Inspiration: Hayao Miyazaki

“Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is a work of pagan imagination. So are the works of Homer and Sophocles. In all these works there is much for Christian audiences to take exception with as Christians, but also much to marvel at as audiences. Though the works of Homer and Sophocles may commend themselves to us on historical and cultural grounds as well as aesthetic, any Christian reader capable of enjoying The Iliad as a story, the way it was intended to be enjoyed, can in principle understand a critical Christian moviegoer sitting in wonder at the astonishing imaginative force of the pictures Miyazaki puts on the screen.”
Steven Greydanus, Decentfilms.com

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most influential animators alive today. Influenced by Japanese myth and legend, as well as by European folklore and fantasy, his movies are beloved by fans the world over. In the US, his influence is perhaps most evident in the films of Pixar, but you can also see his impact on many comic book artists and graphic novelists.

Two weeks ago I had the good fortune to attend “Hayao Miyazaki in Conversation”, an evening event sponsored by the Japan Center at UC Berkeley. Mr. Miyazaki was interviewed (through a translator) by Roland Kelts, a lecturer at Tokyo University. I took along a notebook and captured some of the conversation. The sections in quotes below are as direct as I could make them from the translator. The rest is paraphrased. Somewhat disappointingly, the interviewer seemed more interested in the political dimensions of Miyazaki’s work than the transcendent elements. But there were still a lot of good insights.


The interviewer started off by asking if, with the modern world of computers and Facebook, there is a danger that the power of imagination may be lost to young people. Miyazaki’s reply (started with a throat-clearing “ohhum!” that sounded a lot like Toshiro Mifune) was that old people like to compare eras, so as to claim that their world is better. He thought this was of little use to do this, and that he was hopeful for the future. “I am more concerned about an end point to civilization, not the advancement of civilization,” he said, saying that if human civilization stopped advancing, he thought it would bring about the apocalypse. He continued, with an impish grin, “It would be wonderful to see the end of civilization in my lifetime. But that’s unlikely, so I use my imagination,” referring to the apocalyptic imagery in Princess Mononoke.

The interviewer brought up the power of nature, especially as depicted in Nausicaa and the newest Miyazaki film, Ponyo. Both feature powerful floods. Miyazaki said that he did not believe that humanity can be fully divorced from nature, so his films show this perspective—natural disasters that are connected to human behavior. “I see hope in the power of nature,” he said, pointing out that along with despair and destruction, natural disasters bring the hope of renewal—after floods, plant-life springs anew.


“Nature is beyond our understanding,” Miyazaki said. “So when we made Totoro, we made sure to make it so you cannot tell where Totoro is looking. We made sure that you can’t tell if Totoro is intelligent or stupid, if he is thinking deep thoughts or none at all.” Totoro, in a way, represents the wonder of nature.

The films of Miyazaki never feature a villain in the sense of a figure representing complete evil. His “villains” are usually mistaken or greedy, but never purely evil. The interviewer asked him why this was. Miyazaki paused for a moment before answering the question. He said that he could have created evil characters, but he felt that too much of himself went into the characters he creates. To have an evil character, “you have to draw evil, which I didn’t want to do. So I don’t have evil characters.” He went on to say, chuckling, that the foibles of many of the “villains” in his movies are based on his co-workers, staffers and friends.


In Spirited Away, there is a scene early in the film where the heroine’s parents, spying a buffet, transform into pigs while gorging on the food. The interviewer brought it up to ask if this was Miyazaki’s critique of Western consumerism. Miyazaki seemed rather amused by this notion, and explained that friends of his were models for the parents, and their daughter the model for Chihiro, the little girl. “I drew it as a moral situation, not satirical or as a comment on materialism,” he said, going on to say that, for some people, their moral failing is food.

Finally, we got some questions from the audience, which turned the conversation more towards the styles of animation and questions that pertain more to artistic method and away from the more political questions that had been posed thus far.

On a question about computer animation, Miyazaki said that it was just a method. He prefers hand-drawn, and is determined that Studio Ghibli continue in that tradition. He said that he felt freer when drawing by hand, and that subtle differences in line quality that evoke mood are much harder to achieve when using computers for 2D animation. As for 3D animation, he thought that some was very good, others not so good. His advice to anyone who wanted to do 2D animation was to draw from life, and have a critic who is “not sentimental” and willing to give honest feedback.


Another audience member asked if it was true that Ponyo would be his last film. He smiled and said, “After Nausicaa [in 1984] I was exhausted and told my wife, ‘No more! I can’t do another.’ I say it after every film, so my credibility, with my wife at least, is not good.”

Also brought up was the fact that his films feature strong female characters, a contrast with many other animated films. He chuckled before relating that, out of 20 recent applicants to Studio Ghibli, only three were men. After they narrowed them down to ten likely animators, only one man was left. “I may need to start making films with strong male characters, since there are so many strong women around!”

One of the stranger things he said (and this may be an East/West divide thing) was on the subject of how to deal with creative block. “The only thing to do is think. When I think really hard I smell blood deep in my nose. My theory is that we think mostly with the surface of the brain, then with the subconscious, then with a deep part of the brain or consciousness that is dark and frightening. That’s when I smell the most blood.” He went on to say that the ideas from his films come from thinking out a story until it can’t be pushed any further. Ponyo, apparently, was in the first draft about a boy and a wind-up red tin frog.

Someone else asked which of his films was his favorite. He replied that, if you had many children, could you pick a favorite?

One of the last questions was on the subject of other animators. Miyazaki said that he could not list all of his influences—there were too many. But of current animators, he said that two studios were doing what he and Studio Ghibli trying to do: Pixar and Aardman. “I consider John Lasseter and Nick Park to be comrades in arms.”

The process of making a film includes storyboarding, a task that in the US is done by a storyboard artist sometimes only just before the film shooting begins. Miyazaki said in Japan, directors are expected to storyboard the film themselves—if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be regarded as a real director.

As for his plans for the future—he isn’t committing to anything.


The Castle of Cagliostro, 1979
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, 1984
Laputa: Castle in the Sky, 1986
My Neighbor Totoro, 1988
Kiki's Delivery Service, 1989 film
Porco Rosso, 1992 film
Princess Mononoke, 1997 film
Spirited Away, 2001 film (winner, Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, 2002)
Howl's Moving Castle, 2004 (nominee, Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, 2005)
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, 2008 film

Spirited Away
Kiki's Delivery Service
My Neighbor Totoro


Jesuit John said...

This was excellent! Thanks!

Thom said...

Thanks for posting this. I admit I haven't found his films appealing enough to watch one all the way through (something I can say about most films today, actually), but I respect his abilities. It's always interesting to read how great artists create their work.