The James Clayton Column: The beautiful legacy of Hayao Miyazaki

With The Wind Rises out in the UK now, James salutes the work of its legendary animator, Hayao Miyazaki...

The Wind Rises gets its UK release this week, and that’s very good news for those of us who’ve been waiting patiently for Hayao Miyazaki’s new movie. Studio Ghibli’s latest – a fictionalised biopic of the aircraft engineer and designer Jiro Horikoshi – came out last July in its native Japan. Now, finally, we arrive at the point where we can see the acclaimed anime feature though, indubitably, the experience will be a bittersweet one.

After this one there will be no new Miyazaki films. The man responsible for such cinematic masterpieces as My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away announced his retirement from moviemaking last autumn. Though the animation auteur has made similar statements in the past and subsequently returned to direct again, it appears that this time his promise is definitive. The Wind Rises, therefore, becomes something special to savour and appreciate all the more – the last chance to visit a movie theatre to find Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful visions and flights of imagination brought to life on the big screen.

It’s The End then, but this isn’t a moment for mourning and it doesn’t seem right to get morbid and sad about a 73-year-old’s decision to call time on one aspect of his rich creative life (Miyazaki-san is still drawing manga). If anything, it’s an ideal opportunity to reflect on the legacy of the great director – an icon who deserves to be lauded as one of if not the greatest in his field.

The truth is that, in his own modest way, Hayao Miyazaki has changed the world and he’s changed it for the better. The exceptional work of Miyazaki, Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko) and the many other gifted Studio Ghibli animators has, over the course of almost three decades, ensured that the company has risen to become one of the most illustrious and beloved of all film studios. The anime house’s creative and commercial success has changed both the domestic and international film industry and Miyazaki – as the co-founder and prolific creator of Ghibli’s most popular pictures – can take a considerable part of the credit.

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As far as the spread of otaku culture outside Japan goes, I think it’s reasonable to suggest that Miyazaki’s contribution is hugely significant. His pictures have provided many international viewers their first encounter with feature-length anime and initiated them into the rich and diverse realms of Japanese animation and manga in addition to elements of the country’s wider culture and history.

That’s true for both younger and older audiences and it may also be the case that, for some, Miyazaki’s movies are the first taste of what’s crudely termed ‘world cinema’ or even feature-length animation as a whole. I’ve heard stories of good geek parents – some of them writers for this fine website – who have weaned their toddlers on Totoro and made sure that Miyazaki’s Ghibli classics are among the first film screenings their young children sit through. Such anecdotes show just how highly regarded the man is and highlight how much his creations have permeated worldwide popular consciousness and become a part of our cultural language and knowledge.

It’s true that Miyazaki’s films are still a niche entity outside of Japan but it’s a remarkable niche with a devoted cult following. These films exist outside of the mainstream, even though Spirited Away achieved the amount of success that may justify a ‘crossover hit’ tag. Nevertheless, all around the world a great number of enthusiasts – film buffs, Japanophiles, Ghibli fan families, etc – flock to theatres in droves when a new release eventually surfaces in their region.

If they can’t be found at cinemas, passionate followers seek out the Blu-rays and DVDs and, of course, invest in the assorted art books, manga collections and merchandise. (I’m personally very attached to my Totoro pencil case.) Rare is the comic store that doesn’t have some Miyazaki-related product in stock and rare too are the comic and pop culture conventions that don’t have at least one cosplayer dressed up as No-Face from Spirited Away.

All of this is in spite of patchy (sometimes very poor) international distribution. Thanks to Miyazaki’s cult status and reputation as a master filmmaker his films have, over the past 30-plus years, found their way to audiences via words of mouth, shared by anime aficionados and passionate film fans.

The love for Miyazaki will only continue to grow as future generations – guided by those good geek parents, adult role models and advocate film critics – discover the delights of, say, Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Ponyo. Furthermore, the Studio Ghibli breakout successes of tomorrow will always bring attention back to Miyazaki’s back catalogue. I also believe that the rising moviemakers influenced by the director will, likewise, ensure that his name, reputation and significance are widely known even though the icon himself has retired.

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Commercial success on a global scale and the praise from luminary peers are notable but Miyazaki’s impact goes far beyond critical accolades and high grosses. What’s more important is the creative legacy – a diverse filmography of truly unique features, all of them spectacular, unforgettable artworks. Long after the last of his features has wowed festival crowds and broken Japanese box office records, Miyazaki’s movies will still be amazing audiences and reaching them, transcending time, cultural and social boundaries.

I’d go so far as to say that he is the model auteur – a one-of-a-kind cinematic artist who has sustained extraordinary high quality throughout his career and continued to produce personal pictures that are easily identifiable as being of his oeuvre, even though they are a highly eclectic mix. You know when you’re watching a Miyazaki movie, and that’s as much about the feeling and soul of the work as it is about the directorial trademarks and aesthetic flourishes.

