Hayao Miyasaki is an acclaimed film-maker and storyteller, perhaps best known as the director of the highly successful Studio Ghibli. He has advanced through the animation industry beginning as a simple inbetweener at Toei Animation, to acting as director, producer, screenwriter, author, artist and animator, to the leading creator, serving as both writer and director, on films such as ‘Spirited Away’ and ‘Howls Moving Castle’.
Miyazaki’s practice centres around telling stories through animated film.
Story is the Foundation:
A common tendency in animation is that of overemphasizing the technique of creating it and loosing focus in other areas. Miyazaki however believes the most important thing about animation is to “know what you want to say with it.”(1996, p.22) Early animated films often contained only simple stories, relying on hilarious gags and wild animation to entertain. Too often animation blinds the audience with the ‘baubles and the sparkles’ of animation without fleshing out a clear theme and story, which Miyazaki explains is “the very foundation of a work.”
Pixar has a similar principle, their motto is that the ‘story is king’, a philosophy that guides their filmmaking process. Pixar’s Alex Woo explains ‘drawing is just a means of communicating your ideas.’
“What you want to express should determine the techniques that you use. If you don’t have anything to say, technique alone is not enough to create a work. Technique is something people develop in order to express something.” (1996, p.145)
The Liberation and Freedom of Animation:
Miyazaki explains that, in animation, the camera can be absolutely anywhere, giving it a freedom unmatched by other mediums. The camera can fly through the air alongside planes, a Pegasus or a witch’s broomstick, and “as a result viewers soar through the air with the story’s characters, and feel liberated by the exhilarating vista unfolding below them.”
Flying in ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’
“With the characters we share in the freedom of flying.” (1996, p.44)
He notes we can use this freedom to create a new sense of space for audiences. For example we can depict the world from the point of view of a bug, shrinking the camera to “where each blade of grass becomes a giant tree, where the ground is not flat, but bumpy and rough, and where water…has a completely different character.” (1996, p.21) Animators can create not only captivating films, but give viewers a new sense of reality and an enchanting way of looking at the world.
Maybe from the perspective of a bee pollen looks like “sweet dango dumplings.” (1996, p.156) and perchance “the caterpillar sees photosynthesis happening up close.” (1996, p.163)
Perhaps Miyazaki’s ideas influenced the creation of films such as Pixar’s 1998 film ‘A Bug’s Life’, which was directed by John Lassater, himself a massive Miyazaki fan, referring to him as his “greatest inspiration“.
Another idea Miyazaki holds is that animation can free us from reality, to new worlds where, for example, in a race between a bicycle and a race car, “it’s actually possible for the bicycle to win, fair and square.” (1996, p.46) He notes animation “allows depictions of abstract human drive and tenacity to actually exceed those of real physical powers.” and “to liberate humanity from the things that hold us back.” (1996, p.100)
Floating in ‘Ponyo on the Cliff’
Sense of Time:
The potential for limitless distortion of time in animation is another idea Miyazaki illustrates. It has the capability to depict the way an hour feels like a lifetime to a toddler, and merely a second to an adult. Or to imagine that to a honeybee, “our one second probably feels like one hundred seconds.” and, though rain seems to pour down to us, a bee would be able to dodge each raindrop as it flies.” (1996, p.150)
“By twisting both time and space, it becomes possible to create a more fantastic, magical world.” (1996, p.99)
Things I Admire
- Perhaps one of the main reasons I admire Miyazaki is his romantic view of animation:
“To my way of thinking, creating animation means creating a fictional world. That world soothes the spirit of those who are disheartened and exhausted from dealing with the sharp edges of reality, or suffering from a near-sighted distortion of their emotions. When the audience is watching animation, they are apt to feel either light and cheerful or purified and refreshed.” (1996, p.25)
- His purpose in creating his films: “My foundation is this: I want to send a message of cheer to all those wandering aimlessly through life.” (1996, p.51)
- Sheer passion for animation and creating movement. For example he talks about running in his biography and his desire to create “an exhilarating way of running that communicates joy; a character full of life, walking with his feet on solid ground; his emotional state conveyed through the way he walks and with his walk communicating the feel of the ground as he climbs up a slope – that is the ultimate.” (1996, p.37)
Running on water in ‘Ponyo on the Cliff’
“being able to show wonderful ways of running, running that expresses the very act of living, the pulse of life across the screen would give me enormous delight.” (1996, p.41)
- his imagination and ability to create surreal fantastical worlds that feel so real and believable.
