“Almost too beautiful to be true”: Inside Hayao Miyazaki’s genius
The lauded co-founder of Studio Ghibli has taken animated film to new heights. Now, a first-of-its-kind retrospective pays tribute to the master, inviting us behind the scenes of the mind that gave us Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro.
The word “genius” is undoubtedly overused, but no cinema fan would deny that the term is entirely apt to describe the great auteur Hayao Miyazaki. When watching one of the Japanese animation director’s creations, the viewer steps directly into the fantasy world with its characters. As curator Jessica Niebel puts it: “He shows magic with such realism you can almost believe that that kind of magic exists in real life.”
We’ve been talking for over two and a half years in the run-up to a first-of-its-kind retrospective of Miyazaki’s work and career. Set against the glittering romanticism of LA, home of Disneyfied happily-ever-afters and “good triumphs over evil” binaries, a new show reveals a different kind of cinema for children. For Studio Ghibli is all the more remarkable for its ability to capture the uplifting delights of childhood innocence, whilst also revealing the darker complexities of the human condition. In September last year, the newly opened Academy Museum opened its doors to celebrate the globally acclaimed Miyazaki. Open until 5 June 2022, the retrospective pays tribute to the co-founder of Studio Ghibli and his magnificent films, which are beloved by adults and children the world over, among them My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and The Wind Rises.
While each is unique, Miyazaki’s films are united by a singular vision which has seen him raise the bar for animated film countless times over. The list of attributes that sets his films apart is infinite. But to name a few, it’s the character design – seen through the rotund comfort of Totoro, Yubaba’s piercing glare or the furrowed brow of the wolf San. It’s the dramatic scores that suffuse millions of hand-rendered frames with emblematic sound. The renowned composer Joe Hisaishi is behind the majority of Miyazaki’s most notable works. My personal favourite of his arrangements is The Legend of Ashitaka; a velvety ode equal to the magisterial forests depicted at the heart of Princess Mononoke. A melody encapsulating the subtle power of Miyazaki’s universe through strings, which crash through the screen in a synaesthesic crescendo of tear-jerking magnificence.
Let us not forget Miyazaki’s masterful architectures, from Kamajī’s boiler room to the winding turrets of Nausicaä. The level of cinematic detail enhances each viewer’s experience. Zoom in on any mechanism and you’ll see immaculate intricacy right down to the gently rusting brass screw heads. Throw in storyline, character development and of course the visual richness of any given frame, and Miyazaki’s extraordinary ability to world-build reveals its power. If you didn’t know by now, yes, I am a fan. I’ve been a fan since I first followed Chihiro into the spirit world where she met a radish spirit and her parents were transformed into pigs. I was nine when the film was released in 2003. A film none of my friends were keen to watch, despite my enthusiasm, unperturbed with its Asianness and “other” culture.
Nearly two decades later, and Ghibli has deservedly established itself at the heart of animated cinema. You could call it mainstream now. The show at the Academy Museum has been wildly popular so far. It features over 400 different artworks including mainframes, keyframes, character sketches and background paintings so beautiful you could stare at the carefully lit scenes for days.
Interestingly, the exhibition is curated by theme. Instead of chronologically touring through Miyazaki’s creative life, the visitor can explore his world through nature and nostalgia on one side, and on the other, through industry and technology: a purposeful dichotomy that exists, and causes friction, in many of Miyazaki’s films. When asked about this decision, the show’s curator Jessica says: “The easiest idea is to go movie by movie, but then we miss something that is really relevant to audiences today, the recurring themes and emotions he creates in his films.”
Jessica wanted to design an exhibition that makes the viewer feel as if they are the protagonist. “I wanted to put myself in the visitor’s shoes,” she says. Imagine you are Mei, the four-year-old little girl central to My Neighbour Totoro who discovers the forest-dwelling furry creatures racing through long grass on a warm day in the Japanese countryside. Weaving through rabbit runs, taken over by excitement, it is through Mei that we first see Totoro, the beloved character who would become emblematic of the Ghibli brand. Jessica wanted the viewer’s exhibition experience to be somewhat akin to Mei’s. The visitor goes down a path that enters into an enchanted world, physically stepping into the magic of Ghibli.
