Miyazaki’s work appeals to such a wide range of people for such diverse reasons, and it means something different to all of them. Part of this is because he is capable of telling a wide variety of stories: one of his films is about the disgraced prince of a forgotten people traveling to distant lands to view the world with “eyes unclouded,” another is about two girls who meet a forest spirit after moving to the countryside because of their mother’s illness. In those two movies are a multitude of stories and ideas and most people who have watched these films have experienced them in a specific and powerful way. His work and what it means to not only his audience, but himself is a fun topic to discuss and think about, so I’ll be discussing different connections between his films that I have thought about. For fun!
Miyazaki’s oeuvre is vast, so it can be easy to overlook a lot of his work. I can only promise to discuss what I have seen (which is most of his post-70s work), so to anyone who wants to see Sherlock Hound talked about at length, I’m sorry.
Cagliostro is easy to see as Miyazaki’s strange, initial foray into a foreign franchise before flying off to do bigger and better things, but he had worked on the first Lupin III show (it had been his television directorial debut) and was well into his career when he directed his first film which happened to star the roguish descendant of Arsène Lupin (a now obscure yet influential serialized French thief character). Miyazaki had vastly altered Lupin’s characterization when he came onto the show, moving the character away from the James Bond-esque apathetic cool badass and imbuing him with a subtle depth, depicting him almost as a thief folk hero (an entire book could probably be written about how Miyazaki altered the character and franchise, but that extends too far outside the realm of Miyazaki for right now). In Miyazaki’s mind, Cagliostro was clearly the end of his time on Lupin, so it serves as an epilogue to the canceled first Lupin III series. The first film for any director can be quite an endeavor, with a lot of stumbling blocks, but Miyazaki, hot off of his time on TV, made it look easy, completing it in four months at the expense of his and his co-workers’ sanity. What came out of this furiously creative time in Miyazaki’s life was still a Miyazaki film through and through, but it is also framed as the end of the relationship between Miyazaki and the Lupin III franchise (though he would return to it in small ways later into his career). Even Miyazaki’s first movie can be seen as the end of something.
The film starts with a heist pulled by Lupin and his best friend Jigen, in which they steal a large amount of cash before discovering that they are counterfeit bills produced by the Count of Cagliostro. Thus, Lupin and Jigen venture to the Count’s domain. This seems like some classic Lupin III fare, but the opening credits of Cagliostro are atmospheric and solemn in contrast to the whimsical fun foretold in the preceding scene. The film proceeds, incorporating Lupin III characters like Zenigata, Goemon, and Mine Fujiko to varying degrees of relevance, and story wise, it is very similar to early episodes of the series (not directed by Miyazaki and Takahata) in which Lupin demonstrates his affection for some innocent girl until he has to watch her die or something. The difference with Cagliostro is that Lupin is no longer the young thief pining after the beautiful doomed woman, but an older man desperate to protect a last vestige of humanity. It is not romantic; it is more similar to Porco’s relationship with Fio than Pazu’s relationship with Sheeta. The film ends with Lupin victorious, but his past clings to him. When Clarisse asks to come with him, Lupin refuses her and leaves. Comparisons can also be made between Lupin’s leaving Clarisse and Miyazaki’s leaving television for his film career and the formation of Studio Ghibli (as well as Miyazaki’s neglect for his private life in favor of his work). The film can be seen as a final statement on Lupin III from Miyazaki: he is a young hotshot who will regret his past after realizing the futility of his craft, but will refuse to burn out because being a thief is all he can ever imagine himself doing. Planes fly overhead as Lupin drives off into his future.
