The World of Hayao Miyazaki

Most Americans haven’t heard of him, but he influences many of the movies they watch.

March 2 marks the DVD release date for Ponyo, the latest film from Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Though it made a splash at box offices overseas, it caused barely a ripple in the US, despite domestic distributor Disney’s best efforts to reach out to family audiences with the Disney marketing machine and star voicecasting (the two leads were voiced by kid siblings of Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers).

That’s in keeping with Miyazaki’s track record of international box-office success and obscurity in America. His 2001 film Spirited Away, which many consider his masterpiece, was a global hit, even sinking James Cameron’s Titanic at the Japanese box office and becoming the highest grossing film in Japanese history. And though it won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature—so far the only non-English language film to do so—its theatrical audience was largely confined to the art-house crowd.

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most important living filmmakers. Yet many readers probably haven’t heard of him. He can easily be called the world’s foremost living director of animation. Even if you haven’t seen any of Miyazaki’s work, you’ve probably experienced his influence on American films.

To cite a current high-profile example, James Cameron’s Avatar—which has defied box-office wisdom and soared into record books as the highest- grossing film in history—has elicited various comparisons to Miyazaki (among many other influences), and Cameron has acknowledged that he is a big fan of Miyazaki as well as of anime (Japanese animation) in general.

Miyazaki fans in Hollywood include animation filmmakers at Disney, DreamWorks, and especially Pixar. “Miyazaki is like a god to us,” Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft, co-directors of Disney’s Mulan, have been quoted as saying. Mark Osborn, director of DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda, has cited Miyazaki’s influence on him and his fellow filmmakers, according to a report at the Anime News Network website.

Most of all, Miyazaki is revered at Pixar, the top dogs of American family entertainment. Pixar honcho John Lasseter and Miyazaki are friends, and Lasseter has been a major advocate for American distribution of Miyazaki’s films. “Not a day goes by that I do not utilize the tools learned from studying his films,” Lasseter has said.

The Miyazaki influence is most overt on Pixar’s latest, Up, one of the best family films of 2009. Up writer-director Pete Docter’s previous project was overseeing the English adaptation of Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, and the experience of working closely with Miyazaki’s imaginative daring and leisurely storytelling inspired him to take his next film in some unexpected directions.

Like Up, Howl’s Moving Castle features an elderly protagonist, something unheard of in Hollywood animation. The hero’s house in Up, a veritable character in its own right, owes something to the moving castle in Howl’s, which also travels about under its own power and is crippled and dilapidated by the end of the story. Other motifs and images in Up owe something to Miyazaki’s entire body of work, such as the joy of flight and the visual poetry of a large structure like a house soaring through the sky, the antagonist’s dirigible, the blending of technologies from different periods (WWII-style biplanes, a GPS, sci-fi voice synthesizers for dogs), and the whimsical character design of a large bird.

On the other hand, critics of Pixar have complained that the antagonist in Up, Charles Muntz, is unnecessarily villainous, and his comeuppance unnecessarily final—creative decisions notably contrasting with Miyazaki’s tendency to humanize and at least partially redeem seemingly villainous characters.

Likewise, Avatar might invite Miyazaki comparisons with its gorgeously imagined but savage world, fantastic creatures, the euphoria of flight, environmentalist- inflected reverence for nature with animist or panentheist tendencies, a pacifist portrayal of unjustified military aggression, and strong female characters. Yet Cameron’s bombastic sensibilities couldn’t be more different from the warm humanism, nuanced characterizations, and subtle storytelling of Miyazaki’s films.

While his influence is impressive, Miyazaki’s vision remains unique. The worlds he creates—the teeming postapocalyptic jungle world of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the strange 19thcentury science fiction of Laputa: Castle in the Sky, the surreal spirit world of Spirited Away—are as singular as they are captivating.

Though his films range quite a bit in setting, tone, approach, and target audience—from alternative futures or pasts to dreamlike or nightmarish departures from the world as we know it, from sweet family films to violent mythic sagas—a number of recurring moral and aesthetic motifs run through Miyazaki’s films.

