In my visit to the Miyazaki Exhibition at the Academy Museum this past semester, I found a unique juxtaposition in how the museum presented two very different approaches to animated storytelling. While one floor presented the accomplishments of Hayao Miyazaki and his devotion to animation, the floor below it also captured his contemporaries in the field that have produced blockbusters and classics.
The creative process looks different from person to person, and these differences can greatly influence the kind of content we can expect from creators. As seen in the exhibition, Hayao Miyazaki’s own creative process as an animator and a storyteller tends to be something he does not take lightly. The amount and type of dedication that goes into a single piece of Miyazaki’s work is what makes it stand out in comparison to his mainstream contemporaries. Western animation giants, such as Disney or Dreamworks, operate on an entirely different process from Miyazaki, and this is evident in the final products being released. While Miyazaki’s films like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke have found financial and critical success in their own rights and cemented his legacy in animation, blockbuster animated films like Frozen 2 or The Boss Baby only represent content meant for mindless consumption and fade into obscurity over time. This phenomenon is captured in Miyazaki’s adaptation of Kiki’s Delivery Service, in which his version explores a creative young witch struggling with her magical gifts while industry marches on much to the delight of the masses. Through the allegorical vehicle of Kiki’s Delivery Service, Hayao Miyazaki addresses the conflict between his approach to animation and storytelling and the approach of western animation powerhouses as a means of promoting the creation of more meaningful art.
Should Kiki’s Delivery Service be an allegory for Miyazaki’s approach to creating art, he is then represented by Kiki, whose loss of her ability to fly explores the animator’s own struggles with the creative process in a quickly monopolized art form. When Kiki loses her powers, a creative liberty that deviates from the original book, she turns to her friend Ursula, saying, “I guess I never gave much thought to why I wanted to do this. I got so caught up in all the training and stuff. Maybe I have to find my own inspiration.” This sentiment can easily trace back to Miyazaki and his own struggles at Studio Ghibli when dissolving the studio was being suggested (Napier 135). When he began to buckle under the weight of the pressure he felt from the animation industry at the time, he began to lose his connection to his craft. This connection shared between Kiki and Miyazaki first sets the stage for his place in the greater discourse on the integrity of the creative process.
The approach to the craft Miyazaki then advocates for through the film is introduced by Ursula, who offers a very personal and self-caring understanding of the creative process which directly contrasts the corporate approach by western industry titans. Kiki, overworked and struggling to stay afloat like Miyazaki, loses her sense of self-worth in an identity crisis and only begins to find solace when given the space to reflect on her place in her craft. “It is Ursula who comes to Kiki’s rescue. She does this not by helping her regain her ability, but by telling the distraught Kiki that she too has on occasion lost her ability to paint, essentially suffering from ‘artist’s block,’” (Napier 135). The time Kiki spends with Ursula is what ultimately makes her open to the personal change necessary for her growth as a witch and as a person, which can be seen when she flies again on a new broom but can no longer speak with Jiji. By extension, Miyazaki is asserting the importance of self-care and self-awareness in the creative process. When given the opportunity to reflect on the drive and spirit behind the will to create rather than focusing primarily on societal recognition and success, an artist can reach their greatest potential.
Now contrasting the approach promoted by Miyazaki and demonstrated through Kiki is the ever-expanding dominance of western animation titans like Disney, which Miyazaki openly critiques and presents in the film as the Spirit of Freedom airship. The Spirit of Freedom is alluded to throughout the film but only takes flight the second Kiki is grounded. As a much bigger, more industrialized approach to air travel, it naturally draws the attention of the masses only to crumble into a forgettable piece of trash while Kiki learns to fly again. The difference Miyazaki is illustrating between the two, and therefore himself and Disney-esque studios, is one of quality derived from human creativity and corporate production. “In this way, the term ‘Disneyfication’ has gained prevalence in describing the degradation of more complex narratives. In the case of the Japanese auteur, there is no equivalent case of ‘Miyazakification’, but the way the author conveys his own unique and personal vision is well recognized,” (Hernandez-Perez 307). The stories being told from the approach of a mega-corporate western studio pale in comparison to their source material or thematic material because they are scrubbed of their complexities. Miyazaki, who embraces these complexities, urges for the acceptance of these stronger narratives among audiences and offers his own incredibly personal perspective. The approaches to flying in the film are individual spirit versus artificially production, just like the conflict of the creative process.
With a teenage witch as his messenger, Hayao Miyazaki captures the artistic conflict between him and his contemporaries to advocate for creation of art powered by the authentic human spirit. The similarities and differences between the worlds Miyazaki creates and the ones coming out on conveyor belts to please the lowest common denominator are on full display in Kiki’s Delivery Service, albeit with a little coding. Kiki serves as a stand in for Miyazaki himself and his dedication to an incredibly demanding craft. In her loss of flight in the excitement of the Spirit of Freedom, Miyazaki struggles with the ability to create in the wake of increasingly corporate narratives. The final products between the two vastly different approaches to flying and animating accomplish two very different things, and Miyazaki asserts that the better results stem from a deep respect and an unquenchable passion for the craft.
Hernández-Pérez, Manuel. “Animation, Branding and Authorship in the Construction of the ‘Anti-Disney’ Ethos: Hayao Miyazaki’s Works and Persona through Disney Film Criticism.” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 11, no. 3, SAGE Publications, 2016, pp. 297–313, https://doi.org/10.1177/1746847716660684.
Kiki’s Delivery Service. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, 1989.
Napier, Susan. Miyazakiworld. Yale University Press, 2018.
