Hayao Miyazaki’s Path to Studio Ghibli

We look at legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki's rise to success.

When Hayao Miyazaki stepped into a Tokyo conference room and announced his retirement from feature filmmaking on September 6th, 2013, it marked the end of a career which stretched back to the early 1960s. Through such films as My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki entertained and beguiled a global audience with his lighter-than-air storytelling and captivating characters. Somehow, his films managed to be both universal and deeply personal. But how did Miyazaki, born to a well-to-do family on January 5th, 1941, become one of the most respected animators in Japan?

Miyazaki grew up in the post-war comics boom led by the father of manga, Osamu Tezuka, and dreamed of becoming a comic artist himself. When he went to university, however, Miyazaki studied political science and economics rather than the arts. But he remained dedicated to pursuing a career in manga; even as he read and wrote about Japanese industry, and started up a manga club at his university (Gakushuin Daigaku in Tokyo) and began approaching publishers with some of his early work.

As for animation, there was one cinematic experience that, more than any other, seemed to trigger Miyazaki’s filmmaking ambitions – it was one of the first steps on his path to becoming one of the most celebrated animators of all time.

The Tale of the White Serpent

Released By Toei Animation in 1958, The Tale of the White Serpent (or Hakujaden) was Japan’s first feature-length, color anime. Based on a Chinese folktale, it’s about a young boy who falls in love with a snake goddess in human form. Miyazaki was still a high school teenager when he saw the film, and its impact was profound; he went back to the cinema to see it several times, and later admitted that he “fell in love” with Bai-Nang, the snake goddess.

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“I was hooked when I saw Hakujaden,” Miyazaki wrote in a 1979 essay, “and I wound up choosing to become an animator because of it.”

Compared to later Japanese animated features, The Tale of the White Serpent is somewhat stilted, both technically and in terms of storytelling, and clearly influenced by Disney. But there are also moments of beauty in it, and the seeds of what Miyazaki would bring to his own work: a sense of childlike innocence and a lightness of touch. Miyazaki admitted as much in a lecture he gave in 1982, reproduced in his superb book, Starting Point.

read more: 10 Great Fantasy Anime Movies not From Studio Ghibli

“When I saw Hakujaden,” he said, “it was as if the scales fell from my eyes; I realised that I should depict the honesty and goodness of children in my work […] With that as my starting point, I have spent the last 20 years trying to do this.”

Watchdog Bow Wow and early Toei Animation work

After leaving university in 1963, Miyazaki went to work at Toei Animation – the studio whose Tale of the White Serpent had sparked his fascination with anime. Moving into a tiny nearby apartment, he worked as an in-between artist on the feature-length anime, Watchdog Bow Wow, and the made-for-TV anime Wolf Boy Ken.

read more: 10 Great Incidental Studio Ghibli Characters

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It was repetitive work, and low paid (around a third of his 19,500 yen salary went on his rent), but the experience provided a vital grounding in the art of animation. Miyazaki wasn’t content to simply sit at his work station and draw in-between frames, either. Within one year of joining Toei Animation, he’d become secretary of the studio’s labor union. The year after that, he made a vital contribution to the film Gulliver’s Travels Beyond The Moon: dissatisfied with the conclusion in Shinichi Sekizawa’s script, Miyazaki successfully pitched his own, superior ending.

Hustle Punch and Horus, Prince Of The Sun

Spurred on by the inspiring work of Russian animator Lev Atamanov’s The Snow Queen (1957), Miyazaki climbed the ranks at Toei, where he moved up from in-between animator to key animator on the TV series Hustle Punch (1965). One of the most significant credits on Hustle Punch – an anarchic comedy series created by Yasuji Mori – was Isao Takahata.

Then aged 30, Takahata was, like the younger Miyazaki, climbing through the ranks at Toei Animation, having directed several episodes of Wolf Boy Ken between 1963 and 1965. Takahata directed the opening sequence for Hustle Punch, which you can see here:

Takahata was then given the opportunity to direct his first feature, Horus, Prince of the Sun (also known as The Little Norse Prince). The project would mark the first feature-length collaboration between Takahata and Miyazaki, who was the key frame animator, and also the creative mind behind some of its major set-pieces; his contribution was such that Miyazaki also received a credit for “Scene Design” in the finished film.

