Screen Junkies recently released the names of their top six foreign movie directors, with some of the world’s most accomplished talent honored in the list: Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Berman, Alfonso Cuaron, amongst others. Yet, like so many other “lists” out there, one of the most groundbreaking of movie artists is unrecognized amidst the ceremonial fanfare.
I won’t forget the first time I laid my ten year old eyes on a Miyazaki movie; My Neighbor Totoro captivated me from the start with its purity, effortlessness, unabashed creativity, and beauty. The storyline, the art work, and the concept were pure magic to me. These traits were to characterize all of his films that I eventually perused, traits that I had come to identify with Miyazaki himself.
Though Hayao Miyazaki’s animated movies are critically acclaimed, his effort as a director, especially as a Japanese native, often goes unrecognized when placed alongside an enticing backdrop of big Hollywood blockbusters and action movies. I firmly believe that Miyazaki’s hard work, painstaking attention to detail, and depth for creativity make him one of the most talented yet unappreciated directors and teachers of today. His movies contain underlying social commentary on only the most progressive of subjects that people of all ages can relate to.
The Western World is not entirely ignorant of Miyazaki. In conversation with famous Western animators (Pixar’s Lassetar, Docter, Disney’s Keane), his name comes up again and again. However, few outside of Asia have valued the range and phenomenon of his work, only knowing Miyazaki through his nickname, the rather derogatory “Walt Disney of Japan”. While seeing him through such lenses does provide a quick frame of reference, it happens to be very misleading. Miyazaki has actually commented several times that he dislikes his nickname, saying “I think 2-D animation disappeared from Disney because they made so many uninteresting films. They became very conservative in the way they created them. It’s too bad. I thought 2-D and 3-D could coexist happily.” While Disney movies contain many two dimensional characters with typical happy endings, Miyazaki takes the time to explore his subject material in startling depth – each scene, every character, has some sort of symbolism or secondary meaning in line with his progressive ideas. As both writer and director, he possesses a skill for enriching and bringing the animation medium to new heights.
Author Helen McCarthy, for example, would rather he be known as the “Kurosawa of animation”; his work, she feels, has “the rare combination of epic sweep and human sensitivity that Kurosawa possessed.” It’s true that Miyazaki’s movies don’t fit into the neat child sized plot points and stereotypes the West tends to subject its animated art form to. In the past, Miyazaki was well known for personally reviewing every frame used in production, a task usually left to the senior animators. He was almost fanatic in making sure every second of video was created to perfection. Ghibli’s President also once labeled Miyazaki a feminist, citing his preoccupation with strong, self-aware female heroines.
Upon examining his body of work, severalthemes are evident. His movies are not created solely for entertainment purposes; instead, each makes a statement and discusses at length pertinent issues such as environmentalism, Earth’s fragility, love, bravery, culture, generational gaps, and pacifism. Expertly swapping traditional good-bad dichotomies with morally ambiguous characters, his films encompass all sorts of genres: historical fiction, rising action-adventure, fantasy, and even fairy-tale.
Here, in the hit movie Princess Mononoke, the filmmaker fuses social commentary with environmental concerns, contrasting the splendor of primitive forests and enchanted spirits with the human troubles brought about by technological progress. Many blogs and articles have cited Princess Mononoke as one of the most inspiring, environmentally-conscious movies. Spirited Away, my personal favorite, won the Academy Award in 2003 for best animated picture. It’s about a girl who comes of age in a harrowing alternate universe – a shrewder, more amusing Alice in Wonderland. Miyazaki reveals that “the heroine [Chihiro] is thrown into a place where the good and bad dwell together. She manages not because she has destroyed evil, but because she has learned to survive.” The movie itself is rife with symbolism, of nostalgia for the old days, while berating gluttony and greed in modern Japan. Together, the movies exemplify Miyazaki at his most symbolically ambitious, touching upon the director’s fascination with childhood and empowering his heroines with an unyielding sense of wonder. All the protagonists, as unsure as they might be at first, achieve resolution through acts of bravery and love.
Miyazaki is consistently aware of his role as a teacher. Although his movies tend to emit an optimistic tone, Miyazaki, in an interview with The New Yorker, has admitted that he hates modern culture for being “thin, shallow, and fake”. Through interviews, it is evident that he remains an outspoken critic against capitalism and globalization. Yet Miyazaki never infuses his movies with a negative light. He agrees that adults cannot “impose their vision of the world on children”. The director is teaching future generations to obtain an optimistic world view, to value the environment, and to reject simple stereotypes of good and evil.
Given that his body of work has consistently redefined the restrictions of both animation and narrative storytelling, Miyazaki’s influence on international culture has left an impact on those around him. Movies everywhere show traces of inspiration by him. Even Wall-E, the more recent Disney movie with an actual message, has Miyazaki etched all over it, in the use of symbolism and a post-apocalyptic wasteland. His work, in a sense, has penetrated the worldwide consciousness, to make room for a new way of storytelling.
It’s no exaggeration to say that his films have engaged in a crucial part in elevating animation to a globally recognized art form, both artistically and financially. In traversing the ideals of living and existence without turning away from blatant realities, his art often attains a profoundly universal scope. As echoes of moralistic humanism in a continuously growing world, Hayao Miyazaki’s films are exertions of love, fundamentally ageless. The lessons and legacy he is leaving behind will endure in generations of children (and adults) to come. Hopefully, people will begin to recognize his greatness as a director – especially in the West – and applaud his role as a teacher.