#L’Artiste: Hayao Miyazaki

In Japan, he is revered as a national saint, his films outperform international blockbusters. For his miraculous fairy tale “Spirited Away” Hayao Miyazaki received the Oscar in 2003. In 2015 he has won the lifetime achievement Oscar as well.. Even John Lasseter, director of Disney’s animation department, considers him to be the greatest living animator: “His films filled my soul with a drive to create something like that.”

Although Miyazaki’s films are aimed specifically at children, something strange happened: they are also seen by adults with increasing enthusiasm. In contrast to the animation films of Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks, Miyazaki did not even try to gain his older viewers via targeted cross-references, clever dialogues or a corresponding action construct. Ghibli films are not particularly funny either, they are not superficial, they are not even fast paced. John Lasseter, chief of Disney and Pixar, says: “Miyazaki is celebrating the quiet moments.” One could also say: His films are magical. And because Miyazaki is firmly convinced that children do not need be explained things explicitly, adults are not deterred by the pedagogically valuable explanations that usually characterize children’s films. Miyazaki’s seduction is to create a relatively everyday world in which, certain everyday rules are suspended without anyone wondering why, as if it was totally normal.

His work are worlds full of extraordinary fantasy. In his eleven animated feature films childish worries about growing up are pitted against legends and monsters, pig pilots and robots. And they all fly. The children too. They take bird’s eye view at the things that seem insolvable from down here. “I will not make films that tell children: ‘You should despair and run away,'” Miyazaki once explained. In his films, he expects a lot from the children. And it is for that very reason that children love him so much.

The Beginnings

Hayao Miyazaki (宮 崎 駿, born January 5, 1941) spent his own childhood in Tokyo. The family had earned a fortune as a supplier for aircraft parts in the Second World War. This moral ballast and the dream of flying – they will become the cornerstones of his life. Tôei’s first long Japanese animation film, Hakujaden, produced the desire in him to become an animation artist. In elementary school and junior high school, he was an enthusiastic fan of Osamu Tezuka, a manga artist who was revered in Japan as a god among the manga artists. Miyazaki, however, wanted to find his own way and destroyed the drawings, which he thought were too similar to the style of Tezuka. During university Miyazaki had developed into a convinced Marxist. Japan’s nationalism many years after the war was repugnant to him.

Miyazaki found a home at the animation studio Toei Douga Studio and his most important sponsor – the director Isao Takahata. Takahata taught him to express his convictions with brush and ink. Their first major film “The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun” was followed with the breakthrough of “Heidi, Girl of the Alps” in 1974. In the anime series was based on the novel figure of Johanna Spyri and Miyazaki added a colorful splash and made her a cult hit in Japan and Europe. In 1979, Hayao Miyazaki made his first feature film as an auteur filmmaker with The Castle of Cagliostro.

A small heroine struggling with the contradictions of the grown up world – this topic should determine Miyazaki’s work from then on. With Takahata he filmed his manga “Nausicaä of the valley of the Wind” in 1984 about a young princess who fights for the coexistence of man and nature after the fall of civilization. The movie was very well received by Japanese film critics. In 1984, he won the Animage magazine’s Great Prize, 1985 the Seiun Prize as Best Film and 1986 the Ōfuji Noburō Prize. The film gained a huge following, for ten years it was at the top of the list of the most popular animes of the Animage magazine, two decades after its release it is still top tier. In France and the USA, the film came out only in a very abridged version, and Miyazaki for a long time forbade any international showing of his work due to the mutilation of his work.

After the filmmakers success, the two founded their own anime studio: Ghibli. Because Miyazaki wanted to disrupt the animation industry, and was an aviation enthusiast, he opted for the name “Ghibli”. This is the name of a hot desert wind in the Sahara, after which the Italian aircraft builder Caproni had also christened a transport aircraft in the world war.

Studio Ghibli


Castle in the Sky (天空の城ラピュタ Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta)

For his first project in the newly founded Studio Ghibli he decided on Castle in the Sky. Miyazaki flew to Wales, where he drew mining villages. His interest was also peaked by a small group, the Welsh miners who were fighting for better conditions to save their industry.

The story is about the young orphan Sheeta. Since the death of her parents she lives alone in her hut in the mountains. From her parents she inherited a necklace with a precious stone. The mysterious Musca, an agent of the government, kidnaps her with the help of the army to an airship. When it is attacked by the air pirate Dora and her sons, Sheeta climbs from a window and falls into the depths. Since her stone has the power to make her float, she lands unconscious in the arms of Pazu, who is also an orphan and works for the miners of a mining town. He is in search of Laputa, a hidden city in heaven that his deceased father once saw.

