The Magnificence of Miyazaki

Animation and international films are perhaps the two hardest genres to try and get out to a wide audience. Animation has always been perceived as too childish for big success, and foreign films are seen as solely the interest of cinephiles and critics. It’s for those reasons that the international success, acclaim and adoration for the films of Hayao Miyazaki is all the more remarkable. This extraordinary Japanese filmmaker, who works entirely in animation, has carved a reputation worldwide for crafting films with such beauty and such gifted story-telling that foreign cinema and animation are finally losing their reputation of being juvenile or exclusive genres of film.

Miyazaki’s most famous work is probably Spirited Away, an extraordinarily original and visually mesmerising tale of a young girl trapped in a fantasy world, trying to save her parents. Although a stunning work in itself, it was when Disney bought the film and marketed it as a real Oscar contender that it got the international audience it so deserved. It went on not only to be the first anime film to ever win an Oscar, for best animation, but was also hailed as one of the greatest animations of all time, up there with even the most canonical Disney works. It remains the most successful Japanese film of all time, and introduced the wider world to the mastery of Miyazaki’s writing and aesthetic vision.

Miyazaki’s previous work was the equally inspired Princess Mononoke, a period drama about a battle between supernatural guardians of the forest fighting the humans seizing and exploiting its resources. As outstandingly beautiful as all of Miyazaki’s films are, the artistry of the hand-drawn animation shone through in the lush, edge-to-edge natural vistas and the elegance of the wolf protagonists. Once bought and marketed by Miramax, this was the first Japanese animation to be widely realised abroad, and was the best advertisement for the quality of Japan’s film industry.

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Purely in terms of imagination, his 2005 feature Howl’s Moving Castle is enthralling in its creation of an engrossing fantasty world. The eponymous castle is a masterclass in design and creativity; a hybrid of steampunk fortress, cartoon pirate ship and anthropomorphic detailing. This castle also changes over the course of the film to mimic the changes of the protagonist Howl himself, all eighty plus parts, including a wagging tongue and bird feet, morphing as the film progresses. 

Thanks to Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and his numerous other films, the work of Miyazaki and his company, Studio Ghibli, has become synonymous with storytelling and imagination of an almost unparalleled quality and consistency. But his films are not simply a beautiful visage with little depth. Miyazaki’s work has always confronted poignant and often difficult themes, like man’s relationship with nature, the difficulties of pacifism and feminist issues. Indeed, that his films often star strong, independent female characters shows the pre-eminence of the thematic concerns he raises.

Unfortunately for film fans everywhere, Miyazaki announced he was retiring last year, and his last film, The Wind Rises, was released last week. Very much a farewell masterpiece, The Wind Rises has been labelled by critics as one of the most beautiful films ever made, whilst simultaneously tackling perhaps the most controversial of any themes in Miyazaki’s films. Centred around flight, and the possibilities of aviation, the film shines the spotlight directly on one of the most difficult and challenging periods of Japan’s history; its role in World War II. A perfect example of the intelligent and gorgeous work that Miyazaki has always produced, if you’re going to see just one film this month, make it this – you won’t be disappointed.

Though his retirement is a loss to the worldwide cinematic community, Miyazaki leaves behind a legacy as important for the history of animation as Walt Disney himself or John Lasseter’s work at Pixar. A true director-artist, Miyazaki proved that animation and foreign cinema could not only be as good as other genres, but, as the quality of his films demonstrates, they could, in many ways, be so much better.