Flying castle from ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’
- The way his characters are so full of energy and life, and the fact that he can bring anything, even motes of dust and soot (in ‘Spirited Away’), to life
Characters from ‘Spirited Away’
Disney animator John Lasseter draws attention to several aspects of his work I also admire:
- Weight: “He’s great at giving things a sense of scale.” (1996, p.11) In animation imbuing things with a convincing sense of weight and size is difficult to do as it is created purely through movement.
- Pacing: Many films are extremely fast-paced, as though “directors, editors, and studios feel compelled to hurry the action along at a breakneck speed.” (1996, p.11) As though the audience would lose interest if things slowed down. Miyazaki’s films “have balance – both fast and slow moments.” (1996, p.12)
Miyazaki isn’t afraid to slow things down
Miyazaki uses traditional 2D hand-drawn animation to create his films as “hand drawing on paper is the fundamental of animation.” Though he has increasingly experimented with computer-generated imagery (CGI) in some of his films to expand his practice and to give “a little boost of elegance”, he tries to find a balance between working by hand and by computer.
He explains his films often begin with small ideas, a certain something “that you feel drawn to and that you want to depict.”
“It is fine if, at times, the original starting point of a full length feature film is the image of a girl tilting her head to the side.” (1996, p.28)
From there he continues to branch out, drawing all the ideas for the setting, context, main theme, what he wants to say and achieve, the characters, and slowly crafting an imaginary world in what he calls the ‘image board’ stage of animation production.
“From within the confusion of your mind, you start to capture the hazy figure of what you want to express. And then you start to draw.” (1996, p.28)
Next he moves on to storyboarding and writing the script which, unlike western animation, is done at the same time.
Animation itself often begins while the story and storyboards are still being developed and ideas continuously developed.
“One must have the clear core of what one wants to convey.”(1996, p.69)
The whole animation team at the studio works hard together to bring Miyazaki’s vision to life, each contributing to the film in their own way.
“you’re not really making the film – it will be making you.”
Screenshots from ‘Ponyo on the Cliff’ and ‘Porco Rosso’
Key themes he works with:
- environmentalism (ecology, earth’s fragility)
- pacifism (peace, anti-war)
- feminism (strong female protagonists, matriarchal businesses, all-female factories)
- absence of villains (no simplistic stereotypes of good and evil)
- childhood transition
- flight, airplanes and vehicles
- a girl in touch with nature
- a menacing warrior woman who is actually not an antagonist
- a boy who seems destined for the girl
- inanimate objects
- His father’s work making airplane parts during WWII as director of the ‘Miyasaki Airplane’ company no doubt heavily influenced Miyazaki’s love of airplanes and vehicles. (featured in films such as ‘Porco Rosso’ and ‘The Wind Rises’)
- Interest in animation sparked by ‘The Tale of The White Serpent’ (fell in love with the heroine)
- Focus on environmentalism influenced by childhood growing up in the Showa period when ‘”nature – the mountains and rivers – were being destroyed in the name of economic progress.”
- Japanese manga and anime in particular Osamu Tezuka (‘Astro Boy’, ‘Kimba the White Lion’) whose style heavily influenced Miyazaki in his early years.
- Japanese history and mythology
- Authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Lewis Carroll
‘The Wind Rises’ features a warplane engineer as its main character.
- Miyazaki’s films have forever changed the world of animation with their stunning technique, meaningful stories and whimsical nature. He’s become the hero of several animators from Disney and Pixar such as Pete Docter, Glen Keane and John Lasseter.
At Pixar, when we have a problem and we can’t seem to solve it, we often take a laser disc of one of Mr. Miyazaki’s films and look at a scene in our screening room for a shot of inspiration. And it always works! We come away amazed and inspired. Toy Story owes a huge debt of gratitude to the films of Mr. Miyazaki.”
“Those who join in the work of animation are people who dream more than others and who wish to convey those dreams to others.” (1996, p.25)
Miyasaki, H 1996, Starting Point, Studio Ghibli Inc, Japan.
2015, Hayao Miyazaki, Wikipedia, viewed 22 March 2015, .