A Beginner’s Guide to…Hayao Miyazaki

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In a career spanning five decades, Hayao Miyazaki has transformed the genre of animation.  His ability to incorporate thematic depth and visual excellence into his features has inspired generations of audiences and marked him as one of the greatest animators of all time.

Miyazaki was born on 5th January 1941 in Akebono-cho, Tokyo into an affluent family. His father, a rudder maker for World War Two planes, enlightened his son to the joy of animation and flight. However, the horrors of war had a lasting impact on the director as aged just 4-and-a-half year old he endured the night time firebombing raids on his home in Utsunomiya. He later recalled how, as his family retreated from a bombing raid, the night sky was glorious yet hauntingly littered with flames.

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Having graduated from Gakushuin University with degrees in political science and economics, Miyazaki changed career choices to follow his dream. In April 1963 he got the job at Toei Animation gaining recognition for initiative regarding troubled productions at the studio. For example, Toei’s Gulliver’s Travels Beyond The Moon had a weak and troublesome ending, but Miyazaki advanced his own thoughts and his ending was used.

Miyazaki’s career evolved and developed through Toei and Nippon Animation; he achieved his breakthrough with his first features The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984). The ambitious creations featured stunning visuals, strong female characters and vibrant narratives combine to deliver a unique and impressive entrance into the animation market. Both laced with impressive thematic depth, Miyazaki’s name grew in stature and recognition. This initial popularity led to the creation of Studio Ghibli alongside fellow animator Isao Takahata and Tokuma Shoten chairman Yasuyoshi Tokuma.

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Miyazaki’s films took the studio from strength to strength through the critical and financial success of Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and Porco Ross (1992). However, it was My Neighbour Totoro (1989) that defined the early era of Studio Ghibli and earmarked Miyazaki as a key figure in Eastern and Western cinema. With its lack of villain, overwhelmingly warming hand-drawn visuals as well as invigorating and unique narrative, it landed with poignancy and presence into the minds of children, critics and Hollywood. Indeed My Neighbour Totoro was the first of Miyazaki’s films to receive the English language treatment by Disney in 2006. Since then, Disney has released an English language version of all Miyazaki’s past and future releases.

After the increased success of Princess Mononoke (1997), Miyazaki entered the first of several ‘retirements’ from animation. It was upon his return three years later that Miyazaki made arguably his biggest impact through Spirited Away (2001). The gorgeous tale of Chihiro, a 10-year-old girl, forced to survive in a world of spirits and monsters to save her parents, who have been transformed into pigs. The film grossed over $300 million dollars and defeated Disney and Dreamworks to walk away with the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

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Following 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle, the director has encouraged his son, Goro, to take over his directorial duties to deliver the studio’s latest features of Tales From Earthsea (2006) and From Up On Poppy Hill  (2011). Although the former received lukewarm reactions from public and press alike, his latest entry highlights Goro’s increased development as a filmmaker under his father’s tutorship. Despite announcing another retirement, Hayao returned again to deliver the 2010 film Ponyo, for which the director received another Academy Award nomination. 

Throughout all of his features the same central themes consistently occur; the ideas of the environment, youth, love, and pacifism are imbued throughout his features. These themes are largely presented via Miyazaki’s own personal background of flight. Of his 11 full length films, 8 have involved the idea of flight. Through flight, Miyazaki presented the positives of pacifism in Porco Rosso, Howl’s Moving Castle and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. He showed the issues of children coming of age in Kiki’s Delivery Service and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, promoting the idea that the power of flight is not a birth right; characters have to evolve and change to understand the art and themselves before they receive it. Miyazaki’s ability to dazzle his young target audience with hand drawn visuals of beauty with serious adult and contemporary themes has continually highlighted his talent as a storyteller.

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To treat Miyazaki as without fault is misleading. The director has been labelled as an undisciplined fantasist unable to handle matters within the ‘real world’. This can result in the emotional detachment of audiences due to his disinclination to tell a straight story. A further critique is that Miyazaki’s 21st century works have lacked the necessary vision and narrative to excel; some see this as Miyazaki softening to Western audiences tastes.

Nevertheless as the director heads into his ninth retirement through his most personal film The Wind Rises (2014), Miyazaki’s impact upon the world of animation and its future is evident. Hayao Miyazaki shall go down as one of the greatest animators of all time.

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Top 5 Hayao Miyazaki Films:

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1984)

A young boy and a girl with a magic crystal must race against pirates and foreign agents in a search for a legendary floating castle. A film that redefined the limit of animated features and has influenced several future Hollywood flicks such as the cult classic The Iron Giant.

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My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

Easily the most recognisable of Miyazaki’s features, the tale of two girls who move to the country to be near their ailing mother have adventures with the wonderous forest spirits who live nearby. In particular, a giant rabbit-like creature known as Totoro.

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Princess Mononoke (1997)

Miyazaki’s devotion to the protection of nature, the environment and spirits is clearest within Princess Mononoke. A gorgeously visualised piece that failed to capture American audiences but helped established Miyazaki on the worldwide scenes as a fantastic storyteller with purpose and power.

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Spirited Away (2001)

The film that grossed over $300 million dollars, earned worldwide acclaim and has been constantly recognised as one of the best animated films of all time. Spirited Away features all the trademark features of the director: spirits, monsters, comedy, youth, flight, as well as a strong and determined lead female character; a rarity within many mainstream Hollywood flicks.

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Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Adapted from Diana Wynne Jones’ popular book of the same name, this Academy Award nominated feature tells the story of an shy young woman who  is cursed with an old body by a spiteful witch. Her only chance of breaking the spell lies with a self-indulgent yet insecure young wizard and his companions in his legged, walking home.

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Do you think Hayao Miyazaki’s deserves his place amongst the best animators? Or does he fall far short of the standards set by Pixar and Dreamworks?

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