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Filmmakers Who Matter: Hayao Miyazaki

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Spirited Away. Princess Mononoke. Porco Rosso. My Neighbor Totoro. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Howl’s Moving Castle. Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Hayao Miyazaki’s contributions to the world of film are indisputable. Known often as "the Japanese Walt Disney", Miyazaki’s films incorporate common themes and feature strong characters.

Miyazaki’s animation stands out not just because of its incredible depth and detail, but because of its keenness to feature characters that are subject to change and that refuse to operate within the normal good-evil dichotomies. In an age in which animation for children is often pedestrian and naive, Miyazaki’s animation journeys outside of the norm and provides more gripping adventures for all ages.


Hayao Miyazaki was born in the town of Akebono-cho, part of Tokyo's Bunkyō-ku. Bunkyō-ku is one of the 23 special wards or municipalities of Tokyo. Miyazaki’s father was the director of Miyazaki Airplane, which made rudders for fighter planes during World War II. During this period, young Miyazaki drew airplanes and developed a fascination for flying.

His mother was an ardent reader who often questioned the social norms of the day. This influenced Hayao deeply and would provide many a backdrop for his films. Miyazaki’s mother underwent treatment for spinal tuberculosis from 1947 until 1955, which meant that the family moved often. While in high school, Hayao saw Hakujaden, which was one of the first-ever full length colour animation films. He was immediately spellbound and wanted to become an animator.

After finishing high school, Miyazaki attended Gakushuin University in Tokyo. He graduated in 1963 with degrees in economics and political science. In April of that year, Hayao got a job with Toei Animation and quickly rose through the ranks. He was a leader in a labour dispute and was chief secretary in Toei’s labour union by 1964.

Miyazaki Directs

While at Toei, Miyazaki developed somewhat of a reputation for rejecting and fiddling with ideas. He would often find problems with the endings of films, such as that of 1965’s Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon, and would pitch his own ideas which would often be selected instead. In 1968, Miyazaki began collaborating with director Isao Takahata, with whom he would later found Studio Ghibli in 1985.

Miyazaki continued to propose ideas for films and film endings continually throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1971, he left Toei Animation for A Pro and co-directed the first six episodes of the Lupin III manga series with Takahata. Miyazaki and Takahata continued working together, formulating two shorts. The Lupin III series led to Miyazaki’s directorial debut on The Castle of Cagliostro, a Lupin III film.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

After the Lupin III film was released, Miyazaki directed 1984’s classic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. In his second feature, Hayao introduced many of the themes that would become his standards in animation. The movie featured a strong concern with natural science, an enthrallment with flight, and moral vagueness among the film’s villains.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was the first film to be completely written and directed by Miyazaki. It remains an enduring classic and led to the creation of Studio Ghibli with Takahata. Ghibli would prove to be one of the most prominent and popular animation production studios in the world.

Studio Ghibli

Founded in 1985, Ghibli was founded by Miyazaki, Takahata, and Toshio Suzuki. The films put out by Ghibli were distributed throughout Japan by Toho, one of Japan’s major studios. Most of Ghibli’s most popular and well-received films were directed and written by Miyazaki, with one exception. 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies, which is an astonishing film, was directed by Takahata and would be the only film from Ghibli that Disney would decline to dispense.

Ghibli’s parent company is Tokuma. Tokuma has provided Disney with the video distribution rights to all of Ghibli’s production, including distribution rights to Spirited Away and other Miyazaki classics. Because of this, many people often think Ghibli and Disney are one and the same. They are not.

Another interesting thing about Miyazaki and Ghibli is the “no edits” policy. The American release of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind proved to be fairly uncomfortable for Miyazaki, as the film was titled Warriors of the Wind and was greatly edited to be friendlier to Western audiences. The plot was rewritten and many major portions of the film were cut. To date, Ghibli’s strict policy is intact and Miyazaki’s animation remains as it should be in America.

Princess Mononoke and Miyazaki’s “Retirement”

Miyazaki continued working through Studio Ghibli, putting out several films from 1984 to 1997. Porco Rosso, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and My Neighbor Totoro highlighted Hayao’s career. In 1997, however, Miyazki would become celebrated for his best film to date, Princess Mononoke.

For Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki returned to the environmental themes that served him so well in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Noted as one of his most aggressive pictures, Princess Mononoke was a huge commercial success in Japan and became the highest grossing film of all time (until the release of Titanic). Miyazaki’s work of art won the Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture, too.

After the success of Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki retired. The retirement turned out to be fleeting, however, as he found the muse for one of his finest works while on extended holiday with a friend. After meeting the daughter of his friend, Miyazaki developed the main character for Spirited Away and came out of retirement to make what many believe to be his magnum opus.

Spirited Away to Present Day

With Spirited Away, Miyazaki weaved one of his most vibrant and intricate films. The story of a girl forced to survive in a spirit world became one of his biggest commercial successes, breaking attendance and box office records in 2001 and receiving more than a few awards. Spirited Away was named the Best Picture at Japan’s Academy Awards. It also won the Oscar in America for Best Animated Feature and snagged First Prize at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival.

After the success of Spirited Away, Miyazaki began to make more films. 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle continued his legacy after the original director dropped out of the project. After a few short films, Miyazaki began work on Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. The film, scheduled for a 2008 release date, marks Hayao’s eighth feature film from Ghibli.

Why Hayao Miyazaki Matters

In terms of detail, few animators equal Hayao Miyazaki. Known to scrupulously examine every single frame of his films, Miyazaki creates the storyboard and script together in a process that is unlike most American animation. He uses traditional animation for the most part, but has used some computer-generated imagery to give some of his films an extra touch. Miyazaki also uses digital paint software to help flesh out some tones.

Miyazaki matters because of his refusal to compromise his art. His refuses to fix characters into stereotypes, choosing instead to use vibrant characters with traits that are subject to change. Miyazaki’s films do not patronize their audience, instead treating viewers with reverence. His movies often take place in worlds where good and evil reside together, providing a condition in which the general ethical predicament is one of conciliation and reception, not of an absolute good-evil dichotomy.

Much is often made of Miyazaki’s ecological sense, as many of his films have an environmental significance. War and mankind often threaten the calm of Miyazaki’s world, but human beings also have a means to alter nature and make it fresh again. This aspect is particularly present in Spirited Away, as the heroine has the ability to purify the “stink god.”

While animation is often considered to be for children, Miyazaki’s films have universal appeal. American animation is budding, with films like Brad Bird’s Ratatouille making strides in the right direction. Miyazaki’s influence in the world of animation is beyond doubt, as his creative sense and ethical scope guide his films in an insightful way. His contributions will always be recognized by those with a love for the visual arts and the medium of film.

Suggested Filmography

  • The Castle of Cagliostro – 1979
  • Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind – 1984
  • Laputa: Castle in the Sky – 1986
  • My Neighbor Totoro – 1988
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service – 1989
  • Porco Rosso – 1992
  • Princess Mononoke – 1997
  • Spirited Away – 2001
  • Howl’s Moving Castle – 2004
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  • Rafael Ramirez

    Category: Film & Animation

    During 2002-03, I was invited to build the Scale Models required for the co-production between Sweden-France-Canada, called “Creepschool”, to be presented on the British TV series.

    The walls of this creepy fantasy were removed in sequence, to photograph and capture on video all angles, and thus to create the digital environment in which imaginary digital characters, created by the wizzards, should live the story of their learning, how to became monsters.

    We are happy to celebrate this year, our 50th anniversary, building Animated Scale Models, for any professional purpose, any size, anywhere. [Personal contact info deleted]