Because of the finality of Miyazaki’s feature film debut, it can be interesting to compare it to Kaze Tachinu, his last film (at least until Kimi-tachi wa Dō Ikiru ka). The film immediately preceding Kaze Tachinu was Ponyo, which Miyazaki had based on his own family. Notably, the father is absent in Ponyo, always away at sea, having to communicate with his wife and son in Morse code from a faraway ship. Here, Miyazaki distances the father from the son, a reality of his own household, which he neglected in favor of his art. Sōsuke’s father is distant from the story of Ponyo, and it is evident that Miyazaki made the film about, and perhaps for, his son. It is only fitting, then, that Miyazaki would make Kaze Tachinu for himself. Kaze Tachinu, or The Wind Rises, is dense with Miyazaki’s feelings of retrospect: he had said numerous times that he was making his final film, but it seemed as though Kaze Tachinu was the apotheosis of all of Miyazaki’s dreams, aspirations, ideas — it takes place in Japan on the cusp of the Pacific War, finally directly depicting the destruction which haunted Miyazaki and his generation.
Miyazaki depicts the brutal effects of the war on Japan through the lens of Horikoshi Jirō, the man responsible for designing the planes employed by the Japanese in the war. Jirō was perfect for Miyazaki to project himself onto; the building of planes in Kaze Tachinu is very similar to Miyazaki’s animation in that the artistry of the process must be backed by technical prowess. Miyazaki has always been a technician, and in Horikoshi, he had discovered a muse. Furthering this comparison between Miyazaki and Horikoshi is the casting of Anno Hideaki as Horikoshi Jirō. Anno is an animator who had worked with Miyazaki in the past, though he is more famous as the creator of the massively popular Evangelion franchise. Anno is known for his distaste for the modern anime culture that played a large part in building (and rebuilding), a sentiment that Miyazaki has echoed in interviews and in his work. The casting of Anno as Horikoshi can be seen as the casting of a regretful and bitter artist (Anno) as a regretful and bitter artist (Horikoshi) by a regretful and bitter artist (Miyazaki). Kaze Tachinu is a portrait of an artist whose ambition and hubris resulted in the most catastrophic outcome imaginable. The film ends with a scene of Jirō traversing a field of broken planes as more fly overhead into the horizon, towards their destruction. Jirō sees a mirage of his late wife before she is blown away by the gale.
Cagliostro seems almost to foreshadow Miyazaki’s career in retrospect. By his last film, he has become Lupin: tired, but incapable of expressing himself in any way outside of his work. Kaze Tachinu serves almost as a mirror to Cagliostro; it is almost as though Miyazaki was afraid of what would happen from the very beginning.
Miyazaki is most well known for his depictions of children and young adults; that is to say he often refrains from depicting characters that are too close to himself in demographic. Lupin and Jirō, on the other hand, clearly represent Miyazaki at different periods of his life. Miyazaki’s films are all reflections of himself, but these two movies (and to a lesser extent Porco Rosso) feel more direct than the rest of his work. This is not to say, however, that his other work is any less personal than these films.
Lupin and Jirō are easy to interpret as reflections of Miyazaki, but they are a minority in Miyazaki’s overall oeuvre. Most of the protagonists in Miyazaki’s films are young women, and it is interesting to consider their evolution over the course of his early career.
The first proper Miyazaki girl put to screen was Lana in Miyazaki’s first show, Mirai Shōnen Conan, and she reads almost as a prototype for the characters that would follow her. Lana serves as both foil and romantic lead for Conan; she is more knowledgeable and socially aware than he is while still respecting and admiring his strength and resourcefulness. She is also endowed with the unique power of telepathy, which she uses to speak to birds as well as Conan. Much of Conan’s early quest is dedicated to rescuing Lana from the clutches of evil because she is all he has left after the death of his grandfather. Both she and Conan feel drawn to one another, and Miyazaki goes to great lengths to ensure that both children are incorruptible in their intentions and actions. Lana in particular is portrayed as a kind of angel, a beacon of hope, who lifts Conan from his hermetic existence on his lone island. Lana’s purity will be echoed and tested in the rest of Miyazaki’s work.