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Hayao Miyazaki, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Photo by Joshua White, JWPictures (Copyright © Academy Music Foundation)
When Jessica and I first spoke more than two years ago, we ended our conversation by singing the Totoro theme song together. Singing is one of the last things you expect to be doing in an interview, let alone singing with your interviewee, warmed by nostalgia. Nonetheless, it’s a sign of how Ghibli films have an everlasting charming effect on its viewers, transporting them back to their most innocent, their most easily delighted being. Perhaps it’s because he treats his young demographic with such emotional maturity that the adults who also enjoy his films in turn feel at their most free, their most childlike.
“Miyazaki doesn’t shy away from the difficulties in life,” says the curator, referencing the brutality in many of his films which comes in the shape of raging wars, disease and grief. So in this way, the curation – an amalgamation of nature, nostalgia, industry and technology – is a testament to how the director trusts his young viewers to embrace the rough with the smooth. An understanding that pain is also an important part of life, even if you’re a child. “Cinema is an emotional medium,” says Jessica. “I wanted to get as close as we possibly could to the feeling when you watch his movies.” War and death can intersect with magic in Miyazaki’s eyes while brutality is set amongst ethereal natural environments – as Jessica puts it, “almost too beautiful to be true but depicted with such realism that you could almost think they do exist.”
Though she quickly became an expert in all things Ghibli, surprisingly, Jessica has yet to meet the eminent Miyazaki. A famously private man, she’s journeyed to and from Japan many times in preparation for the exhibition and has met with many of the Ghibli team but not Hayao himself. When first assigned the job, she didn’t want to get too caught up in research. Instead, she immersed herself in the feeling of the films, wondering how best to translate them into a physical experience through visual inspiration. “There’s no comparison to these amazing originals,” she says, “which are so vibrant in colour and so detailed, you can really see the craftsmanship and the art history in them.”
Unable to get up close and personal with the man himself, the exhibition instead focuses on the visionary Miyazaki as a thinker and philosopher. While it hints at the man behind the films – a man who was once a shy boy, who is now in the labour union and cleans the local river every Sunday – the exhibition steers away from details about his personal life. As Jessica explains, “We wanted to respect that he is a private person.” Taking cues from how the director portrays himself in public, the curatorial team chose not to attribute particular labels to Miyazaki, refraining from referring to him as “feminist”, “pacifist” or “environmentalist”, though many reviewers might call him such. “He doesn’t like these labels,” says Jessica. “He doesn’t think they really truly apply to him.”
On the other side of nature and nostalgia, the exhibition delves into Miyazaki’s brilliant take on industry and technology. Aviation is a speciality, not only for its symbolic meaning but also for the infinite ways in which aerodynamics can be realised. There are a multitude of creations Miyazaki brings to life throughout his films: air balloons, gliders, saucer-like space ships, flying castles, war machines, broomsticks, winged beasts; these are just a handful of the different kinds of flying things spectacularly rendered in the Ghibli universe.
Amongst the crew of animators that Jessica has met over the years, they all said that “no one is able to draw flying contraptions of any sort like Miyazaki.” These are flying machines which know no boundary of imagination. But underneath the whirring mechanisms, there is another take on what these machines represent to Miyazaki: “First and foremost, aviation means a change of perspective, seeing the world from a different angle.”
She points to how Miyazaki shows a different point of view in his films. Children, who may elsewhere be overlooked, are appreciated for their unique perspective across his films. As mentioned previously, there is no such thing as a purely evil villain with Miyazaki; instead, these characters are depicted as being purely human; neither all good nor all bad, but a product of their desires and character flaws. Something anyone from any culture can understand.
