“What my friends and I have been trying to do since the 1970s is to try and quiet things down a little bit; don't just bombard them with noise and distraction.” – Hayao Miyazaki (excerpt from 2002 Roger Ebert interview)
It’s no accident that I decided to kick off the inaugural My Favorite Directors feature with Hayao Miyazaki. Besides the obvious connection to my month-long Japanese film retrospective, his name was on my short list of directors whom I consider to be the best of the best. No other living director has produced a body of work as consistently brilliant as Miyazaki, and few have been capable of evoking a visceral film-going experience with each successive work. “Living legend” gets casually thrown around to describe any artist who has reached a certain age and stature, but in Miyazaki’s case this reputation is well earned.
Miyazaki worked as an animator and writer on various TV and film projects in the 60s and 70s, including early collaborations with Isao Takahata as Taiyou no ouji Horusu no daibouken and Panda kopanda. In 1979, he made his feature film directorial debut with Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro, taking an established character in a fresh direction, and firmly establishing his inimitable style. Miyazaki later co-founded Studio Ghibli with Takahata, where he would continue to hone his craft, and create films that embodied his unique vision.
It’s one thing to create amazing imagery and render tightly paced action scenes; it’s quite another thing to have stories and characterizations that match the visuals. Miyazaki has gained a loyal following by doing just that. He’s directed some of the highest-grossing films in Japan, but his movies are anything but a slick commodity or a cynical, soulless cash grab. They possess a timeless quality that almost seems out of step with the rest of the animation world. His films are refreshingly earnest, free from the reliance on the type of ironic, self-referential humor that’s become a de rigueur staple of most modern animation. His characters rarely exist for mere comic relief, but have a place in the grander scheme of things.
Miyazaki’s films have always imbued a deeply personal touch. His animation is extremely fluid and expressive in their depictions of motion. His characters are equally dynamic, often displaying more complexity than many of their live action counterparts. They can alternately make me smile or feel sorrow. Miyazaki’s also not afraid to slow things down, to dwell on life’s quiet, reflective moments. Some of his most poignant scenes have involved little to no dialogue, as when Satsuki and Mei are waiting at a bus stop in the rain with their magical companion Totoro. His keen attention to detail, multi-layered themes and artistic integrity appeals to both sides of the brain, providing food for our intellect and our appreciation of beauty.
So, what makes a Miyazaki film a Miyazaki film? There are a number of recurrent themes that run throughout his work, but here are some of his most prevalent:
- Strong ecological themes. Man has somehow upset the balance of nature. The world is not in harmony and nature retaliates. Some prime examples of this motif can be found in Princess Mononoke, where the imminent threat of war and industrialization has doomed the old gods. In the future land depicted in Nausicaä, deadly spores are nature’s reaction to a polluted world. Something has been lost as a result of our failure to care for our environment. When we damage our habitat we only hurt ourselves
- Strong female protagonists. The examples are too numerous to cite here, but Miyazaki has frequently utilized headstrong, frequently adolescent female characters as his central protagonists, before Disney made it a trendy practice.
- Rites of passage. Many of Miyazaki’s central characters are on a quest of self-discovery. The selfish, impetuous Sen (aka: Chihiro) must accept personal responsibility. In Castle in the Sky, Sheeta comes to terms with her ancestry. Kiki goes off to the big city to become a full-fledged witch.
- Things are not always as they seem. Characters are rarely black and white in Miyazaki’s world. Few are completely good or completely evil. Castle in the Sky’s Dola lives in a perpetual shade of gray, as a matriarchal pirate. In Spirited Away, No-face appears to be an unstoppable monster – and in the hands of a less-capable director that’s all he would be. But Sen can see through his exterior and appreciate his true self.
- Flying. An integral part of Miyazaki’s signature style stems from an early childhood fascination with aviation. Whether it’s his depictions of amazing, elaborate flying craft (Nausicaä, Castle in the Sky and Porco Rosso) or flight via more organic means (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service), Miyazaki captures the thrill of flight and motion.
Ranking the Miyzaki Films:
Miyazaki’s next project is supposedly his last, although this wouldn’t be the first time that he’s made that claim. Perhaps the most painful thing about assessing his present body of films is that I love them all (something I can’t say about any other director). The worst (and that’s a strictly relative term) Miyazaki film is still better than 99% of anything else that’s out there, animated or otherwise. For what it’s worth, here’s my ranking of his feature films. If you haven’t watched a Miyazaki film (And why wouldn’t you?), any of these titles would be a good place to start:
- Sprited Away (2001) The material and immaterial worlds intersect. We follow Sen as she grows up, discovering how we don’t appreciate what we’ve lost until it’s gone (with apologies to Joni Mitchell). All of Miyazaki’s motifs are on display here, and never have they been integrated as well. Rating: *****
- My Neighbor Totoro (1988) A sentimental favorite. Miyazaki captures the joys and fears of being a child, exploring attachment and loss. Sweet (but never saccharine) and endlessly imaginative. Who wouldn’t want a ride on the cat bus? Rating: *****
- Castle in the Sky (1986) Never fails to ignite my sense of wonder with its wonderfully rendered flying machines and the magnificent floating city, Laputa, created by an ancient, long-dead civilization. Rating: *****
- Princess Mononoke (1997) Quite possibly Miyazaki’s most mature work. The eponymous Mononoke stands amidst a clash between the natural and artificial. The birth of a new way of life and the death of the old ways represents an end and a new beginning. Rating: *****
- Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) Chronicles the adventures of the lovable rogue Lupin the Third in what might be Miyazaki’s most frenetically paced film. It’s a thrill ride from start to finish. Rating: **** ½
- Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) It’s a simple tale of growing up and fitting in, set amidst a sprawling old-world cityscape. While lighter in tone, compared to many of Miyazaki’s other films, the tension-filled climax proves that he’s an artist at the top of his game. Rating: **** ½
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) This is the prototypical Miyazaki film, with its strong ecological message and story about the consequences of a pointless war – the result of human selfishness and arrogance. All the elements are in place that would serve as a test run for even bigger and better projects. Rating: ****
- Porco Rosso (1992) This is probably the most blatant culmination of Miyazaki’s fascination with flight. The laconic title character is charming and somewhat sad. The action sometimes borders on the cartoonish, but it’s pure fun all the way. Rating: ****
- Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) While it’s not the most original of Miyazaki’s films, it hits all the right notes. Like the eponymous castle, Howl’s Moving Castle works like a well-oiled, magical machine with its colorful characters and tragic heroine. Rating: ****
- Ponyo (2008) The most striking aspect of this production is its gorgeous watercolor appearance. Miyazaki’s retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid displays his most unabashedly innocent and playful side, demonstrating that he still remembers what it’s like to be a child. Rating: ****