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Miyazaki Hayao's World of Anime

Written by Vicci Ho Tell a Friend

If there is one country in the world that can pose a challenge to United States' supremacy in animation, it is undoubtedly Japan, with Studio Ghibli usually labeled "The Disney of the East". Miyazaki Hayao, co-founder of the studio, is considered as one of the greatest animators and directors in the history of Japanese cinema. Since his first major feature, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds, made in 1984, his features' popularity continue to rise, becoming the most popular films in Japan; loved throughout Asia and increasingly appreciated in the Western world.

What makes Miyazaki's films different, and some might argue, superior to contemporary Disney animation, is that Miyazaki believes in the wisdom of children and never avoid tackling complex issues in his films. From nuclear disasters, neglected children to human destruction of nature, Miyazaki's films aim to be entertaining as well as thought provoking. His characters are never simply divided into good and evil - protagonists have flaws and antagonists are never one-dimensional characters merely existing as a plot device. Miyazaki's inspiration comes from many sources: one can catch glimpses of the western, science fiction, romance, comedy and even World War II films mixed with Western and Japanese myths, tradition and religion. His school of animation is famed for using mostly painstakingly hand-drawn cels, adding a painterly richness lacking in the increasingly computerized process. His penchant to add in throwaway details, personally checking all major cels and redrawing them when most directors will merely direct assistants to do the job, and unflinching humanism expressed in his films has earn Miyazaki a god-like status amongst animators. Throughout the years, his films grow in skill, scale and in return, increasingly recognized around the world, winning prestigious awards such as the Golden Bear from the Berlin Film Festival and an Academy Award in 2003.

While Miyazaki films have been popular in Japan and Asia for the past two decades, it has only recently shifted out of cult status to respectability in the Western World, partly due to Disney's distribution of his films in America. Miyazaki films are now seen in retrospectives, film festivals and cinema release all over the globe. But if they are not heading your way just now, here are a few Miyazaki classics that you can select for your own retrospective in your living room:

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds (1984)
This film was made the year before the formation of Studio Ghibli, and it deals with a world devastated by nuclear disasters, overrun by lethal insects and humans struggling to live. Nausicaa is influenced by post-apocalyptic terror envisioned by authors such as Frank Herbert's Dune, and by naming the lead character after Homer's Odyssey, it shows Miyazaki's scope of influences. The project began as a manga (Japanese comic book) Miyazaki wrote, but its success led to the telling of the epic story in animation. With its stunning visual landscape, the grand scale in its production, as well as a compelling story, is a major success for Miyazaki. Nausicaa covered a lot of themes that will feature heavily in future projects: the futility of war, the danger of human advancement that ultimately destroys human existence, and the importance of love and hope. This film is also seen an early blueprint for Miyazaki's later film: Princess Mononoke.

Laputa Castle in the Sky (1986)
One of the favorite amongst the Miyazaki fans, this adventure film is considered one of his best, and one of the best adventure films ever made. The floating city Laputa is a reference to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and here it is a ancient, long lost floating city with a treasure that air pirates and the military are both seeking. This story is part science fiction, part adventure, part romance - with many comparing it to another great science fiction epic: Star Wars. Laputa is another film that tackles the danger of militarism and lack of concern for the earth: even a state as powerful as Laputa could not survive because it is not attached to the Earth: the source of all life. The story, according to Miyazaki, took place at the end of the 19th century, yet it is injected with fantasy and futuristic elements: ancient robots, airships that is old-fashioned yet non-existent in our world. It highlights another one of Miyazaki's greatest strengths: by using animation, the most limitless and creative medium in film, and the fantastical becomes completely believable in his world.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Totoro, one of the most memorable characters created in animation, inhabits the world in My Neighbor Totoro, one of the most charming and touching stories about family life. Totoro highlights one of Miyazaki's greatest strengths in his storytelling: his integration of a larger than life force of nature that never feels out of place. The children's encounters with Totoro, the forest guardian spirit, is surreally touching because of the real emotions injected into these scenes: Totoro's fear, kindness and gentleness make him a believable character, rather than being merely a fluffy and huggable creation. The relationship between Satsuki and her younger sister Mei is also touching and real without being overtly sentimental. Satsuki is mature and responsible, she takes care of Mei, a sister she genuinely love and care for, but occasionally gets frustrated at the task like any big sister would. While it has one of the cutest fluffy animals on screen, its subtle story about children having to deal with the potential loss of their mother is told with restraint and sympathy. This is the film closest to Miyazaki's heart: his mother suffered a long battle with TB, similar to the children's mother, and it is set in the suburb where he grew up. In fact, during the time he could only get the film made and released as a double bill with Studio Ghibli's co-founder, Takahata Isao's classic anime film: Grave of the Fireflies.

