I read an article the other day that Miyazaki is producing a film, called Karigurashi no Arrietty, due to come out in 2010. I can’t wait!
You haven’t heard of him? That’s OK. A lot of people in the U.S. haven‘t. I bet in some way, some how, you‘ve brushed past his influences, at least if you have kids or grandkids.
Let me tell you how I got introduced to Miyazaki.
When I was living on the Oregon Coast in the early 90s, me and a friend heard of a movie playing at the Newport Entertainment Centre (A very trippy avant-garde theatre right off Nye Beach) called “Akira.” It was a Japanese movie from about 1989. It blew …. my … ass. … to … smithereens. It was three solid hours of, “Oh … my …. God.“ I had never seen anything like it. It is to this day quite possibly the Most Violent Movie I’ve Ever Seen. (It’s also been redubbed, which is a relief.)
Well, Miyazaki didn’t make Akira, but that was my introduction to Anime. I loved it. I rented a ton of Anime movies over the next several years and I discovered that …
… about 90 percent of Anime really, really sucks. A lot of it is, well, just plain dopey. Too many robots and ditzy big-breasted women. I guess it’s fine for teenage boys, but none of it measured up to Akira. I liked Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo (incredibly violent) and a show called Paranoia Agent, but that’s about it. I can’t get into Blood, or Death Note or Ghost in the Shell.
Anyway, about seven years after that, I was in Seattle and they were playing a Japanese Anime movie at a big downtown Seattle theatre on 4th Street called “Princess Mononoke.” It looked cool. I decided to check it out. It … did … NOT … blow me away. In fact, it annoyed me. It didn’t make sense. The plot didn’t make sense. The characters didn’t make sense. It was quite literally annoyed throughout the whole flick. Most of all, I was really, really, really annoyed with Billy Bob Thornton, who provided the voice for a character in the movie.
That was my first introduction to Hiyao Miyazaki. Princess Mononoke was considered his masterpiece. It was a huge hit in Japan. It was an even bigger flop in America. People just didn’t get it.
I came to eventually figure out why. More on that later. (Actually, Billy Bob Thornton had something to do with it.)
Many years later, I read about another Miyazaki film playing at an art house theatre called “Spirited Away.” I had a 5-year-old daughter at the time, just old enough that you could take her to movies, so I took her on a daddy-daughter date.
Well, Spirited Away was rated PG, but quite frankly, it should’ve been rated PG-13. I found out the hard way that for a 5-year-old child, it is absolutely, unequivocally TERRIFYING. A little girl’s parents are turned into pigs and she is left all alone at a mysterious bathhouse surrounded by strange spirits and monsters on vacation. (Really, I can’t make this stuff up.). 20 minutes into the movie, my daughter was in my lap, with her head buried in my belly. I asked her a few times if she wanted to leave, but she didn’t. I told her a few times, “OK, this part isn’t scary,” and she would bravely peer at the screen.
I felt terrible. I was yet again, for the umpteenth time, The Worst Parent Who Has Ever Lived, but after the movie, to my abject surprise, my daughter wanted to see it again and again! To this day, one of her nicknames is Chihiro. Spirited Away later that year won Miyazaki an Academy Award for best animated film. He absolutely deserved it.
I got her a DVD of the movie, and then the following year, after she had watched “Spirited Away” 100 times, I got her a collection of Miyazaki movies — “The Castle of Cagliostro,” “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” “My Neighbour Totoro,” “Kiki‘s Delivery Service,” “Laputa: Castle in the Sky,” “Porco Rosso,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” (Since then, I have gotten her “Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea,” so she owns 10 Miyazaki films.)
While reading the liner notes to this collection of movies, I realized Miyazaki was the lead animator to a 1969 version of “Puss in Boots,” and I thought, “Oh, my God!” I remembered this movie from when I was a little kid, and I remembered how cool it seemed when I was 6 years old.
My daughter chewed through those 9 movies in less than a month, and after she was done, she told me … “I want more…” In our household, these 10 movies have probably been played a couple of hundred times. I also got her the 2,500-page Nausicaa graphic novel that it took Miyazaki 13 years to complete. It’s much darker and the character of Nausicaa is much more complex than in the movie. Miyazaki’s complex political and spiritual views come out toward the end of this looooong novel. She’s twice dressed up as Miyazaki characters for Halloween — Chihiro two years ago and Nausicaa last year.
She’s getting more … in 2010.
What makes Miyazaki so damned amazing? For one thing, he’s 70 years old, and he loves children, and he remembers what it is like to be a child. His movies literally reek of wide-eyed innocence. Most of Miyazaki’s movies are all still cel animation. There’s a bit of computer animation in some of his flicks, but it’s 95 percent or more still drawn by hand, with Miyazaki providing all the main animation (apparently all the way up to Porco Rosso.) With the exception of Howl’s Moving Castle, all of Miyazaki’s movies are based on his original stories as well. He is an old-fashioned auteur, who handles the writing, direction, design from beginning to end.
Miyazaki’s style is also dramatically different from most anime. His characters don’t have giant eyes like in much anime, and his women don’t have ridiculously huge breasts. His style is pretty unique and all the movies made at his Studio Ghibli use similar style. A Ghibli film called “Grave of the Fireflies” (definitely NOT a kid’s movie) is one of the most powerful and depressing movies you’ll ever see.
