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Hayao Miyazaki: The Real Greatest Animator Of All Time

This week Nathanael Smith takes a look at the career of his beloved Hayao Miyazaki.

A few weeks ago I wrote an article on Rene Laloux’s La Planete Sauvage, a film I enjoyed immensely in spite of its flaws. Adam, who runs the site, had recommended it to me, as it is one of his favourite films. But when the article went up, I noticed that he had put a rather presumptuous title on the article – ‘The Greatest Animator of All Time’. Whilst this was done in the best humour, I realised I needed to counter this grandiose claim. So in return I promised an article about the real greatest animator of all time, Hayao Miyazaki, and here it is, an attempt to express why he is a genius whilst mentioning all of his feature films (no time to include shorts, TV and music videos I’m afraid). I would add that my words can’t really do justice to these amazing works of cinema.

As this is an animation column, let us start with the obvious point – the drawing itself. Each one of Miyazaki’s films are crafted with utmost love and care, and this shows in the way they look. Every entry into his canon is visually stunning, and whilst the style remains largely the same across the films, they all have unique flairs that ensure a different look each time. For instance, the flashback sequences in Nausicaa have much softer lines and less defined colouring giving them an appearance not dissimilar to Raymond Briggs adaptations such as When The Wind Blows and The Snowman. The decision to animate the sea as a character in Ponyo also pays off brilliantly, giving the film a lively, energetic feel.

Characters; landscapes; transport; wildlife – under Miyazaki’s magical touch it all seems to burst vibrantly out of the screen. I mentioned in my article that Ghibli films are often concerned with the environment, and the director’s love of the countryside is evident in the beautiful way that the scenery is evoked in his films. In Laputa the tension between industry and countryside is evoked nicely through the chimneys of the rural town belching out smoke in an otherwise untainted view. The woods of Princess Mononoke, meanwhile, are a tangled, brilliant morass of undergrowth heaving with life. One of the most impressive achievements in his work is the eponymous abode of Howl’s Moving Castle. A sum of several whirring, clunking and rasping parts, this mobile home is an astonishing creation, and as much a character as Howl or Sophie.

The castle not only demonstrates Miyzaki’s unparalleled skill with animation but also displays his dazzling imagination. Howl’s is an adapted screenplay, and a rather brilliant one, yet still feeling very much like Miyazaki’s own film. But his imagination is most brilliantly unleashed when he is working from his own script. The monstrous menagerie that makes up the bath house in Spirited Away is an utterly compelling creation, with the diversity on show managing to be both grotesque and gorgeous at the same time. A large part of the appeal of that film is found in spending time amongst the spirits, always looking out for an added bit of detail that may have slipped past you the last time you watched it.

It’s not just in Spirited Away that you get to explore the brain of the Japanese genius. Just look at the catbus in My Neighbour Totoro, or the robotic inhabitants of the floating island in Laputa. Watching a Miyazaki film is so captivating because it is a chance to get a glimpse into a wonderful world, to have a more fantastical or magical story told than you have ever seen before. If you’ll allow a personal digression, the film that first got me into the director was Laputa: Castle in the Sky. I had recorded it and was planning on only watching half an hour or so because I had work to do. I ended up watching the whole thing because I could not tear my eyes away. It had me enthralled, such was the verve and imagination on show.

Miyazaki’s stories can go in two directions, that of complexity or simplicity. In his more complex films (Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle), the plot can escalate to dizzyingly metaphysical levels, and his indulgence in the bizarre can occasionally mystify his audiences. Critics didn’t know how to respond to Howl’s, as the final half hour goes into mind boggling explorations of character history through the medium of a magical door in the wall. I’ve seen it several times, and I still don’t fully understand what happens at the end. Mononoke has a final act that is equally sprawling, as boar-spirits get killed by strands of wormlike blood enveloping their body. You may not understand what is going on but you know you want to keep watching.

This complexity that can be found in his more adult films is represented symbolically by a recurring theme of things falling apart (a possible reference to Yeats’ famous line ‘things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’?). Whether it is the city in Mononoke, the castle in Howls, No-Face in Spirited Away or the castle in Laputa, Miyazaki keeps returning to this image, and many of his films are structured around an almighty collapse. In fact, sometimes the plot itself seems to be in a state of implosion.

The other side of the coin is in the joyous simplicity that can be found in My Neighbour Totoro, Ponyo, and, to a lesser extent, Porco Rosso and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Kiki is a much underrated entry in the Ghibli canon, a wonderfully whimsical tale of a witch who starts a delivery business whilst trying to establish herself on her own. Nothing much happens over the course of the film, but it is an immensely charming story, and the lack of conflict in the film is part of the appeal. Whilst Porco Rosso does have conflict in the form of spectacular aerial combat, it feels gloriously old fashioned, an elegiac paean to a bygone era.

One of my first articles on here was about My Neighbour Totoro, and as such any regular readers (that’s both of you) will know how much I love this film. It takes someone truly special to create a film entirely devoid of conflict and still manage to make it engaging. Miyazaki, with Totoro, does this and more. It is an absolute joy from start to finish, a beautifully told story that enchants with its tale of of forest spirits and dust sprites. Whilst I thoroughly enjoy the director’s darker works, complete with exploding pigs, Totoro stands out ahead of all of them because of happiness it elicits. The beauty is in the simplicity.

Totoro also demonstrates that most elusive and indefinable of qualities present in all of Miyazaki’s work: heart. He creates characters, worlds and stories we care about. At the centre of most of his films are strong female characters, whose empathetic nature is the audience’s way into the film. Nausicaa sensibly opens spending time with just the heroine exploring the toxic jungle, so we get to know her. Kiki is so good because of the titular witch, a sweet and believable teenager who anchors the film with her winning ways.

It is important to note at this point the stellar efforts of Joe Hisaishi in Miyazaki’s films. The composer has collaborated with Miyazaki on almost all of his feature films, having missed out only on Castle of Cagliostro, the director’s pre Ghibli debut. His music is instantly recognisable, and its haunting beauty means that all of these films sound incredible, the harmony of image and music working in a synergy that is both moving and uplifting. My personal favourite of his scores is for Laputa, and the scene in which Pazu wakes up the town with his trumpet playing is a glorious moment of heart-stopping beauty. Without Hisaishi, it is possible that the films would lack that very heart that is somewhat crucial to their appeal.

But even beyond all of this, Miyazaki’s films work on that most base of levels in that they are incredibly entertaining. The aerial scenes in Porco Rosso have to be seen to be believed, whilst the battles in Princess Mononoke are fantasy on a grand scale, occasionally rivalling Lord of the Rings in their scope and violence. His feature debut, Castle of Cagliostro is ludicrously entertaining: an adventure film with heists, flooded cities and manic car chases. It’s exciting, hilarious and more than a little bit crazy, which is everything you could want from a film like that. With films this well made also being this entertaining, Miyazaki establishes himself as not only one of the greatest animators of all time but one of the greatest directors of all time.

So perhaps he could be considered one of the best directors ever just for his astonishing consistency. The fact is, even with the slightly tepid Porco Rosso or the over-long Princess Mononoke, the man has not made a bad film yet, which is more than can be said for David Fincher, Jean-Luc Godard or many big name directors. Before the release of Ponyo, Miyazaki was asked how it felt to be sticking resolutely to working in hand drawn animation when everyone else seemed to going CG. He said it is “like rowing a bark in a sea full of speed boats.” Let us hope, then, that he keeps rowing for some time yet.

Portrait of Miyazaki courtesy of Andrew Dobson. Check out more of Andrew’s work at www.andysartwork.com