Hayao Miyazaki: Exploring the themes of the director’s magical anime

Hayao Miyazaki, the much celebrated Japanese animator, may have “officially” retired in 2013, but fans knew he would re-surface at some point, marking his return to the drawing board and big screen with his magical anime.

The movie he came out of retirement to make is called Kemushi No Boro (Boro the Caterpillar). Little is known about this short animation, that is expected to premiere at the Ghibli Musuem in Japan this summer, other than it is “a story about a tiny, hairy caterpillar, so tiny that it maybe easily squashed between your fingers”, according to the director himself.

It is rumoured that Hayao Miyazaki is working on a feature-length version of the movie to be completed by 2019, in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Hayao Miyazaki, one of animation’s most revered directors, has been working on the animated story of Boro for 20 years. As with all Hayao Miyazaki movies, Kemushi No Boro (Boro the Caterpillar), be it just a short or full-length feature, is likely to exhilarate audiences worldwide.

The 76-year-old originally bowed out from feature films with 2013’s The Wind Rises. His first directorial debut in five years was a fictional version of the story of Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the fighter planes that became the iconic image of Japanese air power in WWII.

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The movie was nominated for an Oscar that year, but missed out to Disney’s Frozen. It was not the first time that the Japanese director’s films had qualified for an Oscar – in 2003, Spirited Away won an Oscar for best animated feature and his follow-up film, Howl’s Moving Castle, in 2004, was nominated for a best animated feature Oscar.

Planes

The Wind Rises was a far cry from Miyazaki’s fantasy-themed, family-friendly films. The director’s own love and fascination with planes is no new feat. They’re featured prominently in his impressive catalogue of animated films.

Fantasy-themed aircraft were a major element in Miyazaki’s earlier films, including 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and 1986’s Castle in the Sky. His 1992 film, Porco Rosso, followed the adventures of an early-1900s Italian fighter-pilot who was born with a pig’s head and makes a living as a bounty hunter.

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A career that has spanned over 50 years, 20 feature-length and short animated movies has seen Miyazaki earn himself a reputation for unique magical storytelling. This helped seal the deal for Miyazaki’s sale of worldwide distribution rights for his Studio Ghibli to Walt Disney Studios in 1996, and in turn open up Miyazaki’s movie masterpieces to a global audience.

Miyazaki’s films contain recurrent themes like the battle between good and evil, humanity’s relationship with nature and technology, environmentalism, and politics.

Peacemaker

In The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s fondness of aircraft is shown in a different light altogether. The film’s protagonist, Jiro Horikoshi, was responsible for designing aircraft which were widely known for kamikaze missions and the bombing of Pearl Harbour. In spite of Miyazaki’s own dislike of war making, his depiction of Horikoshi is a sympathetic one.

The director’s aversion to war is nothing new. He stayed away from the Academy Awards ceremony in 2003 when Spirited Away won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film, saying he found it hard to celebrate “because of the deeply sad events taking place in the world” in reference to the war in Iraq.

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Princess Mononoke, set in the 14th century, about a girl raised by wolves carried one of Miyazaki’s signature messages, the need to live in harmony with nature. The quest to end the humans’ hateful war with themselves and nature becomes the driving force of Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke.

Set in the future, 1984’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind tells the story of Princess Nausicaa, a young defender of a dying post-apocalyptic world. Nausicaa is tasked with protecting her village from both giant insects and the destructive forces of the remaining traces of humanity. The post-apocalyptic world is filled with remains of the old civilizations that ended with wars and the destruction of the environment.

Even in his films, conflict and violence is usually seen as misguided and destructive, and Miyazaki’s heroes are often peacemakers like Nausicaa’s warrior hero Lord Yupa, known to be the best swordsman in the world, is first seen in combat to put an abrupt end to a fight. And in The Castle of Cagliostro, swordsman Goemon Ishikawa uses his sword in lifesaving mode.

Magical storytelling

It was the magical tale of 10-year-old Chihiro in Spirited Away that won the hearts of moviegoers the world over. Chihiro finds herself trapped in a mystical realm, where she must find a way to save her parents, who have been turned into pigs. Her search takes her to a folkloric bathhouse full of nature spirits and minor deities. The themes of family, loyalty, friendship and environmental preservation – synonymous with Miyazaki’s films – are explored in this Oscar winner.

In addition to his love of flying and aircraft, Miyazaki has a strong affinity with the elements, particularly water. This is explored in great detail in Spirited Away with the characters of Haku, the river dragon spirit, and the polluted river spirit known as the stink-demon, as well as the bathhouse setting.