Prince of the Sun marked the stage where Miyazaki’s dedication to his craft really came to the fore. According to a timeline in the back of the book Starting Point, Miyazaki started preproduction work on the film on a voluntary basis. While he was in hospital recovering from appendicitis, he kept working away on early character designs.

Prince of the Sun took three years to make, and it’s not difficult to see why: there’s a keen attention to detail in everything from the motion of ocean waves to the movement of a huge eagle’s clutching talons. Of the delays, Miyazaki recalled in Starting Point that, “By the time it was completed, I had gotten married, had my first son, and my son had celebrated his first birthday.”

(Interestingly, Prince of the Sun wouldn’t be the first of Takahata’s films to take an age to complete. Takahata, often described as a “sloth” by Miyazaki, would often procrastinate and delay the release of his films – production on The Tale of Princess Kaguya, his most recent and likely final film, took at least five years.)

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Bafflingly, Toei didn’t seem too enamoured with Prince of the Sun – or, more likely, deliberately scuttled the film’s chances as retribution for its makers’ trade unionism. At any rate, Prince of the Sun was screened in cinemas for just 10 days before it was plucked from the schedules.

Ill-fated though the film was, it was nevertheless a vital chapter in Miyazaki’s career as an animator. Prince of the Sun showed a new level of maturity, depth and sophistication, and began a creatively fruitful – though frequently strained – partnership between Takahata and Miyazaki which would last for the next five decades.

Future Boy Conan

Takahata was stung by the failure of Horus, Prince of the Sun, and never directed another film for Toei. Instead, he was demoted to assistant director on TV anime, including Secret Little Akko and Kitaro of GeGeGe.

Miyazaki, meanwhile, continued to develop, working as a key animator, designer and also storyboard artist on the 1969 features The Wonderful World of Puss N Boots (Miyazaki also drew the tie-in manga, published the same year) and Flying Phantom Ship.

By 1971, both Miyazaki and Takahata had left Toei – that year’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves was Miyazaki’s final work for the company. The pair began work on an adaptation of Pippi Longstocking for a studio called A Production, and even went on an expedition to Sweden, where they met the character’s creator, Astrid Lindgren.

The project would ultimately prove abortive, but Takahata and Miyazaki continued to work together through the ’70s. Their work included directorial work on the enormously popular TV anime Lupin III, Heidi, Girl of the Alps (which incorporated some of the research they gathered in Sweden) and the 38-minute film Panda! Go, Panda! (1972).

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In 1978, Miyazaki and Takahata worked together on Future Boy Conan, a TV series for NHK that may be among the most important of their pre-Ghibli works. It’s easy to see Miyazaki’s distinctive mark even from the opening frames; the series depicted a post-apocalyptic world reclaimed by nature, where sharks swim among the carcasses of skyscrapers. Its young protagonists, Conan and Lana, are clear forerunners of Pazu and Sheeta in Laputa: Castle in the Sky.

In terms of its characterization, environmental themes and sheer impact of its imagery, Future Boy Conan is a clear forerunner Miyazaki’s breakthrough film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and his subsequent Studio Ghibli work. Indeed, the level of detail that Miyazaki and his collaborators managed to pack into Future Boy Conan is quite remarkable, given the tight budgets and hectic schedules of TV anime: one brief, blick-and-you’ll-miss-it sequence shows a group of crabs on a beach. A wave comes rolling in, and the crabs briefly huddle down to avoid being swept away.

The Castle of Cagliostro

The success of the Lupin III TV series, about a gentleman thief and his lawless exploits, was such that it led to several theatrical features. The first, released in 1978, was so popular that it prompted the production of a second, which would mark Miyazaki’s debut as a feature director.

Although based on someone else’s characters and scenarios (Lupin III was created by Monkey Punch and based in turn on Maurice LeBlanc’s Arsene Lupin crime novels), Miyazaki threw himself into the creation of The Castle of Cagliostro. He wrote the story treatment, designed its action sequences and drew up its storyboards, and managed to get the film completed in just seven months.

read more: All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Studio Ghibli

Miyazaki’s version of Lupin is a lighter, more mature and less gritty take on the one seen in the TV series. His touch extends to every facet of the film, from the European castle setting of the title, which is both fantastical and loaded with enough detail to make it seem believable, and some of the most lovingly-depicted cars in the history of anime.

