Film critic Roger Ebert once said that there were only three great centres of cinema in the world; the American, the French and the Japanese. With Ozu (Tokyo Story) and Mizoguchi (Ugetsu Monogatari) dead, and Kurosawa (Rashomon) dealing with bouts of depression, Japanese cinema seemed to have lost some of its sheen in the early 80s. This crucial period in Japanese film history saw the rise of Hayao Miyazaki into prominence. In a matter of a few years, this young animation enthusiast would not only go on to cement his status as the greatest living director of animation, but also establish his position as an icon in Japanese popular culture. A true visionary, Miyazaki changed the face of animation forever. With the rest of the world welcoming CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) with open arms, Miyazaki stuck to his conviction of practising traditional hand-drawn Cel-animation. The job was extremely tedious, but the results were so exquisitely beautiful that it became hard to believe that they were only hand-drawn. The enormous success of his films, like My Neighbour Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Spirited Away, have invited comparisons, for better or for worse, between him and Walt Disney.
With over four decades in the business, Miyazaki formally announced his retirement late last year. His latest project, The Wind Rises, had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Unfortunately, the film isn’t set for release in India. This piece aims at discussing some of the more prominent themes present in his movies, and the influence he has had on the world of cinema.
What sets Miyazaki apart from the other directors is his incredible vision. He has a penchant for creating such surreal, and imaginatively beautiful characters, often having their roots in traditional Japan, that they mesmerise almost everyone who sees them. They possess such moments of magic that you cannot expect from any other work of animation. Avoiding conventional cliches of good and evil, Miyazaki presents a very realistic and complex picture of our world by not characterising everything as black and white. In Miyazaki’s own words: “The concept of portraying evil and then destroying it – I know this is considered mainstream, but I think it is rotten. This idea that whenever something evil happens someone particular can be blamed and punished for it, in life and in politics is hopeless.”
Another recurring theme in his movies is that of aviation or flight. Miyazaki’s family owned a company which produced wingtips for Zero fighters, and this probably had some influence on his love for aviation. He has never done a film that didn’t involve flying of some kind, whether it be the magical brooms in Kiki’s Delivery Service, the flying dragon in Spirited Away, or the WWI biplanes in Porco Rosso. Flight, as a visual motif, has always been a form of liberation from gravity for him. It provides a sense of freedom that is seldom possible in real life.
Using animation as a medium, his films have an underlying cautionary environmental message. The message that he wants to send across is that man and nature need to co-exist in harmony, or else face the consequences of not respecting nature. The most notable film in this regard is Princess Mononoke. In this film, the titular character can be compared to a strong environmental activist, constantly making sacrifices to save the forest and its inhabitants. Miyazaki, through this film, gave a bold message against rapid industrialisation and the indiscriminate felling of trees in the island of Honshu.
Miyazaki’s films could be argued to be the greatest feminist films ever made. He makes it a point to have strong female characters that defy traditional gender roles in Japanese culture. Of the 13 films that he has made, 9 of them have female central characters. His leading ladies demonstrate much more strength and complex personalities than other films tend to. He abandons the masculine ideal of violence as a way of conflict resolution. Rather, he uses dialogue and mutual understanding to solve problems in his fantastical world, as is demonstrated by Chihiro in Spirited Away.
Miyazaki leaves behind an incredible legacy. He won numerous accolades throughout his career. He won an Oscar, a Golden Lion, and a Golden Bear. Perhaps most importantly, he won the love and respect of his millions of fans, who cherished his works for its unflinching and uncompromising character. He has had a profound influence on a number of modern directors. Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and James Cameron talk about their appreciation for Miyazaki and the tremendous impact he has had on their style of direction. Miyazaki is a once in a generation director, a true genius. He is one of those few directors that possess a personal artistic signature, which is visible in all of his films. So, if you still haven’t seen any of his films, do yourself a favour, and watch one today!
Till then, enjoy this rendition of The Simpsons, celebrating the works of Hayao Miyazaki: