Anime Directors Worth Knowing, Part One: Hayao Miyazaki

by Joseph Severino

Hayao Miyazaki is always the first answer when a random person is asked about anime.  I suppose that technically speaking he would be the second answer, with “What?” being the resounding first response.  But thanks to Disney, as well as John Lasseter of Pixar fame in particular, the vast majority of films by Hayao Miyazaki and his company Studio Ghibli have been released in the United States over the past decade.

I feel that Miyazaki is the best place to start for my discussion of anime directors as he is known and loved by longtime anime fans as well as parents who are looking for safe entertainment for their children.  In many ways Miyazaki is considered to be the Walt Disney of Japan, minus the massive theme parks.  His films are well attended by people of all ages, including those who do not count themselves as fans of anime in general.  That Miyazaki was nowhere near as prolific as Disney is ultimately where the comparisons fall short.

His first directorial project was what we would call a franchise film, writing and directing The Castle of Cagliostro in 1979.  It was part of a larger series of works covering the life of a fictional thief named Lupin the Third, himself described as the grandson of the fictional thief Arsène Lupin.  Ultimately the action film was well received by critics and fans which includes Steven Spielberg if you read the cover of my DVD.  While it is not as kid-friendly as his later works and the animation and music are a little bit dated, I think it proves to be a fine starting point for teens and adults looking for something else of his to watch.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind would be his next feature length film in 1984, and it was the first that was completely his own original work.  It introduces many ideas that would prove to be central to later movies, such as his anti-war message and humankind’s relationship with the environment and how it might rise up against us if our ways do not change.  It is also the first of many of his films that feature a female protagonist, a common trait that separates Miyazaki from most directors in all forms of media.   Here is a trailer that advertised the movie when it was previously aired on Cartoon Network:

Following Nausicaä, Hayao Miyazaki would make several of the films that lent him the most renown in the west:  Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, and Kiki’s Delivery Service.  These proved to be popular with parents and their children alike, featuring much milder and more endearing content than his earlier works.  But it is his next work in 1992 that is less widely known: Porco Rosso.  Certainly the content tends more toward the PG level of Castle in the Sky rather than the G rating maintained by Totoro and Kiki, but it does feature one thing that no other movie can:  the main character is based on Miyazaki himself.  It’s not that Miyazaki fancies himself any kind of fighter pilot, though he is definitely a fan of planes and air travel.  Rather Porco’s traits are what makes him like Miyazaki:  that he is soft spoken yet fiercely defensive of his ideals, reflective, passionate about his job and hobbies, and even the fact that he likes young girls (in a totally non-creepy sort of way).

After Porco Rosso, Miyazaki’s films began to gather much more recognition internationally.  His next film in 1997, Princess Mononoke, actually saw a brief theatrical release in the US and fans on major anime sites like <a href=”” target=”_blank”>Anime News Network</a> regard it as his second best film to date closely trailing Spirited Away.  In actuality, five of Miyazaki’s films appear on that top fifty list, even in spite of the fact that sequels are rated higher than they probably should be since people that didn’t like the originals would likely not watch nor rate the follow-up series.

But most people familiar with him know the story of Miyazaki and his films from this point.  He would achieve major critical acclaim with Princess Mononoke and its much more graphic imagery, further pounding home his message of environmentalism and conservation.  The next film he would produce, Spirited Away, would eventually win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2001 and finally succeeded in making him not only a household name but cementing his legacy once and for all.  Since then he has also directed Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo On the Cliff By the Sea.  Now, at age 71, he is essentially retired from directing and is likely to stay that way.  Studio Ghibli’s most recent theatrical release, The Secret World of Arrietty, was adapted in part by Miyazaki but directed instead by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a longtime animator for the studio.  It remains to be seen whether Yonebayashi will continue to take on the role of director or perhaps if Miyazaki’s own son, Goro Miyazaki, will be able to fill his father’s shoes.  But Hayao Miyazaki and his movies, whether he directed or just wrote them, will always be remembered among the best in animation both inside Japan and worldwide.