The film was a bit less successful than Miyazaki’s previous work, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, but was also considered a commercial success and enabled the animation studio to produce more anime films. What followed was My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies in 1988.

My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロ Tonari no Totoro)

My Neighbor Totoro was seen by the producers as a big financial risk and therefore was first only shown together with Grave of the Fireflies in 1988. Ultimately, however, the film proved to be very successful, and the silhouette of Totoro became the logo of Studio Ghibli.

The Tokyo professor Tatsuo Kusakabe moved with his two daughters Satsuki and Mei to the countryside, to Matsuo, to be able to be near his wife, who is recovering in a hospital from a serious illness. On their arrival, the two girls explore the old house and discover that it is inhabited by tiny animated dust creatures called susuwatari – small, dark, dust-like house spirits seen when moving from light to dark places. The “grandmother” – an old woman from the neighboring farm – tells them that the susuwatari are peaceful spirits who would soon leave the house because it is inhabited again. Satsuki gets to know Kanta, the grandson of the old lady. After the three have settled in the house, Mei meets a forest spirit while playing in the woods, Totoro.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (魔女の宅急便 Majo no Takkyūbin)

The film is a literary adaptation of the children’s book of the same name by the Japanese author Eiko Kadono. The experiences of a young witch are told on her way to self-employment.

At the age of thirteen, the young witch Kiki leaves her family and friends to perfect her witchcraft in a strange city, as the tradition of all the young witches demands. Together with her black cat Jiji, her trusted sidekick which always has an ironic answer ready, the girl arrives in a city by the sea. In the unaccustomed and unknown city, the girl falls into deep uncertainty, but she finds an apartment and good friends in a bakery and develops the desire to open a business herself: a delivery service that she wants to operate with her ability to fly.

Porco Rosso (紅の豚 Kurenai no Buta)

The story begins in the late 1920s, during the reign of the Italian fascists. Porco Rosso, a veteran of the First World War, hunts flying pirates. When Porco is on his way to Milan to have his machine checked, he is shot down by the famous American pilot Curtis. He survives and meets up with a friend who is an engineer. Porco, however, is not enthusiastic about the fact that his friend leaves the work on his plane to his granddaughter Fiona. But the young woman turns out to be a true talent, which is why Porco takes her with him as a mechanic. During the flight and on his island, they get closer, illuminating parts of Porco’s past.

Porco Rosso from 1993, became the most successful animation film for a short while, enabling Ghibli to expand and hire a proper workforce. Due to the success of Porco Rosso, an idea that had first been hatched over twenty years ago could finally be realized: “Princess Mononoke”.

Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫 Mononoke Hime)

His movie “Princess Mononoke” tells a virtuosic mixture of fantasy and animism of demons and forest spirits, who have begun to fight for the future of the endangered nature. The human girl San, raised by the forest god and raised to the Princess Mononoke, defends the holy territories. She will meet the warrior Achitaka, who has killed one of the animal gods and has since been cursed.

The cost of the film brought Miyazaki and the workforce of Ghibli to the brink of exhaustion, as a result Miyazaki announced that he did not want to make movies any longer. That decision, however, was quickly reversed, when he was persuaded by the 10-year-old daughter of a friend to make another film.

Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)

Spirited Away came to the Japanese cinemas in 2001 and just until recently was the most successful film ever in Japan. This was also the first of his films, which was shown in the West in the regular cinema screenings. Although there were savings in cost and labor due to digital coloring and mixing, Miyazaki once again announced that this would be his last film.

10-year-old Chihiro moves with her parents to a new city. Upon arrival, they set off and entered a sort of deserted amusement park through a mysterious gateway. While her parents practically throw themselves at the food provided in a restaurant on there, Chihiro moves around and meets the boy Haku, who warns her to flee from here in time before dark. But when she comes back to her parents, they have turned into pigs – and with impending dawn, the place becomes more and more sinister.

To protect Chihiro, Haku takes her to the bathhouse of the witch Yubaba, which was built for the gods and spirits of Shinto. Here, Chihiro has to work hard, and also survive a lot of adventures before she can transform her parents back and leave the magical realm.

As with many of Miyazaki’s films, Spirited Away engages in discourse about environmental protection and the issue of how people and the environment can exist in harmony together.

The film was celebrated by international critics and is considered one of the best animated films of all time. It won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale 2002, the Oscar for the best animated feature film at the 75th Academy Awards in 2003 and is also in the top 10 in a survey conducted by the British Film Institute of films recommended for children under the age of 14 years. The film was euphorically received by film critics.

Howl’s Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城 Hauru no Ugoku Shiro)

For Howl’s Moving Castle, Mamoru Hosoda, an external director, was hired. But Miyazaki took over as director as a result of creative differences right from the beginning. The movie is based on Howl’s Moving Castle by the English writer Diana Wynne Jones from 1986. The movie was not quite as successful as Spirited Away.

