A Tribute to Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli Fest 2023
The Collective Works of Hayao Miyazaki
“The creation of a single world comes from a huge number of fragments and chaos.” -- Hayao Miyazaki
The constant battle between being artistic and compelling is something every filmmaker struggles with. The idea of staying true to an artistic style while providing a rich narrative that seems — as Roger Ebert once said — new every time we see it, is defined through auteur theory. This idea, coined by French critics at Cahiers du Cinéma, credits the director as the author and recognizable creative force behind their films.
Legendary director Hayao Miyazaki is no stranger to this. He has consistently transported viewers to magical worlds filled with complex characters and themes. Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli in 1985 with longtime friend, animator, and fellow auteur Takahata Isao. The formation of the studio would mark a new era in animation, and Miyazaki’s work would be undeniably his, exploring storylines that include strong female characters, coming-of-age tales, and magical curses.
In honor of Hayao Miyazaki and his impact on filmmaking and animation, join us in exploring the common threads in each of his film(s) for the Studio Ghibli Fest 2023 lineup.
Coming-of-age is defined by themes of youth, growing up, and maturing with a focus on a central character arc. These stories take us on a journey from one stage of life to another through the eye of a singular protagonist. The collective works of Hayao Miyazaki inject this concept into both the characters and worlds.
Take My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロ, 1988) as an example. Miyazaki explored the family dynamic in a heartwarming and relatable way as Satasuki, Mei, and their professor father moved into the countryside to be closer to their sick mother. As the story progresses, they meet Totoro and the friendly forest spirits who appear during distressing times, offering comfort - helping them grow . Furthermore, My Neighbor Totoro celebrates the bond between sisters and the magical forest spirits who are always by the girls’ sides when they need them most.
Another example can be found in one of Miyazaki’s most celebrated and iconic films, Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し, 2001). The film has become one of the great coming-of-age movies, and the first non-English winner of the Academy Awards Ⓡ for Best Animated Feature. The story follows Chihiro and her journey through Yubaba’s bathhouse for the spirits after her parents succumb to gluttony and are turned into pigs after consuming spirit food.
Chihiro must navigate this unfamiliar environment as she looks to free her parents and discover who she is, all while helping the magical inhabitants figure out who they are. The power and impact that Spirited Away has on viewers prompted the film to be adapted into a stage production, which will be receiving a theatrical release during Studio Ghibli Fest 2023 on April 23 & 27.
Overall, Miyazaki has transformed the narrative beats of the coming-of-age genre and made it his own.
Like the structural beats of the coming-of-age trope, finding oneself offers a unique perspective on the journey by exploring the existential question of who we are as an individual in the world.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (魔女の宅急便, 1989), one of Miyazaki’s most revered and optimistic films, tackles traditional topics like growing up and forging your own path in a world that is not accepting. Kiki, a witch in training, sets out on a magical adventure with her cat Jiji to discover who she is. Faced with feelings of loneliness and not being accepted in the world, Kiki finds herself. She creates a supportive community, starts a delivery service, and achieves the balance she set out to find from the start.
Ponyo (崖の上のポニョ, 2008) follows the blossoming relationship between a boy named Sosuke and a princess goldfish Bruhhilde, who is renamed Ponyo by Sosuke. The film feels like an adaptation of Hans Christian’s The Little Mermaid as Miyazaki explores similar structural beats, and injects Japanese folktales such as Urashima, to create a distinctly magical metaphor for the human condition. Some argue that Ponyo’s magical world represents the creative subconscious mind while Sosuke’s world is the conscious mind.
Howl’s Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城 , 2004) explores the duality between freedom and confinement. The film subverts the coming-of-age story in favor of finding oneself. We are introduced to Sophie and her mundane life working in a hat shop in Ingary. We connect with her character and the journey she will inevitably take after being cursed by the Witch of the Waste and turned into an elderly woman. Sophie, like all the characters, must figure out who they are and what it means to grow. Miyazaki masterfully blends their character growth and shows us the literal and metaphorical transformations they experience.
Miyazaki explores the notion of loneliness and emotional connection in most of his films and creates a relatable feeling of finding oneself as each of his characters grow.
Art Imitates Life
Hayao Miyazaki, like most auteurs, injects his personal views of the world into his work, creating or finding characters that he relates to. The Wind Rises (風立ちぬ, 2013) Miyazki's most recent film - chronicles the life of Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi. Miyazaki made this in the same vein as a biopic, inserting a very personal element into the story. His father “ran Miyazaki Airplane, a company that created parts for Horikoshi’s Zero planes” . The main character Jiro designs planes that will be used to take thousands of lives, but the story focuses on the internal dilemma faced by most artists - the lengths we are willing to navigate to survive.
The free-spirited, “better a pig than a fascist” film Porco Rosso (紅の豚, 1992) also conveys this. Miyazaki explored a noir grittier aesthetic, focusing on a care-free World War One pilot pig-turned-bounty-hunter living in 1930s Italy. The Great Depression is in full swing, Fascism is on the rise, and Porco does not want anything to do with it. Borrowing from 1940’s cinema, Miyazaki created his own world using the influence from the films he’s seen from that era.
Nature vs. Industry
The ecological views of Hayao Miyazaki are present in all his films. The worlds he crafts offer intricate depictions of rolling green hills and age-old forests filled with fantastical creatures, Miyazaki is not afraid to convey his views of industry as it relates to the natural and spiritual world.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (風の谷のナウシカ, 1984) is Miyazaki’s second feature and one of his most pro-environmentalism movies. The film follows Nausicaä, a warrior, explorer, and princess who will stop at nothing to end the conflict between fighting human factions in a hostile poisoned world. The world she exists in was destroyed by humans long ago during a great war, and Nausicaä is the balancing force that is trying to better the planet and the lives of its inhabitants.
Miyazaki subtly shows the impact of industry on the environment in his 1986 film, Castle in the Sky (天空の城ラピュタ). The narrative structure of the movie is centered around a series of chase scenes as Pazu and Sheeta search for the floating city of Laputa while being pursued by gangs and a ruthless military organization. Castle in the Sky takes a stance against nuclear advancement and its impact on nature.
In Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫, 1997) Miyazaki explores the duality between industry and the natural world. This film is his bloodiest work of animation to date as he focuses on the concept of hate and how it infects us. From the opening scene with the main protagonist, Ashitaka defending his Emishi tribe from the boar god Nago — whose been consumed by a demonic curse — to Irontown and the industry of Lady Eboshi, Princess Mononoke shows magic, mythology, and humanity in a state of constant conflict, but none are evil.
Blowing New Wind Through Anime
The collective works of Miyazaki changed the landscape of animation. Studio Ghibli was founded with the purpose of shaking up the anime industry - to blow new wind through it, much like the Italian phrase they chose for the studio name (Ghibli - “hot Sahara wind”). Hayao Miyazaki stays true to his artistry, inspires us with captivating stories, and displays commonalities through distinctly different worlds.