There is another major woman in Conan: Monsley. Monsley begins the show as a loyal servant of Industria, a city run on machinery and slave labor. She is rude, disagreeable, and hard headed partly because she was orphaned by the apocalypse when she was young. She learns not to underestimate the strength and resourcefulness of children early on, and is redeemed by the end of the series. Monsley is much more complicated than Lana, and her complexity can be attributed to Miyazaki’s complicated relationship with his mother. Miyazaki spent a lot of time with his mother, who was often bedridden due to tuberculosis. She was also intensely disagreeable. Notably, she was heavily right wing, which led to arguments between herself and her famously leftist son; the director is said to have been brought to tears at the dinner table due to arguments with his mother. Miyazaki’s complicated relationship with his mother ripples out across all of his work, and likely heavily informed Monsley’s characterization.
Lupin III: Cagliostro no Shiro’s Clarisse can be compared to Lana: a kind, pure-hearted girl whom the main character must save, though Clarisse is not depicted as a romantic counterpart to Lupin in the way that Lana is to Conan — rather, Lupin feels as though he owes a debt to her, as she had saved his life a long time ago. Clarisse trades Lana’s telepathy for a royal bloodline, as she is the princess of Cagliostro, and this is presented as more of a burden than a blessing, as her status is the reason she is being targeted by the Count of Cagliostro. Clarisse, like Lana, represents hope, but it is a different hope: whereas Lana represents the hope for Conan to explore past the bounds of his island, Clarisse represents the hope that Lupin has not forsaken his humanity in his pursuit of thievery.
Kaze no Tani no Nausicaä was an important step for Miyazaki: though he had debuted with Cagliostro, Nausicaä was his first original film. Many will point to the Nausicaa manga as the definitive telling of this story, but I feel as though the film simply presents viewers with a different experience. Whereas the manga ran for more than a decade and encompassed years of Miyazaki’s evolution as an artist and draftsman, the film represents a particular time in Miyazaki’s life: he was untethered from television and angry (about a lot of things) and wanted to put all of his ideas into his first original film. The result is that Nausicaä feels almost religious in its grandiosity. The Nausicaä manga offers a much more complex and arguably deeper story than the film, but the film stands alongside the AKIRA film as a spiritual apocalyptic statement from an artist ready to let loose. Nausicaä the film has far less time than the manga to flesh out its world and characters, so Miyazaki doesn’t necessarily try to do that. Nausicaä the manga feels like a chronicle of war, while the movie feels like an epic story torn out of an ancient text.
Nausicaä could be said to have been a much better explored and developed character in the manga, but I feel as though her place in the film as a motherly messianic figure differs heavily from her manga counterpart’s more morally complex portrayal. Nausicaä in the film is depicted with a reverence that is uncommon for Miyazaki. She is morally virtuous and selfless, both mentally and physically formidable — unlike Lana or Clarisse, Nausicaä is an active participant, though that does not stop her from being a beacon of hope. In fact, Miyazaki goes even further with the association in this film, as Nausicaä could be interpreted almost as a religious figure whom followers could flock to; numerous moments in the film outline Nausicaä’s incorruptible and otherworldly demeanor, such as when she allows Teto to bite her in order to endear herself to him, or when she removes her mask in the Sea of Decay. Her walk through the golden tentacles of the Ohm at the end of the film fulfills a prophecy, as the wise blind lady of the Valley of the Wind compares her to the blue-clad figure in the golden field foretold to be the savior of the world. Like Clarisse, Nausicaä is a princess, but she is a different kind of princess: whereas Clarisse’s royal lineage served only to chain her, Nausicaä regards her royalty with a sense of responsibility.
Princess Kushana of Tolmekia is Nausicaä’s foil: Nausicaä is the princess of a secluded village while Kushana is the princess of an imperialist kingdom of war mongers. Nausicaa is all loving and peaceful, Kushana is harsh and cunning. Everything about Kushana’s initial design projects strength, with her metallic golden armor looming heavily over every other figure in the room. Kushana is soon revealed to have lost an arm to an Ohm, similarly to Monsley having lost her family to the destruction wrought by the apocalypse. If Nausicaä is a descendant of Lana, Kushana is most definitely a reincarnation of Monsley; their tragic histories make them sympathetic even as they remain morally dubious. A big difference between Kushana and Monsley is that Kushana is not necessarily redeemed: she continues to act of her own accord even after being rescued by Nausicaä, even summoning an incomplete God Warrior to fend off an Ohm attack. Kushana leaves the Valley of the Wind at the end of the film physically unscathed, but she is changed by her experience with Nausicaä.
