Thursday, April 22, 2010

Modern Maestros: Hayao Miyazaki

Robert here, continuing my series on great contemporary directors.  Even after finishing my triple play on Pixar's team I find myself still not finished with the world of animation.  This week I feature an auteur at whose feet even the Pixar guys admittedly worship.

Maestro: Hayao Miyazaki
Known For: animated films, usually about children intersecting with the world of fantasy, and learning something in the process.
Influences:According to Miyazaki himself, authors Ursula K. Le Guin, Moebius, Roald Dahl,  and of course, classic Japanese mythology.
Masterpieces: My Neighbor Toro and Spirited Away
Disasters: some of his films have been released in horribly edited American versions, though that's surely not his fault.
Better than you remember:  Some of his lesser works tend to be under-appreciated despite being delightful in their own right.  I'm thinking Porco Rosso here.
Awards: An Oscar in the states and a Golden Bear at Berlinale and lots more for Spirited Away
Box Office: Over 14 mil for Ponyo in a sure sign that the old master is still kickin' it.

A few years back, a friend and I introduced some of his little nephews to My Neighbor Totoro.  They fell in love instantly (all is not lost!).  Then it occurred to me how odd it must be for them.  If they want Totoro (which they do often) they must return to the same film over and over and over.  There's no set of 5 dozen additional Totoro made for DVD releases, no sing-along DVDs, learn to read books, or Totoro-themed toddler cell phones.  Sure there's stuff, but it's minimal when compared to, lets say that small red monster whose godless name I shan't utter.  In fact, the short film Mei and the Kittenbus which seems a perfect DVD extra, or at least that should be all over YouTube is still no where else to be found but the Studio Ghibli Museum.  Hayao Miyazaki has done a better job keeping this short film from mass public consumption than George Lucas has done with the Star Wars Holiday Special.  Why is this?  Ask Miyazaki.  He doesn't consider himself a marketer or a studio head or a peddler of mass culture.  He considers himself a story teller and an animator.  He doesn't need to return to the same character over and over because his stories, though they often explore similar themes, usually involving a child or youth coming to some maturity or understanding of the world through a fantastic adventure, always show us something new.

Miyazaki does what all great animators do.  Even though children are often their target audience, they never play down to or underestimate the intelligence of a child.  Few animators today would trust a child to sit patiently through a film like My Neighbor Totoro that contains very little conflict (most Miyazaki films contain minimal conflict, or at least villains who are easily redeemable).  And few animators today would believe that a child could understand the complexity of the characters in Princess Mononoke or the story of Howl's Moving Castle.  And maybe they can't (hell, I couldn't) but that's okay.  They don't need to be spoonfed with endless exposition, entertained with meaningless action, ADD appeased with more flash and dazzle than a fireworks show (and don't forget to throw in some hip adult cultural references for the parents!).  Audiences young and old can enjoy Miyazaki works because his adventures feature characters who represent what we see in ourselves, like the apathetic Chihiro or the unconfident Sophie, or what we aspire to be like the noble Ashitaka or the brave Nausicaa.  It doesn't matter that we may not comprehend all of the magic that we see, we trust that Miyazaki knows what he's doing because we sense that he trusts us.

I should also mention, since this is Earth Day, that Miyazaki's films champion good care and appreciation of nature and the planet without ever attempting to guilt the viewer.  He loves the natural world and through his use of fantasy worlds, finds ways to present it as a beautiful reality (which it is.)  What is Miyazaki's next move?  Rumor is he has something in the works, and I'm not surprised.  He's been "retiring" for over ten years, yet keeps finding stories he wants to tell.  Whatever he comes up with next, it'll probably be an exuberant flight, a story of children growing up that we adults can watch and feel young again.


badmotherfucker said...

Shameful fact: I've yet to see a Miyazaki film. This certainly needs correcting ASAP.

Greg Boyd said...

I wouldn't quite classify "Spirited Away" as a masterpiece. It's magnificent visually, but a few of the story elements are lacking. I agree with "Totoro". And I would add "Princess Mononoke" to the "masterpiece" category. My least favorite flick by him is the recent "Ponyo", which had a lackluster story (despite tremendous visuals).

He is a genius.

Mickche said...

I'm a big miyazaki fan. I do really love Porco Rosso. its simply Casablanca through miyazaki's eyes.

Criticlasm said...

As opposed to G1000, I would call "Spirited Away" a masterpiece. It's transporting and fascinating, emotionally thrilling and devastating, grotesque and sumptuous. I love that movie.

I agree about Mononoke as well - it was the first I saw of his. I remember thinking how different the story telling was from what I had seen before, and the ending as well, not shying away from something difficult and seemingly insoluble.

I love his work, and even though I wasn't totally wild about Ponyo, he's one of the few directors whose work I rush out to see.

Clarence said...

I love Hayao Miyazaki! I love Japanese Anime, and to me, he is like a god in terms of the wonder he brings to his movies. Yes, I agree that "Spirited Away" is a masterpiece, but I have to say "Princess Mononoke" is his pinnacle. Plus, the music in his film is so gorgeous and lush that it adds a dream like quality to already fantastical films. "Howl's Moving Castle's" music is so moving.

kent said...

PRINCESS MONONOKE is def a masterpiece!

Greg Boyd said...

Hey, I love "Spirited Away". But if I had to pick one Miyazaki film to take to a desert island, it would be "Princess Mononoke" without question. Then "Totoro". And then "Nausicaa" (which nobody's even mentioned). Then "Spirited Away". Then "Kiki's Delivery Service" (excellent one as well). And don't forget "Castle in the Sky" (not among his finest work, but still really good). It only furthers the argument that the man among the greatest living directors. Putting him in the same ranks as the likes of Spielberg might seem crazy, but why?

