Princess Mononoke

In the context of American animation, Hayao Miyazaki’s films seem nearly unfathomable. With their conspicuous absence of exclusively kid-centric theatrics and their eschewing any burden of pop culture topicality, Miyazaki’s films are instead allowed to explore the limitless imaginative possibilities of animated filmmaking. And there are few imaginations quite like Miyazaki’s.

That’s what makes his retirement on the occasion of The Wind Rises that much more of a loss. It’s difficult to be anything but grateful for the beautiful films the 73-year-old director has made, but his absence will certainly leave a giant, gaping hole that no other filmmaker can replace.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man who makes us wish we could call a giant wood spirit our neighbor.

Work for a Richer Culture, Not a Distracted One

[Miyazaki is] a big critic of our dependence on virtual reality—computer games, TV, and animation, too. He complained, when I met him, that so much in our culture is ‘thin and shallow and fake.’ He’s also an environmentalist, of a somewhat dark and apocalyptic variety. He’s said, not entirely jokingly, that he looks forward to the time when Tokyo is submerged by the ocean and the NTV tower becomes an island, when the human population plummets and there are no more high-rises.”

Miyazaki’s environmentalism is certainly an evident theme in his filmmaking, perhaps displayed most epically in Princess Mononoke. But his portrayal of nature as a living, enchanting being worth caring for comes from an interest in moving beyond the distractions of popular culture and focusing on the things that make us human.

This, perhaps, is what most separates Miayazaki’s view of animation from Hollywood’s: Miyazaki sees animation not as a medium for juvenile distraction, but as a means of allowing the imagination to flourish in such a way that we encounter something real. Animation and fantasy are not an opportunity to distract oneself from our surroundings, but to create new possibilities for understanding such things more intimately.

Let the Images Guide the Pacing

This moment of My Neighbor Totoro, as the BBC interviewer observes is rare not only in animation, and not only in children’s entertainment, but in cinema at large. Too rarely does the pace of a film slow down to consider the act of waiting and the beauty of raindrops. Miyazaki’s testimony about this scene shows that even in animation, there is a flow of events that one can choose to accept instead of simply construct. All one needs is a little patience, and the ability to observe.

Let the Politics of Your Business Match the Politics of Your Films

“Miyazaki is a feminist, actually. He has this conviction that to be successful, companies have to make it possible for their female employees to succeed, too. You can see this attitude in Princess Mononoke. All characters working the bellows in the iron works are women. Then there’s Porco Rosso. Porco’s plane is rebuilt entirely by women.”

In a special feature on the Spirited Away DVD, Toshio Suzuki discusses Miyazaki’s business philosophy at Studio Ghibli, and the remarkably feminist qualities he’s imbued in the company. Hollywood is only just now exploring the possibilities for tentpole women-centric animated films outside of the Disney princess story, while Miyazaki has made a career of empowering female characters at the center of many of his films. It’s vital that the governing politics that make a film are consistent with those that show up in the film itself – they are inseparable. Or should be.

Know Your Limits and Embrace Teamwork

“…at this age, I cannot do the work I used to. If my staff can relieve me and I can concentrate on directing, there are still a number of movies I’d like to make.”

Miyazaki has threatened retirement several times, as the arduous process of animated filmmaking doesn’t accommodate aging. What has driven Miyazaki this far is in part due to his team and supporting family of filmmakers available to collaborate towards a shared vision. It’s important to recognize, as Miyazaki himself does, that his films are not solely his films. That Studio Ghibli logo is perhaps more instructive about what goes into a Miyazaki film than Miyazaki’s own name.

Know How to Balance Old and New Media

 “…it’s very important for me to retain the right ratio between working by hand and computer. I have learnt that balance now, how to use both and still be able to call my films 2D.”

Though Miyazaki pointedly believes that hand drawing on paper is the fundamental aspect of animation as an art form, he has gradually and selectively embraced the opportunities that new technologies have afforded his design of films, as long as he maintains a careful balance that preserves the integrity of his hand-drawn process. New technologies for filmmaking should not be embraced specifically because they are new; rather, one should cautiously explore their utility in terms of maintaining an honest effort toward the films that one seeks to make.

Don’t Underestimate Children; Don’t Overestimate Adults

While audiences young and old can appreciate Miyazaki’s films, many of his works tap into imaginative possibilities typically squelched by our development of rational, mature thinking. Princess Mononoke presents an elaborate world of demons, forest spirits, night walkers, and supernatural guardians without providing pointed exposition about the rules of the world – he simply expects you to accept the vast possibilities as is and let the unfolding of the story teach us about the world of that story. This betrays a radically confident sense of imagination, one that’s assured in vision but also places incredible trust and faith in the audience. And sometimes children are more open moviegoers that adults could ever hope to be.

What We’ve Learned

At the beginning of the interview linked twice above, a BBC reporter asks Miyazaki what he thinks of the title as “Japanese Disney,” to which Miyazaki responds that he doesn’t like it much at all. He’s a director, not a producer. Despite the fact that Miyazaki has had and will continue to have an instrumental role at Studio Ghibli, he is first and foremost a filmmaker, not a businessman or surveyor of potential properties. Disney, it can be argued, is more invested in the distractions that Miyazaki’s films attempt to get past.

While Miyazaki makes films that are accessible to children, he refuses to make films that are by any stretch of the imagination childish. Instead, they push past the limitations and conventions of a present-tense rational adult world, exploring the array of possibilities that lie beyond the blinding assumptions of what animated movies can, or should, be. We should all be so lucky as to have a benchmark for cinema’s wondrous possibilities like Miyazaki.

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