Hayao Miyazaki: Anime Auteur

March 16, 2011 at 6:38 am (Articles / Interviews) (, )

An old article about Hayao Miyazaki, my love for whom stems from seeing Spirited Away and thinking I’d just seen all my childhood fears and fantasies put into animation.

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With Hayao Miyazaki, you never know what to expect. His worlds are populated by fuzzy nature spirits who love the sound of raindrops on umbrellas, World War II fighter planes piloted by pigs, and goldfish who turn into girls. Grimy bits of soot might sprout limbs and eyes, a young girl may make friends with a dragon, or a wolf’s dismembered head may come back live and snapping.

Miyazaki’s films cover a wide range of themes and emotions, but something all his movies have in common is that they evoke a strong sense of wonder, of the sort usually only felt by children. But the same wonder can easily arise in adults (with maybe a bit of nostalgia as well) given Miyazaki’s characters and their strange and fantastical adventures. His choice of imagery and mastery of animation as a medium draws the viewer in, with some remaining long after the movie has ended.

“I do believe in the power of story,” he said. “I believe that stories have an important role to play in the formation of human beings, that they can stimulate, amaze and inspire their listeners.”

“I believe that fantasy (meaning imagination) is very important,” he added. “We shouldn’t stick too close to everyday reality but give room to the reality of the heart, of the mind and of the imagination. Those things can help us in life.”

Miyazaki’s films

Miyazaki gave up a career in economics to get into animation in the ‘60s. Initially working as an in-betweener (the one who adds drawings that go “between” the main ones to complete the action in an animated sequence) for Toei Animation, Miyazaki eventually broke off to write and direct his own films, the first of which was 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, based on a comic he had made.

In 1985, Miyazaki, together with fellow director Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzukiput together Studio Ghibli, the animation house credited for almost all of Miyazaki’s works. With Ghibli, Miyazaki went on to gain recognition in Japan for films like Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). The film that brought Miyazaki international attention however, was 1997’s Princess Mononoke,Miyazaki’s most graphically violent work. Miyazaki initially doubted the film would be widely accepted.

“I chucked out all conventional ideas of entertainment,” he said. “I was sure nobody would come to see the film, that it would end Studio Ghibli! And lots of adults didn’t seem to understand what it was about, whereas children said immediately ‘Oh it’s so easy.'”

Since then, Miyazaki’s films have become increasingly lucrative. Spirited Away, released in 2001, won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and went on to outdo James Cameron’s Titanic in the Japanese box office. 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle, based on the book by Dianna Wynne Jones and influenced to a certain extent by Miyazaki’s rage towards the US war against Iraq, is also noted as one of Japan’s most financially successful movies in history.

Last year’s Ponyo in the Cliff By the Sea was Miyazaki’s widest release yet, being shown in 927 screens across the United States.

The craft of restoring wonder

The 69-year-old anime auteur shows no sign of stopping.

“Although I have thought about leaving the world of animation for many times, whenever I see a piece of work that I really like, I would naturally want it to express it in my own ideas,” hesays. “When I hand it to the others, I always think about how this and that should be done. At last, I feel that it will be better if I take up the work myself. In order to bring out the original spirit of the work, I can only return.”

Despite a respite between Mononoke and Spirited Away, Miyazaki frequently returns to the helm, writing and directing his own films. He is a staunch advocate of old-fashioned hand-drawn animation despite the development of computer graphic animation. In contrast to Western animation filmmakers, Miyazaki never works with a full script, instead depending on the storyboards—which he draws himself—for the film’s layout.

“I don’t have the story finished and ready when we start work on a film. I usually don’t have the time,” he said. “So the story develops when I start drawing storyboards. The production starts very soon thereafter, while the storyboards are still developing. We never know where the story will go but we just keeping working on the film as it develops.”

How a film ends, he says, is based on the internal order and demands of the story. Sometimes, Miyazaki himself doesn’t know how a film will end. “It’s not me who makes the film. The film makes itself and I have no choice but to follow.” The result is that Miyazaki’s stories oftentimes take sudden and unexpected turns. According to him, this is not a bad thing.

“A lot of people say they don’t understand the film, and what that means is just that they have a set definition of how a story is supposed to be told,” he says. “When the story betrays their anticipations, then they complain. Which I find ridiculous.”

When asked how he develops his characters, he said it was a matter of repetition.

“The characters are born from repetition, from repeatedly thinking about them. I have their outline in my head. I become the character myself and as the character I visit the locations of the story many, many times. Only after that I start drawing the character, but again I do it many, many times, over and over. And I only finish just before the deadline.”

Reaching far and wide

Miyazaki is one of a small number of animators whose reach goes far beyond the bounds of animated films. TIME Magazine recognized the scope of the filmmaker’s influence, deeming him one of the magazine’s 100 Most Influential people in 2005, and one of the most influential Asians in the last 60 years in 2006.

Personalities from the comics and video game industries, art circles, and the film and literature elite, have testified as to the profound and long-lasting effects of watching a Miyazaki movie. French artist Jean “Möbius” Giraud has called Miyazaki “the most brilliant flame” to light the minds of children watching animated movies. “Miyazaki made this new art called animation a noble one,” he said. Legendary Japanese Filmmaker Akira Kurosawa(who cried during Kiki’s Delivery Service) said about Miyazaki’s Totoro, “It’s anime, but I was so moved. I really loved Nekobus. You wouldn’t come up with such an idea.” Guillermo del Toro, director of films like Pan’s Labyrinth, has also admitted to being a “an absolute addict to any Miyazaki movie.”

Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. series creator Shigeru Miyamoto said that he was impressed with Miyazaki’s style. “That’s something I like to look at, to see something within an existing media that is creative and different,” he said. “It’s when you’re really able to do something revolutionary within media that’s existed for some time that I think you’re able to shock and startle people.”

Pixar guru John Lasseter, who has been friends with Miyazaki since 1987, had the chance to “gush over his hero” during the 2009 San Diego comic convention, which Miyazaki was attending to promote Ponyo.

“It always amazes me,” he said, about watching Miyazaki create the storyboards for his movies himself.

Lasseter made another reference to Miyazaki’s impact on Pixar during an earlier interview, saying, “At Pixar, when we have a problem and we can’t seem to solve it, we often take a laser disc of one of Mr. Miyazaki’s films and look at a scene in our screening room for a shot of inspiration.”

“And it always works!” he said. “We come away amazed and inspired. Toy Story owes a huge debt of gratitude to the films of Mr. Miyazaki.” And fans will see Toy Story repay a bit of that debt with a cameo from Totoro in the upcoming Toy Story 3.

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This article originally came out in the Philippine Online Chronicles in May 2010. Image comes from Miyazaki’s Wikipedia page. I loved Totoro’s cameo in Toy Story 3 n__n.


1 Comment

  1. The ones I’ll be mourning « In the Grayworld said,

    […] the top of my head I think of Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki’s one of those people I wish would live forever, but he’s gotten old, and he knows […]

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