Do you like animated movies? Have you ever seen Ponyo or My Neighbor Totoro? These are beautiful, hand-drawn, animated films made by Studio Ghibli and its brilliant artist and director Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki has become one of the most celebrated film animators and directors of our day, but his beginnings were small and simple and as you’ll learn sometimes fraught with danger during the years of World War 2.
Hayao Miyazaki was born in Tokyo Japan on January 5, 1941. Japan is an island across the Pacific Ocean from the United States and located in East Asia. The same year Hayao was born, Japan and the United States went to war. Hayao worked in a factory that built airplane parts for Japan’s air force, specifically for the fast and agile Zero fighter planes. For the rest of his life, Hayao was fascinated by airplanes and the wonder of flight.
Over time Japan began to lose the war against the United States and her Allies. Soon American bombers were flying over Japan and dropping bombs on its people to try and end the war. Hayao remembered seeing the bombers and hearing bombs drop nearby. His family left the city for safety until the war ended. He would forever remember the horrible days of World War 2 and what it did to his own country.
Young Hayao loved to draw. He wanted to become a manga artist. In Japan cartoons and comics are called manga. Hayao spent his free time practicing, but he always struggled to draw people. So instead he practiced drawing his favorite subjects like planes, tanks, and battleships. He also liked to copy the drawings of his favorite manga artists. While in Junior High he saw an animated movie called Panda and the Magic Serpent. He loved art and animation and it made him want to animate his own movies.
In college, he studied politics and economics, but in his free time joined an art club and spent time drawing and getting to know other artists.
In 1963 Hayao got his first animation job at Toei Animation and helped as an artist. His first film was called Doggie March and he also worked on a television series called Wolf Boy Ken. He continued to learn and grow as an animator and was mentored by many other great animators. A mentor is someone who is a master at a craft and teaches someone who is an apprentice and still learning. Hayao and his mentor Yasuo Ōtsuka worked on a film called “The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun” that won them many awards.
At Toei Animation, Hayao worked alongside a woman named Ōta Akemi. They shared many of the same interests and a year after meeting, they got married. Ota would continue to work with Hayao in animation and his future businesses.
Hayao Miyazaki continued to work on many animated films and many of his own comics, continually improving his craft. Often when you see amazing works of art or animation you may think “Wow, that artist must be really good because she was just born to be a very good artist.” But this is not the case. Great artists are not born they are made. They are passionate about a subject and continually practice and practice, usually every day, until they are much better. Like Hayao, they often find a mentor and find projects, and improve little by little until they are very good at what they do. This is the path Hayao took.
In 1979 Miyazaki moved to Telecom Animation Film, where he directed his first film. A director may work on the art, but often their job is to help bring all the different workers together to make the film happen. Also, a director may write the story themselves, or find someone to help them. They often have the idea first and recruit artists to help draw all of the animations. If you’ve ever seen an orchestra, they are like the orchestra director who isn’t playing the music, but brings everyone together to make the magic happen! This is what Hayao Miyazaki did for the film The Castle of Cagliostro, which became a hit in Japan and in the United States. John Lassetter, who later became a director at Pixar, has said that The Castle of Cagliostro was one of the first films that influenced him.
Hayao’s next big idea was to create an animated film about a princess named Naussica and her battle to save her homeland. But because movies usually weren’t made until the comic was successful, Hayao began to work on the manga about Naussica first. It ended up becoming a seven-volume manga totaling over 1000 pages and was called “Naussica and the Valley of the Wind.” Next, Hayao started work on animated film. Audience loved the film! In it Naussica has a fox-squirrel pet named Teto and uses her small glider to fly about. Her world is polluted and poisoned, but with the help of her friends fights to restore it to its natural beauty. Like many of Hayao’s later films, this one featured a strong heroine and themes about the dangers of pollution and war, both very important to Hayao. You’ll also notice it includes flying, which fascinated Hayao from a young age.
In 1985, Hayao with his friends Takahata, Tokuma, and Suzuki founded Studio Ghibli (Jib-lee) and the next year created their first film “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” about an orphan girl named Sheeta and a boy named Pazu from a mining town. Together they go on an adventure that involves a gigantic city in the sky called Laputa. “Castle in the Sky” became the highest-grossing Japanese film that year. Studio Ghibli’s next films were “My Neighbor Totoro,” which is one of my kids’ all-time favorites, and Grave of the Fireflies. Later came Kiki’s Delivery Service about a friendly witch, a few others in between, and then Princess Mononoke, which became another high-grossing Japanese film year. In 2001 came Spirited Away, which won awards in Japan and the U.S. Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Even though all of Studio Ghibli’s films were originally in Japanese, most of them were translated into other languages like English so others could enjoy them as well.
A few other popular films by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo, and The Wind Rises. The Wind Rises tells the story of the engineer who built the Zero, a Japanese fighter plane, the same one his father helped build when Hayao was a child in Japan. The Wind Rises, like many of Hayao’s other films, is a warning about the devastating effects of war, especially on the innocents, like he and his family during World War 2.
In September 2013 Hayao announced he would be retiring and instead focus his time on creating artwork for a Studio Ghibli museum. But everyone knew Hayao knew he wouldn’t rest for long. He began to learn how to use computers to animate and even at his age, when most people think they can no longer learn new skills, Hayao struggled through the process and created his first computer animation called Boro the Caterpillar. Instead of retiring, he has continued working on a new film called How Do You Live?
My children and I have watched most of the Studio Ghibli films and love them for many reasons. First of all, we love the adventure stories and the wild, exotic places they take us. We also appreciate the hand-drawn animation. Because most films use computer graphics now, it’s impressive to see animations that are sketched and colored by hand. We also love the music, which is often played by classical instruments and is relaxing. While some of the movies have violence, they are often less noisy and over-stimulating than most computer-animated movies. If you’re looking for Studio Ghibli movies that are appropriate for younger kids, our family recommends My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Whisper of the Heart, The Cat Returns, and Ponyo.
Something else I love about his films is that they remind us that people are imperfect. His characters don’t always make the right decisions and make mistakes. Also, his villains aren’t always completely bad. Often they are someone who is misunderstood and once the main characters come to know the villain, they end up becoming friends.
Watching the colorful portrayed in his films also reminds us that we live in a beautiful world and need to do everything we can to keep it that way. Life is precious and problems such as pollution and war only harm it.
Hayao once said, “I get inspiration from my everyday life.”
He also said: “You may not like what’s happening, but just accept it, and let’s try to live together. Even if you feel angry, let’s be patient and endure, let’s try to live together. I’ve realized that this is the only way forward.”
And “Always believe in yourself. Do this and no matter where you are, you will have nothing to fear.”