Gathered in a cozy section of the Stanford Humanities Center on a Wednesday evening, I sat giddy as people poured in and took their seats in the compact Levinthal Hall. I knew that, like me, they had come to recognize and celebrate the life of a person who can only be described as “an artist par excellence.” He stands with Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Kurosawa as one of the greatest masters that Japanese cinema has offered us. His movies—Spirited Away (2001), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), and The Wind Rises (2013), to name a few—have come to rest in a special region in the hearts of children, teenagers, and adults alike. His name is Hayao Miyazaki.
It is with this legacy, then, that Stanford was honored to have two scholarly translators—Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt—deliver a wholly engaging presentation last month, stemming from their close professional relationships with Miyazaki. Cary and Schodt interviewed Miyazaki and, through these interactions, came to understand his enigmatic persona. They were key in translating Miyazaki’s writings into English, so that Western fans could come to know the prolific Japanese director as they did. The central question of the night was both straightforward and complex: what is it about Miyazaki that continues to dazzle audiences today?
According to Schodt, Miyazaki is a man of many intriguing contradictions. Though he is world-renowned for his astoundingly beautiful children’s films, he has described himself as “a terrible father.” Likewise, despite the humanist-optimism of his films, he has stated how he “looks forward to the day when civilization will collapse.” And despite his outspoken antiwar sentiments, he has a fervent love of tanks and fighter planes that came to the forefront in his last film The Wind Rises, about an engineer who designs war machines for the Japanese and Germans during the Second World War. In fact, Miyazaki has said to Cary and Schodt that “if [he] were of age for combat during the Second World War, [he] would most likely have served as a kamikaze pilot.” Perhaps most striking to Western audiences, though he is respectfully described as “the Walt Disney of Japan,” Miyazaki has gone on record to say that “[he] hates Disney’s works.” To him, Disney’s assembly-line style of production is dishonest and counterintuitive to the expression of the individual artist.
It is tempting to judge Miyazaki based off of these contradictions alone. Yet if there’s one thing that we as moviegoers must realize, it’s that—at some point—we have to separate the artist from the art. Who the artist is, what they have done, how they live their lives, what political beliefs they hold—these are all characteristics of a person that is insignificant to the person with whom we communicate at the movies. If they choose to integrate their personal lives into their products, so be it. But Miyazaki’s films are removed from the radical, eccentric leftist he is in real life. And we can divorce these two sides of Miyazaki when we sit down and thrill to the misadventures of Kiki and her black magic cat Jiji in Kiki’s Delivery Service, or when we root for the badass princess Nausicaa in the movie of the same name.
Therefore, when we think about Miyazaki’s staying power, we’re tempted to ask ourselves a question similar to Cary and Schodt’s: why do his characters stay lodged within our hearts and souls? What is it about Totoro (a baleful cat-spirit with a creepy grin) or Chihiro (an obnoxious 7-year-old more narcissistic than Kanye on a bad day) that intrigues us?
Cary and Schodt frame a possible answer in the context of Miyazaki’s unparalleled artistry. They related how Miyazaki is involved in every step of the animation, drawing thousands of cels by hand in order to give his Studio Ghibli team something concrete to work with. According to Cary, Miyazaki refused to give in to the cheaper alternative of computer-rendered animation for a long time in the early 2000s. In today’s increasingly tech-oriented film world, the necessity of computer-graphic imagery and animation becomes incredibly hard to avoid. Yet Miyazaki has managed to compromise his intensely personal vision with the demands of the new Digital Age with astounding results. Thus, Miyazaki is able to give us Howl’s Moving Castle, a sumptuous feast of computer animation that even exceeds the beauty of Pixar, and The Wind Rises, which provides even richer visuals because of its return to the hand-drawn style. It is the dedication of this well-crafted and intensely personalized Miyazakisphere that enables us to embrace his inventions as instant pop-culture classics.
But as Miyazaki approaches the twilight years of his life, his legions of fans can only ask one question: who can replace him? Who can step up and pick up where he left off? Who will inspire us to tears with characters like Chihiro and Totoro and Kiki and Jiro—names and faces we’ve etched into the memory-banks of our brains, who we turn to when things are down? Can any other artist dare to aspire to the great heights of such a master like Miyazaki? The answer is unknown. But if the history of cinema tells us anything, it is that art is a series of ebbs and flows. For every Walt Disney that faltered, there was a Chuck Jones to confidently rise up. For all the painfully dull 90s Hollywood movies that stuck to the same formulaic constraints, there was a Tarantino that came and knocked the whole artifice down. And if Miyazaki has taught us anything, it is that we must be confident in our abilities to aspire to untapped creative heights.
This, more than anything else, may be the greatest takeaway from Cary and Schodt’s talk on Miyazaki. It’s the lesson that Miyazaki reiterates again and again in his work with great nobility: find your inner self and express it to its utmost limits. Be confident in everything that you do, damn the obstacles and contradictions. Confident in your talents and your ability to imagine. So confident, in fact, that… who knows? Maybe you can make the next Spirited Away.
And then our children will all be chiding you for making them cry at 12.
Photo courtesy of fact.co.uk