Hayao Miyazaki is a director who has ensured his animated films fully reflect his creative ideas. Over the years he has made a number of animated features that show a range of common themes and tropes that help to identify him as an auteur of the animated world.
Unlike film, it is difficult to justify directors of animation as auteurs, and even more so now with the abundance of CG animated movies, where often sequels are directed by someone different from the original. However, Miyazaki’s unwavering use of the traditional methods and his constant watchfulness over his production team help define him as an auteur of the field.
Miyazaki’s Point of View
Hayao Miyazaki was born on 5th January 1941 in Tokyo and began a career in animation in his early 20’s at the Toei Douga Studio. Here he worked on multiple animations including The Little Norse Prince directed by Isao Takahata who would later move studios with Miyazaki, eventually helping in the founding of Studio Ghibli in 1985 along with producer Toshio Suzuki.
In 1979, while under Tokyo Movie Shinsha (TMS Entertainment), Miyazaki directed his first animated feature The Castle of Cagliostro. This was followed by his second foray into directing a feature in 1984 with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the success of which allowed for the creation of Studio Ghibli under which Nausicaa is now recognized.
Although other directors work within Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s films have become the most recognizable in the Western world and have won a number of awards. However, he announced his retirement from feature films in 2013 following the release of The Wind Rises, though has since announced plans for a new feature. In 2014 Miyazaki was presented with an Honorary Academy Award for his contributions to the motion picture industry.
Miyazaki makes family-friendly films with a focus on the adventure and fantasy genres. However, unlike many western animations, his films are not conventional family films but instead rely on the fantasy elements to create a sense of wonder while continuing to instill messages and lessons.
There are specific themes that recur throughout Miyazaki’s work, some of which are ideas of youth, the environment, flight, and the use of strong female leads.
Many of the protagonists of his films are not only female but also young. While this may seem logical for an animated film due to the intended target audience, the characters often face dilemmas that are far beyond their age and force them to make decisions that will have an impact on their life, forcing them into a state of maturity.
For example, the young girl Chihiro from Spirited Away must find a way to turn her parents back into human form after they were turned into pigs for inadvertently stealing food from spirits. In My Neighbour Totoro, Satsuki must look after her sister Mei while her dad works and her mum is ill in hospital. While in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, a young Princess Nausicaa is trying to protect her people from pollution, giant insects, and two warring nations.
Other films also reflect this idea of lost innocence and overcoming problems, such as Howl’s Moving Castle, whereby the character of Sophie must become more confident as a person in order to break a spell that makes her appear old, or Princess Mononoke whose titular character is striving to protect nature from those that wish to destroy it.
Another recurring theme is that of flight. This can be seen in nearly all of his films including Porco Rosso, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky, and The Wind Rises. Miyazaki has said in interviews that as a child he dreamt of flying, combined with the fact his dad ran a company that made parts for planes could perhaps explain his use of the theme within his films.
Within each of his films, the sequences involving flight introduce a sense of wonder both for the audience and usually from the characters within the scene. This passion for a particular subject within his films can also be seen in relation to nature. Most prominent in his feature Princess Mononoke which centres entirely around the relationship between nature and the impact of humans on the landscape.
Quite often Miyazaki’s films will include locations that offer the opportunity to draw wide open landscapes of rolling fields of grass or flowers, mountains, beautiful blue skies, and forests.
Miyazaki’s films convey a deep sense of respect for nature, and no less deep a recognition of the damage inflicted upon it by humans out of sheer blindness and pride. – Dani Cavallaro
This idea of protecting nature is also reflected in his films through themes of war. Many of his films, although telling the stories of individuals, include an encompassing story element where kingdoms are at war. Again this can be seen in Nausicaa, Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle in the Sky, and others.
Within these films, the conflict is brought to a close by the end of the film and this is usually through an act by the central characters, though not always intentional. For example, war is ended in Howl’s Moving Castle by breaking a spell put on the Prince of one of the warring nations, though this element of the story only really acts as a set-piece for the main characters to share an opinion of the situation. This particular theme generally reflects the impact war has on the landscape.
Unlike working in live-action, it is more difficult to note the similarities between work in terms of style for animated films. For example, studios such as Disney have a range of animated features that look stylistically the same and have similarly structured narratives. However, the film’s directors differ dependent on the project, and pieces of animation are often reused to speed up the animation process.
However, companies such as Studio Ghibli have a smaller workforce and therefore a closer back-and-forth between the crew and director, with Miyazaki overseeing each stage of the animation and making adjustments. This level of control can be seen in documentaries about the studio such as The Kingdom of Dreams & Madness.
Miyazaki, as with many auteurs, also writes many of his films or develops the screenplays in order to have a greater level of control over the story elements and what he expects of the finished product. Miyazaki’s films have a shared style in terms of character and background design. The character designs are generally developed by Miyazaki himself before being given to his animators.
The background process is a combination of individual watercolor painted backgrounds and some use of CGI for scenes that may require extra detail of certain movement.
Miyazaki prefers to work using traditional 2D animation methods where each frame is drawn individually and this allows for smooth movement and a vast range of expressions in comparison to many Japanese animations that rely on still frames for background characters.
His films follow the general rules of cinema including specific camera moves and establishing shots to enable audiences to understand each section of the film and creating a greater sense of realism and attachment to the characters.
Miyazaki’s films all show his personal stamp in relation to the story and themes. This combined with his overall visual style helps us to label him an auteur of the field. As noted before, it is difficult to apply the theory to an animator, but it is clear that, throughout his work, he has been able to maintain creative control and produce work that reflects his personal sensibilities and creative expectations.