Last Tuesday, the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the recipients of this year’s Governors Awards (which is basically a fancy way of saying honorary Oscars for lifetime achievement). One of those recipients is the Walt Disney of Japan, Hayao Miyazaki. The writer, director, animator, producer, and co-founder of Studio Ghibli is a legend in the anime film genre and one of its most prolific icons. Miyazaki announced his retirement last year and — since audiences will never again get a Miyazaki created film – we’d like to take a look back at his incredible career in the latest installment of Eventful’s Director Series.
Miyazaki was born on January 5, 1941 in Akebono-cho, Bunkyō, Tokyo. His father and uncle owned Miyazaki Airplane, which made rudders for Japanese Zeros during WWII. Due to his father’s profession and the frequent bombings in Japan, Hayao moved around frequently as a child and even fled a burning Utsunomiya in 1945. His childhood experiences with both airplanes and bombing raids would have a profound impact on his final film, The Wind Rises. Young Miyazaki became fascinated with manga, and eventually turned his attention to animation after seeing the very first color anime feature film, The Tale of the White Serpent, in 1958. His passion for the medium carried over into college, despite a lack of programs and clubs dedicated to mange or anime.
Nevertheless, Miyazaki focused tirelessly on his illustration skills and found employment inbetweening at Toei Animation (inbetween artists create filler frames between two images to simulate motion). His career began to take off when he suggested an improved ending to 1965’s Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon and became a chief animator by 1968. Miyazaki eventually left the company to work for fellow Toei animator Daikichirō Kusube’s A Pro animation company, where he co-directed 14 episodes of the original Lupin III series. Lupin III would also play a part in Miyazaki’s next big break, when he directed his first feature film: The Castle of Cagliostro. From that point on, Miyazaki became a respected director at TMS Entertainment, shown in his writing and directing of an adaptation of the manga Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. As it was the first film he both adapted and directed, it established themes like ecology, flight, pacifism, and love that would permeate Miyazaki’s works for the rest of his career.
In 1985, Miyazaki founded his own production company, Studio Ghibli, with frequent collaborator Isao Takahata and Tokuma Shoten chairman Yasuyoshi Tokuma. The studio’s early films continued Miyazaki’s trend of creating family friendly films with a social message. 1986’s Castle in the Sky told the tale of two children in a small town searching for a magical city in the sky, but also dealt with how powerful technology is often used to further political ends instead of helping people. 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro featured two sisters and their fantastic adventures with the titular supernatural forest creature, but also mirrored the filmmaker’s own coping experiences with his mother’s eight year battle with Pott’s disease. His 1989 film, Kiki’s Delivery Service, tells the tale of a young witch who moves to the big city to start her own business, but further presses Miyazaki’s themes of independence, moving from the traditional to the modern, and the freedom of flight. The latter film also marked the first in a long line of distribution deals between Studio Ghibli and Disney.
While he had been building a reputation for himself in Japan with his previous films, his next would bring him international acclaim. In 1997, Princess Mononoke shattered Japanese box office records and became the highest-grossing film in Japan up until that point. The film was praised by critics and sold very well on DVD in the US, bringing Miyazaki to the attention of the West. Princess Mononoke fully realized Miyazaki’s themes of the majesty of nature, the danger of politics and industrialization, and the power of love. His next film, Spirited Away, about a young girl trapped in a magical bath house and forced to work for its aged owner to save her parents, fared even better with audiences and surpassed the gross of Princess Mononoke. While his previous film focused heavily on nature, Miyazaki diverted his attention to the themes of the corruption of innocence by the old, the transformation into adulthood, and exploitation by the greedy. The film was dubbed into English under the supervision of Pixar’s John Lasseter, who had been a giddy admirer of Miyazaki and who eventually became close friends with the filmmaker.
Miyazaki came out retirement to write and direct Howl’s Moving Castle in 2004, after the film’s director dropped out. Once again, the filmmaker emphasized the gap between the young and old and tried to impart some understanding between generations, as well as commenting on the destructive (and oftentimes idiotic) nature of politics and war. Miyazaki’s next two films were more kid-centric and adapted two popular children’s stories: Ponyo (loosely based on The Little Mermaid) and The Secret World of Arietty (heavily based on The Borrowers).
Following in the steps of Akira Kurosawa, Miyazaki made his final film a culmination of his values, his real life experiences, and his dreams for the future. The Wind Rises was based on a manga that Miyazaki himself wrote, which was based on a short story by Tatsuo Hori. The film is, in part, a fictionalized biography of Mitsubishi aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the infamous Japanese Zero, for which Miyazaki’s father manufactured the rudders. However, Miyazaki’s own life is mirrored in Horikoshi’s: their love of flight and the disappointment in its military applications, their passion for creating and the toll it took on their marriages, and how they both challenged the conventional norms of their professions. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, but ultimately lost to Frozen.
Hayao Miyazaki may no longer be making films but, as his Governors Award confirms, his legacy will live on. Studio Ghibli continues to make family friendly anime films with a positive social message. In 2011, Hayao’s son, Gorō directed the popular anime From Up On Poppy Hill, thus creating a legacy of Miyazaki filmmakers. And, of course, the films of Hayao Miyazaki and the positive social messages they impart will live on forever in the hearts of the children who see his films; including yours truly.