I was influenced to write this post and draw these pieces after visiting the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and noticing the similarities in Miyazaki’s artwork and his influence on other animation companies. Each room feels full enough to be the whole exhibit yet with every turn there is another room to display the countless works of Miyazaki. It was richly illustrated with his work on the wall and in glass tables to take a closer look, filled with first sketches and scene stills. As an artist, it was incredibly interesting to see his thought process as I analyzed with great detail each drawing for minutes on end. It brought to life the soul of Miyazaki and embraced his love of nature with a beautiful interactive grass patch in the middle of the room with clouds above. I also loved seeing such a range of people of different ages and cultures come together to appreciate his work. There were children running to each screen and display intently and letting out an ooo or an ahhh. It was really fulfilling to visit this museum and bring more life to some of the movies. I would have loved to seen a section that connected some other commonly watched films in the US to Miyazaki’s work to show just how great of an influence he brought to the world. His work was not only influential in an artistic perspective but impactful in his messages as they shaped the storylines of animation today.
Hayao Miyazaki’s work has influenced animation all around the world causing a global cross-cultural effect through cinema. His work has shown influence in many of Disney’s films including How to Train your Dragon (2010) drawing influences from Princess Mononoke (1999) and Castle in the Sky’s (1972)magical floating land similar to the Disney movie Up (2009). Miyazaki’s work has also influenced other companies like Pixar, with his 1988 film My Neighbor Totoro to the 2001 film Monsters, Inc. Disney is also seen drawing influence from Ponyo (2009) for their 2016 film Moana, and Coco (2017) having similarities to Ghibli’s Spirited Away (2001). His influence on American animation ranges to cartoons like Gravity Falls, Adventure Time, and The Simpsons as well. Although there are greater differences between the Disney and Studio Ghibli, there is definitely a visual connection between them. I also noticed how Disney tends to no longer have a traditional sense to their storylines, for example, a prince and princess fall in love and live happily ever after. One can imagine that Miyazaki’s films evoked such positive messages about saving the environment that it influenced the writing style of many including Disney. We can see this in Moana as well, as she saves her village by restoring the heart of the volcano that was stolen. As well as the movie Wall-E (2008) demonstrating the uninhabitable future we have which is a result of bad practices in human behavior that threaten every being to extinction. These films show great influence from Miyazaki’s writing style as well as artistic style.
In an article written by Graphic’s Editor, Michelle Jin, she analyzes the revolution of Studio Ghibli’s work on the film industry. Although some films may not have as obvious of a comparison to Miyazaki’s artwork, his influence is also shown through his immersive realistic storylines and settings. Many set in a dark futuristic world post destruction, usually including a young protagonist to save the day. This is commonly seen in Miyazaki’s films as many of his protagonists are younger, and the audience sees the world through their pure perspective. Jin names some films that sought influence from Miyazaki including Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. Guillermo’s film shows influence of Miyazaki through his characters while Anderson’s work has a strong resemblance to the setting and focus on the environment.
Miyazaki’s work tends to reach far beyond the intended demographic and resonates with all ages, specifically an Oscar winning film for best animated feature in 2003, Spirited Away. Although Miyazaki’s storytelling skills are exemplified only in a way that Ghibli films can be, other animators took inspiration from this film after its big award. Coco (2017) any many other films following Miyazaki’s now have a heavier focus on cultural elements to resonate with audiences and create that sense of empathy. We see this done with the movie Coco in that, no matter what cultural background you came from, you could resonate with the movie, (definitely one of my favorites). Many companies now try to mimic the immersive value and storytelling style of Miyazaki into their work, but his stands out from all the others. His work is authentic and his messages are coming from genuine concern of the Earth’s well-being.
Many countries have different language versions of Studio Ghibli films as they have become popular all around the world. They have also influenced others to write similar stories with a heavy influence of children and animals becoming closer to nature. In Russia, a common TV show called Masha and the Bear shows similar use of themes to Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro in which the bear takes care of baby Masha as she discovers the world and nature around her. This demonstrates that his work has reached a worldwide audience.
Miyazaki is one of the best animators in history, which is why his work influences so many. He captures a sense of innocence and youth through his art yet teaches important lessons to people of all ages. The way he is able to capture the emotion of his characters and make the audience empathize with each character’s situation shows the talent he holds. This is what makes him most influential, through his work, he creates empathy and tells of important lessons that other companies felt influenced to make films about as well. He started a movement through his work and will forever be recognized in the history of animation. The name Studio Ghibli will live on forever and has created its own style of storytelling through animation that has inspired and impacted the film industry everywhere.
Jin, Michelle. “Opinion: Studio Ghibli Animation Techniques Revolutionize the Film Industry.” The Nexus, wvnexus.org/?p=6446.
Li, Chenmei. “Influence of Hayao Miyazaki’s Animation on the Cross-Cultural Spread of Japanese Traditional Culture Under the Background of 5G and Wireless Communication.” Wireless Communications and Mobile Computing, vol. 2021, Hindawi, 2021, pp. 1–5, https://doi.org/10.1155/2021/1640983.
Experiencing Studio Ghibli films from my youth has almost been a fever dream. While revisiting those I have seen and those I have not seen before, to relish in a childhood wonder has somewhat remained. The sounds of trees brushing against the wind and the sight of blue skies filled with white clouds. One can think of poetry in a form of animated art. To enter these films for the first time or by revisiting, the immersion to simply being in the film will always be the same. By seeing any of these films, you enter the world Miyazaki created.
After visiting the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, the amazement of seeing Hayao Miyazaki’s concept art in the exhibit was quite surreal and an emotional experience. In some sense, one may seem to be entering his own mind. Entering the mind of Hayao Miyazaki is both a blessing and an undeserving privilege through the concept art, images of maps, miniature models, and projections of the films. Everything in the exhibit was something new as most of these creations I have not seen before. This exhibit offered so much more, yet I wanted more. For the man himself, his complexity would only want me to wonder more about Miyazaki himself. Yet again, I wouldn’t want to be that person to intrude on such a mind.
As someone who is just a student of poetry, I don’t consider myself a professional. Merely, it is the willingness to create art from the art that inspires. I have chosen to write haikus for all his films: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo, and The Wind Rises.
