• Denholm Hewlett

[Animation] Hayao Miyazaki: The Godfather of Studio Ghibli

The most legendary and influential figure in the world of contemporary animation whose magnificent artistry and immense creativity has enthralled and enriched my imagination more than any other filmmaker alive today.



The acclaimed filmmaker I refer to is the legendary Japanese animation director and screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki, one of the co-founders of Studio Ghibli and the creative mastermind behind such beloved films as...



The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), Nausicaa of Valley of the Wind (1984), Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), Porco Rosso (1992), Spirited Away (2001), Howl's Moving Castle (2004), and my favourite, Princess Mononoke (1997).


In his native land of Japan, Hayao Miyazaki is considered as a national treasure, and across the world he is universally regarded to be one of the most original and iconic animation director to ever work within the medium. Over an impressive career spanning nearly half a century, the sheer magnitude of this man's creativity, originality, sensitivity and proficient dexterity as an artist has blessed the world, in my opinion, with some of the most visually unique, ingenious and truly organic animated feature masterpieces in cinema history.



Miyazaki's naturalistic art style and spectacular storytelling revolutionised the animation industry forever, inspiring filmmakers and creatives all across the world, including John Lasseter, Shigeru Miyamoto, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Steven Spielberg, and the mighty Akira Kurosawa.



The most instantly recognisable aspect of Miyazaki's work is his extremely distinctive art style and masterful drawing abilities. Miyazaki first began his career as a manga artist and was heavily influenced by a style known as Gekiga, a form of manga illustration adopted for more serious storytelling, which produced much more realistic and dramatic drawings.



Miyazaki's films are created using traditional hand drawn animation, much of his artwork is done using luscious water colours and he rarely resorts to using computer generated imagery. In his earlier years as an animator, Miyazaki would normally hand paint every single frame for his films, but as the auteur grew older he chose to delegate some of the tremendous workload amongst trustworthy and capable animators at Studio Ghibli.



Miyazaki personally hand crafts every single storyboard image for his films and every piece of the concept artwork by hand, on top of that he also draws up to seventy percent (or more) of his film's individual keyframes. In the case of Princess Mononoke, not only did Miyazaki review all of the 144,000 keyframes featured in the film, but he's also estimated to have personally redrawn 80,000 of them himself.



Miyazaki takes a firm leading role on all of his film projects, serving as director, producer, screenwriter and head animator during the entire production. Miyazaki's films start their production without a script, they begin as a simple idea or a concept that the story is based upon which is gradually developed over time as the drawings progress into a narrative.



The storyboard and script are worked on simultaneously each day of production as the film’s animation is well underway. Interestingly enough, Miyazaki never studied screenwriting and he's always constructed his narratives by using his own intuition as his creative compass, this means that many scenes are planned out individually instead of chronologically.



This unique and somewhat risky approach to filmmaking means that nobody working on the project has any idea how the story will end or what direction the project will go next, but Miyazaki is never concerned with the plot of his films in the early stages, he focuses all of his attention towards drawing images and settings which are guaranteed to instil an emotional response from the audience.



Not only is Miyazaki a master of traditional animation, but he's also a master of emotional storytelling with the profound ability to create empathy for his characters and a sense of realism at the core of all his stories. All of his films tend to feature either a strong and independent young female heroine as the protagonist, or two child characters, male and female, one of whom tends to have an unusual past or mystical powers.



These character's are often depicted journeying to a strange and obscure land, such as the spirit world in Spirited Away, the floating islands of Laputa, or the ancient forests in Princess Mononoke. Even though mystic gods, ancient spirits, demons and fantasy elements are a prominent aspect of Miyazaki's visual aesthetic, the central focus of his stories are always geared towards prioritising the human elements rather than the fantasy.



Exploring the emotional element of human nature through the power of realism has always been the foundation for Miyazaki's storytelling. His films concentrate on the emotional intricacies of his characters in an effort to help the audience deepen their own understanding of the human condition. One of the most effective ways that Miyazaki achieves this is by humanising his animated characters through idiosyncratic movement.



The reason why Miyazaki's characters feel so real is because he avidly studies people, and channels all of his observations of human behaviour back into his work. All of his characters are presented with familiar idiosyncrasies that the audience can immediately identity with.



The people in his films are often shown experiencing their lives in the same way we do, by carrying out the same mundane and laborious everyday tasks that we frequently perform ourselves, whether it's waiting for a bus in the rain, cooking tons of meals, fixing a broken tire or cleaning out a dirty house, "ordinary" moments like these give the audience an emotional insight into a character when they're at their most recognisable.



In animation, the identity of a character can be emphasised not by what they do, but how they're drawn doing it - whether it's the way they eat, the way they walk, the way they smile or the way they light their cigarettes, such tiny details at such a precise degree is what gives Miyazaki's characters their rich personalities and humanity. If you spend enough time watching his characters performing basic and relatable tasks then you start to understand how that person thinks through how they approach things.


In contrast with Western fantasy, Miyazaki doesn't portray the characters in his stories as straight 'good guys' or 'bad guys', that simplistic and jaded outlook on morality is completely absent from his work. His character's inhabit something of a moral grey area and are never depicted as entirely good or entirely malevolent beings, each of his protagonists and antagonists are incredibly mysterious, multifaceted and three dimensional in how their human essence is portrayed on screen.



The antagonists tend to be morally ambiguous in their actions, they display moments of brute savagery as well as moments of genuine tenderness without ever losing their vitality or believability. The protagonists may be heroic, strong willed and kind natured, but they always have some personal imperfections to keep them grounded. None of Miyazaki's characters are written to be perfect because he knows that audiences can't relate to someone who's suppose to be superhuman or morally infallible.



