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Hayao Miyazaki: Worlds in Animation

An Academy Award winning director and animator, Hayao Miyazaki has come to be known as the Walt Disney of Japan. In a country known for its animation, that’s quite a feat, but truthfully, Miyazaki stands alone. There’s no need to compare him to Disney, anymore than there is the age old need to compare an apple to an orange–especially when current Disney animators so often look to Miyazaki himself for inspiration.

Few animators–and filmmakers in general–have created such unique and enduring works. And while he has only produced ten films over thirty or so years of directing, the lesson of quality over quantity definitely applies here. Miyazaki takes his time–there can be no argument about that. But maybe we need more of that these days.

Sadly, despite being one of the greatest animators of our time, Miyazaki remains an enigma in the United States, viewed more in avant-garde circles than family living rooms. Yet animators and filmmakers at all the major studios frequently pay homage to him. Most recently, James Cameron’s Avatar and Pixar’s Up both were transformed by the influence of Miyazaki’s work.


The foundation of creative professionals around the world–from writers and artists to graphic designers and advertisers–imagination is that intangible skill that helps good ideas become great. In Miyazaki’s case, saying he has it in spades would be an understatement. Few people in the world have a similar breadth vision–probably why Fast Company named him in their 100 Most Creative People In Business.

Miyazaki’s worlds have the unique ability to be both intimately familiar and wildly exotic. We might not know the forest, but we recognize the trees. It’s this ability to make us feel right at home with our sense of wonder that makes each movie great. Spirited Away is one of the best examples of this, as we are thrust into an abandoned amusement park as it transforms into the spirit world.


In the age of CGI, Miyazaki is a dying breed. You can’t discuss his work and not bring up the tens of thousands of frames he hand draws or the hundreds of little details he fits into his films that you might only recognize on a subconscious level. Age and health have slowed him down these past years–along with a few premature retirements–but the artist’s spirit is still there.

I’m hard pressed to think of anyone else with Miyazaki’s clout, who still works in hand-drawn animation. And as Miyazaki moves inexorably to the end of his career, it seems like hand-drawn animation goes with him. As Miyazaki himself has noted, this is not necessarily a bad thing, only a new direction.


Never one to wield theme with a heavy hand, Miyazaki has discussed how he doesn’t believe adults should impose their visions upon children. Nonetheless, Miyazaki’s films are filled with countless underlying themes like pacifism, love, and environmentalism. Two of Miyazaki’s most interesting and prevalent themes–moral ambiguity and feminine strength–involve his characters.

Miyazaki’s villains are nearly always multidimensional and rarely pure evil, something almost unheard of in western animation. More likely, they will have some aspect that makes them more sympathetic–like Lady Eboshi caring for the lepers in Princess Mononoke or Yubaba’s love for her baby in Spirited Away. Morally ambiguous characters aren’t always popular, but they add greater depth to the story and pose interesting questions about the nature of villians.

On the other side of things, Miyazaki has a history of developing strong, independent heroines. These heroines take action, rather than waiting to be saved (ehem, Disney Princesses, I’m looking at you). He does this all without devolving the heroines into the cursed Mary Sue type. Solid female protagonists aren’t always easy to come by–especially fifteen to thirty years ago–and Miyazaki was doing it long before it was status quo.


Regardless of your interest in animation, Miyazaki’s films should not be overlooked. They come in all shapes and speeds, so you’re bound to find one that sounds interesting to you. After one or two, you might even find you’re interested in them all. Don’t worry, I won’t say “I told you so.”

Miyazaki has a penchant for revealing the little miracles in the world, whether it be the drifting clouds overhead or the warm breeze on your face or the way the sun glints off the water. In short, he gives you back the childlike wonder you may have long forgotten.

And getting back something like that is never a bad thing.



  1. I’m a recent inductee in the world of Miyazaki, but I really like his storytelling. From what I’ve heard, he holidays a lot in Wales, and many of his stories are based on Welsh mythology (which is doubly awesome).

  2. Love Hiyao. For many family nights we watched Studio Ghibli films, and have gone through almost all bar the harder-to-find ones. The themes and messages are much more balanced and healthy than a lot of cheesy, Hollywood family films/animated movies. They lack the heart of Miyazaki’s movies.

  3. Avatar Karla says:

    As a further note on Miyazaki’s ability to make the unfamiliar familiar, I always found his attention to the domestic, which would normally be axed from films, absolutely absorbing. From cutting a slice of bread in ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ to opening the door and man-handling the shopping in ‘Ponyo’ – it’s the little acts of everyday. That and Miyazaki’s firm grounding in reality, like getting his animators to all try opening a dog’s jaws before animating Chihiro/Sen shoving medicine down Haku’s throat in ‘Spirited Away’.

    Genius. ^_^

  4. […] article up at Fantasy Faction spotlighting famed animator Hayao […]

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