His protagonists are usually children or teens, more often than not girls (Pixar films so far consistently revolve around male characters). His youngerskewing stories—My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Ponyo—are notable for their positive parental figures, idyllic depictions of home life, and sympathetic treatment of the elderly, in marked contrast to the affinity in much American animation, especially the films of the post-Little Mermaid Disney renaissance, for unsympathetic parent figures. (Only the heroine of the darker, more mature Spirited Away has parents who come off badly.) Respect for elders, responsibility, courtesy, generosity, maturity, courage, understanding, and hard work are all common virtues exhibited by or acquired in the moral formation of Miyazaki’s young protagonists. His films seldom traffic in simple good and evil; the worlds he creates tend to be more complex and ambiguous. Even ominous witch-like figures in Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle seem to be not so bad once you get to know them. Yet this isn’t done with the subversiveness of, say, Wicked, in which the rehabilitation of archetypal evil (the Wicked Witch of the West) is combined with catty backbiting against archetypal good (Glinda the Good Witch). Rather, Miyazaki tends to offer understanding and sympathy to all of his characters.

Reverence for nature and ecological consciousness is another important theme in Miyazaki’s films. In some cases this is expressed in images drawn from the animist tradition of Japan’s Shinto heritage. Tree spirits, river gods, and the like run through many of his films.

Unlike Avatar, though, these animist elements aren’t expressed in terms of any organized cultus. His films offer no priests or priestesses, no temples or altars. Characters seldom engage in anything like religious behavior toward the spirit world. In Spirited Away, for instance, the mother notes the presence of small shrines at the roadside, but it’s simply for cultural and dramatic effect; there is no prayer or ritual seen in connection with the shrines.

Is any of this a matter of concern for Christian parents? Yes and no. On the one hand, generations of Christian children have grown up reading classical mythology, and tree-spirits and river gods likewise inhabit the Narnian fantasies of Christian author C.S. Lewis. Mythological spirits and deities as such are not necessarily problematic for Christian audiences where they pose no threat to the audience’s own faith.

On the other hand, a few moments in a couple of Miyazaki’s gentlest family films in which characters do engage in recognizably cultic actions may be confusing or problematic for young viewers. My Neighbor Totoro depicts a father and his daughters standing before an immense tree offering a prayer to the “king of the forest” spirit inhabiting the tree. Ponyo depicts sailors at sea responding to the passing of an enormous marine goddess under their ship with what look like ritual gestures to ward off ill luck. Although these films have much to commend them for family viewing, parents will want to discuss these scenes with their children to avoid any confusion.

Christianity is seldom invoked in Miyazaki films, though it does crop up in a couple of his European-set films—and when it does, it is Catholic Christianity. In Miyazaki’s first feature film, The Castle of Cagliostro, a Catholic archbishop briefly appears on his way to preside at a royal wedding—before being intercepted and replaced by the disguised hero in order to rescue the princess, who, unbeknownst to the bishop, is being forced to marry the count against her will. (The bishop is not a party to the forced wedding, and is not negatively depicted.)

A bit more interesting are a couple of religious moments in Porco Rosso, a 1930s period piece in which the protagonist Porco, a former WWI ace, returns
to his native Italy to commission a new plane from his long-time mechanic. Due to a Depression-related shortage of men, the mechanic hires a crew of female relatives to build the plane. At one point the whole crew sits down to eat, and the mechanic says grace: “Heavenly Father, we give you thanks for putting bread on our table and for giving us work when we were on the brink of bankruptcy…” Then he adds, in a quick, low mumble, “And please forgive us for building a fighter plane with the hands of women.” It’s a frank—and humorous—commentary on traditional views of male and female roles as well as traditional European religiosity.

Later in the same film is a scene that provides perhaps the director’s only hint of an afterlife. In a flashback to the hero’s WWI days, Porco loses control of his plane during an attack, and his plane flies into a cloud of intense brightness, causing him to wonder if he is in Heaven. Emerging above the cloud, he witnesses other planes from the battle climbing high into the stratosphere and joining an endless procession of planes shot down during the war. One of the pilots rising to join the procession is his newly married best friend, and Porco tries to offer to go in his friend’s stead, but to no avail. Then Porco sinks beneath the cloud and returnsto the world of the living.

It’s an evocative and potent image—one that, given the Catholic milieu established by the Italian mechanic’s prayer, may reasonably be interpreted as a poetic expression of Christian belief (particularly given the absence of afterlife references in Miyazaki’s more Shinto-inflected films).

