Is Hayao Miyazaki Overrated?

The word “overrated” gets thrown around often these days, no? It’s funny because it has a specific meaning, and yet it’s misused so frequently that you’d almost miss that. It can apply to books, movies, games, even artists! As long as it’s “popular”, it’s fair game. I’ve even used it myself once or twice! Ironically, it’s as if the word “overrated” is overrated! Funny how that works.

Still, every now and then it’s worth analyzing whether or not something really is overrated, as is the case with even my favourite anime director: Hayao Miyazaki. And that’s exactly what I’m gonna do here! Aren’t I clever (read “predictable”)?

Firstly, what does it mean to be “overrated”? According to the dictionary, it means:
“[H]av[ing] a higher opinion of (someone or something) than is deserved.”
In other words, something becomes overrated when it’s over-praised. Not necessarily “over-praised AND terrible”, although that can sometimes be the case. When something’s overrated, it simply means that its merits aren’t as strong as they’re claimed. Keeping this in mind, it’s easy to see how it can be frequently misused.

I brought Hayao Miyazaki into the equation because, on the surface, it’d seem like the man is definitely overrated. He’s the only anime director with two Oscars under his belt: one for Best Animated Feature in 2003, the other an Honorary Oscar in 2014. His filmography, thanks to Disney, is the most widely-known in the West as far as anime goes, easily standing next to Dragon Ball Z and Pokémon as far as mainstream appeal and acceptance are concerned. In other words, chances are someone you know has heard of at least one of his films, even if they’ve never seen them/watched any other anime. And his statements on the anime industry have made him infamous, for better or worse.

That said, when you stop and think, there are several reasons why this claim of being overrated might not add up. For one, that Miyazaki has won two Oscars isn’t an indication of him being overrated. Plenty of directors have won Oscars, some even more well-known than Miyazaki. Steven Spielberg, for example, has won 3 Oscars and was nominated 7 times. Quentin Tarantino, for another, has won 2 Oscars and was nominated 3 times. And Martin Scorsese has won 1 Oscar and was nominated 2 times. These are all really talented individuals who have earned their praise through hard work and commitment to the craft of film.

Also, an Oscar win doesn’t detract from an individual’s talent. I know this is a sensitive matter for the internet, especially given the controversy surrounding the Oscars in general, but having an Oscar doesn’t make make you any better or lesser an artist. It’s merely an acceptance by Hollywood of your talent, which, as we all know, is pretty fickle. Besides, when has an Oscar win stood in the way of Miyazaki? The man’s a grouch, but he remains ever-humble about his work and has referred to his films as “his children”.

Two, that Miyazaki’s work is so popular in the West isn’t his fault. Disney approached Studio Ghibli in the 90’s under the conditions that they dub all their work and not make any unnecessary edits or changes without approval. This included all of Miyazaki’s films, which’d already garnered a small, cult following in the West thanks to dubs from other, much smaller companies. Plus, Disney, being the money grubbers they were, spared no expense in the marketing department, hence why so many people have heard of him and why his movies frequently rank amongst the highest-grossing anime films in North America. If anything, Miyazaki’s success is more a by-product of Disney, not him.

And three, Miyazaki’s claims about anime don’t automatically invalidate his talent. Are they a tad unfair? Yes. Do they often sound like an old man whining about “those rotten kids”? Again, yes. But that’s Miyazaki being Miyazaki. Also, old people complain about youth constantly, so how is this different?

So yeah, I don’t think the general complaints about Miyazaki are enough to make him overrated, especially since they can be applied to anyone who’s old/popular. But what about the more in-depth reasons for why he might be overrated, like style and substance? This is trickier, but there’s definitely an argument to be made in the realm of content. Complaints like “being a one-trick pony”, or “everything he makes looks and feels too similar” can be supported with evidence, as, like it or not, there’s validity to both. I know that one of our writers on Infinite Rainy Day can dissect Miyazaki’s style with ease, so as to demonstrate why he’s a “one-trick pony”. As for the issue of similarity, it’s not surprising when you consider that directors generally re-use motifs and ideas in their work.

