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The Many Faces of Hayao Miyazaki

There is no living director I admire and appreciate more than Hayao Miyazaki, a sentiment that many across the entire world share (particularly John Lasseter). It is not enough to merely look at the works of Miyazaki, for it leads to hyperbole and repeated praise. Fact is, you can say the same things about each of his films because Miyazaki never takes a step backwards progressively. So instead, I offer a menagerie of the various hats that the great director might wear in his time as an artist, seeing where they apply in all or some of his works. There are a few patterns to the man, ones which characterize and single out this remarkable career.

Miyazaki, the Youth - One of the key elements to Miyazaki is his utilization of the perspective of children for literally all of his works. Even in films like Porco Rosso, where the conflict centers on a main adult character, we are still provided a window of youth from which we can best view the character (in Porco's case, it's Fio, the young mechanic). It is not that Miyazaki's themes are inherently immature; far from it, really. Rather, the utilization of youth as a comfortable position for the audience's sympathies allows Miyazaki the ability to let the world and the situations in them affect and guide the development of the young characters. It's a sort of insular didactism; instead of blatantly teaching the audience, he's subtly teaching the main characters, using children as clean slates upon which to let the conflicts and dramas contained in his films amplify and deepen these kids. From a storytelling perspective, it's streamlined brilliance, as Miyazaki will thusly always provide a character or two who has a significant journey to take, often metaphorically symbolized in youth. But in addition to that, Miyazaki is not content to merely let kids learn. Kids also teach in his films, their laser-sharp vision and morals never needing to be altered, but rather distributed and acted upon. In the universe of Hayao Miyazaki, the world teaches children why they should live while the children teach the world how it should live.


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Miyazaki, the Animator - Anime, despite its backgrounds in the rounded and Disney-esque styles of Osama Tezuka, is usually pretty angular. It's that sharp-featured hyper-violent image that most people think of when they think of anime, coming from such superb films as Akira and Ghost in the Shell. Miyazaki is more Tezuka-esque, although more realistically designed and rounded more for the sense of human warmth than cartoon sensibility. There is an immediate appeal to the look of his characters, and also a definite similarity between all of them. Chuck Jones, Wolfgang Reitherman, Bruce Timm, and Hayao Miyazaki are all artists whose drawing styles are very exact and quite responsible for their successes in animation. But from an animation outlook, Miyazaki is even more interesting in his characters' foibles: Chihiro's terrified and iiregular walk early in Spirited Away, Pazu's manic balancing on the edge of a wooden board in Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and so forth. Miyazaki revels in human error, because we're steeped in it, and it is folly to leave it out. Of course, it would be impossible to talk about Miyazaki's animation splendor without getting into some of the fantastical things he has shown us, but that's really a topic for the next one.

Miyazaki, the Dreamer - Fantasy suits Hayao Miyazaki very well. Without at least a little bit of the fantastical to his stories, I can't imagine any of them working. Even films like My Neighbor Totoro, constructed almost wholly out of the joys of small truthful events in life, still depend on creatures like Totoro and Catbus, beings that could only exist in our fondest dreams. I doubt that Miyazaki has ever considered doing any of these films without having that element (which can range from a touch to a cascade) of magic, because of how well they suit his needs. After all, magic and magical things are symbols of the mystical and the unknown, which can go from Nature itself down to the hidden abilities within. Even more than symbolic meanings, though, the magical elements found in the works of Miyazaki allow that sense of freedom again in an audience, the ability to open or reopen those parts of you that still believed in amazing things happening. Children love his films because they reinforce their suspicions about magic, but adults might love them more because they bring them back to suspecting. Reality is a fine place to tell a story, but not quite as fine a place.

Miyazaki, the Environmentalist - Whether it be the main focus of a film, like in Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind or Princess Mononoke, or just hinted at in My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away, the destruction of the Earth by humanity is obviously something that weighs very heavily on the mind of Miyazaki. Hayao Miyazaki has great love for humanity's ambitions and dreams, but great sorrow in how so often humanity decides it needs to go about achieving such. It is a betrayal of the teacher/student relationship I described earlier; former children are no longer content to listen to the lessons the world has to teach us and would rather silence the teacher and reap the immediate benefits. Even a caper film like Lupin III and the Castle of Cagliostro advances not that monetary rewards are the best goal, but the uncovering of the past and honoring our heritage, a not-so-subtle jab at those who tear apart our planet looking for the materials our earliest societies deemed "valuable" because they were shiny. If there is any one message to glean from the entirety of Miyazaki's career, despite the differences in genre, themes, and settings, it is that there is no true success in destroying the land, for the land was what was meant to endure. Laputa's floating metal and weapons may drop away, but the roots and the trees still stand, and they will save the ones who saved them.

Miyazaki, the Entertainer - As heady as Miyazaki can get, and he can get pretty serious and thematically important, one of his best qualities as a director is to understand that no audience can be dragged along on a serious journey without allowing some fun. Many directors forget this, thinking that drama is something that can never, ever be mixed with comedy. These folks fail to recognize that, in real life, you make your fun when you can and when you need to, and nothing is ever just depressing for the whole time. And so, Hayao Miyazaki knows that entertaining and teaching an audience are not mutually exclusive, and he can create wonderful pieces of escapism and laughter while still communicating more than any other serious-minded artist. There is powerful thematic stuff at work in Princess Mononoke, but it is also filled with thrilling and remarkable action set pieces, with a mind-boggling monster and one heck of a good fight in Iron Town. Or take Kiki's Delivery Service, with Jiji's comic turn as a cat toy - hilarious, tension-building, and meaningful in his devotion to Kiki all in one. A good director does more than simply perfect the thematic structure of a story. He crafts the most effective environment in which to communicate this structure. It doesn't have to go down hard for it to go down well.

Miyazaki, the Storyteller - Everything I have talked about previously has fed into this. Cinema is storytelling. It's the nature of the business. It is a business, to be sure, and considerations can and sometimes even should be made for public consumption and monetary gain. Miyazaki has achieved wild financial success (Spirited Away grossed over $200 million before ever hitting U.S. shores), but he does not need to be a businessman, because he is that good of a storyteller. What Hayao Miyazaki does best is he taps into humanity, finds something that needs examination, and examines it in a narrative cinematic format. Big-budget studio films with major stars and major executive plotting try their damnedest to match the escapism capable of Miyazaki, but they lose us along the way because they can't make any stories that reflect us. "Hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature", as Hamlet says. Escapism comes after or maybe during the fact, but never before. Spirited Away begins so beautifully, with a little girl feeling depressed in a car's backseat. Why is she sad? Where is she going? How can she help herself? The most important questions have begun already and not a single word was spoken, and we are on our way to seeing one of the most brilliant deconstructions of courage and responsibility ever made. Ultimately, the real genius of Hayao Miyazaki as a storyteller is that he knows that we want stories that will help us. He is perceptive enough to see what humanity aches for, and insightful enough to provide meaningful answers, and all without seemingly breaking a sweat. That's why he's the greatest we've got.


A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on June 22, 2004

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