Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki has long been considered by critics and fans alike as the epitome of animation, not only in Japan but across the world. With the release of his latest, and possibly final, film The Wind Rises (2013) and news of his retirement, we have a chance to look at his contribution to the world of animation.
Miyazaki has been an immensely influential creative figure, both within Japan and internationally. The outputs from his five-decade-long career in the animation industry have reached a global audience, inspiring artists and storytellers with their distinctive imagery and provocative themes.
Leading creative figures in the West, such as Pixar’s chief creative officer John Lasseter, and leading comic book writers Grant Morrison and Bryan Lee O’Malley, to French writer/illustrator Jean Giraud (a.k.a. Moebius), have all admired and been influenced by his work.
Even the former Japanese Prime Minster Aso Taro has cited Miyazaki’s films as influencing his policies and attitudes during his career – most famously when Aso created an award for international manga artists.
Miyazaki was born in 1941; his father was the director of Miyazaki Airplane - a company that made parts for the A6M Zero fighter plane during the second world war. Miyazaki’s connection to airplanes and flight would remain a dominant theme throughout his work. His early childhood memories of that war would also leave a permanent imprint on his later animated work with strong anti-war themes being common – most notably in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).
Throughout Miyazaki’s career as a manga (comic book) artist and animator, he drew upon many influences. Not only from Japan through his admiration of the “godfather of manga” Tezuka Osamu (creator of Astro Boy) but also from western writers, especially those working in the fantasy genre such as American author Ursula Le Guin.
These influences helped Miyazaki develop both a distinctive artistic style and offered models to inspire his fantastical worlds.
What is most striking about the films Miyazaki has created are the strong recurrent themes many of them share – from the strident environmentalism seen in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke (1997) to his love of aircraft and the freedom of flight seen in Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and Porco Rosso (1992).
Miyazaki’s refusal to sexualise, victimise or belittle his female protagonists has also made him popular with fans.
Japanese culture expert Susan Napier talks of Miyazaki’s ability to create female characters who “are remarkable for taking charge of their own lives” as something that allows girls, who are usually alienated by action oriented anime, to be drawn into the stories.
Characters such as Chihiro (Spirited Away), and Kiki (Kiki’s Delivery Service) begin their respective tales as “real” girls with problems, challenges and ambitions who must go on a “right of passage” journey in order to find their true potential.
Miyazaki’s work has received disparagement from film critics such as Australian David Stratton and American Roger Ebert for his apparent conservatism and nostalgia for a lost Japanese past. Although My Neighbor Totoro (1988) has a nostalgia for childhood innocence as seen through the two protagonists, Satsuki and Meim, to my mind this is more of a personal form nostalgia rather than one encouraging a societal regression.
Miyazaki has also been criticised by some fans for his “retro” and fantastical approach to technology, saying that he displays an ignorance of machinery within his films.
But take Laputa: Castle in the Sky or Porco Rosso, with their intricate flying machines, and you can see that nothing could be further from the truth. His latest film, The Wind Rises, proves his love affair with technology, especially aircraft, demonstrating even the finest details of wing structure and design.
A similar debate between technology and tradition plays out in Miyazaki’s distinctive art style and refusal to replace all traditional hand-drawn animation with computer-generated imagery (CGI). While some of his recent films contain CGI, he has strived to find the balance between hand drawn and computer generated images.
This desire for balance is based on two concerns.
First, that of expression. The feeling that too heavy a reliance on CGI can get in the way of the magic of humans depictions and creating stories, particularly when it overwhelms the audience so all that is noticed is the hyper-real “uncanny valley” of the computer image, where things look almost – but not quite – like the real thing.
It is the “uncanny valley” that pushes audiences back. While an over-reliance on CGI, such as in the prequel Star Wars trilogy, makes films feel more unreal and fixes them to a technological date, Miyazaki uses the less “real” traditional hand-drawn animation to draw people.
This is also done as a form of branding: it’s a way for Miyazaki and the company he co-founded in 1985, Studio Ghibli, to be seen as producing traditional, hand-crafted animation as compared to the more CGI-laden works of Gainax (creators of the Neon Gensis Evangelion fantasy animation series) or Western studios such as Disney or Pixar.
While other Japanese studios such as Gainex do traditional work, they are still reliant on CGI and the reuse of animations to cut costs. The completely traditional, yet still richly detailed, style of Studio Ghibli tends to lend the audience a greater feel of authenticity – based upon feelings of nostalgia for animation.
Miyazaki’s direct influence on the international animation scene is felt especially through American animators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008) and The Legend of Korra (2012-). They cite Miyazaki as being a reference point for many of their visual creations. This is especially true of the second season of The Legend of Korra, with the appearance of the Spirit World.
Pixar’s John Lasseter has told how, during frustrating moments making various films for Pixar and Disney, he would take the entire team to the screening room so they could watch Miyazaki films, to see how much incidental detail was in each frame, to understand ways of telling a story that were unlike the usual Hollywood narrative.
Now is a good time to look at Miyazaki’s work in the field of manga and anime and see what can be learnt from it. While some believe he is an artist who can never be replaced, I believe he has inspired and mentored entire generations of animators and media creators who are more than worthy to take up his legacy.
He will never be able to keep away from film making no matter how old he gets.
Miyazaki’s swan song conjures up a dying art