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The Universal Appeal of Legendary Japanese Filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki

The anime auteur bridged the gap between adult and kids' cinema without patronizing grown-ups or children.
December 11, 2014, 3:00pm
Still from Miyazaki's 'Castle In The Sky'

In The Book of Tea, published in 1906, the Japanese writer Kakuzo Okakura asks his readers when the West will understand the East. He tells us that his people are cast by Westerners as "living on the perfume of the lotus, if not on mice and cockroaches," and are thought to be more or less impervious to pain on account of their fatalistic natures. He admits that, in the past, wise Japanese scribes said that visitors from the West had "bushy tails," which they hid in their clothes, but that such fantasies are long gone.

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Today, this kind of Orientalism is more refined: Japan is a place that looks like the future but is locked into the thinking of the past. Guys play video games that would have seemed unthinkable even five years ago but with all the patience and precision of a samurai.

For the past 35 years, Hayao Miyazaki has made animated films that have seen him cast as Japan's answer to Walt Disney or Steven Spielberg. By far the most popular filmmaker in his own country (four of his films are among the top-ten highest grossing movies in Japan), Miyazaki has, since the 1997 release of Princess Mononoke, become increasingly popular in the West, where his films also serve to challenge the still-existing assumptions we have about Japan and the Japanese.

Now, the writer, animator, director, and manga artist says he's made his final film—2013's The Wind Rises—and the animation house he co-founded, Studio Ghibli, is releasing a box set of his 11 feature films.

The idea of the children's film that "parents can enjoy too" has been around for a while. Children's films often patronize their intended audience by being stupid and unwatchable, or by confusing with over-the-head references to keep the parents amused. Miyazaki's films are usually made for children but they are never patronizing. Besides the fact that they are wildly imaginative, deeply kind, and hugely immersive, his child characters' moral compasses will hold them to a true path whereas adults are usually distracted by some form of greed.

The hand-drawn animation he and Studio Ghibli are famous for combine with the kind of all-encompassing creation of a fictional realm that you find in the work of English storytellers like J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. To watch a Miyazaki film is to be completely immersed in the world he puts in front of you, a world that usually involves most of the following: strong female protagonists, psychedelic colors, forests, magical creatures, flying scenes (whether in a Miyazaki-designed aircraft or just flying through the air), and a wise but trenchant old woman.

An Australian friend once told me that his young children sometimes watch Miyazaki's films in Japanese without the subtitles: The animation is so captivating that they are more transfixed that way.

Miyazaki's feminism is expressed in his nuanced female characters. Most of his lead characters are women. In Princess Mononoke, he gave the world a fierce female protagonist who rides into battle on the back of a wolf and who will fight to the death to protect the forest she lives in from the people who want to desecrate it in order to extract precious iron sand. Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a brave and clever ten-year-old girl drawn into a spirit world. She has to work in a bathhouse run by a witch and must try and find a way back to the real world and to her parents, who have been turned into pigs (Miyazaki likes pigs, another recurring theme in his films).

From Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind—which takes a fairly one-dimensional character found in Homer's Odyssey and makes her a three-dimensional heroine—to Ponyo, with its fish-girl protagonist, Miyazaki's universes are places in which women can be as strong and independent as men. Now 73, Miyazaki was very close to his mother who—because she had spinal tuberculosis –was either in hospital or housebound for much of her son's life. Despite her illness, she was a voracious reader and a questioner of socially accepted norms. She was, like many of her son's heroines, courageous and energetic.

Still from Princess Mononoke (1997)

Born during the war, Miyazaki remembers his family having to pack up and leave where they were living because of the American firebombing campaigns. This devastation affected him profoundly, and in his films Europe is often shown as an escape: a lush, richly colorful prewar wonderland full of valleys, beaches, and forests. His father, an aeronautical engineer, was the director of the family firm, Miyazaki Airplane, which made parts for the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a long-range fighter aircraft. From early on, his father's business provided him with inspiration—the young Hayao drew airplanes obsessively—but it also led to what he'd later describe as "pangs of guilt" over his father profiting from the war and the comfortable life this gave his family.

