He is an animator, director, screenwriter, producer, storyteller, and artist. I won’t call him “The Japanese Walt Disney,” as this popular nickname makes him recoil, but Hayao Miyazaki’s legacy deserves recognition alongside Walt Disney and John Lasseter, as one of the greatest animators to ever grace audiences with his work. In the summer of 1985, at 44 years old, Miyazaki co-founded his animation company, Studio Ghibli (pronounced “jib-lee”), in Tokyo, Japan with three other collaborators. While not all of Studio Ghibli’s films are directed and written by Miyazaki, the ones he is involved with stand today as some of Japan’s most successful films, animated or not. His 2001 animated feature film, Spirited Away, earned nearly $230 million (¥31.68 billion) in Japan, and in 2003 it won Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards, (although Miyazaki did not attend due to his opposition to the U.S.'s involvement in the Iraq War) and nearly twenty years later, it still maintains Japan’s domestic box office record as the country’s most successful film.
What makes Miyazaki’s films so special? There are a few essential components to his films: the traditional animation style that is meticulously drawn frame-by-frame, the ubiquitous appreciation for nature and human perspectives, and the implementation of the Japanese concept “Ma,” referring to the quiet, contemplative moments lacking action.
Hayao Miyazaki was born in Tokyo during World War II. His father manufactured parts for fighter airplanes, rooting Miyazaki’s life-long interest in aviation (try to name a movie directed by Miyazaki without any aspect of airplanes or flying; it’s difficult). Miyazaki also enjoyed reading manga, and was influenced by the works of Osamu Tezuka, “the father of manga,” who created the well-recognized “Astro Boy” character in the 1960s. While honing his animation skills, Miyazaki burned his early works, after noticing a similarity to Tezuka’s style. While Tezuka was a key founder of manga, and an almost unavoidable influence, Miyazaki was firmly dedicated to being an original creator from the start.
One of the most notable aspects of Studio Ghibli’s movies is their signature animation style. No more than 10% of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies are computer animated; the scenes are lovingly, and painstakingly, drawn by hand. There is a je ne sais quoi about animation created by hand; whether it be the tsunami-sized storm waves with a little pink girl darting between them in Ponyo, the breathtaking ocean and meadow landscapes depicted in Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle (Miyazaki creates and saves collections of scenery paintings before he even has the story to match them), or scenes from classic Walt Disney films such as Bambi and The Jungle Book, there is something magical produced as a result of the detail-orientedness that goes into well-made, traditional animation. As done in the times of early animation, every frame is hand drawn, and put together as a flip book. The growth of computer animation and ease of digital art has resulted in the gradual cessation of this traditional style. I admire Miyazaki’s ability to stick to his guns and produce films either drawn solely by hand, or only slightly embellished by computers.
Pixar’s John Lasseter, a pioneer of 3-D animation, and director of films such as Toy Story, Cars, and A Bug’s Life, is a great admirer of Miyazaki’s work, openly hailing Miyazaki as the world's greatest living animator. In 2014, at the Tokyo International Film Festival, Lasseter described his experiences learning from Miyazaki’s style:
I worked so hard on “Toy Story.” It took four years with a group of people. We reworked the story to get it just right and I talked to Miyazaki who told me he does the stories for his films himself. All the storyboarding. I was blown away by that… every trip that I made [to Tokyo], I would go to Studio Ghibli, and [spend] a day with Miyazaki. For “Cars” and “Cars 2,” every chance that I got.
Lasseter tells stories of the encouragement he felt when traditionalist Miyazaki praised his computer animation skills in the creation of Luxo Jr. and Toy Story. While it may not be for him, Miyazaki admits that CGI has opened new doors for animators. "I think CGI has the potential to equal or even surpass what the human hand can do. But it is far too late for me to try it.”
Studio Ghibli’s creative rights are well-guarded, and they are cautious as to how their films are handled internationally. In 1996, Walt Disney Studios became the sole distributor of Studio Ghibli’s films. In return, Disney pays 10% of the costs of the company’s next film. Disney does not own any merchandising or creative rights to Studio Ghibli’s movies; they are unable to develop any Kiki’s Delivery Service video games, or edit the movies’ stories. With the utmost respect for Miyazaki’s filmmaking and storytelling, Lasseter assisted Miyzaki with the creation of the English version of Spirited Away, ensuring English-speaking audiences would receive a movie as close to the Japanese version as possible. On the other hand, Harvey Weinstein was in charge of the U.S. release of Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki met Weinstein in New York, and was bombarded with demands for cuts to the film. While rumour has it that it was Miyazaki himself, Miyazaki confirms in an interview it was his producer who mailed Weinstein a samurai sword with a note attached to the blade: “No cuts.”
