On the Retirement of Hayao Miyazaki – Ben Clark

Hayao Miyazaki (b. 1941) recently retired after a long career as an acclaimed director, writer, and producer of animated films, including: Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro.

Hayao Miyazaki (b. 1941) recently retired after a long career as an acclaimed director, writer, and producer of animated films including: Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro.

It is a misunderstood culture. You will never find a more wretched hive of body odor and social awkwardness than at the conventions. The clubs are the toddler-fenced play space for would-be autocrats. Every fan seems to be wearing a garish costume and haphazardly tossing foreign words into his speech (fitting the pronoun, the fans are predominately male). America has embraced Comic-Con; that is, sexy people like Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron can go there without having to fear anything more than adoring fans, let alone social disgrace. But will we embrace anime? And why should we?

Hayao Miyazaki recently retired from making feature films. The goal here is to persuade you to care, if you don’t already, but first to try to determine why you might not care at the moment.

Miyazaki-san is the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, which is, in essence, the Pixar of East Asia (so Pixar-like was its success that Disney had to get in on it, making a deal for distribution and theater rights of all Studio Ghibli films outside of Asia). He was directly responsible for the highest grossing film in Japan before Titanic in 1997, and then for the film that overtook Titanic at the box office. Both films, Princess Mononoke and Sprited Away respectively, were animated. A critical and commercial darling in his native Japan and abroad, Miyazaki-san is still fairly unknown in our society, though his more recent films have grossed hundreds of millions in international theaters.

Spirited Away is the highest grossing film in Japanese history and won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003.

Spirited Away is the highest grossing film in Japanese history and won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003.

The cultural data in the first paragraph is empirically confirmed, but does it fully explain the position to which anime has been relegated to in our culture? Trying anime and liking it, in America, is like the opposite of trying alcohol or marijuana as a teen. The only common ground is that you can’t tell your parents. No one is getting you out of the closet unless they push you from the back.

My first hypothesis is that everyone starts out liking anime because virtually everyone likes cartoons. As we grow up, the general trend is toward more “mature” programs, and this means shows with real people (whatever that means). Anime is subsequently categorized with Looney Tunes, which is also a great production, but it is separated from adult cartoons like The Simpsons and Family Guy. South Park, simply because it is “about” fourth graders, seems to cut out its own niche. In any case, the movement away from anime in this instance is rather a general movement toward programs featuring embodied voices, not just voice actors. The abandoned aspect of childhood, the equation of an unrealistic aesthetic with an unrealistic worldview, is concomitant with the yearning for adulthood.

A second hypothesis is that some people like anime even into the age when “adult” programs become the expected fare. However, the more extreme examples of fans (weaboos, otakus), and the expectation that publicly liking anime will result in being grouped with them, necessitates either an opinion reversal – perhaps an extreme one! – or, as stated, hiding one’s opinions and being a closeted enthusiast.

The second group of anime enthusiasts has responded with typical counter-culture behavior, and is as unbearable as anyone who would attempt to define a unique individual, i.e. the definer him- or herself, by a characteristic that is quite common and unremarkable per se. These people have a range of self-expression that can be accurately summed up in the basic “I am _______” model. The results are hilarious, despite any objective legitimacy in the sentence’s object: I am social concern. I am scientific reasoning. I am frat. I am zen (big no-no there!) I am anime.

My final hypothesis for our want of anime appreciation stems from its being Japanese. As world citizens, we should care about Japan. They are the third largest economy in the world. They are a highly influential culture with a rich and significantly unusual history. Not least, they had two atomic bombs dropped on them, and all Americans would do well to develop more sensitivity to, for instance, having four hundred Tomahawk missiles aimed in our general direction.

Miyazaki's last film, The Wind Rises, was released this past summer in Japan. The film will be released throughout North America in February of next year.

Miyazaki’s last film, The Wind Rises, was released this past summer in Japan. The film will be released throughout North America in February of next year.

But anyway, is anime about all that stuff simply because it is Japanese? Miyazaki-san’s final feature length film, The Wind Rises, is about the creator of Japan’s powerful WWII fighter planes, yet has been denounced for exhibiting Miyazaki-san’s leftist views, since they are critical of the war and the increasing nationalism in Japan’s politics today.