These tensions are present in his last film, The Wind Rises, which tells the story of the aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the planes that would later go on to be used by Kamikaze pilots in World War II. Breaking away from Miyazaki's usual use of female protagonist, the film focuses on Horikoshi's creativity and his flights of fantasy. He is a wondrous child with a special mind and a dream that has everything to do with what W. B. Yeats called a "lonely impulse of delight" and nothing to do with flight as it is put to use by the military industrial complex.

There is a tension in the film between its main characters' detached genius and how that genius is eventually put to use. In an exclusive interview passed on to me by StudioCanal, who release Studio Ghibli films in the UK, Miyazaki says that while he was not surprised that the reaction to The Wind Rises either saw it as praising or damning war, "anyone who praises war is a complete fool" and that he was "more upset by people using it to advance their own ideologies."

Miyazaki's interest in planes begins to seem outdated to him: "First of all not so many people are interested in airplanes nowadays," he says. "I think they were a 20th-century phenomenon. Airplanes in the early 20th century really appealed to boys. Now people are only interested in getting cheap tickets."

Still from My Neighbor Tortoro (1987)

This sense of being at odds with the time he lives in runs through his films and through his thinking. Japan's miraculous economic recovery after the devastation of the World War II also turned much of its countryside into urban or industrial environments. Beginning his career in the 1960s, Miyazaki was part of a new generation of Japanese artists who were taking the experimentalism of their era and applying it to a critique of the society they lived in, its growing American-style commercialism, and its industrialization.

Miyazaki's love of nature feels conservative in the best possible way: He is trying to conserve something precious and valuable, something that might already be lost. When he was a kid, Miyazaki has said that he didn't have much interest in nature and regarded green plants as a symbol of poverty. This attitude changed, and his film My Neighbor Totoro is, he says, a letter to his childhood self about respecting the environment.

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In Totoro, benign yet silent magical creatures become the companions to two little girls whose mother is hospital-bound, as Miyazaki's often was. In his films, the animals are almost always silent, which makes them quietly dignified and partly unknowable. There's no danger of Donkey from Shrek making an appearance.

"We often think that people and nature are separate, but I believe they are not. Nature is included within people," Miyazaki once said. In Ponyo, this is demonstrated quite literally when Ponyo produces a huge tsunami herself. The tsunami isn't a bad thing, though—it cleanses the world in its path. In Spirited Away a huge, filthy spirit comes to the bathhouse needing to be washed. It is only allowed in because it has so much money. It turns out that it was once a river spirit but is now polluted—the real river it represents was filled in by a housing development.

Still from The Wind Rises (2013)

But while Miyazaki's concern for the environment is passionate, it is never preachy. There are very few villains in his films. Even in the best American children's films the world is shown as a black-and-white place, with goodies and baddies. For Miyazaki, antagonists usually have redeeming qualities and their own understandable motivations for doing what they're doing. An English teacher once told me that his teenage students really struggled with morally ambiguous texts in which "bad" characters did not get what they deserved. But life—and good art—tends to include more shades of gray and Miyazaki's films prepare children for this, while also offering them a vision of life that can be powered by creativity, kindness, and an independence of spirit.

In 2005, Miyazaki told the New Yorkerthat he didn't want to transfer his pessimism onto children: "I keep it at bay. I don't believe that adults should impose their vision of the world on children. Children are very much capable of forming their own visions."

It is hard not to look at the world around you and see only the destruction of the things that Miyazaki holds dear, things like the environment, female empowerment, independent spirit, the imagination, artistic craft, and, yes, old-school aeroplanes. But for over almost four decades he has kept pessimism at bay and inspired the preservation of things he loves in a magical, beautiful, and entertaining way. His career represents a triumph of the imagination over the jackboot of human reality.

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