Miyazaki used to be an avowed Marxist, but he mellowed a little in his old age and now says he is a socialist. His films contain very strong anti-war themes. One thing that drives people a little crazy about Miyazaki films, (this was especially a problem in the U.S. for Princess Mononoke), is that his films (and the Nausicaa novel) don’t contain particularly black-and-white characters. A character that might be shown to be a “bad guy” is often later portrayed as having positive attributes.
Speaking of changing, his characters often change forms and identities, and sometimes it takes two or three views to figure out what’s going on. In Spirited Away, a boy is also a dragon, but he is also a river god. A “no face” spirit suddenly becomes a cannibalistic monster, then returns to being No Face. In Ponyo, a fish becomes a little girl. Don’t get me started on Howl’s Moving Castle. Two characters change form constantly throughout the whole movie.
Miyazaki is also fascinated by flying. Most of his movies involve some sort of flying machines. Some people have actually built flying machines based on his designs and discovered that some of them actually work! He is also fanatically pro-environment and many of his films carry environmental messages. Miyazaki also refuses to make sequels to his films. He has been offered a lot of money to make a sequel to Spirited Away, but he won’t do it.
If you ever rent any of these flicks, watch them with kids. It makes me much more fun. A word to the wise, most of his films are designed for kids; if you don’t like kids’ movies, you probably won’t like Miyazaki. Another interesting thing about Miyazaki’s movies is the age range they’re designed for changes dramatically from film to film. I also suggest watching them in the original Japanese with subtitles. Unlike much anime, some of the dubs have been done well, but the Japanese and English languages do not mesh well, and the English at times comes out stilted or rushed.
A brief rundown of his flicks.
Castle of Cagliostro — 1979
A Lupin III movie. I really, really hate Lupin III. I think it’s just flat stupid. This was a TV show that ran in Japan for about 10 years and these were considered the first “adult” cartoons, but really they’re for 10-year-olds. Quite silly and stupid. Castle of Cagliostro was the first theatre treatment for Lupin III and Miyazaki, who had been one of the animators for the TV show, was chosen to make it. Still the animation in this movie is amazing.
Nausicaa — 1984
His first self-funded film. It’s a seminal movie, made somewhat on the cheap, but you can still see lots of gorgeous animation. Miyazaki hated the ending of this movie, which he felt was too corny. He has said he would like to go back and remake it with a different ending. His Nausicaa novel is completely different from the film … the movie takes up probably the first quarter of the book. They released this movie in the states as Warriors of the Wind, but chopped about a third of the movie out and included an atrocious dub, so it ended up making no sense. Miayazaki refused to allow his movies to be shown in the U.S. for years because of this debacle. The movie got fixed in the U.S. after Spirited Away was a hit. This is a big, broad epic of an anime, made a few years before Akira.
Castle in the Sky — 1986
Another movie with lots of flying. Miyazaki returns to his anti-war themes he explores in Nausicaa.
My Neighbour Totoro — 1988
Probably his first movie that got much attention in the U.S. A very sweet movie for very young kids, maybe 4 or 5 years old.
Kiki’s Delivery Service — 1989
Another movie with lots of flying. Again, for very young children. Any kid over 10 will be bored by this movie.
Porco Rosso — 1992
One of his more obscure movies. I actually didn’t like Porco Rosso at first. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of a pig fighter pilot (while everyone else in the film is human). The more I’ve watched it, the more I like it. Some of the flying scenes are done extremely well. The pig in this film is based on Miyazaki himself, who thinks he looks piggish because he has wide nostrils. This is a good movie for older kids.
Princess Mononoke — 1997
His epic of epics. A huge movie, almost three hours long, with complex hand- and computer-generated animation. It was a flop in the U.S., because people couldn’t figure out the themes of the movie (again, bad guys becoming good guys, good guys playing both sides, etc.) I also believe this film was badly hurt by Billy Bob Thornton’s horrendous voice acting. It’s painfully bad. You MUST watch this movie in its original Japanese. Since its U.S. flop, this movie has gained a big cult following. This is Miyazaki’s only R-rated movie. It is extremely violent.
Sprited Away – 2001
Miyazaki’s masterpiece. An absolutely amazing film with an amazing story. Think Alice in Wonderland on acid. Scary, scary film for small children (It scared ME!) It has a very corny, sappy ending, but most Miyazaki movies do. It‘s part of the deal. This was his first big hit in the U.S., especially after it won an Academy Award. This movie has a scene that kids love that will remind you of Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. Miyazaki announced his retirement after this film.
Howl’s Moving Castle — 2004
Another anti-war epic. Again, the characters are difficult to understand. This was Miyazaki’s first film not based on his original script. It’s from an English children’s book. This movie might have the best English dub. Miyazaki announced his retirement again.
Ponyo — 2009
After a few movies for older kids, he returned to making a movie for small children. When we went to see this, my daughter was bored because it was too young for her. Instead of flying scenes, this movie has a lot of scenes of creatures swimming underwater.
I thought I would add some scenes from the movie, but in looking at YouTube, I found that some very talented people (with apparently too much time on their hands) had made a number of music videos to Miyazaki films. I thought some of these were cute, so I included them instead:
Creepy video of Spirited Away
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Totoro (The movie is not really this creepy. I just thought it was an interesting video.)