Does that mean anime is about Japanese people, around which the history and culture revolve? Or is it about people who happen to be Japanese? Certainly, when watching anime, one gets the feeling that the films were made for someone else. With more watching, one gets this feeling less frequently, until it comes up at about the rate of the feeling sonder (that everyone’s life is as detailed as your own). The culture clash is fleeting. Like swimming, you have to dip your head, briefly bow, to acclimate yourself. Or maybe the water is already warm.

Miyazaki-san has been waiting in the wings for most of this essay. For me, his films defy any argument to be viewed. It is like arguing with yourself not to dream when you sleep, and the analogy benefits from the dreamlike quality of his works. As an American who loves Pixar movies, I say without bias that Studio Ghibli is as good, but it will be different. Subjectivity, you know. What actually matters is how similar it is. Similar to you, or to anyone. And that’s what any given anime is about—the same exact stuff that anything else is about.

Earlier I alluded to the possibility that we as Americans could benefit especially from Miyazaki films. I don’t want to hop on the bandwagon and say that our entertainment culture promotes US-centrism or victory through force, because that would require getting off the bandwagon in the first place. Even our beloved Toy Story seems less than innocent. Woody and Buzz, POW’s in a foreign house (anyone remember Sid’s destruction of Combat Carl?), have to lead the great escape for all the toys. Afterward, they restore the status quo with the ingenious use of a rocket. Certainly this interpretation benefits from framing, and we would not and should not be ashamed about our fond memories of Toy Story. Neither should we refrain from watching it because of any “childishness.”

Totoro is one of the most iconic characters to come out of Miyazaki's work. The large hamster-like being can be seen everywhere from backpacks and plushes to a cameo in Toy Story 3.

Totoro is one of the most iconic characters to come out of Miyazaki’s work. The large hamster-like being can be seen everywhere from backpacks and plushes to a cameo in Toy Story 3.

Studio Ghibli films are “grown-up,” both standing alone and in comparison to our equivalents.  Take, for instance, the strange My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki-san’s baby. The film appears to be about a girl and her little sister who share active, morbid imaginations. Shadowy dust bunnies swarm along the corners and ceilings in their house, dispersing at the turn of a light switch. The forest is home to the giant cat-rabbit-hamster, Totoro, who evidently possesses some power to aid the girls. Aid them in what? Well, they’re children trying to deal with their mother’s long, long stay in the hospital, and with their father’s difficulty in juggling parenting and love. Often, the only refuge is in their imaginations.

So that got real. What else? The Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies, about a big brother and little sister after the American firebombings kill their mother, is regarded by Roger Ebert as one of the most powerful war movies, and is regarded by almost everyone who sees it as heartbreaking. On a less-depressing note, Miyazaki-san’s Howl’s Moving Castle is about overcoming cowardice, making the best of bad situations, the painful futility of war, and the destructiveness of aerial bombardment (it’s less depressing because the bombardment ends and there’s love, yay!). Spirited Away, Ghibli’s most successful film, and arguably its most hauntingly beautiful, is also about overcoming cowardice and accepting responsibility, but by embracing a childlike curiosity and willingness to forgive. Fittingly, it is the obstinate banality of the protagonist Chichiro’s parents that forces her to summon her child strength, as they have gotten themselves turned to pigs and must be rescued

So what’s left of the stigma? Nothing, right? All that remains to be overcome is the experience itself of watching anime, as opposed to watching theater or movies. The recent popularity of graphic novels should make this transition easy, because, more than anything, anime is a form of literature.

Thus let us all, as always, strive to be more well-read, and let the great Miyazaki-san be your gateway auteur.

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119 comments

  1. Great read! I’m old, but I love Hayao Miyazaki’s movies.

  2. I have many of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies on dvd. Thanks for this!

  3. I don’t see what the stigma is. I love the Ghibli films that I have watched, but I love world cinema in general. I find that Hollywood is very stale in its ideas of movies so am very open minded to movies that show the world and imagination from a very different perspective. My grumbles on anime is when it is dubbed in English and twists the plot to make it more friendly to a western audience as opposed to watching with subtitles.

