The Hayao Miyazaki effect

It’s difficult nowadays to find someone who hasn’t heard of the animation powerhouse that is Hayao Miyazaki. A man of many talents; a director, animator, producer, screenwriter and manga artist, he is best known for the films produced by Studio Ghibli, the animation studio founded by himself and fellow director and animator Isao Takahata. Miyazaki is well known for being highly involved and meticulous when it comes to his films, reportedly inspecting his early films frame for frame before allowing them to go in to production, so it’s not wonder his films are so precise and so (dare I say it) perfect. The films produced by Studio Ghibli have become a household name; Spirited AwayPrincess Mononoke, and My Neighbour Totoro to name a few. Miyazaki and Takahata have dominated the anime feature film genre for over twenty years, pioneering the art form and bringing it to the forefront of the Western consciousness. Indeed, Miyazaki’s most popular film, Spirited Away, was the first anime film to win an American Academy Award in 2003. So what is it about Miyazaki’s films that make them so unique, so universally liked, and above all so culturally important?

Miyazaki’s films deal with fundamental and universal issues, most prominently man’s relationship with nature and the development of technology, and his films present these issues with such beauty and delicacy that they are accessible to all people of all ages and interests. Take, for example, his 1997 historical fantasy epic Princess Mononoke. This film showcases two of the most prominent themes of Miyazaki’s work: the aforementioned relationship between man, machine and nature, as well as his fascination with strong female protagonists.

The film’s female protagonist, San, is undoubtedly the strongest and most independent character of the film, and is a passionate advocate for the preservation of her mystical forest home, inhabited by huge mythical beasts and presided over by the Great Forest Spirit. However, this peaceful life among nature is threatened by the development of a modern town which specialises in weapons manufacturing. This theme is explored again most prevalently in Howl’s Moving Castle, which, though an adaptation of an existing novel, explores many similar themes by juxtaposing the harsh, cold visuals of war with the serenity provided by nature. It is this theme of the struggle between moving forward as a technology-driven society while focussing on preserving the natural beauty and sanctity of nature that seems to preoccupy many of Miyazaki’s films.

“it was actually an unhappy period for me […] I was frustrated because nature — the mountains and rivers — was being destroyed in the name of economic progress.” (Miyazaki on his childhood)

This theme is particularly relevant given the history of Miyazaki’s native home, Japan. This fear of technological development can be seen in abundance in post World War II anime, from Takahata’s own seminal film Grave of the Fireflies to the hugely popular apocalyptic Akira. It is clear to see that in the wake of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese cinema and in particular anime became obsessed with the idea of society progressing too far too quickly, and technology running rampant. An abundance of the war scenes in Miyazaki’s films take place in the sky, clearly mirroring the nuclear bomb attacks.

This theme becomes yet more relevant to Miyazaki’s work when you consider the fact that his father owned a company which made rudders for fighter planes during World War II, meaning that Miyazaki was acutely aware of the war from a young age. In fact, Miyazaki reportedly felt somewhat guilty about his father’s position, as while others in Japan suffered the consequences of the things his father built, his family profited from them. A strong and well-known pacifist, Miyazaki’s films reflect his hatred for guns and other weaponry, making them feel far more personal and like a direct connection to Miyazaki himself. The theme of technology is clearly something which occupies the minds of the Japanese as a whole, and Miyazaki’s films allow a unique form of serene escapism while providing an outlet through which Miyazaki and his fellow countrymen can process their anxieties.

Another notable and more optimistic feature of Miyazaki’s work is the absence of any distinct evil, of a clear “baddy”. Miyazaki commented in an interview about Spirited Away that “the heroine [is] thrown into a place where the good and bad dwell together. […] She manages not because she has destroyed the ‘evil’, but because she has acquired the ability to survive.” And once I thought about it, though Yubaba carries out evil acts, by the end of the film she is forced to realise the error of her ways both through her child and the yin-yang relationship with her twin, Zeniba. Again, in Princess Mononoke, there is no one evil person, only the potential evil of economic and technological advancement. This is perhaps what makes his films so satisfying and empowering to watch; they show a moral struggle not only for their protagonists but for all the characters and so in the end when they all resolve their differences, everyone really is better off for having the experience, including us. Miyazaki clearly finds it important that his films embody a positive world view and a faith in humanity, and while this might be viewed as a naive perspective on the world the element of escapism and fantasy in his films allows us to pretend that this world view is entirely viable, if only for a little while.

It is this unique mix of truly beautiful and socially compelling animation that makes Miyazaki’s style of animation and writing so popular and so widely adored. His complex and strong female characters, along with the myriad of mystical creations which he presents us with along with the element of real danger and relevant issues, give his films the perfect balance of wonder and wondering; imagination and realism. But beyond all the historical and sociological layers to his films, they achieve a powerful trifecta of beautiful animation, unparalleled script writing and overwhelming emotion, and I would recommend them to anyone and everyone reading this.