The name Hayao Miyazaki has become synonymous with Japanese animation and with the news at the end of the summer that he will now retire from the director’s chair, I feel it is time to share my appreciation of this animation master with the world. Over the summer I compiled a research project on Miyazaki and over a number of posts I intend to reproduce it in blog format. So let’s get started.
An ancient city flying in the sky above a mining town. A young witch with a red ribbon in her hair, soaring above a quaint village on her broomstick. A pilot turned into a pig. A girl desperately trying to rescue her parents-turned-pigs in a strange, otherworldly bathhouse. A steampunk castle walking through the mist. Two girls discovering the magic just beyond their doorstep. Giant insects stampeding with enraged red eyes. A goldfish longing to be human. Warriors. Wizards. Wolf-gods. Catbuses. Fire demons. Airships and antique shops. Welcome to the worlds of Hayao Miyazaki.
The films of Hayao Miyazaki are, in a word, magic. Right from the start you are pulled into the lives of his characters and the worlds they inhabit. You are carried along on a journey that can be heart-warming, whimsical, epic, humorous, terrifying, emotional and even heartbreaking.
Disney has long reigned supreme as the crowning glory of animation, and with the rise of CG animation in the last 20 years popularized by the films of Pixar, DreamWorks Animations and Blue Sky Studios, it is the USA that is often recognized as the home of the world’s best animation. However, Japan has managed to hold its own by producing animation that can truly be called art in the form of the films produced by Studio Ghibli, helmed since its formation in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki.
A part of the animation industry since the 1960s, Miyazaki has mastered his art and has created some of the most memorable, original and beautiful animated films in the world. No two films are the same, each bringing something new and exciting to the Ghibli collection, yet at their heart they are, one and all, unquestionably the works of Miyazaki. Recurring themes and motifs link the works of this great filmmaker (along with spectacular hand drawn animation), often featuring environmental issues and the fragile relationship between humanity and nature, the strength of community, absurd imaginative flying machines, technology (used for either good or evil depending on its user), and the power found within oneself that can overcome any obstacle. Miyazaki has crafted worlds and wonders within his films that should never be ignored.
Miyazaki has credited numerous artists and works as sources of inspiration for his films, many of both Japanese and Western origin. His japanese influences naturally include the country’s first animated feature, Legend of the White Serpent (Hakuja Den, 1958) directed by Taiji Yabushita, and, of course, the “father of manga” Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) whose manga and animé had a tremendous impact on the shaping of Japan’s youth after WWII, and defined the style of animé. A young Miyazaki was greatly inspired by Tezuka and the former’s early art style was heavily influenced by the artist, however after joining Toei Animation Studios, Miyazaki began to break free of Tezuka’s hold and develop his own distinctive style. Miyazaki’s style also recalls elements of earlier Japanese art:
Miyazaki’s animations “echo the graphic styles immortalized by Japanese art from the Middle Ages to the end of the nineteenth century – primarily the woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world” or “the transient show”) and the works of Utamaro Kitagawa (1750-1806), Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858).” – Dani Cavallaro, The Animé Art of Hayao Miyazaki, McFarland & Company Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina, USA, 2006, p.8.
The animator also has a lifelong interest in Western authors including Philippa Pearce, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Eleanor Farjean, Arthur Ransome, Jonathan Swift, Jules Verne, J.R.R. Tolkien, Maurice Leblanc, Isaac Asimov, Diana Wynne Jones (whose novel Howl’s Moving Castle was adapted into a film by Miyazaki in 2004), Ursula K Le Guin and Antoine de Saint-Exopéry. He has also derived elements for his films from mythologies, including Greek and Norse, Western folktales and fairytales, and even the Bible.
Now for a rather lengthy quote from Cavallaro, but one I feel accurately sums up the influence of other animators on Miyazaki:
“Other major influences on Miyazaki’s work include the American artist Winsor McCay, author of the early 20th century comic strips Little Nemo in Slumberland and Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, and creator of Gertie the Dinosaur (1913), the first successful cartoon; Max Fleischer, the American animator that created Betty Boop (first appearance: 1930) and was the leading proponent of a style that foregrounded the drawn characters of the medium; the French animation The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweeper (La Bergère et la Ramoneur; dir. Paul Grimault, 1952), a production that showed Miyazaki how an animated film could be legitimately targeted at an adult audience, while also affecting Cagliostro’s architectural look; the Russian animation Snow White (Snezhnaya Koroleva; dir. Lev Atamanov, 1957), a film that strengthened the director’s determination to commit himself to animation at a time of self-doubt, and inspired the characterization of the King and Hilda in Hols; Frédéric Back, the Canadian animator and illustrator (among many other works) of Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees (1954), from whom Miyazaki derived the flair for drawing and animating plants; the Russian animator Yuri Norstein, author of Tale of Tales (1979) … While objecting to the narrative approach adopted by Disney productions, with their neat endings and stark good/evil dichotomies, Miyazaki has nonetheless frequently admitted to liking early Disney shorts such as Silly Symphonies (1934).” – Dani Cavallaro, The Animé Art of Hayao Miyazaki, McFarland & Company Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina, USA, 2006, p.31.
Quick Miyazaki Biography
- Born 5th January 1941 in Tokyo, Japan
- 1963 Graduated from Gakushuin University with a degree in political sciences and economics
- Began his animation career as an in-betweener at Toei Animation Studios (Tōei Dōga) in the same year
- Progressed from in-betweening work through to key animation
- Crossed paths with future collaborator and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, on several projects for Toei Doga, most notably Wolf Boy Ken (1964-65) and Takahata’s debut feature Taiyo No Oji: Horusu No Daiboken (1968)
- 1971 Joined A-Pro Studio and began collaborating with Takahata
- 1973 Moved to Nippon Animation where he was heavily involved in the World Masterpiece Theatre TV Animation series for the next five years
- Art director for Arupusu no shôjo Haiji (Heidi, 1974)
- Directed his first feature TV series Conan, Boy in the Future (1978)
- 1979 Directed his first feature film, Rupan Sansei: Kariosutoro no shiro (Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro) for Tokyô Movie Shinsha
- 1984 Financed by Tokuma Shoten Publishing, Miyazaki produced his classic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
- 1985 Founded STUDIO GHIBLI with Isao Takahata (and producer Suzuki Toshio)
- 1985-2013 Miyazaki has made some of the most fantastic animated films with his world-famous Studio Ghibli, a studio that prides itself in producing work without compromising their artistic vision, always telling their stories their way.
- 2003 Spirited Away won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature
- 2013 Following the release of his newest film, Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises), Miyazaki announced his retirement at age 72, leaving behind a more than impressive legacy, and a challenge for the younger generation left at Studio Ghibli to rise up to.
Miyazaki has, on numerous occasions, claimed to be retiring from directorial duties, but it seems that this time, to the great sadness of his fans, that he is serious. An online article from Entertainment Weekly contains quotes from Miyazaki regarding his retirement and plans for the future.
In the next post on Miyazaki I will be looking into a selection of his early works.