For Porco Rosso and The Wind Rises, I especially focused on these haikus to be allegories for Hayao Miyazaki.
Lastly, I leave this poem as a tribute to the man himself:
“It is not hard to imagine…the inner turmoil as a fifty-one-year-old man looking back at his life and forward to what will come” (Napier 153).
Susan Napier describing Miyazaki in Porco Rosso
Feel free to comment and share your thoughts on your favorite poem and your experience of any Miyazaki film.
Napier, Susan. Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art. Yale University Press, 2018.
I was eager with excitement; the first time going back to a museum since lockdown, and there was an exhibit with some of my favorite films! The Academy Award Museum in DTLA was ambitious enough to put on an exhibit solely dedicated to director Hayao Miyazaki’s work. I was thrilled at the array of art, sketches, and clips from beloved Studio Ghibli films. It was a feast for the eyes; walls covered in hand painted backgrounds, displays of careful sketches and concept art. The exhibit was a captivating experience, as if stepping into the inner workings of Miyazaki’s mind. Visitors saw the careful vision and process behind Studio Ghibli films. I was left with a full heart, but I was also left wondering what items did not make it into the exhibit. I wondered what items would have added to the experience. Of the few hand-drawn sketches, I had thought about concept art from my favorite movie, Howl’s Moving Castle. It is not so common knowledge that Howl’s Moving Castle was first the first novel in a series written by Diana Wynne Jones in 1986. It’s subject matter still emersed in the realm of fantasy lends inspiration to Miyazaki’s film. However, there are stark differences between these two works. What interests me is that throughout the Ghibli exhibit, there was a lack of concept art and sketches pertaining to works that were adapted from literature. With my curiosity peaked, it led me to question:
How much from the book does Miyazaki borrow for his film?
What elements from the novel were important in maintaining his aesthetic?
How similar or different are the film’s protagonists from the novel?
Miyazaki’s art style and film aesthetic are distinct in that he borrows from science fiction elements. In films like Howl’s Moving Castle the lines between fantasy and science fiction blur, creating a body of work that speaks to the theme of finding love amidst war. To understand how Miyazaki adapted literature to film requires an understanding of his aesthetic along with his interpretation of fantasy.
Understanding Miyazakiworld in the Context of Howl’s
“…Miyazakiworld, the immersive animated realm that carries delightfully from film to film but is always marked by the director’s unique imagination.”
To understand the fantastical elements of Howl’s, we need to go back and recognize central themes in what makes up the Miyazakiworld aesthetic. When I’ve thought about my favorite Ghibli films, a wave of nostalgia takes over me. I forget about my favorite scenes, or the lines that were spoken; however, I remember some of the feelings I first had and continue to have when I watch these films:
I’ve come to understand that Miyazaki’s films are very much rooted in the idea that however fleeting, his films make us want to look inward. His films bring forth a lighthearted calmness about the world we live in, and somehow it makes us want to reflect on those feelings or moments in our lives as well. To better grasp some of these elements, we also have to look at how his aesthetic shows up in Howl’s Moving Castle.
“…it is often females who lead us through end times.”
A common theme among Ghibli movies is the idea of war, or post-apocalyptic scenarios. Napier attributes this inspiration to the painful history of Japan and Miyazaki’s childhood at the end of World War II. Interestingly, in Ghibli films that did feature war, Miyazaki has often placed female characters at the forefront of catastrophe. Rather than focus on war as a primary focus in his films, it becomes a backdrop for his characters to develop. In Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the protagonist Nausicaa assumes the task of restoring a war-torn world. It is not what Nausicaa does to rescue her people, the empathy the audience ends up having for her comes from her caring and nurturing spirit. As she displays an empathy for all living creatures, Nausicaa serves as a blueprint for Miyazaki’s female characters in later Ghibli films. As Napier remarks, we see that Nausicaa’s motherly, caring persona is attributed to Miyazaki’s late mother. In facing the trials of war, Miyazaki’s female characters display a higher moral conscience to care for those close to them in times of strife.
“…that almost mystical combination of courage, acceptance, and joy is the emotional core of Miyazakiworld. While Miyazaki’s vision has darkened over time, Miyazakiworld is still a realm where hope triumphs over despair.”
As for Howl’s Moving Castle, we also see the theme of war as a backdrop for his female protagonist Sophie. As we follow her journey, she is continuously being thrown into the middle of conflict. From her run in with powerful witches, a faceoff with the King’s army, and surviving an air raid, Miyazaki’s protagonist accepts the hand dealt to her and leads with courage to protect her loved ones. In this sense, Miyazaki’s protagonist still assumes their role in a war by relying on a motherly instinct to navigate danger. In scenes that focus so heavily on the brutality of war, Miyazaki’s protagonists find the righteousness to also lead with compassion for others. Something that both Sophie and Nausicaa share: their ability to express compassion within their war-torn, crumbling worlds.
“…the worldview that Miyazaki reflects in his films depicts human as an inseparable part of nature.”
1, Mumcu and Yilmaz
The second and quite arguably the most important of Miyazakiworld aesthetic is the relationship Miyazaki’s characters have with nature. Regarding Miyazaki’s aesthetic, Ghibli movies include scenes of nature or humans coexisting with nature to illustrate their interconnectedness. Miyazaki’s characters understand that they are not the only inhabitants of their world and show a deep respect and appreciation for the environment. Nature is also used as a tool for intellectual reflection; older audiences may resonate and reflect on the roles they play on a global and environmental scale. Regardless of age, nature has allowed Miyazaki’s characters to step aside from themselves to think about how they interact with others. His characters understand the natural world by thinking of how they are potentially contributing to or hindering their environments.
