Hayao Miyazaki Bibliography Retrospective
Hayao Miyazaki is considered one of Japan’s quintessential animators and has produced a number of critically and commercially successful anime features. With an interest in recurring themes such as war, pollution, and Japanese mythology, Miyazaki is able to craft his films in a manner that retains his visual style while crafting new worlds, stories, and characters. This bibliography examines eight of his films from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to Howl’s Moving Castle in order to break down his artistic progression and retention of stylistic elements that give his films their unique authorship.
While Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was not his first film, it was the film that established Miyazaki as a major player in Japanese animation. Set in a post apocalyptic world destroyed by humanity’s disregard for the environment, the titular character Nausicaä has to defend her valley from imperialism and environmental destruction. This film defined Miyazaki’s style and features realist cinematography to give weight to the story and characters, but is not grotesque in its depictions of violence. Nature is not categorized as good or evil but neutral, and humanity’s destruction of the forest has its natural consequences. Imagery reminiscent of World War II Japan is rife throughout and is indicative of the war’s effect on Japanese civilization and art. The film ends with Nausicaä sacrificing herself to protect the valley and she becomes a symbol of martyrdom in the name of the planet. The films success allowed Miyazaki to start Studio Ghibli and led to his next few projects being geared toward children but inclusive of all audiences.
Castle in the Sky is a more juvenile film and features two children, Sheeta and Pazu, on an adventure to protect a crystal amulet that gives the user the ability of flight. This film focuses much more on the joy of adventure than Nausicaä and revels in the fun of children battling space pirates and the thrill of epic journeys. While themes of anti-fascism do appear in the film in the form of those trying to steal the crystal for nefarious purposes, it primarily serves as a delightful adventure that uses animation to garner a sense of joy and wonder in the viewer. This approach was also taken in his next film, My Neighbor Totoro.
My Neighbor Totoro is easily Miyazaki’s most juvenile film as it is analyzes the innocence of childhood through the beauty of nature. The film begins with sisters Satsuki and Mei moving to the country to spend time with their dying mother. However, in the face of this adult situation the children are able to find joy and retain innocence through their interactions with the local forest spirits. Mei, the younger sister, represents total innocence, Satsuki lives on the cusp of childhood and adulthood, and their father Tatsuo represents stark adulthood. The film is narratively simple but visually stunning with scenes of the girls flying around the Japanese countryside with the spirits. This film reflects on the purity of children and nature and urges adults to use an admiration for nature as a way to balance adult responsibilities with childhood innocence.
Miyazaki’s next film Kiki’s Delivery Service provides commentary about living on your own for the first time. Based on the children’s novel of the same name, this was Miyazaki’s first foray into adaptation and lacks many of the themes established by his last three films. In the film, 13-year-old witch Kiki is required to live on her own for a year to prove herself. Kiki moves to a town called Koriko where she is feared and rejected by the townspeople, but when she begins using her magic broom to start a delivery service, their hearts are changed and Kiki finds a purpose. However, she eventually falls into a depression that results in her loss of magic and her ability to communicate with her familiar Jiji. This is a manifestation of Kiki’s self doubt and anxiety and it is not until she accepts herself despite the opinions of others that she is able to find peace. While the themes of a reverence for nature and condemnation of war are not present in this film, the transition into adulthood is. Kiki’s experience living on her own allows the audience to project their own experience onto the screen and provides a fantasy framework for a common life shift.
In Porco Rosso, Miyazaki puts his focus back on war commentary, as the titular character is a World War I pilot who has been turned into a pig. Featuring realistic war scenes contrasted by the fantastical element of anthropomorphism, Miyazaki was once again able to address a grave subject matter while appealing to wide audiences. Porco’s struggle to grapple with his turning into a pig reflects the myriad of psychological issues felt by soldiers after wartime. He believes that he has been cursed because his entire team was gunned out of the sky and has to deal with the all too regular survivors’ guilt experienced by veterans. This shift away from adolescent themes is continued into Miyazaki’s next film Princess Mononoke.
Considered by many to be his Magnum Opus, Princess Mononoke stars Ashitaka, a dying prince trying to find a cure for the demonic illness that is plaguing him. This journey leads him to San, a girl living in the forest amongst the spirits, and the two find themselves in the middle of a war between man and nature. This film is most similar to Nausicaä due to it being a war film about human civilization’s destruction of the environment, but is more visceral in its depictions of violence. The use of nature spirits as an opposing army for man allows for simultaneous commentary on environmentalism and war. The personification of nature applies the mentalities used to justify war to the justification of environmental destruction. This film was Miyazaki’s biggest success up to that point and carried him into making his other highly acclaimed film.
Spirited Away moves away from the theme of war and combines elements of Totoro and Kiki to forge a narrative commentating on nature and identity through a coming of age story. Chihiro is a ten-year-old girl who just moved away from her home and friends, but when her parents are turned into pigs she is forced to live amongst the spirits by working at a bathhouse. In order to be able to regain access to the human world, she must not forget her true name, a narrative element used to propagate the idea of staying true to yourself. While she is in the spirit world the majority of the film, the larger context of Chihiro’s life is that she is moving to a place where nobody knows her and the lessons she learns at the bathhouse carry over into the human world. The theme of environmentalism takes shape in the spirits, particularly the river spirit Haku. He is unable to remember his true identity for the majority of the film due to his river being polluted and is another personification of humanity’s effect on nature. The spirits who enter the bathhouse are also plagued with conditions caused by human pollutants and visualize this phenomenon in a stunning manner. This film was nominated for an Oscar and received global acclaim, cementing Miyazaki into Earth’s cultural landscape.
Another adaptation, Howl’s Moving Castle is based on an English novel and is Miyazaki’s most Westernized film. Set in a magical-industrial society, the story centers on Sophie, a young girl magically transformed into a 90-year-old who his hired as a cleaning lady by the wizard Howl. Set against the backdrop of war, this film continues Miyazaki’s trend of anti-war commentary. However, it is primarily a love story in which Howl learns to love Sophie despite her outward appearance. Sophie was uncomfortable with her appearance before being transformed into an old lady, and that event helps her learn to accept love from herself and love from others. The emphasis on the necessity of family in the face of war romanticizes pacifism and draws a compelling character driven narrative.
While Hayao Miyazaki’s filmography generally boils down to a handful of themes, he is able to combine them in unique ways to use the limitless medium of animation to put realistic characters into fantastical worlds. The themes of environmentalism, pacifism, and self-actualization are all present in varying combinations in his films. Miyazaki built upon his previous work with each entry in order to produce a series of films that were stylized, acclaimed, and highly influential.