The Venice Film Festival took a sad turn this September. It was announced that Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary Japanese director behind the Oscar-winning Spirited Away and other animations like My Neighbour Totoro, is retiring. Koju Hoshin, the president of Studio Ghibli announced that The Wind Rises would be his last film.
Talk about the bearer of bad tidings. Of course we all knew he would have to retire sometime, and when you consider his career spans more than 50 years, you can hardly blame him for taking a well earned break. Hayao Miyazaki directed 11 features for Studio Ghibli, and spent years before that working behind the scenes on television animé. For many Ghibli fans though, this will be a hard pill to swallow.
It got me thinking about my own love for the work of Studio Ghibli and how a lot of that is down to this man.
It began with Ponyo
My love affair with Studio Ghibli started a little later than most people. While the critics were raving about Spirited Away back in 2003 and tipping it for Oscar glory, I was blundering through school and watching the films my friends liked. It never occurred to me to pay attention to Awards Season.
It was 2010 when I finally became acquainted with the famed Japanese studio. I was in my third year of university. I’d opted to pursue a practical module where we planned and implemented a film festival, and one of the films we short-listed to screen was a Studio Ghibli animation by the name of Ponyo. Still clueless, even with the incessant jibber jabber about ‘Miyazaki’ and ‘Ghibli’ from my classmates, I snuck in to watch Ponyo out of curiosity. As you can imagine, I promptly fell in love with it.
Ponyo tells the tale of a five year old boy called Sosuke who finds a beautiful goldfish trapped in a bottle on the beach. She is no ordinary goldfish though. The mischievous daughter of a wizard and a sea goddess, Ponyo uses her father’s magic to transform herself into a young girl. She soon falls in love with Sosuke, but the power she harnessed causes a dangerous imbalance in the world, and the two children must find a way to save the world and help Ponyo remain human.
From Kiki’s Delivery Service to Spirited Away
My curiosity was piqued, and with several Studio Ghibli films lurking in the DVD section of my university’s library, an education was in order. Kiki’s Delivery Service was the first film I borrowed. Released back in 1989, Hayao Miyazaki took inspiration from a novel by Eiko Kadono. Kiki is a thirteen-year-old witch, who is set to embark on a year away from home, to find her feet in the world. With broomstick in tow and the company of her cat Jiji, this headstrong and resourceful girl settles in a European village, where she uses her powers of flight to set up a courier business.
The film is completely different to Ponyo, and yet it applies the exact same charm to story telling, wrapping the ordinary world in a layer of magic that is welcome and cosy.
Spirited Away was next on my list, and that’s when I decided Hayao Miyazaki is a genius. It’s a shame really that his other titles were not recognised for greatness like Spirited Away, because they each have their own merit. Winning the 2003 Oscar for Best Animated Feature, Spirited Away put its director and the studio directly under the spotlight, after two decades of relative obscurity from western audiences.
A young girl called Chihiro and her parents are moving to a small Japanese town when her father takes a wrong turn and comes across a tunnel. They find an abandoned theme park on the other side, and Chihiro decides to explore, only to realise it’s not what it seems. They have disturbed a town inhabited by demons, spirits, and evil gods! When her parents are turned into pigs, Chihiro is lead to a bathhouse, and takes a job there in disguise, until she can find a way to free her parents.
Up until 2003, while plenty sought out the animés produced by Studio Ghibli, they were almost like a revered secret shared by a select few. Spirited Away changed that, and these days, DVD, Blu-Ray and theatre releases are met with frenzied interest.
The back catalogue
Of course with renewed interest, old classics were re-introduced. The film which arguably first garnered Miyazaki a young fanbase, is one I still haven’t had the pleasure of seeing. Castle in the Sky is about a boy and girl with a magic crystal who are in a race against pirates, the army and agents in search of a legendary floating castle.
The film was followed closely by My Neighbour Totoro in 1988, one I have had the pleasure of watching. Two young girls, Satsuki and her younger sister Mei, move into a house in the country and discover that the forest nearby is inhabited by magical creatures called totoros. From there on, various adventures and weird and wonderful things occur, including a genius sequence with a cat which doubles as a bus.
Perhaps my favourite of all though is Howl’s Moving Castle. Based on a novel by Welsh writer Diana Wynne Jones and released in 2004, the story revolves around an unconfident young lady called Sofî who is cursed with the body of an old woman by a spiteful witch. Her only chance of breaking the spell lies with a self-indulgent and insecure wizard, who travels in a bizarre house which walks on legs and can disguise itself.
The dark with the light
Not all of the films from Studio Ghibli are cutesy animations designed to entertain the little ones though. There’s a darker side which comes out in films like Princess Mononoke and Grave of the Fireflies.
Grave of the Fireflies is not one of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, but it’s certainly one which haunts you long after viewing. Directed by Isao Takahata, Setsuko and Seita are a brother and sister struggling to survive without their parents during the Second World War in Japan. It’s heartbreaking to watch and beautifully brings across just how awful war is, and the effect it has on the innocent.
You get the impression the studio is taking a stand against violence, especially when you pair the vision of two helpless children fighting for survival with a film like Princess Mononoke. Ashitaka is journeying to find a cure for a Tatarigami’s curse, when he finds himself in the middle of a war between the forest gods and a mining colony called Tatara. Hayao Miyazaki made it clear when he wrote and directed the feature, that it was imperative nobody won the war. Despite the fantasy setting, you can see the point he’s bringing across: nobody wins in a war. Not in fantasy and certainly not in real life.
Yes, you can see Hayao Miyazaki and the team at Studio Ghibli’s morals from a mile away. Over the last thirty years they have continued to produce unapologetically fantastical, spiritual and imaginative tales which dare to fight against the cynicism of modern times. They help you believe in magic again, and in a way western animations simply don’t manage these days.
When you think back on recent releases like How To Train My Dragon, Hotel Transylvania, and even a Pixar film like Up, they’re very often bogged down in modern colloquialism, trying desperately hard to relate to the kids of today, in the hope that a character’s use of the phrase “totally awesome” will draw them into the tale, instead of relying on good old fashioned story telling. Perhaps it’s the lack of influence from the west, but even the English dubs of Studio Ghibli’s animations are refreshingly free of this type of pandering, and therefore you’re drawn into the adventure without a continuous reminder that you live in the age of “dude”.
In short, Hayao Miyazaki has done the impossible and helped a generation of cynics who grew up too quickly get back in contact with their inner child. It doesn’t matter if the film is set back in ancient times, or in an alternative universe where nice witches fly across the world and no one screams. Hayao Miyazaki may be retiring, but he’s leaving behind an indisputable legacy which I hope we’ll still be enjoying 100 years from now.
Where too now?
Where does Studio Ghibli go from here? Well, Hayao’s son Goro Miyazaki has shown some real promise with the two Ghibli animations he has helmed. And while his début Tales From Earthsea was criticised, his next film has been very well received by audiences and critics.
Set in 1964, From Up On Poppy Hill is a love story about two high school students in Yokohama, Japan, who find themselves drawn to one another during a fight to save their school’s clubhouse from demolition. Perhaps Tales From Earthsea, based on the fantasy world of Ursula Le Guin’s books, was too ambitious for a début?
Either way, for a man who once swore he would never follow his father into film-making, he’s certainly proving himself a worthy candidate to carry on the Miyazaki legacy.