“These films provide a mechanism for provoking and contributing to debates concerning environmentalism and offer audiences a way to find meaning about human life and our place in a wider interconnected web of ontological existence”
4, Mumcu and Yilmaz
Sophie’s reflection by the lake shows a contrast to earlier Ghibli films where his characters interact with nature to achieve a common goal. Rather in this scene, Sophie is interacting with nature to think about her perception of herself and the world she lives in. Thinking of her own mortality she remarks, “When you’re old, all you want to do is stare at the scenery. It’s so strange, I’ve never felt so peaceful before” (0:41:17). Her relationship with nature is something she understands to be profound because of her inability to explore the world before being thrust on her journey. Her reflection in this scene resonates with a very human emotion of taking stock of one’s life during moments of relaxation. Sophie becomes more in tune with her existence and even accepting of it. Her removal from a city allows Sophie the clarity to experience and understand the beauties of nature.
Interpreting the Characters of Howl’s
When moving from novel to a screenplay, not everything will be accounted for in the final version of a script. Perhaps some details get left out; entire chapters may end up omitted from the final draft of a screenplay. In the case of Howl’s Moving Castle, the novel’s major plot points serve as merely a fantastical framework for Miyazaki. In his film, he takes the barebones of Jones’ novel and runs in an entirely different direction. In reworking the plot, the perceptions of Howl and Sophie are also turned on its head to create a world representative of Miyazakiworld aesthetics. In doing so, Miyazaki’s interpretation of Howl’s Moving Castle opens the door for a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy to coexist. The synergy of these two genres creates a unique blend of the technological and the fantastical while also focusing on the consequences that war has on the environment.
Howl vs. Howl
The protagonists of Howl’s Moving Castle have personalities unique to both Miyazaki and Jones’s version of the story. In her novel, Jones writes Howl as the narcissistic, selfish wizard that we have grown accustomed to seeing in the film version. Using beauty and charm at his disposal, Howl is described as a womanizer with a taste for young women who easily fall in love. The film’s version also leans into this trope. At the beginning of the film an employee of the hat shop remarks, “don’t worry, he only preys on pretty girls” (0:04:11). Howl’s charm is what gets him into and out of trouble in both versions, we see this during the sky walking scene where he and Sophie escape Suliman’s henchmen while on their way to the bakery. However, the most apparent contrast in Howl’s character comes from the novel. Howl is far more avoidant of his responsibilities in the novel. While having the duties of a young wizard, Jones writes Howl as one who tends to “slither out” of situations that do not serve him. The resistance in his behavior and his focus on courting women blows up in his face when he becomes rejected by a love interest. Similar to the film version, he throws a tantrum and emits green slime. However, in the novel Howl displays insecurities more openly to Michael (Markl in the film) and Sophie.
“I love her so dearly, but she scorns my deep devotion and gets sorry for another fellow. How can she have another fellow after all this attention I’ve given her? They usually get rid of the other fellows as soon as I come along.”
Miyazaki’s Howl is a lot more composed in the company of Sophie. Perhaps as a front, but it is done so in a way that adds to Howl’s overall allure throughout the film. Miyazaki’s choice in portraying a sensitive, yet vain character shows the dualities he is willing to explore in his male characters. Howl’s personality still charms viewers, but it leaves us wanting to root for someone to change instead of writing them off as unlovable. When he emits green slime in the film version, he throws a tantrum over his lack of beauty while Howl from the novel throws a tantrum over a lack of romantic attention. The two still share a sense of entitlement and vanity, but it is interesting how Miyazaki changes this idea to be more about Howl’s self-image than his desire for attention. In doing so, Miyazaki’s choice in portraying Howl as someone who seeks self-reflection creates a deeper connection to his child characters in previous Ghibli films. In most films the child protagonist does not yet need to reconcile with their behavior. It becomes meaningful when Miyazaki creates a relation to an adult acting as a child by showing a character who is coming to terms with the consequences of their behavior.
Sophie vs. Sophie
To my surprise, Sophie in both the novel and film mirror each other rather closely. Miyazaki’s Sophie is self-reliant and a go-getter. Jones’s Sophie exudes those same qualities; however, the difference from these two is that Sophie sees her confidence come to fruition through her use of magic and spells. Jones’s Sophie also has a knack for getting on Howl’s case; she does so a lot more in the novel than she does in the film. Which I found interesting because of Miyazaki’s tendency to make his older female characters with motherly personalities. A prime example being Dola from Castle in the Sky. Her personality boarders the tough exterior of an adventuring pirate out for treasure while softening to become a nurturing presence for the film’s protagonist Sheeta.
Sophie has motherly qualities in both the novel and the film, the difference we see in the film is that Sophie moves away from this role the more she finds herself falling in love with Howl. In an opposite reaction, the less she mothers Howl, the more he comes to hold himself accountable for his actions. As seen in the air raid scene, out of desperation Sophie begs Howl to give into his avoidant tendencies, “Let’s run, don’t fight them Howl” (1:35:18). Oppositely, Jones’s Sophie maintains her motherly personality throughout the novel. Even in the moments after her spell is broken, she leans away from that personality and allows a more playful side of herself to shine through with Howl.
“Sophie,” said Martha. “The spells off you! Did you hear?”
But Sophie and Howl were holding one another’s hands and smiling and smiling, quite unable to stop.
“Don’t bother me now,” said Howl. “I only did it for the money.”
“Liar!” said Sophie.
Sophie in both the film and novel versions of Howl’s Moving Castle tend to get on Howl’s case when he refuses to act his age. Sophie did not nag Howl nearly as much as she did in the novel, but she expresses the same care she holds for him through what feels like moments of tough love. Her appearance of being a crotchety old lady mirrors her personality of a nagging, mother-type. In both versions she even jokes about how her sense of style matches that of an old lady. Though Sophie was not a magic user in the film, Miyazaki’s portrayal of older women shows they are capable of exerting power through their words and actions. The qualities that Miyazaki’s Sophie portrays are similar to what Jones’s Sophie utilizes when she casts spells. Both are an intersection of agency and speaking one’s power into existence. Sophie’s self-assuredness in the film came from having to be resilient through the horrors of war. Oppositely, Sophie manifests literal magical power for herself by speaking to and enchanting objects to work in her favor. While Miyazaki uses less of a fantastical lens to portray Sophie, his choice in representing older women who choose to continuously step into their confidence is what represents the female characters of Miyazakiworld. However reluctant or uncertain of their journeys, their determination to face their metaphorical (and sometimes literal) demons head-on is what makes up the qualities of his self-righteous female protagonists.