However, does this make the man overrated? Remember, one-trick ponies can be successful or entertaining if cleverly used. The late-Alfred Hitchcock frequently dabbled in suspense and horror, yet he was so good at making this motif feel fresh and exciting that no one cared. Conversely, Quentin Tarantino has been accused of re-telling the same movie from a different angle, yet he’s so good at it that no one cares. The reason why people get tired of “one-trick ponies” isn’t because they can only do one trick, but because they’re marketed as being able to do so much more.

I mention this because I think calling Miyazaki one-trick discredits his talents. Does he carry common motifs and ideas? Yes, he likes reusing environmentalism, nostalgia and coming of age in his films. But that doesn’t mean the movies themselves are the same. Having seen his films multiple times, I can assure you that Ponyo is a far-cry from Kiki’s Delivery Service and a further cry from Princess Mononoke in content and overall execution: the first is a film about parenthood, the second about independence and responsibility and the third about the balance between man and nature. They couldn’t be more different aesthetically or content-wise.

But perhaps the pettiest argument is that he’s become successful in ways that “other, far better directors haven’t”. To that, I say, “Welcome to reality! It sucks, doesn’t it?” It’s also incredibly subjective, as beauty is largely in the eyes of the beholder. A good chunk of Otakudom point to Isao Takahata and the late-Satoshi Kon as being more talented than Hayao Miyazaki, when I don’t think that that’s true at all. I believe that Takahata’s films are too slow and cold for their own good, while Kon tried so hard to push the envelope that he forgot to fully-engage me. I respect both as individuals and think they’re immensely talented, but I’m not really a fan of their work as a whole.

That said, it’s possible to not enjoy someone’s work and still consider them talented, and that’s where the core argument lies. So, is Hayao Miyazaki overrated? I don’t think so. He might be overhyped, but overrated would imply that his praise doesn’t match his skill. And I think that he’s too good for that.


  1. Another thoughtful piece, Whitly. Very nicely argued.

    My own take is simple:

    Are any of Hayao Miyazaki's *individual works* overrated by many? Yes, in a tiny handful of instances. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Howl's Moving Castle immediately spring to mind. [Not that they are bad films by any means, but their overall quality is frequently overestimated.] Most of his films tend to be rated about right, though. "Porco Rosso" is the only sometimes neglected and/or underrated one of the bunch. And in fairness, despite being fully as great as movies like "Castle in the Sky" or "Kiki's Delivery Service" [a point on which I will. Not. Budge.], its perhaps less immediately accessible than most of his works- a quality which you yourself have fallen afoul of, as I recall.

    Is Hayao Miyazaki's *overall* body of work overrated? No, not in the least. The man's a genius animator, and he deserves nearly every ounce of overall recognition he's gotten.

    Is Hayao Miyazaki sometimes overexposed at the expense of other directors? I'd say the answer is yes, sometimes. I can't really speak for Kon, having only seen one of his movies. But setting aside any debates about their respective levels of talent, Takahata does definitely get overshadowed at times by Miyazaki. And frankly, its not hard to see why. The former tends, on the whole, to tackle subjects that have less appeal to mass audiences than the latter. At the end of the day, even if they applaud and enjoy the inclusion of sophisticated themes and compelling characterization in their animation, most people who watch animated features [including a great many anime fans] tend, in my experience, to crave *some* sort of escapist element in even their most mature entertainment choices. Miyazaki, with his pervasive use of fantasy and/or adventure tropes, tends to provide that. Takahata, with his infrequent use of such tropes*, doesn't really provide it.

    [*In his films, at least. A few of his TV works sound like they'd have more mainstream appeal- if only they'd be given wider releases.]

    1. It's funny how the only Satoshi Kon film you've seen is the only one I haven't seen. Also, I wouldn't call Porco Rosso underrated so much as under-appreciated, as it definitely has its fans.

