Ageless Animation: Hayao Miyazaki’s Masterpieces
I have been a huge fan of animation my whole life. Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks all had a hand in shaping my idea of what a story could tell. Like many other’s in my generation, I cut my teeth on films like Mulan, Treasure Planet, the Disney Princess’ anthology, Toy Story, The Prince of Egypt, Atlantis, and hundreds of other titles. Animation always seemed somehow more profound to me. It was an ideal world, not prone to things like bad acting. Everything fell away, accept the story, making the world and its characters fell more alive. Now that How to Train Your Dragon 3 has hit theaters, friends are bombarding me with eager reviews. Every new endorsement is proof in my belief that animation is a perfect way to deliver ageless stories.
This effectiveness extends far beyond the Western titles I’ve mentioned. Hayao Miyazaki, of Japan’s Studio Ghibli, has seen success comparable to Walt Disney. Miyazaki creates delicate, nuanced masterpieces with messages for every viewer age group. His films are complex and detailed, following the traditional hand-drawn style of animation. Children watching Miyazaki’s animation can plunge into the dreamscapes of colors and magic with ease. Adults will be able to enjoy the underlying messages present in the narrative. While subtle, Miyazaki’s penchant for storytelling goes beyond simple entertainment. Not only is he able to touch the hearts of his viewers around the world, he can include his own political beliefs without interfering with the storyline.
Often hailed as the ‘Godfather of Animation,’ Miyazaki made his directorial debut in 1979 and later founded the famous Studio Ghibli in 1985. His films each have an innate beauty, creating a fleshed out world of magic and whimsy. His characters are all multifaceted and develop throughout the film. The most iconic of Miyazaki’s films, Spirited Away, is Japan’s highest grossing film, retaining this position since its release in 2001. A close second in popularity is Princess Mononoke, released in Japan in 1997 with Disney’s English dubbed adaption following in 1999. With compelling visuals and rich mythological roots, these films contain the essence of Miyazaki’s beliefs.
Fan communities have long believed that Miyazaki’s female leads and supporting characters are examples of his feminist ideals. BBC News’ Tessa Wong discusses this a bit more in her article about how Miyazaki’s success has affected the animation world. Miyazaki has been quoted regarding his stance on the equality of genders. He says; “Many of my movies have strong female leads – brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe in with all their heart. They’ll need a friend or a supporter, but never a savior. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.”
Beyond being a Feminist, Miyazaki also has strong anti-war themes in his films, some of them more obvious than others. His movies Porco Rosso and Castle in the Sky each have strong anti-war imagery and language. In Castle in the Sky, the world’s military is seeking Laputa, a legendary floating city, to loot its treasure and technology. The main Character, Shita, a descendant of Laputa, chooses to destroy Laputa to protect its secrets and history. Porco Rosso takes place after the Great War. It follows the life of the Marco Rossilini, who flew a seaplane with the Italian military during the war. After experiencing a harrowing dog fight and abandoning the military, Marco was cursed to look like a pig. He continues living life as a secluded bounty hunter in the Adriatic Islands. While not obvious to kids, as an adult I am struck by the strong themes of anti-fascism and anti-war. Marco also shows various signs of PTSD.
Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke also provide messages of pacifism in the face of brewing violence. Howl, a wizard, vocally disagrees with war, sacrificing himself by becoming a monster to protect the ones he cares about. In the end, the main character, Sophie saves him, and many others, with love, True Love to be exact. Disregarding the fairytale trope, this Love was hard won and built from respect and sacrifice. The main character in Princess Mononoke, Prince Ashitaka, tries to play peacemaker between two worlds. The gods of the forest, led by Princess Mononoke, and Iron Town, a forge town seeking the iron that resides in the forest. It’s a battle of nature against progression. Ashitaka becomes not only a voice of reason and a go-between for the two worlds. His choice to protect both sides leads to the return of peace.
Miyazaki has tried to retire many times, always returning with a new story to tell. I, for one, wish him a much longer career, and a worthy successor after. Studio Ghibli continues to produce quality films with heart-warming characters, and I can’t wait to see what comes next. However, Miyazaki’s films are the films of my childhood. I will continue to enjoy them as an adult, unwrapping new layers as I go. I would recommend this man’s amazing work to anyone looking for a new animated favorite or just a good story. It’s my sincere hope that viewers, old and young, can enjoy in these beautiful tales as much as I do.