The scope of Miyazakiworld evokes an array of emotions that resonate with the most empathetic parts of ourselves. Through Ghibli films we understand the fleeting moments of life and are reminded to have gratitude for ourselves and the world we exist in. Upon leaving the Ghibli exhibit, the gratitude I had for myself, and the environment felt restored. I left inspired and thinking how much Ghibli films have inspired countless fans to move through their world with an appreciation for the messages Miyazaki’s films convey. If there were any objections to the exhibit, it was that I was left wanting to see more of what Miyazaki’s process looked like. Perhaps notes, doodles, written ideas, scrapped or altered storyboards. My biggest curiosity was wanting to see how he interpreted Howl’s Moving Castle and how those concepts looked compared to Jones’s work. Finding those gaps that bridge between text and film would have been an interesting process to see unfold throughout the exhibit. Yet, I do feel it was justified to show only glimpses of Miyazaki’s animation process. On the surface, the items in the exhibit were displayed as finished products, looking into one’s creative process can reveal a more intimate side of a person that one may not wish to share with the public. For that, I respect the museum curators for selecting the work best representative of Miyazaki.
“Miyazakiworld contains many utopian visions”
Perhaps one of the most enduring elements of Miyazakiworld is the concept of utopia. Though constructed differently throughout these films, the idea of utopia in Howl’s Moving Castle is the home Howl and Sophie create at the end of the film. Still held together by the same members of the household, it represents freedom as it is seen flying across the sky. Miyazaki’s emphasis on a found family in Howl’s Moving Castle becomes a personal theme for his audience, perhaps conveying the message that family can be messy (much like the exterior of Howl’s castle), but it is constructed by the ideals of those that inhibit the space.
The takeaway from understanding Miyazakiworld aesthetic is that it exists between both reality and fantasy. It speaks to the very real possibilities of our world while reminding us to still make room for the fantastical to exist in our lives. Not only to uplift, but to ground us in the environment we cultivate in our present world. Just as Ghibli movies let our minds wander into an untethered, whimsical reality, it also brings us back down to see the relation it has to our own lives. Howl’s Moving Castle creates a fine balance of romanticism and quickly sobers its viewers with the escalation of war. It is in this juxtaposition that this film operates within Miyazakiworld aesthetics. However fantastical a moment may feel, reality is not too far behind to remind us of the roles we play in nature and life.
When walking into the Academy Museum’s entrance for its Hayao Miyazaki exhibit, we are taken through a green passageway, much like the one young Satsuki and Mei take to cross into the forest spirit’s world in the film My Neighbor Totoro. As we walk through this tunnel, it becomes a sensory journey of sorts that is enhanced by Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack for the film, vivid storyboard art, as well as projected scenes of Miyazaki’s many animated films. We are immediately immersed into the animated universe the director has constructed throughout his career. Each visitor is taken on their own unique journey based on their personal background and experiences as well as their familiarity with Miyazaki’s work. It was both my visit to this exhibit and rewatching the film My Neighbor Totoro that urged me to look inwards, taking me on an emotional journey from which I was able to examine the losses I (as well as so many others) have recently undergone.
I’ve always found myself intrigued by the dystopian genre and how it touches on global catastrophe, but it is one thing to read about and another to witness firsthand. It is bizarre (for lack of a better word) to think that we have—and we continue to be in the midst of what could be referred to as a pandemic apocalypse. The last two years feel like they have taken an eternity. And somehow, when I look back, the last two years also feel like they have flown by. During this time, I have experienced both victories and losses, which have ultimately been transformative experiences. However, I have a hard time finding a balance between what I can celebrate and what I can mourn. In Joe Pinsker’s The Atlantic article “All the Things We Have to Mourn Now”, he attributes this to “the turmoil of the pandemic [as] altering and interrupting the normal course of mourning.”
In these last two years, I transferred to CSUN (after years of starting over at a community college because I’d been academically disqualified from another state university). I dealt with the sudden full-time shift into virtual learning. I qualified for financial aid for the first time in my life. My paternal grandmother developed sudden hearing loss, tinnitus, and vertigo. I found myself dealing with our convoluted healthcare system in trying to advocate for her health. I was on the Dean’s List for three semesters in a row. I was part of a pilot peer mentor program at my university. I wasn’t able to see my close friends. I wasn’t able to see my boyfriend. Because I live with my paternal grandparents, I thought it best to stay at home and avoid physical contact with anyone outside of my household. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders because I believed I was responsible for the health of my family to such an extent that it took a great toll on my mental health. One of the hardest losses, however, was the passing of my maternal grandmother, Genoveva Capcha, and seeing how it affected my mother. Yet despite that, it is during these last two years that I have cultivated a stronger relationship with my mother and gotten to know her better.
When I rewatched My Neighbor Totoro, I was stunned at the connections I observed between the film and my own personal life. The film resonated with me in a way it never had before.
My Neighbor Totoro takes place in a Japan previous to massive industrialization. The film’s premise is pretty straightforward: sisters Satsuki and Mei move into the countryside with their father as the mother remains in a sanatorium close by due to an illness that is never quite disclosed. The little girls make the best of their situation by finding the wonder in their natural surroundings. They befriend Totoro, a forest spirit, and cross into an imaginary world that soothes them from harsh realities we wouldn’t wish on any child. According to Susan Napier’s book Miyazakiworld, the film “reconstructs [Miyazaki’s] boyhood, processing youthful dreams, and nightmares to offer a magical world of protection, nurturing, and resilience” (107). The film explores what it means to undergo personal and universal losses. When we consider our current reality, many of us feel responsible for the consequences of massive economic and industrial expansion. We feel it because we have been the ones to pay the price. During this pandemic, we have witnessed governments prioritize business over human lives. We have witnessed the politicization of a public health crisis that has led to further division. We have lost more than six million lives worldwide due to COVID-19 complications.
