Animation is written off for two reasons: it is viewed as low-art and it is childish. The form is inherently associated with cartoons, comics and doodles. The only thing considered worse is “Japanimation.” Ever since Tezuka Osama created the style of characters with huge, glaringly reflective pupils, the public, except for the select few who worship it, has refused to accept anime and manga. When I asked my anime friends their opinion of Japanese animator Miyazaki Hayao, their answer baffled me. “I don’t see why he’s such a big deal,” was the response.
To understand the importance and genius of Hayao requires a crash course in anime aesthetics. For starters, most anime is based off manga, the Japanese equivalent of comic books. Anime produced in Japan either panders to children or your Adult Swim fan, ranging from teenage to middle age. It is very rare that these programs find a medium enjoyed between the two groups.
The animation in anime is enormously constrained due to the constant deadlines to produce more episodes. This in turn causes the show to repeat frames of action, forces the camera to remain on a still frame, and provides very little character movement and expression. The process works, to an extent, allowing quality programming and above cartoon animation for many anime shows. It is here that Hayao separates himself from the rest of his colleagues.
Hayao is known not only for creating fully rendered animation, but also for providing enormous amounts of extra detail in his art. His creations resemble life through minute facial expressions, physical quirks and visual depth. In his most popular film, My Neighbor Totoro, the plot revolves around two sisters who discover Totoro, a forest troll, in the woods next to their house. There is little dialogue between the main characters throughout the film, but plot is still clear to the audience. A sense of mystery, friendship and wonder can be seen through subtlety in their facial expressions that very few real actors can produce.
But Hayao also holds an extravagance to his films that visually awes and inspires. Whether it is the science fiction adventure Howl’s Moving Castle or the Alice in Wonderland fantasy Spirited Away, he presents soaring environments and imaginative worlds. Where many animated features provide constrained backgrounds as set pieces merely to serve the plot, Hayao is noted for producing canvases of landscaping for his settings. He provides meticulous detail such as empty bottles on a pond floor, tadpoles in a puddle or water droplets on grains of grass, creating a sense of history and scope that immerses not only his characters, but his audience as well.
A gifted storyteller, Hayao fuses Japanese folklore with his own imaginative tales of wonder. In Princess Mononoke, he tells the tale of a young boy searching for a cure for a fatal curse, only to be caught in the middle of a war between worlds: nature vs. machine. Death is an inevitability and the danger is quite apparent and real. There is love, sacrifice, and even an allegory about imperialism beneath the surface of the story.
In Porco Rosso, the eponymous main character is a pig. A period piece set in WWII Italy, the film combines noir, politics, comedy and a bit of swashbuckling in a rousing action-adventure. There is emotional weight to the film, not because of sympathy that Porco is cursed as a pig, but because of his isolation and regret over the past. Wisely ignoring the history of the curse, Hayao tells a story about friendship in the midst of fascism and uses Porco’s appearance as a foil for humanity at its best and worst.
This kind of narrative insight is common in all of Hayao’s projects such as Castle in the Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service and the various other films previously mentioned, but it is the universal themes that attract children and adults to these films. In My Neighbor Totoro, the plot is not centered on a conflict but on the characters. The two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, have a bond that is passed on to Totoro. While it is known that their mother suffers from an illness, it is the bond between these three friends that provide the narrative and not the danger of their mother’s health, though it is an important aspect of the story. Even his classic television show Lupin III remains in such high regard as revolutionary Astroboy and American cartoons from Warner Bros, Hanna-Barbera, and of course, Disney.
There is a reason that Disney has tried to release all of Hayao’s films in America since the early ’90s. He has the same appreciation for animation and mentality for story telling as Walt Disney. The influence of Disney is a natural outgrowth from anime/manga ‘god’ Tezuka Osama, whom all anime branches from, to Hayao. It is even said that Hayao might save Disney animation in the years to come.
In a time where 2D animation is being discarded for 3D rendered digital animation, it is important to have an animator like Hayao. He is not only innovative but also motivates others to show that hand drawn animated films still can remain relevant. It holds a classic artistry and vibrancy that computer generated images cannot emulate.
While Disney is closing down its animation studio, Hayao’s studio, Ghibli, remains active creating blockbusters in Japan and overseas. He is an important figure not only in the anime community but the film community in general. Hayao is a creative voice that is desperately needed in Hollywood, where ideas are lacking and innovation is rarely encouraged.