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Hayao Miyazaki: An animation legend
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Laputa: Castle in the Sky
My Neighbor Totoro
Kiki's Delivery Service
Howls' Moving Castle
Ponyo On the Cliff By the Sea
Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Anime
Hayao Miyazaki is the top animator in the Japanese film industry and has gained an international status that few animation creators have ever achieved. Other than the legendary Walt Disney, no other master of animated fare has ever maintained such an amazingly consistent level of excellence.
Miyazaki started out in the 1960s as an animator in such forgettable fare as Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon, and further paid his dues as a writer for television anime shows such as Lupin the 3rd and Future Boy Conan. He occasionally directed episodes of those shows. Over the next 20 years, Hayao Miyazaki worked his way up to become the most popular animator in Japanese cinema.
His first major film as a writer and director was an adaptation of the popular Lupin series, called Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979). The excellent film was critically and financially successful, pleasing both established and newer fans of the Lupin series. Still, as entertaining as it was, the Lupin film was not a true representation of Miyazaki’s vision, which would materialize in future projects.
Miyazaki as an institution really began with his following film, which first established the Miyazaki formula. The themes that define Miyazaki’s work crystallized after the Lupin film.
There are three major recurring themes in the Miyazaki oeuvre. Pacifism; Feminism and environmentalism. Aside from these three hallmarks, there is also repeating symbolism of flight, which represents freedom in Miyazaki’s films.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984):
Nausicaa was Miyazaki’s first genuine classic and set the Miyazaki formula in stone. Our main character, Princess Nausicaa, was--as would be the norm for Miyazaki films from this point on--a young girl on the verge of a life changing, maturing experience. She is the prototype for all the young heroines who would follow in the oeuvre. The action takes place centuries after a catastrophic war has devastated the Earth, causing civilization to crumble. This sets the environment totally out of balance. The ever-growing, toxic jungle called the Sea of Corruption is covering the globe. Dinosaur sized insects called the Ohumu stalk the polluted landscape. These behemoths and other toxic monsters are the only things that can survive in the sea of Corruption.
One of the few places left on Earth that isn’t contaminated is the Valley of the Wind. The valley, which is Nausicaa’s home, survives because a freak geological circumstance causes a constant wind-tunnel effect that keeps the air born toxins out. Beyond the Valley, other pockets of surviving humanity continue the pointless war, searching for ancient weapons to give them the advantage over their enemies.
When the belligerent forces of the Tolmekian Empire invade the serenity of the Valley of the Wind to find a lost weapon, Nausicaa’s father is slain in the chaos. Despite her initial anger, the Princess can’t surrender to thoughts of revenge. Now that she is the ruler of her people, she starts to see the bigger picture and realizes the cycle of hate must end. She has to be an example to everyone else. Only she seems to understand the necessity for compassion and tolerance. When the Tolmekians upset the fragile peace between man and nature, the massive Ohumus start to stampede. In a herd, they are unstoppable. It’s up to Princess Nausicaa, a strong yet innocent girl who is truly in love with everything that lives, to set things right, prevent the Ohumus from attacking and stop the war. She is willing to sacrifice herself (In the most Christ-like image of the whole Miyazaki Oeuvre) to stop the hate.
The Themes of Nausicaa:
All the traditional plot elements that would become standard for Miyazaki are obvious here. Nausicaas’s coming of age as a leader represents female empowerment. The hostile Tolmekians foolish actions are a clear anti-war statement. And the Sea of Corruption, with his fearsome Ohumu monsters, is a critique of what can happen when man sets nature out of balance. Also, there are numerous joyous images of flight as the Princess sours across the skies in her little glider, looking down on the contaminated world like a guardian angel.
Laputa: The Castle in the Sky (1986).