And yet, we have found ways to cope with these years of uncertainty in a way that is comparable to the sisters in My Neighbor Totoro. Some of us have worked from home. Some of us have been unemployed. Some of us have found refuge in our natural surroundings whether it’s been by going on a walk or taking a trip beyond our urban landscape.
In Kosuke Fujiki’sessay, “My Neighbor Totoro: The Healing of Nature, the Nature of Healing”, he discusses the significance of the pastoral landscape and its influence over the film’s characters. He asserts, “the film’s portrayal of 1950s village life in harmony with nature [is] nostalgic or even utopian for [those] who [are] no longer in contact with natural landscapes in everyday life” (Kosuke 156). Nature has long been associated with the power to soothe and heal us. It is my belief that nature did just that for my abuelita in the last two years of her life. As a result of the pandemic, her children and grandchildren came to stay with her in the countryside. She was able to enjoy the innocent liveliness of her grandchildren. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to spend time with your family especially when one’s sons and daughters have grown up and moved on to form their own families. In a sense, it was the pandemic that brought my abuelita’s family back to her. I’m very thankful for that.
Although the mother’s illness in My Neighbor Totoro is never explained, there has been a lot of speculation that it is tuberculosis. Miyazaki’s own mother had it too. The film “incorporates an absent mother, the gloom of her possible death, and even the dramatic move from town to countryside” (Napier 111). The uncertainty of one’s health creates a state of limbo because of how it alters our ability to mourn. Although everyone has their own grieving process, “human beings need to see the body of our loved one, to have remains, in order to know that our loved one has been transformed…So even many clear-cut losses have become ambiguous—unclear and lacking resolution” (Pinsker). In the case of my abuelita, she developed pulmonary fibrosis and it was further complicated because of her tuberculosis. It is our belief that she got tuberculosis from visiting a sick family friend at the hospital. She went from having healthy lungs to needing a portable oxygen concentrator to eventually needing oxygen 24/7.
Throughout the film, the mother makes few on-screen appearances, but she is a driving force for her husband as well as her daughters. The mother, Yasuko, is depicted as a warm and perceptive figure. We see her comb her daughter’s hair and listen intently to the stories her family has for her. She demonstrates a silent strength despite her illness so to not worry her family who has already sacrificed so much for her. In contrast, my abuelita Genoveva was a strong and hard-working woman who was rarely sick. Her strength was not silent. She was one of those tough grandmothers who never wanted to be fretted over. If anything, she was the one to fret over us getting up early or if we’d fed the animals on her farm. She had a different way of expressing her love and concern for us.
Because of the strength we all knew and admired her for, it was extremely difficult for me and my family to see her state of health suddenly deteriorate. She fought against it to the very end. I remember how she’d wait for us to turn away so she could walk down her farm and go see her grandchildren. I remember how she scolded my mother and I because she thought we were hovering over her too much. I remember how our conversations got shorter with each visit I made, but the smile on her face when we’d first arrive remained the same. I was thankfully able to visit three times in the last six months of her life.
In sickness, my abuelita became a driving force that brought all her family together. COVID-19 cases went down in California. In the last year of my abuelita’s life, my mother was able to make several visits whether it was with us or on her own. She was able to spend time alongside her mother and siblings, creating memories for the many years she had missed out on.
When my mother was pregnant with me, she made the difficult decision of leaving her family behind for more opportunities in the U.S. She wouldn’t be able to return to her birth country for more than twenty-two years. She maintained contact through telephone and written letters with pictures of her new family. It is a tremendous sacrifice that I do not romanticize.
And somehow, it was my abuelita that gave back to her family by physically uniting everyone once more. She had always considered family to be sacred. The same effort she put into raising her children—she received from them. As her illness progressed more and more, her family remained by her side. In My Neighbor Totoro, Satsuki and Mei are only children and yet they put on a strong face to cope with the uncertain fate of their mother. Although my mother and her siblings are no longer children, they demonstrated a similar strength as the six of them created a schedule to make sure their mother Genoveva would always be taken care of. We were determined to never have her stay overnight in a hospital. She hated doctors. She loved her countryside and the dozens of avocado trees that were the fruit of her lifetime of labor. My family made sure to work the land for her when she no longer could.
There’s a moment in the film in which Satsuki and Mei discover that their mother’s condition has worsened and she can no longer visit them in their new countryside home. Mei has faith in the restorative powers of nature and she becomes determined to take an ear of corn so that her mother will get better (Fujiki 153). Satsuki, the older sister, becomes flustered by the uncertainty of her mother’s condition and she can no longer maintain the charade. When Satsuki demonstrates the vulnerability that is natural for a child coping with the ongoing loss of a parental figure, it terrifies Mei. Satsuki “opens the floodgates to her own awareness of adult mortality, something that she had previously blocked by busily taking on the chores and persona of the adult child” (Napier 124). It is my belief that loss—particularly the loss of a parental figure—brings out the child in all of us. We can hold a strong face if we sense that our loved ones need it, but it is natural to be overwhelmed by the realization that loss is inevitable.
During the first year of the pandemic, I remember the crippling sensation from the uncertainty that loomed over the world. It was daunting to know that my own parents were just as uncertain as I was. I remember a late night in which I could see the concern on their face. They did not have the answers to this global pandemic and they were frustrated by the growing division in our country. My only way of coping was throwing myself into my studies, fiercely determined to get my bachelor’s degree if it was the last thing I did.
