When likened as the “Japanese Disney”, Hayao Miyazaki, eschewed the statement, simply stating “I am a director not a producer.” It’s a short sound bite piece of journalism and quite a good analogy but for Miyazaki, a man of tradition and vision, he deserves more than just this simple sentence.
Hayao Miyazaki began directing in 1979 and has been active in the animation industry since 1963, for what is over 50 years. Miyazaki’s magnum opus “The Wind Rises” is released on the 7th May, after which, he has announced he is retiring. In fact, the film was released last year in Japan and as such he has already officially retired.
Miyazaki’s earliest films sought to break away from the predominant art style of manga at the time and create something more distinct yet still recognisable and iconic. What early films such as “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” and “My Neighbour Totoro” did for young Studio Ghibli was to create a very general mould for the kinds of films that the studio would set out to make and the way they would look. Each of Ghibli’s films are unique in the stories they tell and the way they look but at the same time they are all recognisably a Studio Ghibli film.
“Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” was released in 1984 and went on to be the highest grossing film of that year in Japan. Following this was “My Neighbour Totoro” which went on to beat Nausicaa’s box office record. “My Neighbour Totoro” tells the story of two sisters, Mei and Satsuki, who move to the country to be close to their sick mother. Once there, they discover a host of forest creatures called Totoro’s, who they befriend. “My Neighbour Totoro” highlighted Miyazaki’s ability to create extraordinary moments from relatively ordinary situations without raising the stakes to overly dramatic levels. He conveys expertly the way in which a child’s imagination works, creating games, friends and things to occupy the mind from the tiniest details.
“My Neighbour Totoro” was followed by “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, “Porco Rosso” and “Princess Mononoke”, the latter released in 1997. “Princess Mononoke” explores man’s relationship with nature and follows a man, Ashitaka, as he gets caught in a war between the forest gods. The film was a huge success in Japan and it was also the film which helped to put Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli on the map internationally, receiving its own English dub with actors such as Billy Bob Thornton, Claire Danes and Minnie Driver lending the voices.
2001 saw Miyazaki write and direct “Spirited Away” again exploring a different aspect of childhood, in this case, a girl, Chihiro’s relationship with her parents and how to save them from an evil spirit who has turned them into pigs. “Spirited Away” garnered a huge number of awards and nominations including an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, the only film not in English to receive the award to date. The Academy Award gave recognition to Miyazaki not just for this film but for his body of previous work. Miyazaki’s win is cited by many as a turning point not only in his own recognition but as the start of widespread mainstream acceptance in Western popular culture.
The animation and art featured in the film showed Miyazaki at his most imaginative and is often the stepping off point for many uninitiated with his work. For many, its appeal is universal not just because it offers humour that both young and old can appreciate but it examines such a simple yet important relationship between a child and her parents. This exploration of universal yet complex themes through a child’s eyes characterises Miyazaki’s work and he frequently seeks out inspiration from children, “Looking at their facial expressions always teaches me something. All the movements and feeling of the main character are taken from them.”
Somewhat controversially, Miyazaki chose not to attend the Academy Awards when Spirited Away won in 2003. He did not offer an explanation at the time but later stated that he did not wish to visit a country which was “bombing Iraq”. Miyazaki, last year, garnered criticism over his strong anti-war stance and his opposition of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has denied any Japanese blame during World War 2 and attempted to repeal the parts of the Japanese constitution stating that violence is prohibited as a diplomatic solution.
Many claimed that Miyazaki’s protest was un-patriotic but again was characteristic of his strong views. Miyazaki is a very principled and traditional man. He lives a very simple life, preferring not to use smartphones, even going as far as to liken the gesture of shaking an iPhone to masturbation. He also reportedly doesn’t use email, preferring instead to write hand-written letters. Miyazaki has warned of the dependency of today’s society on technology and this goes some way to give context to his way of life. Many manga and anime series explore this overuse of technology in series such as Ghost in the Shell, which was the basis for “The Matrix” franchise, though Miyazaki’s film tend to focus on the positive aspects of life.
Following “Spirited Away” Miyazaki stepped down, if only briefly, from feature film directing until he returned in 2004 with the much anticipated “Howl’s Moving Castle”. The film focussed magical themes rather than the spirits of “Spirited Away” as Sophie, a young girl is transformed into an old woman by a witch. It also explores the idea of age and maturity in interesting ways by combining the heroine and mother-figure into one central character which Miyazaki stated was a challenging yet rewarding way to construct narrative.
Miyazaki then took another extended “retirement” from features until 2008’s “Ponyo”. The titular character of “Ponyo” is a goldfish who is also a princess and her relationship with a young boy, Sosuke. The story is somewhat of a retelling of the classic fable, the Princess and the Frog although, as with many of Miyazaki’s adaptations, there were various plot elements which were changed, added and removed. Again, Disney who have a long standing commitment to bring Studio Ghibli’s film to Western audiences provided another high-profile voice cast including, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson and Tina Fey.
Miyazaki’s final feature “The Wind Rises” was released in 2013 in Japan and is due be released in cinemas in the UK on the 9th May this year. Miyazaki has stated many times in the past that he was retiring however, he assured everyone that he intended to keep his promise this time on 6th September 2013 and that “The Wind Rises” is to be his last feature as director.
To say that Hayao Miyazaki is anything less than a master of animation would be selling him short and his influences and importance as a proponent of Japanese film and animation on the rest of the world manifest themselves today thanks to him and his studio. His large body of work includes work on features, shorts and a music video and he has worked with relative consistency as an artist, writer, director and producer for over 50 years and although it is a shame to see him retire, all good things must come to an end. Then again, as fellow animator Isao Takahata said, “…I think there is a decent chance that may change… Don’t be surprised at all if that happens”.
All we can do is hope and wait.
The Wind Rises” is in cinemas from 7th May.