October 19, 2013 | 12:57pm EDT
photo credit: Filmyr
I have learned to believe in magic. Not in the form of frivolous card tricks or Houdini-like hoaxes, but through hand-drawn images coming to life. Many do not understand this magic, this immense joy that is animation. “How can I relate to characters who are two-dimensional in form, how can I grasp any tangible emotion?” With all due respect and the credibility of John Lasseter (chief executive officer of Pixar and Walt Disney) to back me up, I beg to differ. No filmmaker has given human life more consideration and provided more parallels to the 3-D reality of our world, than the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. He has constructed and immortalized his protagonists and antagonists in a way that makes them directly translatable into our lives. Each of his films upon release sparked more curiosity and fascination than the last. It is for all of these reasons the announcement that he will official retire in September shook the foundations of the film and animation world; how could such a giant of a man put down his pencil after channeling the human spirit from paper to screen for more than four decades? Though his retirement raises eyebrows in regards to what direction the animation industry will go in after his departure, it also gives Miyazaki fans a time to reflect on his creations and rightly classify him as an innovator of animation unmatched by any other.
Miyazaki achieved mainstream success with Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind in 1984, which led him to create Studio Ghibli (Sutajio Jiburi), the animation studio where he would create all of his films from then on. His 1997 film Princess Mononoke made Miyazaki a household name around the globe, becoming the highest grossing film of that year in Japan. Famed film critic Roger Ebert placed Princess Mononoke at number six on his top ten movies of 1997 list. Miyazaki has since created many award-winning films that have graced international film festivals and the Academy Awards, including Castle in the Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, and Porco Rosso. His film Spirited Away became the most successful film in Japanese history, grossing a total of $229,607,878. It won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards and the Golden Bear at the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival. His final film that debuted this past summer, The Wind Rises, solidified Miyazaki’s trademark motif of finding peace in seemingly desolate situations and environments. The film depicts the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter aircraft that would be used in World War II for kamikaze attacks. Though he surprised audiences by choosing a particularly sensitive Japanese topic, he stated that he was inspired to follow the life of man whose dream was to “to make something beautiful.”
Miyazaki’s films have been able to touch international audiences and critics because of the multi-dimensionality of his characters. He approached each of them with an understanding of the intricacies of the human mind, thus rejecting the traditional good-evil dichotomy. In stark contrast with Western filmmakers, he gave many of his most threatening characters redeeming qualities, and the endings of his films were often not a result of relinquished evil, but of compromise and reconciliation. While Woody and Buzz were spending much of their time running away from Sid, their ultimate evil in the toy world, Chihiro in Spirited Away acknowledged that there was in fact some good in the villainous Yubaba and spirits of the bath house, and it was up to her to appeal to those qualities in order to survive.
Miyasaki was also the master of portraying children and young adults with great intelligence. He acknowledges that though they have fragile minds, they are capable of understanding broader concepts and emotions and shoulder burdens equivalent to those of adults. Mei and Satsuki from My Neighbor Totoro are young sisters who love exploring their backyard and rural neighborhood, but do so to distract themselves from their sick mother and helping their father maintaining the household. Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service exhibits common teenage problems, such as finding nice clothes to buy and trying to fit in with her friends, while also managing the inner psychological dilemma of trying to cross the threshold from childhood to adolescence.
Though I laughed at the struggles of Woody and Buzz, I never longed to befriend them. I never wished to be Princess Jasmine, Cinderella, or Ariel because they were so one-dimensional. I wanted sisters like Mei and Satsuki who were playful but understood life’s unpredictability. I found myself looking for an objective and silently understanding guardian like the cat bus from Totoro or Totoro himself in the woods whenever I needed an escape from my home life. I learned to believe in the dual realities of our physical world and the spiritual world through Miyazaki’s films. He took the seemingly ordinary struggles in life and gave them poignancy by connecting them with spiritual voids, giving them validity that transcends the natural world.
It pains me to acknowledge that this legend of a man will no longer be an active member of the animation world. His exceptional understanding of the world’s profound, humanistic struggles has given me a sense of what true artistry is. What makes Miyazaki so special is the world he creates in each of his films; through his representation of humans and nature as necessary components to create a visual symbiosis of peace, he allows us to make our own assumptions about how harmony should exist. Through his films, audiences have learned to embrace nature, be cognizant of the complexity of human beings, and love profoundly.
As for me, Miyazaki’s spirit will always come alive whenever I choose to pop in another one of the original VCRs, labeled with a white sticker emblazoned with the unique kanji characters in the title. There will always be a built-up anticipation as the Studio Ghibli logo appears on screen and prepare to slip into the spiritual realms opened up for me. I will always believe in his magic.