People have long given me a quizzical eye when I said my favorite director working today is Hayao Miyazaki, a man whose career has been spent making animated films. As confused as their looks are, so too is my internal response.
Is there a thought that because, though he writes his scripts, Miyazaki doesn’t draw every single frame with his own fingers means the finished product is any less under his directorial stamp than that of a person in charge of live-action sets? Most classic and modern directors don’t do their own cinematography, thus are their influences deemed inferior? What about editing, writing or any of the other countless pieces that make a great movie and great movie?
All of this is a way of me wrestling with the goodbye of a filmmaker whose nearly four-decade old career, in my estimation, demands to be ranked amongst the best ever. If you’re the type of person who thinks Miyazaki just made cartoons, then I probably lost you in the first few sentences already. Yet, for a quick arguments sake, animation is not truly a genre of film. Simple as saying black-and-white films are not innately tied into the same type of story, nor is one that is animated. To call a superhero action film like The Incredibles similar to a movie like Miyazaki’s farewell gem, the historical biopic The Wind Rises is foolish.
Equally, one must not view Miyazaki’s decision to often focus on fantastical narrative elements as one-note. Miyazaki filled his worlds with beasts, behemoths, river-gods and more, but they all served their own purpose. In Porco Rosso, the only fairytale element belonged to the titular fighter-pilot, who suffers under the curse of having the face of a pig. He can still fly, his way with the ladies is just a tad off now with the snout and all. In a previous feature, the lyrical and stunning Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the director went full on fantasy, bringing to life monstrous, destructive other-worldly forces in that way he did best. His titans always shook and stomped with terror, be they designed as such or turned into something cruel by a world unable to deal with it.
This nuance was one of the man’s most astounding traits. Rarely did Miyazaki have his stories feature out-and-out villains. They were certainly antagonists, including ones that had the knack for dastardly deeds and murder. There are motives to be found too. The one-of-a-kind Princess Mononoke has Lady Eboshi, a woman who turns her and her towns weaponry on the neighboring gods of the land. Why? To help her people prosper. Eboshi isn’t seeking to rule the world or have the power of the immortals to herself; she desires a safer, more prosperous town, one of which isn’t controlled by corrupt men in nearby parts. Eboshi isn’t without horrific traits. There is balance though.
Miyazaki’s storytelling skills are second none, brought to the screen through images that were eerie, beautiful and everything in between. His eye is magical and could only truly find its finest footing in animation. As far as computer effects have come, as real as a man flying can feel; the brain know it isn’t. There is, maybe always will be, some slight disconnect in between watching the real crash into the fake because we know the fake doesn’t exist. Most audiences don’t sit around watching for the moment of transition, it’s felt nonetheless. In animation, that disconnect has no footing. We instinctively know that the whole is falsely created and, as such, it’s all real to us as long as the lines drawn, digital shots rendered and the like are molded well. Miyazaki has always known precisely what to put into a frame, whether it be a quiet playful game in My Neighbor Totoro or the rampant residence of Howl’s Moving Castle.
Miyazaki made his creatures and humans move with an eye for detail. The ever-evolving “No-Face” from Spirited Away is whispy and childlike in its initial gestures, sliding along the panel in a fashion akin to the character. When it transforms from its base, instinctual nature, there is chaos all over. The vile way the character devours and dissects those in its path is shown down to the grotesqueries of its teeth. For as unimaginable as “No-Face” is, one immediately gets the physicality of the thing. Very hands-on with his animators, the filmmaker has long been known to push the realism of the extraordinary.
This undoubtedly aides his eye for action, which is amongst only a handful of peers. His heroes always struggled and Miyazaki made the danger he or she was in palpable. You can see the aforementioned pilot of Porco Rosso’s plane combat the elements, wing’s stressing under the pressure of each zig and zag, dueling with others as nails cling to the last remnants of the craft.
As a wielder of emotions, the range is awe-inspiring. The tender and, for my money, finest of his films is My Neighbor Totoro. It’s a tale of two young sisters moving to a small village with their father and encounter a series of woodland series spirits. Once more, there is an unreal touch. What lingers are the familial bonds. The love the father clearly has for his precocious girls. The playful, often frustrated, connection between the siblings. Then there is the mother, who hangs for so much of the film out of the frame. She’s not dead, but is so quietly spoken of – her sickness and transition to a nearby hospital is the cause of their uprooting – that it’s all the more impactful when she appears. Miyazaki doesn’t wrench these scenes for cheap tears, nor does he overplay the nature of her illness. It’s a testament to innocence and feels calls to mind the career of Ozu.
That innocence could be simply telegraphed without resonating as childish. A picture like Kiki’s Delivery Service, where a young witch learns to find her footing in the city, is playful and genuine; easily a picture appropriate for the youngest of audiences. Again, Miyazaki like the finest maker’s of family films, refrained from talking down to an audience, allowing adults to partake in the whimsy via the writing and stupendous imagery, not a tired pop-culture gag. This has made his movies timeless.
Again though, Miyazaki’s filmography has a density and complexity. Many of his works were rooted in a theme about modern civilization’s troubles. None were of richer import than was the current treatment of the environment. The use of rivers as trash-bins, trees as merely a resource and the like snuck its way into the background of some of pictures, or took up the narratives itself. The mistreatment of our planet and how it could reflexively mistreat us back mirrored how he viewed human relationships in his work.
He just seemed like he could wow us every time out. Hell, he did. Since his first feature, 1979’s delightful adventure The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki has not a single bad movie to his name. All eleven have been worth treasuring, with his farewell film The Wind Rises being no exception. It kind of breaks my movie-loving heart to see this master of the cinema step away, at least from the director’s chair. Some have joked its a break and not a retirement, since he has flirted with the idea before. It seems by all account genuine though and I for one will miss him. It’s sad that we’ll likely never get a Miyazaki surprise, but that we ever had them to begin with is a cherished gift.