Miyazaki’s follow-up to Nausicaa was not so magnificently realized but it’s still a strong sophomore effort. Laputa is well conceived and beautifully drawn; offering up the idea of a world where gravity is easily ignored and cities float in the sky. This film gives us the second oeuvre heroine, Sheeta. As the movie begins, Sheeta is escaping captivity by jumping out of an airship where she is being detained by a mysterious police force. During a pirate attack, she bails out and the levitation stone she wears on a chain around her neck allows her to drift peacefully to the ground where she meets orphaned teenage mine worker Pazu. Pazu has always dreamed of following in his explorer father’s footsteps and discovering the location of the fabled sky city Laputa. Sheeta, we learn, is a descendant of the ancient kings of Laputa, and the levitation stone is a lost artifact from the legendary city. The leader of the mystery police is the corrupt and power-hungry Muska, who is also a member of the ancient Laputa royal line. He manages to purloin the levitation stone which he uses to locate the hidden Laputa. Once there, he activates its hidden weapons, which he believes will allow him to take over the world. Sheeta and Pazu join forces, traveling across the globe in an effort to stop Muska and keep the peace.
Themes of Laputa:
In this film, our young heroine has to share heroic duties with a male counterpart. Still, Sheeta is a strong enough female character so that she isn’t reduced to a weak sidekick. Sheeta has the typical Miyazaki-girl spirit. Even when she is faced with the destructive robot warrior of Laputa, she remains determined to stop Muska, who is the film’s symbol of pointless war and violence. As usual, the bad guy is undone by the noble intentions and innocent courage of the young heroes, instead of by guns or violence.
The flying city of Laputa is symbolic of the natural world, which humans see as a disposable resource to be exploited. Muska represents the war-like mentality of humans. The film is loaded with scenes of flight and adventures high in the air. Even the city which everyone is hunting for floats high above the ground.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988).
Totoro is one of Miyazaki’s greatest masterpieces and ranks among the best family films ever made. It’s a beautiful and artfully crafted fairy tale set mostly in the real world, yet in a magical corner of the globe where mystical creatures rub elbows with our reality. In Miyazaki’s two previous projects, he created a fantasy world for the story to take place in. This sweet fable occurs in a quiet suburb. Totoro is a pleasing, kid-friendly tale that celebrates those lost childhood years when everything seemed possible.
This film gives us two young heroines for the price of one. Sisters Satsuki and Mei have just moved to their new country home, to be near their mother who is a long term resident in a hospital. Their father, Professor Kuskabe, lectures at the college by day and visits his wife in the hospital at night. The kids are under the supervision of a busy nanny who doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to them. The two girls spend their free time exploring the forest which borders the rear of their home. There they meet the benign, magical forest beings they call the Totoros, who can’t be seen by adult eyes.
The film looks at the adult world through the eyes of the two innocent children. It often seems frightening and confusing. The magical Totoros act as guides and guardians for the sisters during this difficult period, when they have no adults to turn to. For instance, when the girls stay out after dark, wating in the rain at the bus stop for their father to return, the Tortoros appear protectively at their side. At another point, when Mei runs off alone to see her mother, the Totoros come to her assistance in a mystical Cat Bus, and carry her to safety.
Themes of Totoro.
Although Totoro lacks the grand life-and-death adventures of the two previous films, the internal conflict’s of the sister’s coming-of-age is still an important episode in their young lives. (The sisters must deal with the lonely isolation of their new home and absentee parents.) They display a different but no less admirable kind of courage. Nature is represented here by the Totoros, who are guardians of the innocent. The forest here is seen as a haven where the girls can escape their real world dilemma. The usual image of flight is seen here in the form of the magic Cat Bus that ferries Mei over her hometown.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989).
Kiki was a pre-Harry Potter story of a young witch learning her craft and coming of age. Similar to Totoro, this story takes place basically in the real world, but in a corner of reality that also includes witches. The tale takes place in a town that could almost exist but it’s really Miyazaki’s idyllic, fairy tale version of a European small town.
