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.
When I watched SpiritedAway for the first time, I was extremely curious and captivated by the character No-Face. The character seemed so familiar to me but I could not pinpoint why. I thought perhaps the character was an established figure in Japanese mythology, but my googling “origins of No-Face” was fruitless. All sources stated that No-Face was an original character created by Hayao Miyazaki.
I had hoped the Academy Museum exhibition on Miyazaki would provide deeper insight. While the exhibition offered a fascinating insight into the process of Miyazaki’s filmmaking, it did not provide the answers I sought. The exhibit failed to address the influence of other artists and art forms on Miyazaki’s works.
I recently learned of a theatrical stage adaptation of Spirited Away produced in Japan earlier this year with the support of Studio Studio Ghibli. As a fan of the film and a theatre artist, I was very intrigued. As I looked at production photos, I had many realizations. The stage adaption appeared to be reminiscent of Bunraku theatre. I also realized what had always eluded me about No-Face. The design and characteristics of No-Face borrow from Noh theatre.
Rewatching Spirited Away with these connections in mind I was able to identify how Miyazaki was inspired by and utilized traditional forms of Japanese theatre to aid his storytelling. Now we are seeing theatre take influence from Miyazaki, as the film has been adapted for the stage using Noh and Bunraku techniques.
Noh, or nō, is a form of traditional Japanese mask theatre that dates back to the fourteenth century (Brazell 497). Noh performances are a mixture of poetry, dance, and music that entwine supernatural elements and Buddhist philosophies. Unlike western theatre, Noh dramas do not focus on character development or plot. Instead, Noh dramas embody a feeling and are viewed as opportunities to “celebrate deities, poetry, longevity, fertility, or harmony; or exorcize external or internal ghosts and demons” (Brazell 497). The leading Shite actors wear masks that indicate character and emotion. Although the Shite is the central focus, they rarely recite dialogue and utilize primarily movement and their mask to tell the story while the chorus chants (Brazell 497). Noh theatre utilizes a unique stage that consists of a bridge, representative of the bridge between worlds, leading to a larger thrust stage and a small side stage (Brazell 497). Noh theatre continues to be practiced to this day in Japan and its influence has spread to other theatre artists worldwide as well as other art forms as we can see in Spirited Away.
The clearest influence of Noh theatre in Spirited Away can be observed through an examination of the character No-face. No-face’s neutral mask aesthetically and thematically resembles the masks utilized in Noh theatre. Giving No-Face a Shite-like appearance quickly and effectively establishes them as a supernatural force. Noriko Reider explains masks create inscrutable characters by making them “both more elusive and expressive” (20). Exploiting this duality which is a major factor of Noh, adds a level of intrigue by keeping the audience guessing what No-face’s goals and values are. This is enhanced by the fact that No-Face is mostly silent like Shite in Noh theatre in addition to being masked. Miyazaki uses Noh aesthetics is create the personality, or rather lack of personality, of No-Face.
Furthermore, Chihiro first sees No-Face when she crosses the bridge to the bathhouse with Haku. In Noh theatre, the Shite, who is typically a divine or supernatural being, uses the bridge built into the stage as a portal between worlds. It is the same case in Spirited Away, the bridge to the bathhouse serves as a passageway for spirits. We do not know where the spirits are coming from but this is their entryway into this realm. Therefore who acts as the film’s Shite, is first seen on this bridge. Using themes established by Noh Miyazaki was able to create a new complex yet familiar character in Japanese mythology.
Bunraku is a traditional form of Japanese puppet theatre that developed during the seventeenth century. The name Bunraku is derived ” from the name Uemura Bunrakuken, the founder of a troupe in Osaka around 1800″ (Gerstle 200). There are three elements to Bunraku, chanters, musicians, and puppets. One chanter narrates and voices the entire play and is accompanied by a shamisen player (Gerstle 200). The large and ornate puppets, manipulated by three people each, enact the play’s action. The unmasked lead puppeteer operates the puppet’s head and right arm and two asked secondary puppeteers operate the left arm and the legs (Gerstle 200). Structurally and thematically Bunraku takes inspiration from Noh and features cyclical stories with roots in “Buddhist and folk-religious heritage” (Gerstle 200). Today there is only one surviving professional troupe. They are based in Osaka, the birthplace of Bunraku, and frequently perform at Tokyo and Osaka National Theatres (Gerstle 200). Although Bunraku has dwindled in popularity, the art form continues to influence other forms of puppet theatre worldwide and Kabuki theatre. Furthermore, we can see the inspiration of Bunraku in both the stage and film versions of Spirited Away.
Once again these influences are most evident when considering No-face. No-Face wears clothing similar to that of the hooded secondary puppeteers in Bunraku. Both don black shapeless cloaks and hide their faces. In Bunraku, this is done for puppeteers to erase themselves and become a vessel for the characters of the puppet. I believe this applies to No-Face as well. As we see in the film, No-Face does not take on any strong personality until they begin to eat the inhabitants of the bathhouse. Then No-Face takes on the attitude and values of the beings it has consumed. Like the puppeteers, No-Face is acting as a receptacle and amplifier of others, rather than as independent. Miyazaki combines the aesthetics of Noh and Banraku to create a character who is the perfect blank slate.
As we have established, Miyazaki draws inspiration from a variety of sources, including traditional forms of Japanese theatre, to create something new. We are now seeing the theatre world be inspired by Miyazaki. The stage adaptation of Spirited Away, which premiered at Tokyo’s Imperial Theatre in February 2022. directed by John Caird, acknowledges and leans into the film’s borrowing of Bunraku practices. To bring the non-human and supernatural that inhabit the world of Spirited Away to the stage this production is utilizing a puppet form of puppet theatre that seems to be a revival of Bunraku traditions. Just like in Bunraku, multiple puppeteers, dressed in neutrals to disappear, operate the larger-than-life puppets designed by renowned theatrical puppet designer and director, Toby Olie. The production also keeps the Noh and Bunraku-inspired look of No-Face. It is so interesting to see how theatre and animation can inspire each other.
I think many artists and their audiences, get too hung up on being original. Something I’ve learned studying theatre and pop culture is all the best artists steal. Art is created in response to the world around us, not in a vacuum. Therefore, art is always influenced by the work of others. Allowing oneself to be inspired and moved to create is what makes artists artists. Even artistic geniuses and auteurs like Hayao Miyazaki don’t start from scratch when creating. It is important to acknowledge that good artists and storytellers, like Miyazaki, draw inspiration from a variety of sources to create something new. It is what an artist has to say with their art that matters most, not doing something completely new. I hope going forward artists are more generous in acknowledging and crediting those who have inspired and informed their work. I’d love it if the Academy Museum exhibition Hayao Miyazaki would add a section dedicated to Miyazaki’s inspirational sources. Knowing this information just enhances the enjoyment and engagement of the audience. I appreciate Spirited Away much more now that I have found the connections between the film and traditional Japanese theatre.
Gerstle, Andrew. “Bunraku.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance, 1st ed., vol. 1, Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 200–01.
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 olderman. 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.
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.
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.
WELCOME to our Miyazaki blog: a showcase for our work in English 421HM, a course in CSUN’s Pop Culture Minor in Spring 2022 (see About English 421HM: Hayao Miyazaki for more context). As you scroll through our blog, below, you’ll see the fruits of our semester together. Enjoy, and please join the conversation by leaving comments!