Tenkū no Shiro Laputa, known in English as Castle in the Sky, is Miyazaki treading old ground. It was the first film made by Miyazaki after the proper formation of Studio Ghibli, and the first film for the studio overall. Laputa feels thoroughly exciting and yet familiar, as Miyazaki incorporates elements of his past work (the child leads and industrial antagonists of Conan, the thieving adventurous tone of Lupin, the vast backstory and world of Nausicaä) with an astonishing level of technical prowess. Sheeta and Pazu greatly resemble Lana and Conan to the extent that one could almost call Laputa a condensed remake of Conan (doves are even associated with Sheeta’s arrival, just as with Lana). Sheeta is once again a princess, but a meeker, less active one than Nausicaä. She also has special powers akin to Lana’s telepathy, manifested through her stone which responds to danger.
The red-haired successor to Monsley and Kushana is the sky pirate Captain Dola. Dola is much older than Monsley and Kushana, and is only really tangentially comparable to the two, but it seems to be a noteworthy comparison nonetheless, as Dola also recalls Miyazaki’s mother as a rowdy and sometimes disagreeable yet maternal figure in the film. Laputa is the end of this more linear, traceable evolution, as Miyazaki shifted from epic coming of age adventure stories to slice of life films with Tonari no Totoro.
After having watched all of Miyazaki’s movies, I realized that his filmography from Conan onward could be organized into a rough series of 4 trilogies. I don’t mean to imply any intent on the part of Miyazaki; this is just a fun way I found to contextualize his work:
Miyazaki’s first trilogy is the adventure trilogy, which is composed of Mirai Shōnen Conan, Lupin III: Cagliostro no Shiro, and Tenkū no Shiro Laputa. These three works are all coming of age adventures that feel romantic and nostalgic; they also have similar antagonists, with Laputa’s Muska feeling almost like a combination between Conan’s Industrian dictator Lepka and Cagliostro’s despicable Count of Cagliostro. All three are heavily nostalgic for a lost past: the world before the apocalypse in Conan, the beautiful destroyed Roman city beneath the lake of Cagliostro, the now overrun technopolitan metropolis of Laputa. These works gaze longingly at the past, while also being wary of its destructive nature. They are also heavily influenced by older stories such as the work of Jules Verne, so in that way, Miyazaki himself is looking back at old work that evokes nostalgia for both him and us. Lana, Clarisse and Sheeta feel almost identical; perhaps this particular Miyazaki girl is another aspect which ties these works together.
Following the adventure trilogy is the slice-of-life trilogy, and it includes Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro), Majo no Takkyūbin (Kiki’s Delivery Service), and Kurenai no Buta (Porco Rosso). These films are largely told in what feels like a series of vignettes which culminate in a larger final segment. Totoro is Miyazaki’s first film in this style, and it was definitely a departure from his (then) recent work, but his work on slice of life TV anime like Alps no Shōjo Heidi and Akage no Anne shows that he is no stranger to it. It is notable that he was making these films while he was also writing the latter portion of the Nausicaä manga; perhaps he was letting out his more fantastic and apocalyptic imagery in that manga while making calmer, more relaxing movies.
Interestingly, the leads of these films seem to increase in age demographic as they progress, from Mei (4) and Satsuki (10) to the teenaged Kiki to the much older Porco. These films all feel like depictions of everyday life, so it is interesting to view the wide assortment of perspectives. Totoro depicts a transitional period in the lives of Satsuki and Mei when they move out to the countryside with their father to be closer to the hospital housing their sick mother (tuberculosis?). The film takes place in the 1950s, evoking a kind of nostalgia. Kiki also captures a transitional period: Kiki must set off from her home village at the age of 13 and live alone. Porco Rosso, the climax of this trilogy, serves as an interesting midpoint between Cagliostro and Kaze Tachinu, as it is the only Miyazaki film other than those two to star an older man. Miyazaki is able to directly communicate through Porco in a way that he was incapable of with characters that he had to view at a distance like Kiki and Satsuki. In a way, Porco Rosso also feels like a transitional state in that it feels like a goodbye to this era of Miyazaki; he was only two years from completing his Nausicaä manga, and he was about ready to make another angry, feral film. Porco Rosso takes place at the cusp of a huge transition: the start of World War II. Perhaps Miyazaki ended this era in this way to foreshadow the carnage that he would let loose in Mononoke-hime.
