact, he has won a staggering ninety-four awards globally but he does not lack for humility.
A viewing of the Studio Ghibli documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness shows how Miyazaki follows the same routine day-in, day-out. Monday through Saturday he gets up and goes to work where he observes several daily rituals such as checking the key animation frames, saying good morning to the children at the Studio Ghibli crèche and doing radio calisthenics. On Sundays, he helps clean out the local river. Much of his time at Studio Ghibli is spent drawing the script. Hayao Miyazaki has never written a script. Instead he draws an incredibly detailed storyboard, essentially a manga (Japanese comic), that the animators follow to bring the film to life. In this way, Miyazaki is the opposite to his colleague and Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata who has never drawn a single piece of animation in his life.
Perfectionism is the key word when thinking about not just Miyazaki but Studio Ghibli in general. Takahata has never finished a film on time or on budget. Hayao Miyazaki and his son Goro have clashed in the past over whether Gore was good enough to direct at Ghibli. The jury is still out on whether he is or not. Miyazaki himself personally redrew two thousand frames of Princess Mononoke in 1997. That was at a point where Miyazaki was supposed to have been slowing down. Officially he has retired six times and has recently come out of his most recently announced retirement to direct his twenty-year passion project Boro the Caterpillar.
Why has he come out of retirement six times? At seventy-six anyone would be forgiven for handing in their pencils and paper but not Miyazaki. The real answer is the current state of the Japanese animation industry. He has consistently criticised it for lacking genuine human feeling, being dominated by otakus (anime obsessed nerds essentially) and for idolising the old masters, himself included. It has become an industry, in his opinion, obsessed more with quantity over quality, ridiculous hairstyles, and grossly exaggerated sexual characteristics. In fairness, he’s not wrong. But for the sake of balance let’s take a quick glance at a few of the characters Miyazaki has put in his feature films.
In Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind Princess Nausicaä races to save her bountiful, post-apocalyptic kingdom from avaricious mercenaries and a tide of giant insects. Kiki’s Delivery Service focusses on young witch Kiki as she searches for a purpose in life all while attempting to regain her powers. Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro who must rescue her disrespectful parents from the Spirit World. While in Princess Mononoke, yes you guessed it, Princess Mononoke must team up with a man she doesn’t trust to save her forest from destruction by desperate miners. Notice the pattern? All but four of Miyazaki’s films feature a central female protagonist. Each young woman or girl at the heart of these stories is different. Some are vulnerable others are uncompromising while others still are strong beyond all measure. Nonetheless all are original creations and carry the weight of Miyazaki’s themes squarely on their shoulders.
From tales of World War One pilots turned into pigs in Porco Rosso to a wizard in command of an enormous walking fortress in Howl’s Moving Castle Hayao Miyazaki has always grounded his films in ordinary humans stuck in extraordinary situations. Almost all of his characters, including his often-ambiguous villains, are relatable in some way. Other than the speech bubbles in his storyboards and manga Miyazaki has never written a word without pictures attached. He is a traditionalist working in a world that has turned him into a living legend but where most have forgotten the basics of his style. A picture may be worth a thousand words but only if it can convey the feeling in its creator’s pen strokes.
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