  4. Great fan of Hayao Miyazaki over here! Anime can be highly regarded as a from of art that blurs the boundary of countries and cultures and warms up hearts way from unaffected. It can also goes the opposite. Hayao’s animus are one of its kind that I am willing to re-watch for dozens of times. Kids should watch more of this kind of animations which are both baroque and pertinent to current issues. Adults as well.

  5. This article is so good, I like this blog, Thank you very much for sharing

  6. Reblogged this on The Work of John Ostermiller and commented:
    A thoughtful, provocative essay…

  7. Thoughtful essay! Thanks for sharing.

  8. His anime brings me back to childhood. Excellent post.

  9. I also love Kiki’s Delivery Service.. Sailor Moon ftw!

  10. Reblogged this on elenchog and commented:
    elen gasparyan

  11. Reblogged this on In the Wind and commented:
    I don’t have the wherewithal to write this eloquently about anime, but this is a great article about and endorsement of Hayao Miyazaki (who I also heartily endorse). Read it. Then go out and have a Hayao Miyazaki marathon. You’ll be good for it. I think I’m going to do the same thing in the next week.

  12. lucianojamimbo · · Reply

    ok got that out of me

  13. lucianojamimbo · · Reply

    AAAAARRRGH

  14. girlychristina · · Reply

    I ❤ Totoro!!!!!

  15. I heartily agree; there’s no need to be ashamed of trying (and enjoying) something new. Thanks for putting the art into the context of the culture!

  16. i like your article a lot, and while i don’t 100 percent agree with everything written here, i think it is compellingly written. this is a great post that i will recommend to my friends.

    i think a huge point that might be worth addressing is which anime make it into the states. are the american otakus a result of the allure of anime and its japaneseness, or are they just another niche audience that consumes the media specially selected for them? dragonball z was hugely popular in the united states because is was about epic fighting, which american kids think is awesome. but i highly doubt an anime like “slam dunk” or “yakitate japan” (both of which are hugely popular in japan) would be popular in the states, which is precisely why we don’t have them here.

  17. Reblogged this on Eyes of Urban Life and commented:
    this movie reminds me a lot of my childhood

  18. Love this post! I am a fan of Anime and also manga. I think Anime teach us a lot things about life itself! Thanks for the post.

  19. Very well written, love the anime from Ghilbi studio, I would personally rate them higher than the Pixar movies which are undoubtedly great entertainer for all age groups.

    I hope Miyazaki san will come back from retirement once again to make another one of his masterpiece in the future.

  20. awwwh he’s cute and harmless XD

  21. Reblogged this on ponderingsandgreentea and commented:
    One of my forever love affairs.

  22. I was broken-hearted to know that Totoro’s ending still has that “dark” side Miyazaki always incorporates in his stories.

  23. I am thirty and I love anime. And Miyazaki has been a life-changer. Specially Spirited Away and Grave of the Fireflies. Lovely article.

  24. Loved this piece.

  25. Reblogged this on KINGreports and commented:
    Two of my all time favourite movies are Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke

  26. Lazy Worm · · Reply

    The first ever Japanese cartoon I’ve watched was by him. It gave me deep dreams for the week after that. Great story!

  27. Reblogged this on Veldt Falsetto and commented:
    Excellent essay on the great films of Studio Ghibli

  28. Love it, big Ghibli fan here from the UK and what constantly irritates me is the lack of acceptance is given, especially to films like Grave of the Fireflies.

    Fireflies particularly is one of my favourite films of all time particularly because of how heartbreaking, moving, emotional and REAL it is. Great essay, I hope more people take it upon themselves to watch more Ghibli, especially as how in this country it’s kind of on a lot every Christmas, oh guess what’s close?

  29. I have been an avid American fan of anime since a young age, after seeing Totoro, and then watching classic anime such as Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon on TV. I am nearly 23 and have seen almost every Miyazaki movie. While I do indeed get some interesting opinions from my parents and other adults in my life due to my love of anime, I no longer feel embarrassment for it as I may have at a slightly younger age (due hugely in part to the college atmosphere which embraced the hobby), and I expect to continue being an anime lover for the rest of my life and pass it on to my future children.

  30. Miyazaki is wonderful. Thanks for this ode to his work!

  31. My son is twenty two, and he loves anime. He bought this movie for his little sisters, six and nine. They have watched it four times. It has become a firm favourite. That says something. Thanks for the post.

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