I was able to find refuge in literature and film. It would transport me to a different reality that I had control over. I had the freedom of being a distant observer and being distracted from my own reality. According to the Artwork Archive, “art reminds us that we are not alone and that we share a universal human experience. Through art, we feel deep emotions together and are able to process experiences, find connections, and create impact.” That is precisely what happened when I rewatched My Neighbor Totoro and visited the Hayao Miyazaki exhibit in the Academy Museum.
It is only fitting that the green passageway in the exhibit’s entrance links to the “Mother Tree” installation near the end. The installation reflects the interconnectedness between humans and nature that Miyazaki’s films urge us to reconsider.
In the end credits for My Neighbor Totoro, it is suggested that the mother recovers enough to visit her family’s countryside home. The film ends on an encouraging note. Whether our own sick loved ones come back to us or not, our memories with them will last a whole lifetime. Napier refers to this as “Totoro’s final magic…it allows us to recover what we have forgotten and to luxuriate in innocence, beauty, and joy if only for a few transitory moments” (124-125).
On the second visit, the night I was taking a flight back home, I went with my brother to say goodbye to my abuelita. It was the last time that I got to see her awake and conscious. I remember telling her that I’d try to come back one more time to see her and she nodded at me. By this point, she was bedridden. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach and wished I didn’t have to go back home. I wished my brother and I didn’t have to return to classes. My abuelita held onto her strength for as long as she could. When my father took a flight back home, my abuelita went into a deep sleep. It was as if she felt she didn’t have to pretend anymore.
And yet, my abuelita waited for us to fly back a third time. My mother had stayed behind and she called to let us know the nurse had said it was only a matter of days. We took a same-day flight and were hopeful that we’d be able to see her once more. Although my abuelita spent her last days in a deep slumber, I believe that she felt our presence. I remember holding her hand and talking to her, thanking her for everything she’d done for us. Even at the very end of her life, she remained fierce. The nurse had confidently told us it’d be a matter of hours and that she knew this because of her many years of experience. My abuelita had always been a proud woman and wanted things her way. True to her character, she defied the nurse’s words many hours later, passing at 5AM on a Sunday morning.
Grief is a strange thing in that it is a different experience for everyone. The wake and funeral service we held made it easier to both commemorate and mourn the loss of my abuelita Genoveva. However, providing end of life care for a loved one is hard because it feels like a loss that is ongoing. It is somewhat easier to let go at the end because you don’t want your loved one to suffer anymore. But for the same reason, you are trapped in a limbo state of mourning for as long as you see them suffer. I resonated with My Neighbor Totoro to the point of tears because I felt seen. The film felt like a warm blanket because it allowed me to feel like a child again, providing me the outlet I needed.
Although Miyazaki’s film takes place in 1950s Japan, its underlying theme of personal and universal loss continues to resonate today. By reflecting on my own connections to My Neighbor Totoro, it is my hope that it encourages others to visit the Academy Museum’s Hayao Miyazaki exhibit and form connections of their own. The exhibit’s last day will be on June 5, 2022 and tickets can be purchased in advance here.
As a final dedicatory note to my abuelita Genoveva, I’ve attached a song from Peru’s Banda Show Internacional Sunicancha that makes me think of her called “Madre” (mother).
Displayed on the top floor of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in L.A. were the collected notes, sketches, and models of Hayao Miyazaki. The very veins of his beloved movies had been laid out across the walls or beneath the glass of the display cases. Select snippets from his movies played in loops on the walls, filling empty spaces with bright and shifting colors. The decorations all served to elevate the presence of the Studio Ghibli aesthetic, with the gentle theme from My Neighbor Totoro following the audience through the entrance. The design and content were, overall, well executed, but I have to say that the most provocative aspect of the exhibit for me was what I call Grass Under Sky.
Visitors were silently invited to go and lay in the artificial turf and gaze up at the clouds drifting across the screen. To be clear, there was no sign stating the purpose of the display, but even the most uncertain attendees could follow the lead of the children, who read the invitation on the lack of rope barriers and joyously plunked themselves down on the fake grass. Children are great at understanding rules, try as they might to convince you otherwise. As for the display itself, it’s a pretty cheap effect, and the cynical-at-heart may have muttered words like “unconvincing” and “ow, my back.” Children, on the other hand, don’t need very much convincing to have fun interacting with their environment (and they don’t usually have to spend the next few minutes walking funny due to sudden lower back pain). I’ve found that kids just kind of get it, but what is “it” and how come I didn’t get it as quickly? Why did this display haunt my mind in the weeks following the visit?
The Grass Under Sky display got me thinking about the idea of nature as it exists in the real world and the ways in which we interact with it. Take Mt. Everest and its seeming ability to draw people up its heights year after year. What is it about this great mountain that gets us so excited? Could it be that Mt. Everest has character, or personality, and that it speaks to us in some way? No, probably not. Any “character” of this kind that exudes from Everest is little more than a projection. We want an adversary to dominate, so the tallest climbable mountain in the world serves as one of our greatest challenges.
Mt. Everest is to the modern human what a lion was to the Romans. At least, that’s the subtle connection I know I make in my own mind whenever I’m reminded of the mountain’s existence. I’ll blame this on my being human, which is to say that I’m prone to slipping into patterns of thought that are only shaken when confronted with a new idea, or a different perspective. Over the course of a semester studying Hayao Miyazaki’s work, I’ve come to the conclusion that the biggest perspective shift that a person could hope to access is the complete removal of the human—of the self—from the frame.
In order to talk about character as it exists within the scenic elements of nature, I needed to rethink the ways I understand communication. And it helped to focus on the notion of an unasked question. In regards to creative writing, Roland Barthes identifies an element he calls the hermeneutic code (link). It refers to the parts of a story that are unexplained and therefore raise questions among the audience that had not been asked directly by the narrative. In other words, when you read something, you start to wonder about it, and through this a deeper engagement with that subject can begin. With this concept in mind, perhaps images like the one above and the one below can be better understood as unasked questions.