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Told in a joyful dervish of action and comedy, there’s a sense that Miyazaki relished the freedom of overseeing a feature-length film, and revelled in the challenge of getting it finished in time for its release date. Miyazaki later wrote that he felt a “sense of psychological defeat” after completing The Castle of Cagliostro, because he had to sacrifice sections of his story in order to keep the film on track.

Such frustrations aside, The Castle Of Cagliostro was and remains a stunning debut. After years of honing his craft, Miyazaki had made his first mark as a film director.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

In 1982, Miyazaki began work on the manga Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a sprawling ecological fable he would write and illustrate, off and on, for the next 12 years. About a young princess (the Nausicaä of the title) and her adventures in a post-apocalyptic future, the manga was successful enough for the publishing company Tokuma Shoten to consider making it into a movie.

Ironically, Nausicaä was one of several film ideas Miyazaki had in the wake of The Castle of Cagliostro. These were pitched to Tokuma Shoten and then rejected, so Miyazaki agreed to draw Nausicaä as a manga for Toshio Suzuki’s animation magazine Animage instead.

Miyazaki later wrote that he struggled with the process of adapting his own manga for the screen, but the overwhelming impression left by the resulting movie, released in 1984, is the sheer scale and tangibility of his future world. Future Boy Conan gave an early hint at Miyazaki’s interest in the way nature reclaims abandoned places, and Nausicaä allows him to explore that idea with incredible depth.

The world its brave heroine inhabits – one of several female protagonists Miyazaki would bring to the screen over the next 30 years – is an elemental place of beauty and danger. Gigantic mutant creatures, the wormlike Ohmu, roam a landscape of toxic jungles and deserts. Nausicaä lives in a small Medieval community of farmland and windmills, and their peaceful existence is contrasted with the cruelty and technological power of the Tolmekia and their gigantic flying war machines.

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Packed with stunning detail and indelible imagery – such as the gigantic God Warriors (designed by future Evangelion creator and The Wind Rises voice actor Hideaki Anno), whose destructive power is little short of awe-inspiring – Nausicaä proved to be a hit with audiences, and grossed almost 1.5bn at the Japanese box-office.

Studio Ghibli

There’s one important person we’ve only briefly mentioned so far: Toshio Suzuki. The editor of the anime magazine Animage, Suzuki was a vital part of Nausicaäs success and also the catalyst for Studio Ghibli. He’d originally pitched Miyazaki’s film ideas to his bosses at Tokuma Shoten, and when those fell flat, agreed to publish Nausicaä in Animage. Suzuki also encouraged Miyazaki to adapt Nausicaä when the manga found success, and that film would prove pivotal for Miyazaki’s future as a filmmaker.

A year after Nausicaä‘s release, Miyazaki, Suzuki, and Takahata (who’d produced Nausica) founded Studio Ghibli as a subsidiary of Takuma Shoten; this meant that the process of animation could accomplished in-house instead of by a third-party studio, as Nausicaä  was.

Starting with the fantasy adventure Laputa: Castle in the Sky in 1986, Miyazaki would go on to direct a string of spectacular and phenomenally successful animated features through his studio, with each film building on the reputation and technical brilliance of the last.

My Neighbor Totoro, released in 1988, gave the world a gentle fantasy that is still adored more than 25 years later. Spirited Away would bring Miyazaki Oscar-winning success in 2001. The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s swansong as a feature filmmaker, concluded his career on a poignant and heartfelt note.

While it’s sad to think that we’ll never see a new Hayao Miyazaki feature film, it’s now possible to look back and admire his now completed body of work. His apprenticeship, served at Toei Animation in the 1960s and early 70s, developed alongside the rise of anime in post-war Japan. When he took the helm of his first feature in 1979, Miyazaki began an 11-picture journey in which he’d constantly push the possibilities of animation into uncharted territory. A perfectionist who worked tirelessly on every aspect of his films, Miyazaki leaves behind an astonishing body of work that will be watched for decades to come.   

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Acknowledgements and further reading…

Hayao Miyazaki: Master Of Japanese Animation by Helen McCarthy

Starting Point: 1979 – 1996 by Hayao Miyazaki

The Collected Works of Hayao Miyazaki

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK

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