By Daniel Lammin
13th April 2015

There are few figures in the world of animation as imposing or impressive as Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki. In fact, the only person that had as profound an impact on popular culture and the medium of animation as Miyazaki would be Walt Disney, and he’s certainly as significant. His work with the company he founded, Studio Ghibli, changed the face of animation around the world, and has preserved the art of hand-drawn animation at a time when computer animation has almost completely taken over. With Madman releasing their impressive ‘Collected Works of Hayao Miyazaki’ box set this week, I decided to try and understand what it is about Miyazaki and his films that make him possibly the finest storyteller in the history of cinema.

My first introduction to Miyazaki was in high school with the release of arguably his finest film, ‘Spirited Away’ (2001). Truth be told, it was actually my introduction to Japanese animation as a whole, and what an introduction it was! I can remember seeing Chihiro and her friends sliding on a train through a flooded landscape to Joe Hisaishi’s gorgeous score and bursting into tears. I’d grown up a passionate lover of Disney Animation, but I’d never seen pencil and ink create something so painfully beautiful. It was an experience that happened again with ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ (2004) and ten-fold with ‘The Wind Rises’ (2013), coupled with giggles of glee and moments of awe as I immersed myself in his other films.

Miyazaki’s work with Ghibli resulted in nine major feature films before his retirement in 2013, and it’s unlikely that many filmmakers have produced the sheer volume of classic films as Miyazaki. In fact, not a single one could be regarded as anything less than classic, not just in terms of Japanese animation but as animation as a whole. From the beautiful whimsy of ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ (1988) to the powerful fury of ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997) to the bittersweet elegance of ‘The Wind Rises’, his films have somehow tapped into an almost indescribable part of our emotions and imaginations that reaches across culture and language. Working in a medium usually associated with entertaining children, Miyazaki managed to appeal both to adults and children alike without pandering to the lowest common denominator, speaking down to his audience or overcomplicating his storytelling. Each film is a precious gem of its own, as memorable as the last.


Miyazaki began work as an animator in 1963, working on television projects until his first feature, ‘The Castle of Cagliostro’ in 1979 as part of the popular Lupin the 3rd series. After establishing a close relationship with senior animator Isao Takahata and future producer Toshio Suzuki, he began work on his next major feature, ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’ (1984), the commercial success of which allowed the three men to establish Studio Ghibli. From its first frame, ‘Nausicaä’ showcases everything we now strongly associate with Miyazaki’s films, including his lush visual style, narratives of enormous scope, a keen passion for preservation and the environment, and the first of many spectacular female protagonists. Even when pitted against animated films today, it’s a gargantuan film, insanely passionate and wildly imaginative, but perhaps most importantly of all, full of heart. As animation has gotten either more cynical or obsessed with pleasing current pop culture, Miyazaki’s films remain genuinely sentimental and ultimately optimistic.

Even compared to the other work produced by Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s films are significant in both how distinct and consistent they are. Since ‘Nausicaä’, he and his team developed not just a rich visual style, but his unusual narrative structure. While the films are driven by a singular theme or idea, they tend to move between episodic moments, like the island-hopping pilot hero of ‘Porco Rosso’ (1992). This would probably fall flat as a narrative tool in the hands of anyone else, but Miyazaki uses it to bound the narratives along, so that even though most of his films nudge or surpass the two-hour mark, they never feel long, and you walk away from them overwhelmed by the sheer volume of narrative and character you’ve been given. And his characters are part of what holds them together, and have ensured his legacy. There are few characters as memorable in animation than the forest spirit Totoro, who befriends young Satsuki and Mei after they move to the country to be near their sick mother. Step into the bath house in ‘Spirited Away’, and you can’t possibly take in every creature running past, whether it be an ancient god or an enchanted ball of soot. There are times you just have to sit back and marvel that one imagination can come up with so many gorgeous, iconic images.

But what makes his films so important is what he uses his characters and imagination for. Miyazaki’s films transcend pure whimsy or entertainment by always being about something, whether that be the threat to the environment in ‘Nausicaä’ or ‘Mononoke’, the precarious family unit in ‘Totoro’ or ‘Ponyo’ (2008), or the transition from childhood innocence to maturity and experience in ‘Spirited Away’ or ‘Howl’. His films are an active participant in the human condition and an offering to young audience to likewise participate. His protagonists, often girls or young women, aren’t the idealised princesses but flesh and blood and palpable, breathtaking in their human flaws and their interaction with the physical world. Characters in ‘Mononoke’ bleed, and you hold your breath as Chihiro plummets down the stairs of the bath house in ‘Spirited Away’. There’s something more real about these creations of pencil and ink than almost any character created in a computer, which is thanks to the phenomenal study and artistry of his animation team and of Miyazaki’s intrinsic understanding of humanity. His films might be flights of fancy, but they’re cemented in a reality of their own and an understanding of the power of storytelling as a means of connecting an audience to the world around them.

What makes his films so important is what he uses his characters and imagination for.

Surprisingly, for a man now synonymous with the innocence and imagination of children, Miyazaki himself comes across as an agreeably grumpy personality. In the excellent documentary ‘The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness’, we’re offered a chance to see the master at work on his final film, ‘The Wind Rises’. While his passion for his film, his craft and his team show in every move he makes, Miyazaki has a strangely pessimistic streak to him. He often talks about the art of filmmaking (he never says animation) having lost its wonder and awe, its importance and passion. Perhaps that’s a key to understanding why he has so many beautiful films to his name - an active protester against misuse of the environment and nuclear power, he fills his films with not only his concerns and fears, but his hopes for a solution or salvation. ‘The Wind Rises’ in particular demonstrates this possibly the best, the story of pure-hearted Jirô Horikoshi, whose airplane designs are used to devastating effect in the Second World War, paralleling Miyazaki’s own hopes for purity in the face of the commercialisation of his art form and the world around him. Even at their darkest, and no Miyazaki film is without its moments of darkness, there’s an optimism that lifts them into the sublime.

Now that both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata have retired from filmmaking, the future of Studio Ghibli is uncertain. There definitely won’t be anymore characters like Totoro or Kiki or Ponyo on the horizon. What remains though is a body of work unlike any other. Miyazaki is as important to the history of cinema as Kubrick or Bergman, a consummate artist who helped lead a reassessment of animation as an art form rather than entertainment. His contribution is as significant as Walt Disney, but perhaps greater in that his heart and soul are in every frame of his films. With each now beautifully preserved in high definition, we’ll be able to enjoy them for many years to come and pass on to each successive generation his spectacular legacy.

This week, Madman have released ‘The Collected Works of Hayao Miyazaki’, a collection of his ten feature films on both Blu-ray and DVD with exclusive special features. They have also finally released ‘Spirited Away’ on Blu-ray, and you can check out our review of that release here.

Next month will see the Blu-ray release of Isao Takahata’s final masterpiece, ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’, so check back in May to find our review of the release and a companion retrospective of Takhata and his work for Studio Ghibli.

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