Retrospective Roundtable

The Films of Hayao Miyazaki

We turn to the world of animation, and particularly the wondrous films directed by Hayao Miyazaki, for this month’s Retrospective Roundtable. Presumed to have retired in 2013, Miyazaki, like many auteurist filmmakers, hasn’t quite been able to put down his pen, with his next film How Do You Live? impending. Miyazaki’s influence on cinema- let alone animation- has been felt worldwide, his work able to compel audiences globally. Even if Miyazaki doesn’t release a final film, his legacy and influence will more than certainly be captured by his 11 feature films and numerous short works.

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

By Henry Baime

MV5BNTI2NTlmYmYtMDlmNy00ZWMwLWE3ZGItOTk5MjE0MDNkODdhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyOTc5MDI5NjE@._V1_Arsene Lupin, Maurice Leblanc’s famous gentleman thief, is one of those characters so slick he’s enjoyed popularity for over a century (even being the subject of a wonderful Netflix series this year), but a large part of his enduring popularity came from the Japanese creation of Lupin III, his grandson, who has appeared in manga, anime, and feature films for over half a century up to this past year. Miyazaki wasn’t the first to tackle the character on film in 1979 when he directed The Castle of Cagliostro, but his version is one of the most enduring, in no small part because it marked the legendary animator’s transition from television to film and has served as an important step on the journey for every anime fan since. As with so many other directors, Miyazaki’s debut is a heist film and it’s somewhat lacking in the polish that came about in his later films, often being derided as perhaps his weakest effort, but for long stretches, particularly in the beginning as the character is introduced as a suave James Bond type who soon reveals himself to be something of a bumbling fool, it stacks up against all his best work.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

By Eugene Kang

MV5BOTAxN2ZlODctOWQzMi00Mzg4LWIwNmEtOTIzMjkwNmY1OTdmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODk4OTc3MTY@._V1_While it was not technically his first feature, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind would provide the blueprint for many of the hallmarks of Miyazaki’s later work. It has a world with a deep mythology that extends far beyond just one film (Nausicaä was first published as an expansive manga by Miyazaki). It has complex characters that don’t conveniently align with good and evil. The two most compelling are women – Nausicaä and Kushana – the first in a long line of well-realized female characters in Miyazaki’s work. The themes of modernization and industrialization, and their clash with tradition and nature come to a dramatic head that is unmatched in terms of intensity until Princess Mononoke. While it may be tempting to point out some of the faults of this early work such as the simpler character design and the lack of depth in some of the animation, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is still a stunningly mature and rich work, far beyond what one would think a children’s film was capable of (whether this was intended primarily for children is highly debatable). In fact, American distributors were so clueless as to what to do with Nausicaä that it was butchered to the point that Nausicaä didn’t even feature on the promotional artwork for the film (retitled Warriors of the Wind). Clearly, the Anglocentric world wasn’t ready for Miyazaki.

Castle in the Sky (1986)

By Will Bjarnar

MV5BMjAxOTkxMzU3MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzI4ODAyNw@@._V1_That Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli at large steered away from placing an outright, personified villain directly in the center of its film’s narratives is a question answered easily: Miyazaki is too nice. No, I’m serious. In 2009, he chatted with the former chief creative officer at Pixar, John Lasseter, and Lasseter asked Miyazaki about his growing proclivity to create stories that involved internal danger and evil as opposed to external opposition. King Ghibli explained that when he creates the villain, he begins to feel affection toward the villain and they inevitably become a character “who is not really evil”. He even went on to describe how it wore him out emotionally: “Making an evil creature that has an empty place or a hole in his heart is very tragic and depressing and sad to draw… when [animators] draw a happy face, they are smiling as well. When they draw a bad character, they’re grimacing and looking fierce. So I think it’s better to [smile] more than [grimace].”

It makes sense, and it fits, given that ever since Castle in the Sky, the first official film under the Studio Ghibli umbrella, Miyazaki’s tales have strayed far away from the otherwise traditional protagonist vs. antagonist model. But even his first film can’t help but find the gentleness in everyone. It follows Sheeta (Keiko Yokozawa), a young girl with a magic crystal for a necklace (naturally), and Pazu (Mayumi Tanaka), a brave orphan, as they race against aerial pirates in search for – you guessed it – a castle in the sky. Along the way, they encounter Dola (Kotoe Hatsui), the pirate queen, who, for a bit, is as villainous as a lemon is sour. But over time, she softens, becomes invested in the children’s survival and their journey. She becomes humane, and we’re given more of a reason to smile. 