On her 13th birthday, Kiki obeys a ritual that obliges a witch to leave home and survive for one year on her own. Jetting off on her broomstick, accompanied by Jiji, her black cat, she comes across a quiet harbor town where she chooses to settle for the year. Now she has to make a living. Since flying is the only skill she’s mastered, she decides to start her own delivery service. Supplied with sweets and yummies by the friendly bakery owner who has befriended her and given her a room, she soars across the town; the ultimate delivery girl.
Kiki not only has to run her delivery business on her own, she also has to handle the usual problems that a 13 year old girl must face. She has self doubts; is socially awkward and is too scared to talk to the boy she likes. She undergoes a crisis of confidence where she wonders if she can succeed, either as a witch or as a normal girl. She eventually learns that underneath the trappings of success and popularity, it’s our human qualities that make us what we are.
Themes of Kiki;
Kiki takes a step passed Totoro, where our youthful heroine has to move from childhood to early teens. Like the sisters of Totoro, she has to deal with a more internal and personal crisis than Nausicaa or Sheeta. Social anxiety, being away from home and trying to find your true vocation in life are all formidable trials for anyone. The idyllic little seaside town is an all-too-ideal hamlet where even a witch is welcome. Even the cat Jiji ends up making friends with an old dog. The seaside town represents the emotional “shore” where Kiki finds herself, between childhood and adulthood.
The images of flight as freedom are more apparent here than in any other Miyazaki film. When she’s on her broom, Kiki feels free. It’s the only time she feels she has any control over her destiny.
Porco Rosso (1992).
This oeuvre entry is a unique because the protagonist is a fully grown man, instead of a young girl. However, he does have the head of a pig. Porco Rosso is Miyazaki’s commentary on people who have forgotten their youthful aspirations. The film’s message is that even if you never achieved the dreams of your youth and life didn’t work out too well, it’s never too late to be true to your innermost selves.
The film takes place in the Adriatic, in the days after World War One. Former military fliers are now working as mercenaries, defending ships from aerial pirates. The most formidable and infamous of the airborne mercenaries is Marco, known as the Scarlet Pig (Or “Porco Rosso”) because of his transformation. He was once an attractive individual until a tragedy during the war left him guilt ridden and he essentially cursed himself with self loathing. (Fortunately, no one seems surprised or bothered by his porcine appearance.) Now money is his only motivation, as he flies to the rescue of ships in distress.
The balance is disrupted when a skillful American pirate arrives and shoots down Marco in an ambush. Marco takes his precious red plane to Milan for repairs. His old mechanic turns the repairs over to his 17 year old daughter Fio, who is a mechanical prodigy. She renovates the plane for the rematch with Curtis and even somehow ends up being declared the prize for the winner. Porco has to defend Fio's honor and win back his self respect, as well as dealing with the guilt which has cursed his life.
Themes of Porco Rosso;
Although she is only a supporting character, Fio fits into the standard mold of the classic Miyazaki heroine. Marco, on the other hand, is quite different from what we expect. Not only is he a middle aged man, but his personal crisis is the opposite of the previous lead characters. Marco is obsessed with the past, whereas the usual Miyazaki protagonist deals with fear of the future. Marco needs to overcome his guilt just as much as he needs to overcome Curtis. Aside from the fact that the battles between the mercenary pilots and the pirates are symbolic of senseless violence, the film also takes place at a time when Fascism was on the rise in Europe. And aside from Kiki, this movie has the most exuberant and numerous images of flight in the Miyazaki oeuvre.
Princess Mononoke (1997).
His next project, Mononoke, was a monster-hit that became the largest grossing film of any type or genre in the history of Japanese cinema. It was the 1997 winner for Best Picture in Japan’s Academy Awards. Of all of Miyazaki’s films, this one is second only to Nausicaa in terms of its powerful environmental message.
The story is set in ancient Japan, featuring a young heroine who shares co-hero duties with a male character, just as in Laputa. The male hero is Prince Ashitaka, who gets into a battle with a forest spirit-turned demon. Ashitaka gets a wound that infects him with evil which will eventually overwhelm him. He learns that the creature’s rage was caused by an iron bullet, created by Lady Eboshi and the people of Iron Town who have been encroaching on the territory of the Forest spirits. Ashitaka heads to Iron Town, hoping to find a cure.