The story is set in a fictional kingdom where both magic and early 20th century technology are prevalent, against the backdrop of a war with another kingdom. The film tells the story of a young hatter named Sophie after she is turned into an old woman by a witch’s curse. She encounters a wizard named Howl, and gets caught up in his resistance to fighting for the king.

In 2013 Miyazaki said the film was his favorite creation, explaining “I wanted to convey the message that life is worth living, and I don’t think that’s changed.”

Ponyo (崖の上のポニョ Gake no Ue no Ponyo)

A goldfish girl is being held captive by her father, the magician Fujimoto. Once when the magician was careless, she swam away. But she does not get far. After a short time she becomes entangled in a fishing net and remains stuck in an old glass. Sosuke the human boy finds her a little later in the shallow water. He frees the goldfish, takes her home with him, and names her Ponyo. He quickly notices that it is quite an unusual fish. For when Sosuke is injured and Ponyo licks the blood, the wound disappears magically. But Ponyo must return to the sea. Not only does an old woman warn that fish with human-like faces can trigger tsunamis, but also Ponyo’s father Fujimoto wants to keep his daughter away from all the people who are responsible for the pollution of the sea.

The success was not as big as expected: according to reports not all the cinemas were sold out, as opposed to the previous films of the studio. From Western critics, the themes of the film are mainly the family, mother-child relationship, children’s fear of loss, separation and mortality as well as environmental pollution. The film was made especially for children, but also older viewers would enjoy it too. The use of hand-drawn images was praised, as was the new watercolor-like coloring for Ghibli. The plot is imaginative and even lighter than My Neighbor Totoro, forming a contrast to the recently dark films from Hayao Miyazaki.

The Wind Rises (風立ちぬ Kaze Tachinu)

The young Jirō Horikoshi dreams of flying, while in the home of his parents in Japan during the First World War. In his dream, he inadvertently collides with a fearsome German airship with his birdlike plane – he is very short-sighted. His instructor lent him an English aeronautical magazine, in which the Italian aircraft builder Gianni Caproni is featured. Caproni and his planes accompany him from there through his life and his dreams. In their first encounter, Caproni ascends from a bomber, a Caproni Ca.30, and then takes Jirō to a passenger plane, a Caproni Ca.48. Caproni encourages Jirō to become an airplane designer.

In Japan and South Korea the content of the film was controversially discussed. The uncritical representation of the main figure and the production of the war planes is criticized, during an era when forced laborers from China and Korea were used. Miyazaki said that Horikoshi himself did not favor the military and rejected it. Miyazaki, who also wrote the script for the film, announced once again that this film will be his last work after five years of production.

Recurring themes and motifs

Many of Miyazaki’s fairy tales feature the music of composer Joe Hisaishi; His exuberant melodies underline the cozy alien character of the imaginary worlds. Almost consistently girls are the focus. Their fights were similar to the struggles Miyazaki himself threatened to despair over: environmental pollution, war and capitalism.

Miyazaki’s movies are captivation, because the director moved into children’s point of view. Instead of numbing them with blunt good-evil dualism, he gave them the pain and complexity of life – and immediately offered a helping hand. “My works do not impose a simple message on people,” Miyazaki once said. And “Disney deceives children” – although the distribution by the US company made his films widely known in the West.

The inner conflict is his constant. “I do not show fate, I show the will,” says Miyazaki in the documentation shortly before his retirement. His celebrated “Princess Mononoke” fights against people who exploit and destroy nature. And his Oscar-winning masterpiece “Spirited Away” is an analogy to consumerism; The parents of the small Chihiro are turned into greedy pigs by Miyazaki.

A recurring theme in Miyazaki’s films is the confrontation of traditional culture on the one hand, modernized technology and destruction of nature on the other.

Hayao Miyazaki is currently one of the most important directors in Japan. His animation films, which are aimed at children as well as adolescents and adults, are characterized by a serious confrontation with environmental pollution and environmental protection – but without being instructive. Again and again, autobiographical elements are incorporated into Miyazaki’s films. In “My neighbor Totoro”, for example, he deals with his mother’s tuberculosis disease, Sosuke from “Ponyo” is modeled on his son Goro. Miyazaki’s enthusiasm for flying is most evident. In almost all films, real or imaginary airplanes play a significant role.

The Maestro, who officially retired in 2013, has now returned to Studio Ghibli for a new project. The short film Boro the Caterpillar, which he produced as a smaller project at the end of last year, is now to get a full-fledged movie. The realization of the last film of the director will take some time. As a deadline, Miyazaki has issued a premiere date just ahead the Olympic Games in 2020.