Princess Mononoke (1997)
A film that won Miyazaki international acclaim, it is an epic tale of warfare between nature and human advancement. Set in the Muromachi Era, a time of great change in Japanese history, Miyazaki pitched a war between the humans and the gods, to deal with a highly realistic scenario: the dire consequences of attempting to control and destroy nature to advance industrialization. It is one of the most ambitious his films, with a budget of over 2.4 billion Yen ($20 million dollars) and runs for 133 minutes, using around 144, 000 cels. This is possibly the most complex of Miyazaki films, with no obvious villain and hero, and the battle between the human and the Gods came from, essentially, a conflict of interests. Lady Eboshi, the leader of Takara Ba, or Iron Town, is kind towards social outcasts who in turn love and respect her. Her exploitation of the forest resources guarded by the Gods is necessary for her people to survive, even though the destruction she caused is immense. Similarly, San, the Wolf princess, killed humans in the town as defense and revenge, causing devastation and grief to the villagers in return. The endless cycle of violence only produced one outcome: more violence, to the point where it threatened to destroy both sides. The film's struggles are not dissimilar to the conundrum humans face today, where we have created a world where our need to survive seems to ultimately destroy the world we live in. This epic adventure is hailed as a masterpiece, and became the highest domestic grossing film in Japan until it is defeated by...

Spirited Away (2001)
Miyazaki's answer to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Spirited Away earned an Oscar for best animated feature, the first for an anime, and the Golden Lion at the Berlin Film Festival, as well as many prestigious nominations across the globe. This is the first film to gross over $200 million before a US release, knocked Titanic off the top spot in the all time Japanese box office ranking, and it is on most film critics' end of year top 10 list. At once strange and dreamy, Miyazaki once again places a young girl into a world inhibited by ghosts and witches, however this story is darker than films like Totoro. Chihiro, the spoilt young heroine in this tale, is literally spirited off her world into a new realm, where her name is stripped away, and to survive means working for a bathhouse for the gods and retaining her true identity as it slowly fades. The film is undoubtedly a treat for children, with a film filled with gods, monsters and susuwatari, the tiny and cute dustballs exported from Totoro, however it will resonate differently with adults. Beneath the humor, the elegant animation and sense of adventure, there is a strong undertone of loneliness in the film. Sen, Chihiro's new identity, is left alone in a world that does not belong to her, and she is forced to make a connection in this world. The character of Kaonashi, or No Face, is a strangely memorable character as the mysterious spirit that is desperate to make any desperate connection with Sen. It is a world of greed, of disconnection, constantly in danger of losing one's identity: a way of modern life. The film, thankfully, is never as dark as its themes, and is true to Miyazaki's central themes: even at times as dark as this people can be loving, hopeful and heroic. Miyazaki, more than ever, takes his characters and his audience further down the rabbit hole, into the deepest depth of human emotions.

Although Miyazaki has threatened to retire on a few occasions, it seems that he is still not ready to distance himself from the animation world just yet. This year we will see a new film hitting the cinemas. Howl's Moving Castle, according to Miyazaki, is an attempt to answer the question "Can there be an animation for old people?" The film is about a young beautiful girl Sophie being cursed by a Witch and is turned into a ninety-year-old woman. Forced to leave home, Sophie enters Howl's moving castle by chance.

Little is known about the film, but from the few images available it should be another high quality animated film from the master. Already scheduled to compete for the Golden Lion in this year's Venice Film Festival, one of the most prestigious awards in the world, it certainly seems that this is another masterpiece ready to be unleashed.

Miyazaki Hayao's Film Work
1979 - Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro - Writer/Director
1984 - Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Winds - Writer/Director
1986 - Laputa: Castle In The Sky - Writer/Director
1988 - My Neighbor Totoro - Writer/Director
1989 - Kiki's Delivery Service - Writer/Director
1991 - Only Yesterday - Executive Producer
1992 - Porco Rosso - Writer/Director
1994 - Pom Poko - Executive Producer
1995 - Whisper of The Heart - Writer/Supervising Producer
1997 - Princess Mononoke - Writer/Director
2001 - Spirited Away - Writer/Director
2002 - The Cat Returns - Executive Producer
2004 - Howl's Moving Castle - Writer/Director

Published September 3, 2004

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  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
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