Like Pulp Fiction forever linked dark-humored, nonlinear storytelling to Tarantino, Castle in the Sky tapped Miyazaki as an auteur with a penchant tranquility, lush green landscapes, and in-flight adventure. But more than that, it set his course as a director and storyteller who headlined his characters’ ability to fight for what they love and conquer any and all foes, whether inside or out. Perhaps that’s the hallmark of his true mastery: that the quality of his work is undeterred by his aim to never stray far from his undying compassion for people, animated or not.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

By Ben McDonald

MV5BMTM4MjIxMjQ3N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzA2MDIyMDE@._V1_My Neighbor Totoro is a peculiar film not because of its uniquely Miyazaki bursts of fantastical creativity, but rather its unexpected resistance to conventional narrative and melodrama. Describing the plot alone – a pair of sisters move into a mysterious new house to be closer to their sick mother – could impart the impression that the movie has a great deal to do with the sisters’ sick mother, and perhaps their wondrous adventures in and around their new home could bear some significance to the associated hardships of watching a loved one suffer from a prolonged illness.

Such a film could just has easily have been made, and in all likelihood it may have been quite good. Yet that is not the kind of film that My Neighbor Totoro is, and as the movie settles in a realization starts to register that it is more simply a relaxed, pleasant film about childhood and adolescence. While the film contains elements of fantasy, unlike Miyazaki’s more extravagantly imaginative Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro employs its childlike images of wonder more sparingly and purposefully, treating them more like discrete daydreams than the results of a full night’s sleep. The film isn’t one that won me over immediately or even completely, but its patient ambitions and creativity are admirable, as are its sentimental qualities of warmth and kindness.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

By Henry Baime

MV5BMTQ5Njc5OTE4NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTI5OTEyNw@@._V1_I tend to prefer the Miyazaki films that feel pretty low stakes and easy to fall into as opposed to the sweeping violent ones and Kiki’s Delivery Service represents the peak of the former. Essentially a story about finding a way to make a life out of doing what you love, it serves as a wonderful coming of age film with plenty of reminders to anyone of any age about the importance of following passions, even as they can be frustrating and near impossible to turn into a job. There are still a few bits of cinematic action sprinkled throughout but mostly Kiki’s Delivery Service is content to show daily life and small interactions with cats and broomsticks with beautiful animation and design that was instantly iconic. Whereas so many Studio Ghibli films are known to reduce their viewers to tears at their conclusions, Kiki’s Delivery Service has only sprinkles of melancholy and builds up to a tremendous feelgood ending that is sure to take any viewer back to a better day.

Porco Russo (1992)

By Ian Floodgate

MV5BNTI1Mjg0MzMyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjYyMDk2MjE@._V1_Many of Hayao Miyazaki’s early works for Studio Ghibli feature flying in some way shape or form. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind features a glider, Castle in the Sky, includes a floating fortress and Kiki’s Delivery Service has its protagonist flying around on a broom. When reading about Miyazaki’s life, you begin to understand why flying often occurs. Miyazaki’s fascination with flight began when he was a child. His father Katsuji was a manufacturer of fighter planes in Japan during the Second World War. Miyazaki’s fifth Studio Ghibli film, Porco Rosso is possibly the most identifiable film with this fascination.

Porco Rosso follows the story of a World War I ex-fighter pilot, who was once known as Marco Pagot but is now known as Porco Rosso (Shūichirō Moriyama), Italian for “Red Pig” or “Red Pork”, because of his appearance as an anthropomorphic pig due to a curse. Porco Rosso, now makes a living as a freelance bounty hunter chasing “air pirates” around the Adriatic Sea. Porco Rosso displays a joyful feeling of flying with the protagonist’s adventurous daredevil airborne moves, and along with his charming persona audiences aspire to be Porco Rosso, despite his appearance.

Like many Studio Ghibli films, Porco Rosso also displays picturesque beauty with beautifully handcrafted images of buildings and the sea in 1930s Mediterranean life. With its fantastical elements, beautiful imagery, and content, Porco Rosso captures Miyazaki’s style and desires perfectly.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

By Eugene Kang

MV5BNDQ5MzE1NjY3OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjQzMjkxMzE@._V1_When Princess Mononoke debuted in 1997 under the Miramax/Disney banner, it was many Westerners’ introduction to Miyazaki or even anime. Even if movies like My Neighbor Totoro had made some impression on non-Japanese children, this was most likely most adults’ first impression of this foreign art form. In some ways, it wasn’t the ideal introduction. Set in Japan nearly half a millennium ago, Prince Ashitaka (Yōji Matsuda) is injured while defending his village from a possessed boar god and must travel far away to find a cure for his injury. He soon crosses paths with San (Yuriko Ishida), a young woman who has been raised by the wolf gods and is fighting against the humans attempting to take over the forest in the name of industrialization. Ashitaka must decide if he must side with the humans or the animals, since it seems clear that the two cannot coexist peacefully.