Where one film may view the world from an insect’s point of view, another sees life from the perspective of a pilot, looking down on earth from air-bound machines. Flying also offers a different dimension. “When you’re on the ground, the problems around you can be overwhelming, but when you’re flying, those problems are reduced and minimised,” says Jessica. “Flying can be liberating, it can be ambivalent. Something that is profoundly shown in his movie The Wind Rises.” Here, Miyazaki explores how something as technologically beautiful as an airplane can also be turned into a weapon; an instrument of death and destruction.
The director doesn’t shy away from showing scenes of war to children. While his films are universally beloved by cross-generational cinema-goers, interestingly the demographic for these films continues to be children. “He wants to make movies that are encouraging, giving them hope that they can live in this world,” says Jessica. He wants them to find their true selves despite the harshness of reality. In some cases, “Miyazaki makes children feel glad they are bored in their own worlds.” In the same way, Tokyo’s Ghibli Museum is designed for the child’s experience. There are low doors, play areas, a giant cat bus to climb onto, old-fashioned mechanical toys, decorative zoetropes casting beloved scenes, fable-like stained-glass windows telling stories through picture-book figures. It’s as if every element is attentively created in order to set a child’s imagination alight.
Miyazaki has even created a bespoke kindergarten for his employees’ children at Ghibli headquarters. The staff showed Jessica around once, and she was amazed at the varying topographies which encourage children to investigate the territory. “The children have a world of their own,” she says. “It belongs to them and they can explore it freely without the supervision of adults.” There is even an old-fashioned rice cooker where one can bubble rice over an open fire. It may not sound very child safe, but that is the point. It’s Miyazaki’s belief that “you have to expose children to a certain level of danger in the house, that’s how they learn,” she says. “They know this rice, made traditionally, tastes better in comparison to rice made by modern convenience products. It’s important for them to know that.”
As Jessica tells me anecdote after anecdote, unwrapping further wonders, my already obsessed mind hungrily widens. A couple of essential details are that Miyazaki writes poems about his characters so the other animators can further understand the nuance of their personality. She also tells me about an astonishingly talented background artist known as “the cloud guy” for his dazzlingly realistic impressions of cloud-riddled skies. Elsewhere, we dive into the fact that My Neighbour Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies were originally released as a double feature. If you’ve seen the films, you’ll understand why this is so surprising. The former being full of joy, while the latter is one of the hardest films to watch. The curation team secured the original double posters for the exhibition and were amazed to discover the same tagline used to promote both films, however contrasting in content. A Japanese colleague helped translate the slogan, a thing of beauty, reading: “We are bringing something to you that was left behind.”
Jessica also relayed a very rare moment, one of a handful of times she was able to observe Miyazaki, in the flesh, at work. She was in Koganei, the city west of Tokyo where Ghibli’s headquarters are located. From afar, she took in every detail around her, “surprised by how unpretentious everything is”. She describes: “Everything is peaceful and calm. You would never suspect that movies of this scale are being made there.” She recalls how humble Miyazaki’s workspace is, looking just like everyone else’s. The same simple desk in one corner of the room. At the time, Miyazaki was talking to a young animator who had some questions for him. “Instead of explaining with too many words,” Jessica says, “he just sat down and made a drawing.” They couldn’t tell what the conversation was about, wanting to keep their distance, but the curator picked up volumes because of how he interacted with the rest of the crew.
“Everything seemed peaceful,” Jessica remembers. But the scene stands out because it is a moment which encapsulates the fact that Ghibli’s qualities are not just the product of one man but a collaboration. Miyazaki sees Studio Ghibli as a collective vision. The work is democratic, they share knowledge in the way he illustrated an idea to the young animator because to him, “If everyone is invested in making the movie and sharing his vision, then everyone will put in their best to make an outstanding movie.” For Jessica, the concept is highly effective, but more importantly and above all, it means that Miyazaki’s films don’t just belong to him; they also belong to every single person who has helped bring these 11 cinematic masterpieces to life.
Background, The Wind Rises (2013), Hayao Miyazaki (Copyright © 2013 Studio Ghibli)
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.