So I ask again: could it be that this small portion of the nonhuman world has character, is speaking, and is asking questions simply by existing? In her essay (link), “Animated Nature: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Empathy in Miyazaki Hayao’s Ecophilosophy,” Pamela Gossin explores Miyazaki’s seemingly anti-anthropocentric attitude toward nature. Gossin highlights a provocative element of the director’s philosophy:
“[Miyazaki’s] films teach us that to create humane, ethical action within the natural realm, humankind must… acknowledge the value of the unknown and unknowable as real and active variables in the vast cosmological, ecological, and existential equations in which we find ourselves, including an allowance of the possibility that what we do not and cannot know may be more significant than the sum total of everything we think we can and do consciously know.” (217)
Vague as it may be, this idea of the “unknown and unknowable” is this phenomenon that hints at the presence of character in nature; it is the unasked question, and it’s obviously not exclusive to Mt. Everest. The question persists everywhere at once and is asked in chorus; it persists like a ghost, or a spirit, or perhaps even an inquisitive little kodama as depicted in Princess Mononoke. The point being that nature represents itself in our world, even if it can’t communicate with us in a direct manner.
As to what exactly is being asked, well, I’d guess that it has something to do with the recognition of natural agency that Gossin mentioned: a need to understand that our knowledge of the world may be far more limited than we otherwise presume, and that we shouldn’t limit our damage to the environment simply because it would be good for us. If this planet’s natural environment has a character agency of its own, then coexistence between humans and the inhuman world may simply be the ethical—if not polite—outcome to strive toward.
Now that I’ve explained the agency of nature as it testifies to a level of character (at least in that it can communicate with us), I’ll explain what I’m talking about when I refer to “nature,” and what this all has to do with the Grass Under Sky display.
First, the former: what I’m talking about isn’t this intensely broad presence of the natural world that ever-crowds the edges of our civilized human world. I’m talking instead about nature’s mouth—or else, its voice-box, or whatever you want to call this space where the unasked question arises from. Nature’s voice can be heard in specific moments—which can be everyday moments as well— and the pillow shots that pop up all throughout Miyazaki’s filmography are a representation of that voice. In other words, Miyazaki’s pillow shots are nature’s mouth.
In his article (link), “The enigmatic ‘pillow shots’ of Yasujiro Ozu,” Leigh Singer describes a pillow shot as “carefully composed scenes [of] seemingly random shots, held for several seconds, of everyday life.” Singer shows multiple examples of what an Ozu pillow shot looks like, just as I’ve provided some examples of Miyazaki’s, such as the images directly above and below from My Neighbor Totoro. These images make use of the hermeneutic code by making the audience take a moment to question the shot’s placement within the narrative. The pillow shots don’t propel the story forward or reveal something new about any of the characters. They simply make us stop and appreciate the things that are going on within the world apart from the anthropocentric plot of the movies. Miyazaki’s pillow shots represent pocket moments where we are taken out of ourselves and beholden to a small, wonderful something taking place around us, like a snail climbing up a stem, or the breeze pushing the soft clouds above the grass. When we stop hurtling forward through our own lives, we can start to wonder about our world, to ask questions about it, or even hear the questions that are being asked of us.
Which finally brings us to that haunting display, Grass Under Sky, waiting at the center of the third room of the exhibit. The display was clearly meant to give museum-goers a chance to feel what Kiki felt on that hill in Kiki’s Delivery Service. It is a replica of a pillow shot, which, as Singer points out, is already an imitation of life. It is the shadow’s shadow, unconvincing artificial turf beneath a dim projection of clouds in the sky. Almost a joke. Was I really trying to convince myself that I could feel the passing breeze while I lay there, knowing fully well that the museum’s AC was functioning exactly as it should?
But maybe that was the point: it never mattered whether or not I felt the breeze or managed to convince myself that the display was a satisfactory representation of nature. The display simply existed, an astral projection of a reality simultaneously distant (from an L.A. museum interior) and incredibly close (in the recollection of some faded memory that it had sparked). The display was quietly communicating an experience that was as real as any of the animator’s artifacts sitting behind the glass, and like the pillow shots from Miyazaki’s movies, I didn’t need to see it in order to feel like it had seen me. I would even posit that, if real-life pillow shots are nature’s mouth, then the display might be better understood as a tour guide, or a docent. Someone—something—that shares a fascinating bit of information about the subject of the exhibit.
And that was my favorite part of the exhibit. There is something endearing about the attempt, something surprisingly connected, in spite of the levels of disconnect the display has from the initial glimpse of nature that Miyazaki captured in his movies. Even if the display seemed a small thing, pillow shots are equally small, and yet those, too, are capable of leaving lasting, perspective-shifting impressions on impressionable young audiences. Impressions that can be carried into adulthood, informing ecocritical opinions regarding their world.
This video essay explores how different expressions of loss manifest in Miyazaki’s films, and why it’s critical to acknowledge how animation tackles grim themes, despite it commonly being trivialized as a light-hearted medium for children.
The essay content is inspired by Susan Napier’s observations in her book, Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art (2018), and the Hayao Miyazaki exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
“Miyazaki’s decision to go for a magical resolution to real-life trauma underlines one of [his] key messages: that belief in the powers of nature and the imagination will give us the strength to go beyond ourselves and transcend the traumas of daily life” (Napier 118).
Essay content written by: Jeremiah Raz, Elizabeth Bugtai, and Brandon James.
In the eco- and nature-centric worlds created by Hayao Miyazaki, Nature and her minions are both punitive and beneficent, depending on the inner motivation of the receiving character. The slideshow below discusses the natural benefactors in five of Hayao Miyazaki’s works: Future Boy Conan, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away. These works epitomize the idea that those with internal motivations to harm or steal from nature are punished, while those with altruistic motives are forgiven, rewarded, or assisted by Nature. It also provides an overview of the Academy Museum and the Hayao Miyazaki exhibition. Enjoy the slideshow!