During his adventure in a foreign land, Ashitaka meets a girl named San, who has been raised Tarzan-like by the Wolf Goddess of the forest. San and Lady Eboshi have a lot of bad blood between them and each would love to kill the other. Ashitaka eventually realizes that hatred is infecting the region and turning the forest spirits into savage demons, like the one who infected him. He has to negotiate peace between the forest dwellers and the crew of Iron Town before nature is unbalanced forever.
Themes of Mononoke:
An atypical aspect of Mononoke is that the heroine is not the peacemaker. Ashitaka is the diplomatic one. San has her own demons to overcome. She has a hatred of the humans who are ruining the land. Her journey is as much internal as external. After meeting Ashitaka, she comes to the realization that violence is not the answer to the dilemma. (Which is, of course, the film’s pacifist message.) The timeless struggle of man vs. nature is represented by the battle between Iron Town and the Forest Gods. Miyazaki smartly refuses to reduce the people of Iron Town to villain clichés. The people of the Iron Town are, for the most part, pretty likable. Even the antagonist Lady Eboshi herself has a sense of honor and nobility.
Spirited Away (2001):
His next project was a beautiful childhood fable which combines the innocence of Totoro and Kiki with the fantastic mythology of Nausicca and Mononoke. Spirited Away was a mega-blockbuster which broke the records set by Mononoke, also winning the Japanese Best Picture Oscar. It additionally won an American Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
Our latest oeuvre heroine is Chihiro, a normal girl who makes a journey akin to Dorothy in Oz or Alice in Wonderland. Chihiro is upset that her family is moving to a new neighborhood and that she’ll be attending a new school. When her parents wander into what appears to be an abandon amusement park, and rather foolishly eat some food, they are instantly transformed into pigs (Reminiscent of the porcine transformation in Porco Rosso). Alone, Chihiro discovers that the park is now cut off from the rest of the world. She is literally a stranger in a strange land, with no friends, which is precisely what she was afraid of when she moved to her new town.
Soon, the park has become an island, separated from the world Chihiro knows by an ocean, and is now full of all sorts of supernatural beings. Chihiro has to find a way to cure her parents and get home.
Chihiro gets a position as a worker in a bath-house for demons and spirits. The bath-house is run by the nasty witch Yubaba, who wants to steal Chihiro’s memories and keep her there forever as a slave. Of course, Chihiro outwits the evil witch through peaceful means and brings her parents home in non-pork forms.
Themes of Spirited Away:
Our latest heroine’s quest is not merely to make the transformation from girl to young woman; she also needs to overcome her dread of the unknown. Similar to other oeuvre heroines, she triumphs through purity, good intentions and a little help from her friends (Such as the river/dragon/boy Haku) rather than by utilizing violence. Haku is almost killed in the feud between Yubbaba and her sister, and Chihiro saves him with an act of love. The ever expanding ocean that surrounds the bath-house is representative of the environment, which acts as a haven for the spirits here, just as the forest acted as a sanctuary for the girls in Totoro. It is also symbolic of the difference between Chihiro’s old home and her new neighborhood. Haku himself, the object of Chihiro’s innocent love, was once a river himself, and therefore nature is an ally.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).
The penultimate Miyazaki oeuvre entry sent Miyazaki’s most powerful anti-war message of all. Miyazaki was inspired to create this animated epic as a damning commentary on the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s his darkest film since Mononoke.
Our young heroine in his film is Sofi, a plain looking and rather shy girl who dresses much older than she really is (Grandmother old.) She works in a haberdashery, dreaming of a better life she doesn’t really feels she is deserving of.