Note: I have not seen "Howl's Moving Castle" yet. I regret it, and intend to at some point.

Seeking Amy said...

Oh I love this. Though in my eyes, Princess Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle are also master works (well Howl is ALMOST a masterpiece to me). Spirited Away is my number one film of 2002 and sits at number 6 on my best of the '00s.

He's apparently supposed to have 2 more films in the next 3 years!

Colin Low said...

Call me sheltered, but what's the over-merchandised small red monster that's being referenced in the article?

(Also, Robert, I think you mean the apathetic Chihiro, because Sen sure looked like she cared.)

Deus Ex Machina said...

You're right though, the dubbing can be very unforgiving. I feel, like ANY movie in a foreign language, Miyasake should be watched in its original language.

Powerandcrinolines said...

I think you'd have to look at the amount of Totoro/Ghibli-inspired products available in Japan before making a comparison with Disney's omnipresent merchandising here though. Obviously I expect it to be less still, but I don't think you can say Ghibli's movies are better because they're less consumerist. I mean, they are. But not because of that. :D Besides you could argue that the $14 million garnered by Ponyo is not simply Miyazaki's quality shining through but a result of a committed marketing campaign by the movie's US distributors Disney.

Which is to take nothing away from this man's genius. I actually rate Kiki pretty highly too.

Robert said...

Colin - thanks for the correction. I don't know how I made that mistake having seen Spirited Away a half dozen times.

x - I didn't mean to insinuate that the lack of merchandising itself made Ghibli films better, it was just a jumping off point. If it came off that way, it's my bad.

OtherRobert said...

I remember watching some Miyazaki when I was very young and I really did not understand it. I just knew I really liked it. It was fun to watch and very engaging. Revisiting the films as an adult, I get what drew them to me so much over the years. Even Spirited Away, which I'm not a fan of, is very good. I have a very selfish reason for hating that: it beat Lilo and Stitch at the Oscars, which had quickly catapulted to my top 5 Disney films upon release. The fact that the man is the only person to tackle Diana Wynn Jones' wonderful children's fantasy literature (Howl's Moving Castle) is enough to make me a fan.

Andrew R. said...

Spirited Away is:
a) My favorite film of 2002

Having seen all 10 Miyazaki films, I will rank them for your pleasure.

10. Castle of Cagliostro-the only Miyazaki film that isn't great. It's GOOD, but not great. But this was his first film, and a great sign of things to come.

The middle 6 are very close together...but I'll try:

9. Nausicaa-beautiful jungle scenes make this an animated beauty.

8. Porco Rosso-Is Miyazaki's 6th film a lesser effort? Well, yes. Is it still amazing? You bet your ass.

7. Castle in the Sky-Miyazaki's love of flight is shown in all his films, and this one, his 3rd film, is up there with Porco Rosso and Kiki in terms of number of Miyazaki flight sequences. So beautiful, so true.

6. Ponyo-Miyazaki took to the seas for film #10, and while it's eye popping and magical, it's not a masterpiece.

5. Howl's Moving Castle-the castle is one of the great creations of film, and the story is chaotic and fun. It's a shame Ebert only gave this 2.5 stars.

4. Kiki's Delivery Service-lovely villages, lovely flight scenes, an adorable cat...

Now for the 3 masterpieces. #3 and #2 are close together.

3. My Neighbor Totoro-that shot of Totoro and Meg standing in the rain is one of the greatest shots ever. Plus, this is in Ebert's Great Movies, and it was shown on a double bill with a non-Miyazaki animated masterpiece, Grave of the Fireflies.

2. Princess Mononoke-so much beauty in one forest. Words fail me.

1. Spirited Away-again, words fail me. The stink spirit...No Face...the dragon flight...

vg21 said...

I love Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle and Ponyo. I have yet to see the other films but already I must agree, Miyazaki is a genius. So far, Spirited Away is the masterpiece for me as well, I rewatched it countless times and it never gets old.

I would really like to know the red monster referred to in the post, please. I couldn't figure it out.


i didn't get the red monster either. but i'm super tired this morning.

my first Miyazaki was PRINCESS MONONOKE and from nearly the first frame to last I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Such a breath of fresh air. 1999 in the states was just ridiculously great for animated features.

billy said...

I would still like to know about this small red monster too!

Jordan Ruimy said...

Spirited Away IS his masterpiece :)

Andreas said...

Oh, Miyazaki. So much near-perfect artistry, so much joy. I would definitely add Princess Mononoke to the masterpiece category. Between that and Spirited Away, it's hard to choose.

As for the "small red monster," after a couple minute's thought, my girlfriend identified him as Elmo, which sounds likely.

getsandom said...

I love most of ghibli production not only Miyazaki's but almost all, I've recently viewed probably the first ghibli work of all, althought i'ts from over 20 yr's before ghibli the staff was there, Hols the Prince of the Sun and was already a sign of the great things to come. I love Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky, Tales from Earthsea (not Miyazaki's but great) but the one Ive felt completely in love with was just the firs great Ghibli masterpiece Nausicaä, I've watched the movie just to learn later there was a manga version of it (unfortunatelly not available here in Brasil so I've downloaded it) that I've read the 7 200 pages volumes in a week, sure for me at least the greatest Miyazaki's creation. And so you know, watch out for the new Ghibli production Karigurashi no Arrietty based on The Borrowers, for what I've saw will be great.......