Trevor Hogg profiles the career of Japanese animated filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki in the first of a five part feature…
“I was an overly self-conscious boy and I had a hard time holding my own in fights with others,” recalled renowned Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, “but my classmates eventually accepted me because I was good at drawing.” Remembering a profound moment he experienced as a teenager, Miyazaki stated, “I first fell in love with animation when I saw Hakujaden [The Tale of the White Serpent], the animated feature produced by Toei Animation in 1958. I can still remember the pangs of emotion I felt at the sight of the incredibly beautiful young, female character, Bai-Niang, and how I went to see the film over and over as a result. It was like being in love, and Bai-Niang became a surrogate girlfriend for me at a time when I had none.” His repeat viewings of “Japan’s first true full-length colour animated feature” served as a career motivator for the anime artist who felt he could do better. “Eventually, I came to believe the film was a sham. There is too great a focus on the tragic connection between the young male protagonist, Shûsen, and the beautiful white girl, Bai Niang. As a result the other characters aren’t depicted in a very attractive light all.” The flaws in the movie allowed the Tokyo-native to discover his guiding principle. “I have had one constant theme in my work: ‘To watch good animation, and then to make something that surpasses it.’”
After graduating in political science and economics from Gakushuin University, Hayao Miyazaki turned his love for drawing into a career opportunity. “I started working as a new animator for Toei Animation in 1963,” remarked the moviemaker, “but I frankly didn’t enjoy the job at all. I felt ill at ease every day – I couldn’t understand the works we were producing, or even the proposals we were working on.” The growing frustration led Miyazaki to question his chosen profession. “Had I not one day seen Snedronningen (The Snow Queen, 1970) during a film screening hosted by the company’s labour union, I honestly doubt that I would have continued working as an animator.”
In explaining what made the Danish animated TV adaptation of the Han Christian Anderson fairy tale so special to him, Hayao Miyazaki said, “Snedronningen is proof of how much love can be invested in the act of making drawings move, and how much the movement of the drawings can be sublimated into the process of acting. It proves that when it comes to depicting simply yet strong, powerful, piercing emotions in an earnest and pure fashion, animation can fully hold its own with the best of what other media genres can offer, moving us powerfully.” Even though Miyazaki acknowledges that Hakujaden and Snedronningen “are hardly highbrow works”, he believes that both pictures serve a useful purpose. “What’s important here is not whether the film has some sort of permanent artistic value. The viewers – I include myself here – usually only possess a limited ability to comprehend a film and tend to overlook many important clues in it. But they feel liberated from their daily frustrations and their feelings of being overwhelmed.”
Looking back on his apprenticeship under veteran animator Yasuji Mori, Hayao Miyazaki admitted to being a “confrontational, impudent, and insolent” student. One of the significant projects Miyazaki worked on as member of the production staff was the feature directorial debut of his future long-time collaborator Isao Takahata called Taiyo no oji: Horusu no duiboken [Little Norse Prince Valiant, 1968]. Hols, a young Scandinavian boy, recovers the Sword of the Sun which he uses to defend a village from the ice demon Grundewald and the evil spirit’s beautiful sister Hilda.
“Paku-san [Takahata] really proved that animation has the power to depict the inner mind of humans in depth,” recalled Miyazaki who experienced a second creative revelation when he watched the picture. “Amid the turmoil of finalizing the film, I had no idea what kind of work Mori-san had been doing. Tears streamed from my eyes. It was not because the three-year project was over. It was because I couldn’t stop crying over the figure of Hilda that Mori-san had drawn. I had thought I had put all my efforts into the film project, but I realized then that my work had simply been to create a container. It was Mori-san who had put a soul into it.” Hayao Miyazaki believes in the ability of animated pictures to be cathartic. “Take an evil character such as Hilda in Little Norse Prince Valiant. She has a change of heart of heart and at the end she’s done in by the Snow Wolves. If that change of heart hadn’t happen, I can’t imagine anyone ever forgiving her. A purifying effect comes into play when an evil character transforms into a truly happy person, or when some really awful person turns good.” The internationally renowned animator philosophically observed, “I think our life force is the only thing we have that keeps us going. Hols was able to escape from the labyrinth of the forest because he himself had the energy to do so; he had an intense desire to live.”
Leaving Toei Animation in 1970, Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki failed to convince writer Astrid Lindgren to sell them the film rights to her Pippi Longstocking books; as a result, the first major project for the duo was to co-direct the television series Rupan sansei (Lupin the Third, 1971) based on the manga (Japanese comic) by Monkey Punch. “[Arsène] Lupin was conceived as a character who inherited a fabulous fortune from his grandfather,” stated Miyazaki, “who lived in a mansion, who didn’t participate in society’s materialistic rat race, and who – to ward off boredom [or ennui, as we call it] – occasionally worked as a thief.” Reflecting on the show, Miyazaki remarked, “Lupin the Third was a new type of TV program and ahead of its time; it received a record number of orders from the broadcast industry, and its main sales point – its positivism – revealed a real desire to exploit the new information flooding into society before the others could. There was therefore a lot of attention paid to the details of the show – to things like Lupin’s Mercedes Benz SSK, to his expensive wristwatches and famous brand-name cigarette lighters, to the Walther P38 pistol or Combat Magnum revolver he always carried.”
