The Anime Greats: Hayao Miyazaki

Welcome to a new segment that I call “The Anime Greats”. Based on a discontinued series from fellow friend and former g1 Larry Fried, the segment highlights the work of the talented individuals in anime that make the industry what it is. As with my with my other series, “Maligned 101”, I encourage my fellow writers on Infinite Rainy Day to take a stab at it too.

Anyway, this deserves a legendary icon to kick it off. And what better way than with one of my favourite directors, Hayao Miyazaki:

Born on January 5th, 1941, in Tokyo Japan, Hayao Miyazaki had an unusual childhood. The second of four boys, his father, Katsuji Miyazaki, was an airplane designer who served in World War II, while his mother suffered from tuberculosis. In fact, his mother’s illness played a huge part in his youth, and would go on to influence certain characters in his filmography. Miyazaki was also obsessed with comics and film, particularly animation. He looked up to legends like Manga artist Osamu Tezuka and Walt Disney, although the latter he admired while still believing his company had barely scratched the surface of animation. It seems fitting, therefore, that he’d later disapprove of being compared to Disney once he’d achieved success.

After graduating Toyotama High School and being influenced by a film called The Tale of the White Serpent, Miyazaki pursued a career in animation. He studied at Gakushuin University and majored in Manga art, even beginning his first work, under an alias, that roughly translates into English as People of the Desert (which you can find a discussion on here.) In 1968, Miyazaki was asked to help work on the directorial debut of Hols: Prince of the Sun, from later-acquaintance Isao Takahata, for Toei Animation, which had numerous behind-the-scenes complications. Despite being regarded fondly in the decades to follow, the film was an initial bomb and caused many of its talents, including Miyazaki and Takahata, to leave Toei for other studios in the years that followed.

From here, Miyazaki’s accomplishments began to slowly take shape. Shortly after leaving Toei, Miyazaki went to then-fledgling studio A Pro, where his most-notable work was as a co-director on the original Lupin III series. In 1979, Miyazaki got his big break as the director of a made-for-TV film based on the show called The Castle of Cagliostro, which was intended to be a finale to the Lupin III series. Despite the time crunches and limited resources, Miyazaki made what many consider to be one of the greatest action movies ever, inspiring legendary directors Steven Spielberg and John Lasseter.

Despite this, Miyazaki wasn’t content with the restraints he’d been given. Using a work-around of a Manga story he was writing, Miyazaki obtained funding from Tokuma Shoten to make his first, fully-independent feature-film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, on March 11th, 1984. On year later, on June 15th, 1985, Miyazaki, with his ragtag team of animators, founded Studio Ghibli.

What’s interesting to note is that Miyazaki wasn’t initially concerned about Studio Ghibli’s success, but rather wished to to produce original anime without the restraints of the studio system. And, in fact, the studio’s first three films were commercial bombs, with My Neighbor Totoro, the film that gave the studio its mascot, being doubled-billed alongside Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies and nearly bankrupting them. It wasn’t until 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, a film that also suffered from behind-the-scenes complications, that Studio Ghibli began making a profit at all. These days it’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when Studio Ghibli wasn’t a big deal.

Regardless, Miyazaki and his studio began taking note in the 90’s, with directorial works like Porco Rosso and storyboarding works like Whisper of the Heart, allowing his status to precede him. Still, Miyazaki remained humble, and even made his first announcement of retirement in 1995 before coming back to work on his big, action opus, Princess Mononoke, on July 12th, 1997.

In 1999, following the ill-timed death of his then-successor, Yoshifumi Kondō, from a brain aneurysm, Miyazaki went into retirement again, but not before spending time at his friend’s cottage and gaining inspiration from the friend’s 10 year-old daughter and her friends. He promptly went back to work on another film, and on July 27th, 2001, Spirited Away shocked the world, even nabbing Miyazaki an Oscar for Best Animated Feature at The Academy Awards in 2003. Miyazaki was noted for having not shown up for the award, given his disapproval of American involvement in Iraq.

From here-on in, Miyazaki’s directorial works would be fewer and farther between, preferring to spend more time on smaller projects. Sadly, on September 6th, 2013, after many rumours, Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement from feature-length directing. This didn’t mean he was done forever, even drawing another Manga and announcing a short-film, Boro the Caterpillar, for The Studio Ghibli Museum in 2018, but it was safe to say that Miyazaki, the master of anime, had hung up his cape and cowl. His 11th and final film, a biopic titled The Wind Rises, was released earlier that year on July 20th, 2013.

What made Miyazaki unique, even amongst his peers, was his dedication to atmosphere and humanity in his films. A staunch critic of the anime industry’s attempts to “pander” to the masses, Miyazaki was an advocate of realistic animation that expressed the subtleties of the human condition. His films were also noted for being improvised during the storyboarding stages, as Miyazaki preferred letting the movies speak for themselves. The end result was a free-flow film mired in atmosphere, even at the expense of admittedly-weak dialogue.

Miyazaki was also noted for his politically-charged messages about the environment, war and society, most-notably in films like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke, 
Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo and The Wind Rises, as well as aviation and staunch advocacy for the power of youth. His films expressed a desire for balance between man and nature, something most-notable in Princess Mononoke, and despite his grouchy outlook on Japanese society, Miyazaki always imbued his works with optimism. As such, he’s earned the respect of East and West alike, and was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2014 for his dedication to film and animation.

So here’s to you, Hayao Miyazaki. May your legacy be cherished even after you’re gone!


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