In 30 years of work, Miyazaki has released a total of 10 feature films. His first was The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), a 007-esque action-thriller in an anime series about a dashing thief. Though based on characters and premises established by other writers, Miyazaki put his own stamp on the material. (Cagliostro is the only Miyazaki with a DVD distributor other than Disney, and unfortunately the English dub makes the language crasser than the original dialogue. Still, it’s hugely entertaining, funny, and one of the best action movies ever made, animated or otherwise.)

After Cagliostro, Miyazaki produced a pair of exciting sci-fi action-adventure films. The post-apocalyptic thriller Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) is the filmmaker’s most ambitious work of pure world-building, an epic that feels like a fragment of a much larger history—because it is; the story is based on Miyazaki’s own epic manga (Japanese comic book) series. The politics are impenetrable, and the ecological theme is a little heavy-handed, but the visions of wonder are well worth it.

More accessible than Nausicaa, Laputa: Castle in the Sky imagines an alternate 19th century blending lighter-than-air ships with dragonfly-like skimmers, blaster guns, and ancient super-technology. The story of rival military and outlaw groups racing to find a legendary lost city in the clouds powerfully displays the epic scale of Miyazaki’s imagination; it’s also very funny.

For his next two films, Miyazaki adopted a gentler tone and produced two of the sweetest, most idyllic family films ever made. My Neighbor Totoro is a largely plotless tale about a warm, loving father with two young daughters moving to a country house while their mother is hospitalized for an unspecified ailment. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), another lightly plotted tale, is a coming-of-age tale about a 13-year-old witch who, following custom, must spend a year away from home. Kiki flies on a broom and has a talking black cat, but there’s no spell-casting or other magic; instead, she starts up a delivery service by broomstick.

Widely considered one of Miyazaki’s lesser efforts, Porco Rosso (1992) is nevertheless a fascinating example of Miyazaki’s restless curiosity and imagination. An homage of sorts to 1930s Hollywood, the film’s hero is a former WWI ace, a sort of Errol Flynn/Bogart type, except that he has been mysteriously transformed into an anthropomorphic pig. It’s typical of Miyazaki’s indifference to plot that he shows little interest in why Porco became a pig, and is oblique about what happens in the end.

Miyazaki next turned out two very different works of mature mythopoeia. The earlier effort, Mononoke (1997), is an impressive and widely respected endeavor, but the violent, chilly tale about animal gods and demons, warriors and epic battles leaves me cold. On the other hand, I concur with those who regard Spirited Away (2001) as the filmmaker’s masterpiece. A dark but dazzling tale about a young heroine who turns a wrong corner and winds up in a bewildering spirit world, it’s a nightmare shot through with rays of light that slowly grow until the darkness dissipates.

Miyazaki’s next film was a misfire, a loose adaptation of Diana Wynn Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. Despite helping to inspire Up, Howl’s is perhaps Miyazaki’s only effort that doesn’t gel as a film, though it remains as visually fascinating as any Miyazaki film.

Finally, Ponyo represents a return to the childlike simplicity of My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. In some ways it’s even simpler, as Miyazaki cuts down on his usual painterly attention to detail and offers a sketchier, more minimalist take on a charming fish-out-of-water tale about a magical sea-girl and a young boy.

For young children especially, Ponyo, along with Totoro and Kiki, offers a valuable and enriching experience of cultural differences, both in the world depicted on the screen and in the imaginative sensibilities informing it. In many ways this experience of otherness is a charming and edifying one; on occasion it is also an opportunity for education about religious differences and aspects of other cultures that are contrary to Christian faith. (Even then, connections can be made. For instance, Christians don’t pray to tree spirits, but we do express gratitude and address requests for help to our guardian angels. If God had created tree spirits, perhaps we could pray to them in the same way.) In many respects, Miyazaki’s young-skewing films offer a welcome alternative and corrective to the frenetic hipness of too much American family entertainment.

For all viewers, Miyazaki’s whole body of work (less a couple of sub-par exceptions) offers unduplicated vistas of imaginative wonder and beauty, images of startling power, admirable and likable heroines and heroes, humanely conceived supporting characters, elusively engaging storytelling, wholesome moral themes, and unexpected sly humor. He is the sort of artist whose work doesn’t just entertain audiences, but wins fans. For those who haven’t yet discovered him, Miyazaki is a taste well worth acquiring.


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About Steven D. Greydanus 50 Articles
Steven D. Greydanus is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, and the founder of He has degrees in media arts and religious studies. He and his wife Suzanne have seven children.