30 April 2014

excerpt: some thoughts on miyazaki

Since I launched my gofundme campaign last month, I've been extremely surprised by the response from the community. While I was reluctant to initially ask for donations to keep my head above water, the outpouring of well-wishers and supportive fans have given me a lot of positive support and hope for the future of at least this year.

That was one of the motivators behind the decision to offer my Miyazaki essay as a digital publication. Not so much as an incentive, but as a reward for people who have been following my work as a public speaker, and those who have been to see my lectures at cons, universities, and libraries. Each time I present on Studio Ghibli, I am asked about the slides or the notes, and this has proven to be a great way to offer them to the public.

This short excerpt comes from the introduction to the essay, which will explore the continuity I speak about every time I present the topic. The final version will contain the complete lecture notes, and scans of the "panelist notebook," which was used back in 2010 when I first crafted what would become my best-attended and best-received panel.


The name Miyazaki means a lot of things to a lot of people. That’s a given. Most readers will have seen at least one of his films, and have strong opinions about others he has worked on. As a director, artist, mangaka, storyteller, producer and animator, Miyazaki has played every role film has to offer a man, and has played each one with the same passion and proficiency that he uses to approach every aspect of his creative life. He is a creator first and foremost, whether he is working on his own stories, or on adapting those of others for his “world.” Few will challenge that notion, and fewer will disagree, no matter how appropriate the criticism might be. Somewhere in the past 30 years he surpassed the role of director, became an institution, and changed the way the world sees animation. And with all due respect to the utterly brilliant Makoto Shinkai, we likely never will see Miyazaki’s style of storytelling every again. 

Watching his works has for many an air of immersing oneself in another world. The attention to detail Miyazaki placed on creating not just characters but a definitive setting for them to live in set him apart from many animators in his generation (and beyond). It added a degree of depth that he felt was missing from animation at the time. “I’m talking about doing something with animation that can’t be done with manga, children’s literature, or films. I’m talking about building a truly imaginary world, tossing in characters I like, and then creating a complete drama using them.” For Miyazaki, the world was as important as the people who dwelt in it, and the audience that would eventually be watching the finished product deserved nothing less than the full attention and respect of the creator. And that attention formed the core of his philosophy on animation- if he didn’t want to work on a project, he wouldn’t. If he didn’t want to create the world, he wouldn’t. If the project lacked that bit of personal engagement with which he approached all his work, then it wasn’t the right project for him. 

His connections to the world of manga and animation were formed from a very young age. As a boy growing up in postwar Japan, he was sitting astride two very separate, and very evocative, worlds: the urban Japan that suffered through bombings and propaganda designed to emphasize power, and eventually conquest by US force; and the rural Japan that had changed very little since the dawn of the Meiji era, where family and community were emphasized above personal gains, and filial love was the rule, rather than the exception. Young Miyazaki developed a very strong personal philosophy at that time, cultivated during the tumult of the postwar era, which (consciously or not) would form the backbone for his visions of family and community in his later films. He also developed a strong love for animation, particularly Toei Doga’s “Panda and the White Serpent,” which played a very strong role in his formative years. [Insert quote here]. That film, which is often viewed as one of the pinnacles of early Japanese animation by scholars and historians, would play more than an emotional role in Miyazaki’s life, it would also introduce him to a creative drive that would persist throughout his years at Gakushuin University, and would eventually lead him down the path of the creative upon graduation.

His philosophy of personal dedication, and the eventual symbiotic relationship with the consumer, is what set apart many of the early Toei Doga (and eventually Ghibli) projects upon which he worked. Sometimes his ideas, methods, and executions were far ahead of their time (1968‘s Horusu, for example), or framed around socio-political trends (either directly or indirectly, Miyazaki himself is ambiguous on those motivations- he was feeling very disaffected when he started on the Nausicaa manga, and he admits that the dissatisfaction bled into the work), but in the end it was the story that took precedence, and audiences were treated as mature, thinking collective, instead of crowds looking to be entertained. He poured much of himself into those films, and his mindset influenced greatly the directions which many took. Miyazaki never looked for the popular, or easy way out- he set a standard for himself and his worlds, and would not allow films to be released until they hit that standard. 

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