Another special quality of Hayao Miyazaki’s films is their ability to empathize with the perspectives of children, ranging in age from toddlers to young adults. In December 2001, Miyazaki attended a Paris press conference for the first European release of Spirited Away. He revealed more about his filmmaking process (frighteningly for his team drawing each scene frame by frame, all of his movies are made without a script, and the story develops during the production), and explained how the inspiration for Spirited Away derived from him noticing a lack of films for his friend’s ten year old daughter. He wanted to create a film to inspire and connect with regular young girls. Spirited Away’s protagonist is a ten year old girl named Chihiro. She doesn’t have supernatural abilities, appear mythical, or act older than her age. Miyazaki pays close attention to every detail to represent her age: her dad calls her name twice before she responds, she takes extra care when tying her shoes and taps each heel before walking, and if Miyazaki was ever unsure as to whether or not a certain task was within her capability, he would consider whether his friend’s daughter would be able to accomplish the task. Between Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, When Marnie Was There, Whisper of the Heart, The Cat Returns, Grave of the Fireflies, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ponyo, and more, most of the protagonists in Studio Ghibli’s films are intelligent, imaginative, courageous children (even better, the films generally empower young women for viewers of all ages to look up to). While they can be enjoyed at different ages, when asked why Miyazaki tends to create children’s movies, he remarked, “There are many other people who are capable of making films for adults, so I'll leave that up to them and concentrate on the children.”
Finally, Miyazaki’s movies implement “Ma.” Ma is a Japanese concept referring to negative space, or emptiness. It is a pause, a breath of stillness between moments of action. In Western culture, we tend to avoid pauses. Moments of silence in American conversations feel awkward. We sometimes speak opinions and observations solely to fill the gaps in conversation. This is reflected in film as well. In American movies, filmmakers tend to worry that if there’s a pause in the action, the audience will lose interest. In Japanese culture, contemplative silences are valued in the arts, and everyday life. For instance, in the everyday Japanese bow, the intentional pause before rising back up conveys one’s feelings and respect towards the other. In an interview with Roger Ebert, Miyazaki demonstrates Ma by clapping his hands a few times. "The time in between my clapping is Ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it's just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.”
Ma is evident in all of Miyazaki’s movies, and it re-emphasizes his appreciation for nature, and/or uses stillness for the audience to take in and appreciate the progress the character has made so far on their journey. In Spirited Away, Miyazaki takes extra time to show the surrounding ocean and stillness inside the train during Chihiro’s train ride from the bathhouse to Zeniba’s home. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie does laundry and quietly eats lunch outside with her castle friends. As seen in My Neighbor Totoro’s movie posters, there’s a famous bus stop scene in which two sisters silently stand in the rain next to a giant forest spirit. The viewer listens to the sounds of rain, watches the ripples created on street puddles, and breathes in the serenity of the moment. John Lasseter commented on Miyazaki’s use of Ma, asserting that Miyazaki uniquely “celebrates the quiet moments,” making him one of history’s most original filmmakers.
Today, Hayao Miyazaki claims to be retired from animation. Personally, I take his retirement status with a grain of salt due to the number of times he has suddenly become inspired with a new idea, and temporarily come out of retirement to create a new masterpiece (according to some, he has “retired” six times). However, he is consistently a quiet man; he prefers to stay out of the public eye, rarely accepts interviews, and lives a simple, monastic life in Tokyo. Miyazaki once 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.” Miyazaki has truly lived up to this statement by animating, directing, and writing stories that inspire and connect with the emotions of age diverse audiences around the world. Happy 80th birthday, Hayao Miyazaki. The world of animation is a better place because of you. Thank you for your characters, stories, and drawings that were so passionately created and shared with us. Your films will inspire new audiences and animators for generations to come.
A Beacon resident since 2001, Sophia is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Education at SUNY New Paltz.