      As for Takahata VS Miyazaki, I think it's also an issue of pacing. I know someone who, save Howl's Moving Castle, loves Miyazaki's work, yet can't stand Takahata because of how slow and boring he considers him to be. I don't mind Takahata myself, but after having seen all 5 films he's made under the Studio Ghibli banner...well, I can see why he'd make that claim. Takahata, contrary to what his fans might tell you, is very much an acquired taste...

    2. "It's funny how the only Satoshi Kon film you've seen is the only one I haven't seen."

      Yeah, funny how that works out. I gather "Tokyo Godfathers" is an outlier among Satoshi Kon's work. The closest Western equivalent to it I can think of would be your average Frank Capra film from the 30s and 40s, which fused social commentary [especially regarding poverty] with a feel-good narrative that gave an eventual happy ending to some poor, downtrodden individuals. A far cry from the kind of psychological drama I'm given to understand was Kon's usual forte. Its arguably edgier in its depiction of the sordidness of poverty than most of those Capra films, but it does very much channel their spirit.

      That's a fair point about "Porco Rosso". The fans it *does* have appear to be fairly passionate. It just could use more of them. Though I still suspect I'm relatively rare in that I'd readily rank it as one of Miyazaki's top five films [the other four being "Castle in the Sky", "My Neighbor Totoro", "Princess Mononoke", and "Spirited Away"].

      I think you make a good point about pacing as well. Takahata is by no means glacial, even when his films are firmly in "too long" territory [eg. Pom Poko, My Neighbors the Yamadas] but he does have a tendency in his movies to linger that sometimes gets the better of him. His films are already more "arthouse" in subject matter than Miyazaki's. There are also considerably fewer of them, *and* they are more hit or miss as a collective body of work. Combine all of the above with his sense of pace, and I can definitely see how he's more of an acquired taste than his more famous counterpart. In fact, I'm genuinely surprised to hear that people are *not* trying to sell others on his movies with the caveat that he's not as accessible to a mass audience as Hayao Miyazaki. It's misrepresenting him to say otherwise.

      Speaking of Takahata, I recently saw "Only Yesterday" on the big screen [in the English dub, which was actually pretty good]. I think I appreciated it more on second viewing, enough to raise my rating from a 7/10 to either a 7.5/10 or an 8/10. I can't go any higher than that, as I still have my problems with it: the opening twenty-five minutes or so kind of drag, with one or two of the flashbacks therein going on for too long; some of the transitions between past and present are too abrupt; the ending is a bit too quick [though it still wins kudos from me for making a resolution that sounds so hokey in concept be legitimately emotionally satisfying in execution]. Even so, I've now a still greater appreciation for the character work than I did the first go round; its quite masterful, actually. And I found I'd gained a deeper appreciation for how the film conveyed the haziness of memory with its softer, less detailed art design for the flashbacks.

    3. I'm guessing you've warmed up to Princess Mononoke a little? Because I remember you taking issue with the film as a whole a while back.

      As for Only Yesterday, I actually have something planned for next week on that, as I did see it again in dub form at my local arthouse theatre. You'll have to wait for the full thoughts, but rest assured I have much to say...

    4. "Princess Mononoke" left me cold on first viewing, but I've warmed to it tremendously on subsequent viewings. My only significant issue with the film at this point is that San's character had quite a bit of unfulfilled potential. Other than that, I'm very fond of the movie now. Its not my favorite of his works, but I do think it merits a spot in his top five in terms of overall quality. I think viewing several Akira Kurosawa movies in the interim gave a me a much deeper appreciation for what Miyazaki was going for with this movie. Also, I saw James Cameron's "Avatar" not long afterwards, which made me realize that "Princess Mononoke" was everything that movie *should* have been [a position I outlined in a response to one of your editorials last year]. Any movie that can be described as an anti-Avatar [even if its only a retroactively earned status, since "Mononoke" came first], is going to get a huge helping of respect from me.

      I'll watch for your piece on "Only Yesterday"...


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