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.
In this podcast, Taylor Bongiovi and Marja Ziemer discuss aviation and flight in four Miyazaki films. Some issues brought up include: romance and aviation, the magical joy of flight, gender roles and aviation, and the commodification and weaponization of flight.
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.
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.
[Feel Free To Skip The Poetics Statement If You Want to Get Straight To The Poetry]
I was inspired by my trip to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and a love of Miyazaki’s films to try and write poetry inspired by his films, which are known both for their vivid imagery and complex themes interplaying between concepts of ecology, family, commercialism, and technology.
As an additional challenge, I attempted to write all my poetry in the form of haiku, a traditional Japanese form of poetry that I have very little experience in, in an attempt to get a more sheer and honest interpretation of Miyazaki’s work and in turn seek a better appreciation for his films.
I attempted to capture some of the themes present in Miyzaki’s films in the haikus, with each individual poem being accompanied by a background still of the specific film that inspired it and an emphasis on some of the themes of the same work. I challenge potential readers to see if they can guess the film from the poem and the corresponding frame, and undoubtedly some will be a lot easier to identify than others. I took a single still from most of Miyazaki’s directed films, all of them being: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso, and Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Feel free to comment down below which poems you like, or alternatively, feel free to disagree with some of my thematic interpretations or share what your thoughts are on Miyazaki’s art.
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.