Before I get to the feelings, it’s worth musing on the recognisable conventions and recurring motifs for they’re an essential part of the Miyazaki experience and add to the enjoyment of each individual film. The idealised visions of an alternate provincial Europe or pre-modern Japan are characterised by magical realism, are accentuated by the Joe Hisaishi’s musical scores and are always populated by a rich selection of familiar character types – courageous children and strong female protagonists being the outstanding figures that ensure Miyazaki’s movies as distinct products against the pop cultural backdrop.

The reiterated underlying thematic concerns and concepts are also crucial to the identity and power of Miyazaki’s movies, and they further emphasise just how much each picture is a personal passion project. His love of flight, for instance, is ever-present, expressed most visibly in the titular fortresses of Castle In The Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle and in the aeronautical adventures of Porco Rosso, Nausicaä and The Wind Rises.

The director’s nostalgic yearning for a simpler, more idyllic past also pervades his output and his love of nature manifests itself in the plots, rich environments and environmentalist messages that the tales communicate. Yet, though his ideological sympathies are clear, Miyazaki’s movies are not overtly forceful or didactic. There’s a clear purpose in presenting humanity’s mistreatment of nature – the pollution of the forest in Princess Mononoke and of the sea in Ponyo, as two examples – but it is presented with gentle grace. Indeed, ‘gentle grace’ feels like a fitting phrase to describe the essential spirit and flow of Miyazaki’s motion pictures.

The absence of aggression and antagonism is appealing and marks Miyazaki’s films out as commendable exceptions that, I reckon, other artists should look to for inspiration as they seek to tell stories. Rigidly defined ‘good’ and ‘evil’ dichotomies don’t really exist in these films. What we have instead are entire casts of sympathetic – or, at least, empathetic – characters, whether they be human, animal or supernatural.

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There is discord, as the various protagonists have different needs and intrinsic dissimilarities, See such divisions as the clash of nature spirits against humankind in Ponyo and Princess Mononoke, the generation gap highlighted in Spirited Away and the competitive rivalry of air pirates in Porco Rosso. Yet the emphasis is always on acceptant co-existence and reconciliation, Miyazaki’s humanism and pacifist sensibilities at the fore as conflict is undermined.

Such an approach stands in stark contrast to conventional Western narratives in which conflict is configured as being the heart of drama. Drawing on discernibly Japanese traditions, Hayao Miyazaki pictures act as exemplary, charming alternatives. These films do have plots and they’re intriguing but if we’re asking what Miyazaki’s movies are ‘about’, they’re ultimately about people and vividly-realised places, whether they be real, imagined or a sublime melding of the two.

Rather than rigorous plot mechanics and artificial contrivances, audiences engage with a freeing artistic experience that allows them physical and temporal space to explore and wonder. Miyazaki is a master world-builder and what resonates the most are the rich settings and the well-defined figures that inhabit them.

So much visual pleasure is ours as the easy-flowing films let our eyes wander around the beautiful environments conceived and designed by Miyazaki-san. (Those environments fully realised and formed into feature-length moving pictures thanks to the diligent efforts of the Studio Ghibli animators who look up to him as Director Drill Instructor.) Similarly, there’s joy in simply spending times with the protagonists, sharing in their friendships, their sense of imaginative curiosity, and their minor and major acts of humane heroism.

If I had to sum up what Miyazaki movies are ultimately about, I’d say that they are about celebrating what it is to exist as a part of the natural world or a balanced eco-system and celebrating what it is to be alive as a human being (or, I guess, as a living organism). These marvellous anime meditations gently draw audiences into immersive, fantastical worlds in which they find escapism, sensory stimulation and a connection to something pure and soul-affirming.

But what is that pure, intangible thing that’s triggered by these movies? It’s the living spirit – the sheer simple joy of life. Turning to the artist’s own words, reflecting on the movie that I regard as his most wonderful, Miyazaki wrote, “I wanted My Neighbour Totoro to be a heartwarming feature film that would not only entertain and touch its viewers, but stay with them long after they have left the theatres. I wanted the spirit of the film to endear lovers to each other, inspire parents to fondly recall their childhood, and encourage kids to roam around temple grounds or climb trees.”

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Each indelible, timeless masterpiece effectively shares that that spirit and inspires sublime happiness and awestruck wonder in the minds and souls of all who watch them. Facing the final flight that is The Wind Rises, the Jiro Horikoshi quote that the director claims convinced him to adapt the aeronautic hero’s story is also poignant -“All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.”

Hayao Miyazaki has done that, and he has done over and over again, film after film for over 30 years. He may be leaving moviemaking behind but so many of the beautiful things he’s responsible for – the images, the memories, the feelings – remain with us and his legacy will last through the ages.

I speak for myself as I say this though I’m sure many of you will agree and share the sentiment as you watch The Wind Rises. Thank you for creating so many beautiful things, Miyazaki-san.

James Clayton is convinced that pigs can fly and that magical creatures are waiting for him in the woods, and that’s because his imagination has been affected by the wonderful works of Hayao Miyazaki. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

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