“The desire to get the jump on trends was incorporated into the design of Lupin’s character,” revealed Hayao Miyazaki. “The old Lupin TV series flamed out after two cours [A cour is equivalent to a thirteen episode season; twenty-three episodes were made in total.] but there was a big change between Lupin’s character in the first third and the last two-thirds of the series.” The time of political activism was over in Japan. “Apathy itself became a trend of the new era,” reflected Miyazaki. “It was even incorporated into the film-directing styles, resulting for example, in the unique pose that Lupin and his sidekick Jigen often assumed of lazily flopping down to have a conversation. Unlike traditional heroes who would grin and bear whatever hardships they faced, Lupin took full advantage of a bountiful consumer society and was truly a creature of his era.”
“I’m not sure where the request came from, but we were compelled from somewhere in the organization to make changes in the direction of the old Lupin series”, recalled Hayao Miyazaki. “We [Takahata and I] were in a fix, having taken over direction in midstream, and wanting more than anything else to get rid of this sense of apathy that infused the story.” Describing how the star of the TV program was reinvented, Miyazaki remarked, “The Lupin character who rode in a Benz SSK and the Lupin character who rode in a Fiat 500 [the car of poorer Italians] were like opposites in the series; they competed with each other, influenced each other, and as a result helped to enliven the series.” Not everything went smoothly with the new approach. “The change in direction during the broadcasts of the first series created confusion on the production side and, combined with the fact that TV animation techniques also stagnated around the same time, resulted in the visuals lacking unity. The quality of the show suffered. But this is just further evidence that the show’s after-the-fact popularity probably stemmed from the duality in Lupin’s persona.” Looking back on the television series which was revived in 1977 with Rupan sansei: Part II, the animator said, “The ‘new Lupin’ continued running for three years; at times it had quite high ratings, and may have even been commercially successful. But it never really functioned as a true creature of its era.”
Asked by Tokyo Movie Shinsha to create a short film starring a panda, Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki came up with the idea for Panda Kopanda (Panda! Go, Panda!, 1972). “This work brings back memories,” fondly recalled Miyazaki. “It’s the rare work that gave me a warm feeling while I wrote it, while I animated it, and while I watched it. We wrote the proposal in one night and heard nothing about it for a few months after submitting it. When I heard on the radio news that pandas were arriving from China, I was sure it would be approved. Just as I thought, the project was immediately set to go. In that respect this work rode the wave of the panda boom.”
Mimiko, a seven-year-old girl who is left alone while her grandmother goes on a trip, discovers she has a surprise visitor – a baby panda. To devise the setting for the picture Hayao Miyazaki did not have to look far. “The landscape of the cherry tree-lined streets, the garden where cosmos flowers bloom, and the quiet suburb where cars rarely pass by are from the Kandagawa of my childhood, a town by the river that was later sung about as a polluted waterway.” The animator was quick to point out that, “The world depicted in Panda! Go, Panda! is not a product of nostalgia for those of us who worked on it. The work is an effort to depict, at least in animated film, Japan as it might have become.”
“When the film was released,” remembered Miyazaki, “I went to the movie theatre with my son and niece. It was shown with a Godzilla movie and it wasn’t very long. But the children who came to watch it enjoyed it immensely. At the end they sang along with the theme song. I was thrilled. I recall feeling very happy at the sight of those children. And I think it was because of the support of those children that I decided on the kind of work I’d do from then on.” The success of the short film resulted in the companion piece Panda Kopanda: Amerfuri circus no maki (Panda! Go, Panda! Rainy-Day Circus, 1973) being made. “For the sequel we decided from the start that I would write the scenario. Lounging around Takahata’s house, he and I chatted about what kind of story it should be and discovered that we shared a childhood attraction to floods.”
“Our team created our first television series, called Arupusu no Shôjo Haiji [Heidi, a Girl of the Alps,1974],” remarked Hayao Miyazaki of the program which aired as part of Nippon Animation’s World Masterpiece Theatre. “We were ambitious. We wanted to create a work for children that wasn’t frivolous, and we wanted to break away from the compromised and slapdash television-animation shows of that time.” The story of Heidi who has numerous adventures while living with her grandfather in the Alps is based on the popular nineteenth century books by Swiss author Johanna Spyri. “There was an abnormal tension in the air. Junzô Nakajima, the producer, fully supported us. Once the broadcast started, we heard nothing about the sponsors’ opinions. That was a big help.” The TV show garnered so much critical acclaim that some of the fifty-two episodes were edited together to create a feature film. “It was a major hit. I would say it created an era. It was the first of a series of animation shows based on literary works. I think this was Paku-san’s [Isao Takahata] achievement.”
“I think we used up our idea of depicting ordinary life with Heidi,” confessed Miyasaki. “Paku-san agrees on this so does Kotabe-san [Yôichi Kotabe]. When Heidi ended we told each other, ‘Let’s make something carefree next,’ and ‘Lets not get involved in how the dishes were or what kind of table manners were correct.’ But our direction was set, with the next project being Furandāsu no Inu [The Dog of Flanders,1975]. This also was a ratings success, but I think of it as trash. Then came along Haha o Tazunete Sanren-ri [From the Apennines to the Andes, 1976]. We were all out of themes. That made us depict the customs of other countries like Italy or Argentina, and the atmosphere of upheaval and belated industrial revolution.”
Next on the agenda for Hayao Miyasaki was his debut directorial work which would be the first animated series to be aired by Japan’s national public broadcaster NHK.
Starting Point 1979 to 1996 – a collection of essays and sketches by Hayao Miyazaki.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.