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Miyazaki’s fascination with water in part stems from his admiration of the ancient Japanese Shinto purification rituals, which focus on using water to remove body and mind from pollution and to wash away pollution from groups of people. The concept of purification itself originates in the legend of the god Izanagi no mikoto who washed himself free of pollution after visiting his wife in the Land of the Dead.

Water and the relationship between humanity and water is also a crucial theme in 2009’s Ponyo. It tells the story of a boy who befriends a sea goddess named Ponyo. Ponyo desperately wants to be human and live with her friend’s family.

Her father, a powerful wizard and the King of the Sea, has different ideas, and is intent on mixing elixirs to clean up the mess man has made of the ocean. Ponyo uses her father’s magic to transform herself into a young girl and quickly falls in love with Sosuke, but the use of such powerful sorcery causes a dangerous imbalance in the world.

As the moon steadily draws nearer to the earth and Ponyo’s father sends the ocean’s mighty waves to find his daughter, the two children embark on an adventure of a lifetime to save the world and fulfill Ponyo’s dreams of becoming human.

Love saves the day

Many of Miyazaki’s films deal with the power of love which, symbolic of fairy tales, is enough to break curses upon people. In Spirited Away, Chihiro saves Haku from witch Zeniba’s curse using the power of  true love for him. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie’s confidence in herself and her love for Howl breaks the curse laid upon her by the Wicked Witch of the Waste. And in Ponyo, Sousuke’s love for Ponyo is ultimately what saves the world.

The worlds that Miyazaki creates in his films are as far apart but equally as impressive and captivating – from the post-apocalyptic jungle world of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the strange 19th-century science fiction of Laputa: Castle in the Sky to the surreal spirit world of Spirited Away.

spirited away

His films generally portray a fantasy world in which technology is eclipsed by mysticism and nature. In My Neighbor Totoro, his exquisitely detailed animation brought to life the beauty and mystery of the Japanese countryside, with its deep, dark forests and brilliant green rice paddies.

Given Miyazaki’s love of nature, the realities that he depicts are often idyllic and marries ancient castles, traditional Japanese structures with lush features including sprawling meadows and forests, whether period or futuristic.

Miyazaki’s movies are enjoyed by both children and adults alike. Through his films, Miyazaki sets to help children to “understand their world” and carries messages of having respect for their natural surroundings. Usually the protagonists are strong, independent girls or young women, and the villains are typically uncertain in nature with redeeming qualities.

Good and evil

The lines of good and evil are not clear-cut and are often ambiguous in Miyazaki’s movies. The witch-like figures in Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, are endearing at times. Instead, Miyazaki tends to offer understanding and sympathy to all of his characters.

Some of Miyazaki’s earlier films featured distinctly evil villains, as in the evil count of Cagliostro in Castle of Cagliostro, where thief Lupin III has to figure out the secret of Cagliostro’s counterfeiting ring and rescue a woman from the count.

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Miyazaki has explained that the lack of clearly defined good and evil is because of his views of the 21st century as a complex time, where old norms no longer are true and need to be re-examined. Simple stereotypes cannot be used, even in children’s films. Even though Miyazaki sometimes feels pessimistic about the world, he prefers to show children a positive world view instead.

Referring to Spirited Away’s heroine Chihiro, Miyazaki said: “The heroine [is] thrown into a place where the good and bad dwell together…She manages not because she has destroyed the ‘evil,’ but because she has acquired the ability to survive.”

Adventure

Other films such as family favourites, Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro have no villains at all. Kiki’s Delivery Service, released in 1989, follows a young witch named Kiki who leaves her family to make her way in the big city. She starts up a delivery service and follows adventure and her beloved black cat Jiji wherever it leads her.

In 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro, two girls move to the country, to be near their ailing mother, where they have adventures with the wonderous forest spirits who live nearby. With a powerful ecological theme throughout, the story follows Satsuke and Mei who find that their new country home is in a mystical forest inhabited by a menagerie of mystical creatures called Totoros.

They befriend O Totoro, the biggest and eldest Totoro, who is also the king of the forest. As their mother lies sick in the hospital, O Totoro brings the sisters on a magical adventure but also helps them to understand the realities of life.

Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved movies – as magnificent examples of animated art and as conveyors of critical messages about humanity and the balance – will be just as influential, well-loved and important as they are today, in decades to come.

Rosalind Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She is a journalist who writes about sustainable life & style, music, entertainments and wellbeing. Rosalind also works as a spiritual life coach and intuitive advisor helping people to become who they truly are and manifest their heart & soul’s desires into their lives: www.rosalindmedea.com

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