Suffice it to say that it was a far cry from the kiddie fare that many people not familiar with anime were likely expecting. Yet Mononoke would also make way for the success of Spirited Away a few years later and the rise in popularity of anime outside of Asia. Princess Mononoke is an epic, often graphically violent tale with complex themes. It also has some of the most striking and frightening imagery in all of his work, such as a mad boar god infected with worms. Yet there are also many moments of wonder and gentleness, even in the human world. Lady Eboshi (Yūko Tanaka), the main antagonist and force for industrialization, is hell-bent on progress but she is also a kind and generous leader who takes care of her own, rescuing women from sex trafficking and giving lepers jobs within her compound. Though one could argue that she is merely using them for cheap labor, she is far more complex than this easy-to-make stereotype. In some ways, Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki’s most challenging work, but it also a testament to the range and power he has as a storyteller.

Spirited Away (2001)

By Dalton Mullins

MV5BMTgyOTQ4NjEzNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODY1MTMyMDE@._V1_Spirited Away is the type of movie that you watch movies for. The film was my first Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli film, and I was completely astonished and amazed at how wonderful this film was. I just fell wholly in love with the entire film, I was intoxicated and captivated by the beautiful animation and the supernaturally human story at its core. Spirited Away centers on the plight of a 10-year-old girl, Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi), who moves to a new neighborhood. While one might expect the film to then turn to the girl’s challenges in fitting in, instead the girl enters into the world of Kami (Shinto folklore) where her parents are turned into pigs by an evil witch. Chihiro must then figure out how to restore her parents into humans and escape the spirit world.

Everything in Spirited Away is highly impressive but one of the most magnificent aspects of the film is how Miyazaki built the spirit world his characters inhabit. Miyazaki built a society inhabited by numerous and varied spirits and creatures that all have their own jobs and niches. They all interact together with their personal interests and beliefs at heart. Miyazaki makes you want to dive deep into the lore of the spirit world and unravel all the mysteries it contains, and I believe that is why Spirited Away has always remained in my mind years after seeing it for the first time. From the first glimpse into the spirit world, Miyazaki grasped my attention and hasn’t let go of it, and at this point I don’t think he ever will. Spirited Away is so full of beauty and fascination with a wonderful story of discovery, escape, and magic that revives that child within us all.

Ponyo (2008)

By Ian Floodgate

MV5BMTc0MzAxMjkxMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjczMTIyNw@@._V1_Half of Hayao Miyazaki’s films are adaptations of literary works. Ponyo is loosely based on The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, but it is also an endearing and delightful reimagining of the plot.

Ponyo tells the story of a small goldfish that escapes from the ocean and the five-year-old boy, Sōsuke (Hiroki Doi), who rescues her, and how Ponyo (Yuria Nara) desires to become human.

Ponyo may not be Miyazaki’s most notable film, but it still displays the glorious animation that Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are known for creating. The real-life setting of Tomonoura, Japan is magnificently drawn, emulating the seaside town and the small islands around it. The striking imagery of the lush green land and the bright-coloured blue sea that surrounds it stand out. Primarily made as a film for kids, Ponyo is eye-catching not only for children but adults too, and along with the heartwarming story, it feels like a comforting embrace.

The Wind Rises (2013)

By Will Bjarnar

MV5BMTU4MTY3NTQyNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTA3MjMyMjE@._V1_During my sophomore year of college, the year I call my year of “cinematic discovery” (I ordered a plaque and everything), I did my best to make my way through various director’s filmographies, from Malick to Almodóvar to Denis. It took me a while, but I finally made it to Miyazaki. Since I’m not a sociopath, I watched in order; that meant starting with The Castle of Cagliostro and finishing with The Wind Rises. Though he’s since announced one last project, How Do You Live? – which he has already dedicated to his grandson as his way of saying, ‘Grandpa will be moving onto the next world, but he is leaving this film behind because he loves you’ – the 2013 adventure was billed, at the time, as his swansong. And at the time, how fitting it felt to be his goodbye.

The Wind Rises is peak Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in that in represents everything its founder built, and one might argue that it works as something of a spiritual sequel to Castle in the Sky. Unfolding with his trademark fascinations with air travel and war at the center, it’s one of his more poignant and melancholic fables, one where a man’s dreams clash with his ideals. He’s faced with an internal battle, particularly unfolding in stunning dream sequences that exemplify the fact that it’s in these dreams where we can triumph the most. By the film’s end, and thus the presumed end to Miyazaki’s career, he’s proved to us that our dreams are more attainable than they may appear at first.

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