A Beginner’s Guide to Hayao Miyazaki
We’ve all had one of those movies that we pretend we’ve seen, or have it written down on a long list of “to see” movies that we’ve been meaning to get to. Or sometimes we’ve heard of a film that piqued our interest, or a familiar name associated, but just haven’t chased it down. This seems to be the case with most of the films made by Hayao Miyazaki.
More often than not, when I mention Hayao Miyazaki, people stare at me blankly for a minute. But once I produce titles like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, or My Neighbor Totoro, there’s a bit more familiarity. They’ve heard of them, but they haven’t managed to see them yet. They also provide me with a number of reasons for this: “I don’t really watch anime.” “I have a hard time with foreign films that aren’t in English.” “It’s not really my thing”. One of the more common responses is “I don’t really know anything about it”.
This week’s article is for those people. The films of Hayao Miyazaki seem to be in the world of black and white: you’ve either seen them and loved them, or you haven’t seen them and really don’t have a clue what they’re about. I thought about trying to explain the plot of Spirited Away to a friend the other day, but realized that to reduce it down to just the plot would destroy most of the magic of the film. Miyazaki’s films don’t necessarily transfer well to popcorn movie trailer. So I decided to write this as a beginner’s guide to Hayao Miyazaki and his films, with the basics that people need to know before checking out his films.
Hayao Miyazaki was born on January 5th, 1941 in Tokyo, Japan. From an early age, Miyazaki had a fascination with flight and aviation, and used to draw them frequently. It wasn’t until he was in his third year at high school that he saw what was the first feature-length Japanese anime film, The Tale of the White Serpent. From that point on, Miyazaki wanted to be an animator. After writing and animating for a number of different studios, Miyazaki and a few friends founded Studio Ghibli. The studio has since been responsible for releasing the majority of Miyazaki’s most popular films. Studio Ghibli today is essentially the Japanese equivalent of Walt Disney Studios. They not only produce Miyazaki’s films, but others as well (including the haunting anime, Grave of the Fireflies).
While Walt Disney used familiar tales as the base for his animated films, Miyazaki pulls inspiration from a variety of places. While Ponyo is based on The Little Mermaid fairy tale, Howl’s Moving Castle and Arrietty are both based on English-written fantasy novels. Porco Rosso, on the other hand, is a creation of Miyazaki’s own writing, as is My Neighbour Totoro. But simply having a strong story isn’t enough to define a film as great. What also makes the films worth seeing is the way the stories are presented. You can always tell when a film has been “Disney-ified”. The same can be said of Miyazaki’s films. They all have the inspiring characters and heroic antics that make the plot engaging. But much more than that, Miyazaki’s films take us beyond the worlds we know into the near-fantasic. Where Disney films have become the standard, Miyazaki continues to go the extra step, not just to touch the fringes of the world and the story, but to dive right in. Two young girls discover they live next door to a powerful forest spirit. A young girl must navigate the spirit world in order to get her parents back. We become immersed in the worlds that Miyazaki creates and the stories he tells. The only requirement is to leave your expectations and skepticism at the door. After all, magic doesn’t work for the non-believers.
People who have been exposed to anime often see it in its more comical or childish form. Shows like Pokemon and others feature characters with comical facial expressions, over-dramatic reactions, and occasionally cheesy music. But there is more to anime than just this. In the same way that some Disney movies look different from others (the angular characters of Atlantis: The Lost Empire versus the warm roundness of Lilo & Stitch), not all anime looks the same. Most of his films feature a different kind of animation, but all of them are far above the typical comedic anime or popular kids shows. All of the animation in Miyazaki’s films are beautiful and warm. You can feel the energy of the characters through the richness of colour and the fluidity of the animation. While you may not always understand what’s going on at all times in terms of story, the animation holds a richness for your eyes that you probably haven’t seen since your first Disney film.
Finally, one of the things that I find stopping people from wanting to watch any anime is the fact that (a) they hate reading subtitles, or (b) they don’t like how the translation sounds. As someone who felt dishonest watching films without subtitles, allow me to address this. For years, there used to be a gap between what was being said in the original language, and how it was being translated. Not too long ago, John Lasseter of Pixar (and now Disney), decided to release Miyazaki’s amazing films under the Disney banner. When they did this, it attracted the attention of more actors willing to lend their voices. Not only that, but the translation gap between the English version and the original Japanese became smaller. Because of this, I’d not only suggest you watch Miyazaki’s films in English, but I’d insist. So many of our favourite actors are now involved with Miyazaki’s works, and they help to enrich it rather than detract from it. Christian Bale and Josh Hutcherson voice characters in Howl’s Moving Castle, while Liam Neeson, Betty White and Matt Damon help out in Ponyo. Even Porco Rosso, one of Miyazaki’s lesser known films, features Michael Keaton, Cary Elwes, Kevin Michael Richardson, and Brad Garrett.
All in all, any film by Hayao Miyazaki is worth a look, especially his more popular ones. I hope that if you haven’t seen his films before that you might consider see one now, or at least investigate further. I am sure that you won’t be disappointed.
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