There’s a war taking place in Sofi’s tiny home kingdom. Wizards are being used as WMDs in the battle. Sofi has a chance encounter with the most enigmatic of sorcerers, Howl. When Howl saves Sofi from a dangerous situation, the girl comes to the attention of the evil Witch of the Wastes, who puts a curse on the young girl, turning her into the old woman she had always felt like. Sofi tracks down Howl in his moving castle, hoping for his help in breaking the curse, but Howl is in the midst of his own crisis of courage. He has no desire to fight in the war but the influential Madam Sulliman won’t let him off the hook. When he is forced to fight, Howl begins to transform into a dark war bird (another transformation motif) and only Sofi’s love can help him reclaim his soul.
Themes of Howl’s Moving Castle:
This is Miyazaki’s strongest allegory about the foolishness of war. The ruler of the country is enthusiastically pro-war but he is also a babbling buffoon. Sofi is in the classic mold of Miyazaki heroines, using love to save the day. She has to conquer her self-doubt and shyness, cure herself, save Howl and end the pointless war, all through the power of the heart.
Sofi repeatedly changes appearance throughout the film, contingent on her moods. (Her love for Howl makes her younger but doubt and despair makes her older.) As for the image of flight, there is a wonderful scene of Howl and Sofi walking on air together. It’s a particularly effective scene because it’s the first time Sofi is taken out of her comfort zone and she finds that she likes it.
Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea (2008).
The last oeuvre entry harkens back to the innocence of Totoro. In both its content and style, it’s more firmly aimed at a young audience than most other Miyazaki films, such as Howl and Mononoke. And it gives a very clear environmental message. Our heroine here, named Ponyo, one of the youngest of any of Miyazaki’s lead characters. Sosuke, the young boy who Ponyo shares co-hero duties with, is also extremely young (Six years old.)
Ponyo is a magical undersea being in the form of a goldfish. (The opening moments where we see aquatic creatures of every type is one of the most amazing pieces of animation to come along in years.) Ponyo’s father is a human wizard who gave up his life on the surface to wed the Goddess of the seven seas. Ponyo and her sisters (Hundreds of them) are kept on a tight leash by dad, who is worried about the balance between the two worlds. He already hates the surface men for messing up the natural balance with their wastes. The rebellious Ponyo, yearning for life beyond what she knows, slips away and rides a jellyfish to the surface.
Getting trapped inside a discarded glass bottle, Ponyo almost dies but is rescued by 6 year old Sosuke, who makes her his pet, taking her to his house atop the cliff. After healing Sosuke's cut by licking his finger, Ponyo unveils herself as more than a mere fish. She talks to her new friend and tells him she’s in love with him. Just as they are developing a close bond, Ponyo's father comes and drags Ponyo away. But Ponyo will not submit to dad’s will. Using one of her father’s magic potions, she transforms herself into a human girl, escapes from dad again and reunites with Sosuke.
There are some very cute scenes of the two bonding playfully and Ponyo learning about the world of the surface as Sosuke's kind mother watches over them both. Unbeknownst to Ponyo, she’s destroyed the delicate balance of nature that her father had been trying so hard to preserve. Storms and tsunamis ensue. Sosuke worries when his mom vanishes while helping out the seniors at the old age hospital. The whole town is flooded, except the house on the cliff where the kids are safe. Ponyo transforms a toy boat into a real boat and the two kids go on an adventure together across the flood waters to find Sosuke's mom.
Themes of Ponyo:
In his final film (So far), Miyazaki continues his feminist theme. Ponyo’s rebellion against her dad is typical of the female empowerment motif that runs through Miyazaki’s work. The in-your-face environmental message of the film is recited several times by Ponyo’s father, who repeatedly reminds us that humans have set the natural world out of balance with our industrial wastes and litter. Early in the film, we have several scenes of pollution, including the bottle Ponyo gets trapped inside.
Let’s hope Miyazaki isn’t ready to retire because he consistently delivers such wonderful films and his messages are important and timely.
(Note: Miyazaki released a new film in 2011 called "the Secret World of Arrietty".)