The third trilogy is the fairy tale trilogy, and it is composed of Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away), Howl no Ugoku Shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle) and Gake no Ue no Ponyo. These films are all loosely tied to a fairy tale, and they all feel like fables. Spirited Away is easy to compare to Alice in Wonderland, as they are stories about ordinary girls being sucked into fantastic worlds with a number of specific rules and customs to obey; Yubaba in particular is comparable to the Queen of Hearts, especially when she basically forces Chihiro into a trial at the end of the film. Howl is Beauty and the Beast with a twist: Sophie is insecure about her appearance, and is cursed with old age, while the seemingly beautiful Howl hides his true monstrous raven form. Maybe this was Miyazaki’s way of evening the playing field. Ponyo is based on The Little Mermaid, and this is probably the most direct of the trilogy in its inspiration, as the film refers back to the fairy tale with mentions of Ponyo being turned to seafoam if Sōsuke does not love her. This trilogy feels as though Miyazaki is experimenting; Spirited Away represents a further foray into the world of computer technology after Mononoke-hime, and Howl blends computer and traditional animation even further with the design and movement of the titular castle. Ponyo, however, completely eschewed computer animation and experimented with a style resembling children’s books, with thick linework and light shading. Interestingly, Miyazaki actually wanted his next film to be a sequel to Ponyo, but he would make Kaze Tachinu instead.
The fourth and final Miyazaki trilogy is his apocalypse trilogy; though most if not all of Miyazaki’s work contains apocalyptic themes, I believe these three to be the most directly apocalyptic in scope and subject matter. The three films are Kaze no Tani no Nausicaä, Mononoke-hime, and Kaze Tachinu, all of which contain some catastrophe: in Nausicaä, it is the Ohm attack and awakening of the God Warrior; in Mononoke it is the severing of the Deer God’s head and the subsequent destruction of Irontown; and in Kaze Tachinu, it is the completion of Jirō’s fighter plane and the desolation that his planes would bestow upon the world. This trilogy differs in that the films are staggered across Miyazaki’s filmography and thus represent different periods in his life. Nausicaä and Mononoke both begin with text detailing the background of the world to signal the grand nature of the story. Kaze Tachinu begins with a quote. “The wind is rising! . . . We must try to live!” feels as though it encompasses Miyazaki’s entire filmography; echoes of it can be found in all of his films. In Nausicaä and Mononoke specifically, the quote is especially relevant, particularly in Mononoke-hime, whose ending (in which Ashitaka remarks “Together, we’ll live.”) seems to almost foreshadow the quote’s presence in Miyazaki’s final film.
His final film, that is, until his next one.
Kimi-tachi wa Dō Ikiru ka is the title of Miyazaki’s next film, (translated in English as How Do You Live?) based on the 1937 novel by Yoshino Genzaburo, and it will represent Miyazaki at the tail end of his career. This film will recontextualize the rest of Miyazaki’s filmography (particularly Kaze Tachinu) and I am so excited to see what Kimi-tachi wa Dō Ikiru ka will be. I have read a bit of the book, and it focuses on the idea that lives are not separate; our own personal journeys are affected by other people to the extent that everybody is a part of someone else.
Video by: Ben Lee
Text by: Noah Kang
Napier, Susan. Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art. Yale University Press, 2018.
Miyazaki, Hayao. Starting Point: 1979-1996. Translated by Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt, VIZ Media, 2018.
Miyazaki, Hayao. Turning Point: 1997-2008. Translated by Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt, VIZ Media, 2021.