All of his characters possess a range of both positive and negative qualities, just like real human beings do. The advantage of creating characters that share commonalities and shortcomings with real people means that the audience can easily relate to them regardless of whether they're considered to be the “hero” or the “villain”, because empathy has been given the chance to blossom on all sides of the spectrum.


Miyazaki's stories are never about the character's winning anything or defeating some great evil, they focus on how the characters within the story develop and grow as individuals by overcoming their own deep rooted personal obstacles, they manage to adapt into a chaotic world that isn’t built around their needs and emerge at the end of the film transformed into a much stronger, wiser and more capable person as a result.


Miyazaki's films never shy away from tackling the more sophisticated and burdensome themes that we're accustom to in our live action films. All of the recurrent themes in Miyazaki's work are influenced by his own spiritual and social beliefs, this is perhaps the most one of the most defining aspect of his work, setting him apart from other contemporary animation directors.



Miyazaki's films address everything that is positive and flawed with humanity and civilisation and the world that we inhabit, not to emphasis the negative elements of life, but to present the audience with an unflinching and realistic depiction of our own existence. The most prominent themes that permeate his filmography are pacifism, environmentalism and the futility of war.


Typically in Western fantasy, epic battles and bloodthirsty wars tend to be presented as a worthwhile struggle between the two opposing forces of "good and evil". The main protagonist is always depicted as the head member of the righteous 'good guys', who're all valiantly fighting against an army of 'bad guys' in order to restore balance to a world otherwise threatened by darkness. However, in Miyazaki's stories, wars are always depicted as horrific acts of tragic and senseless brutality that cannot possible harbour any positive outcome, regardless of which “side” wins the fight, the damage will have already been done and lives would been lost.



The protagonists in Miyazaki's fantasies are generally never depicted taking part on either side of a conflict, they typically get caught between the two warring factions and attempt to peacefully defuse the situation before it reaches an ultimate breaking point. The aim of the hero isn't to win the war for his particular 'side', it's to bring both parties together in unity in the the hope that they might reach a peaceful resolution with one another so that something new and beautiful may arise from the ashes.



The most profound and deliberate example of Miyazaki's anti-war message is found within Princess Mononoke, a dark environmental fable set in the Muromachi period of Japan at the dawn of the industrial revolution. The story follows Ashitaka, an Emishi prince who becomes infected by a curse after defending his village from an enraged boar god, who was turned into a demon as a result of wartime violence in the West.



Ashitaka's fatal demonic curse gives him almost super-human like strength, but the young warrior knows that committing acts of violence, even in the name of “good”, will allow this curse to spread faster through his body and eventually corrupt him, so he takes a solemn vow to “see with eyes unclouded by hate” and sets out on a journey to find a cure.



After travelling to the West, Ashitaka discovers an epic battle raging between the ancient gods of the forest and the encroaching civilisation of man who greedily consume the forest's natural resources. Ashitaka strives to bring peace between the forest gods and the villagers of Irontown, believing that both parties can coexist without resorting to violence.



The most powerful example of Ashitaka's defiance to peacefully resolve this heated conflict is when he prevents Princess Mononoke and Lady Eboshi, the two head figures leading both sides of the war, from killing one another. He fearlessly steps between them in the middle of a vicious sword fight and pleads with them to end their hateful conflict with each other as nothing good can come from more unnecessary pain and suffering.



The magic of this film comes from Miyazaki's subtle yet powerful methods of addressing the complexities of the human condition and serious real world issues, while gently awakening a passionate appreciation in the viewers for the sacred and profound beauty of the natural world.

The main message of Princess Mononoke is made clear by director Hayao Miyazaki, if we carry on mindlessly damaging and exploiting the natural world for short-term financial gain, we could risk loosing it forever, and without the natural world, mankind would never be the same again. If people treat the environment with the respect that it deserves, then our beautiful world will be a much better place for us all to live peacefully in solace.



In conclusion, Hayao Miyazaki is an undisputed master of his craft, and perhaps the single greatest animation auteur of all time thanks to his distinctive drawing style, unique creative process, powerful and sublime storytelling, artistic and emotional depth, captivating and complexed characters, recurring themes, breathtaking landscapes, mysterious universes, and the perfect equilibrium between fantasy and realism.



Hayao Miyazaki's animations possess a certain nostalgic quality to them, like something out of a cherished childhood storybook or a beautiful vivid dream or a long lost memory. The meticulously detailed and bewitching worlds that Miyazaki constructs are beyond your wildest imaginations. Each of the director's eleven extraordinary masterpieces are full of ideas and images and emotions that are so monumentally creative and original that it's hard to comprehend that one man envisioned all of it by himself.



The beautiful imagery transports you back into your childlike state of mind through the eyes of his youthful protagonists. The fact that all of his films are primarily hand-drawn makes his body of work all the more impressive and timeless. A Hayao Miyazaki film looks and feels like no one else's, he's one of a kind, and there will never be another animation director to rival this auteur's magnificent life's work. Long Live Hayao Miyazaki.


Check out a selection of trailers for Miyazaki's films and a Studio Ghibli documentary below ~



~ PSYCHIC GARDEN

Kingdom_of_the_Holy_Sun_-_16_-_Sihanouk_Artist Name
00:00 / 03:51

Sign-Up to Our Newsletter

ecosia logo

©PSYCHICGARDEN