Studio Ghibli Pt 1
Part 1 will cover up to 1996, next week will begin with Princess Mononoke.
Hayao Miyazaki is no mystery, and by far the most well known director to come out of Japan. Each of us has experienced the first amazing film of his that was filled with brilliance. With a career that began in 1962, Miyazaki has spent over 50 years bringing us the best stories anime has to offer.
From Horus to Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s films have a personal empowerment focus with wide commentary on nature, industry, politics, and war. His water paint style animation leads into a very ‘humanistic’ appeal and captures the movement of the characters in beautiful form. This adds to his central focus of finding the joy in both the world and each other, while avoiding the dichotomy of pure good or evil. A Master Director and gifted story teller.
Miyazaki would attend Gakushuin University. With the former Prime Minister as a classmate, alumni like Yoko Ono, and the official school of the Royal family, it was a prestigious place to attend and one of the most respected schools in the country.
Hayao Miyazaki’s family ran Miyazaki Airplane, and his father’s business made parts built for the ‘Kamikaze’ planes in the Pacific battles of WW2. This influence of flight would show through most of Miyazaki’s career, with flight and politics at the center of a lot of his films. Notably, Miyazaki’s last film The Wind Rises, is based on the designer of the planes his father worked on, Jiro Hirokoshi.
During his school years, Miyazaki was a big fan of Tezuka and the surge of manga at the time. While making his own manga Miyazaki watched one of the first anime, Great White Snake, and was inspired by its clear break from the Tezuka style of show and character. He ripped up his previous manga and set to design his own style of story, characters, and art. Miyazaki credits Tezuka as a major influence early on, but he would complain about Tezuka’s influence in anime production in later years saying that it was made to cheap.
“Without Tezuka, the industry might have started two or three years later. And then I could have relaxed a bit and spent a little longer working in the field of feature animation, using more traditional techniques. But that’s all irrelevant now”
— Hayao Miyazaki
Miyazaki’s influences began to take a more international tone to feature Lewis Carroll, Diana Wynne Jones, and Jean Giraud. Diana Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle would be a later Ghibli film and Jean Giraud named his daughter, Nausicaa, after the main character of Miyazaki’s film. Giraud and Miyazaki would also host a co-artist exibit in 2004-2005.
Miyazaki also did the cover art and afterword for some of the works for Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and loved any story by Hans Christian Andersen. Studio Ghibli, and Miyazaki’s son Goro, would also make EarthSea after nearly 40 years of attempting to get the rights to make it from Ursula K. Le Guin.
During his early years fresh out of school, his major influences in the animation medium were Snow Queen and Mr Wonderbird.
Snedronningen (Snow Queen) is proof of how much love can be invested in the act of making drawings move, and how much the movement of drawings can be sublimated into the process of acting. It proves that when it comes to depicting simple yet strong, powerful, piercing emotions in an earnest and pure fashion, animation can fully hold its own with the best of what other media genres can offer, moving us powerfully.
— Hayao Miyazaki
Paul Grimault‘s The Curious Adventures of Mr Wonderbird.
Around the time of Studio Ghibli’s founding, Miyazaki would also mention Crac and Hedgehog in the Fog as his favorite animated films.
“The first film that I saw was Crac! Isao Takahata. . . and I saw it on a double bill. . . It was a shock to both of us. As we trudged home, I remember saying to Takahata-san: ‘So, I guess we are failures, aren’t we. . .’
… We’ve found drawing plants to be very difficult…. But Back has taken this problem head on and mastered it. . . His imagery is beautiful. I was moved when I watched this film. In the same way that I feel about Yuri Norstein.”
— Hayao Miyazaki
Canadian Frédéric Back‘s Crac and The Man Who Planted Trees.
Russian animator Yuri Norstein‘s Hedgehog in the Fog. .
Toei Animation and the first Ghibli film
In 1963, Miyazaki got his first job, at the studio Toei Animation, doing in-between work. Eventually moving to key artist, script, and story, he would become more involved as time went on and became head of Toei’s Labor Union.
His credits include:
Horus is one of the most important anime ever for a variety of reasons. Animage has listed it as third best anime production of all time, though they are pretty bias to anything Ghibli releated being part owners of the studio.
The film is credited with being the first ‘mature anime’ that featured social commentary and themes, and broke the ‘Disney model’ of stories. It did poorly on initial launch, but has since been pointed as the turning point for the industry. Horus opened the doors for artists to break out into more character serious series and the eventual new studio model that began with MadHouse, Sunrise and others breaking away from the Tezuka/Toei dominance. The Golden Age of anime began right here in some respects.
Miyazaki’s first step up into animation and story, along with Takahata’s first directorial work, makes it the first example of the Ghibli duo. Also the film featured the revolutionary animator Yasuo Ōtsuka, one of Miyazaki’s early inspirations and maker of Great White Snake. Ōtsuka’s ‘battle with the fish’ scene is the formula that Miyazaki would copy for future action scenes in the Ghibli films.
The Ghibi Duo, Miyazaki and Takahata
The Ghibli Duo would leave Toei Animation in 1971 and begin their life long creative bond. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata had a shared interest in the fables of Europe and series with a political or social commentary, and they began to create that signature style that made them famous.
They moved to A Productions and acted as Co-Directors for the first 14 episodes of Lupin III. The Duo then went to Sweden to research and gain permission to adapt Pippi Longstocking, which was denied by the original creator Astrid Lindgren. Both directors were saddened by the refusal, but often talk of all the wonderful things they exerpienced while traveling through Europe.
They would shift the already planned story of Pippi to take advantage of a rise in popularity in Panda bears, and make Panda! Go, Panda! The two shorts were a blueprint for the later Ghibli film, My Neighbor Totoro, and Miyazaki would use the European cities from the trip as basis for future films like Kiki’s Delivery Service and Porco Rosso.
Moving to Nippon Animation in 1974, Takahata would direct Hiedi: Girl of the Alps, Marco: From the Appenines to the Andes, and Anne of Green Gables for the popular series World Masterpiece Theater. Miyazaki would help in animation, story, and planning, while also stepping up to direct his first series.
Future Boy Conan stands with Horus as one of the great pieces of work from the era, and the standard formula of Ghibli Studio in the future. With Takahata and previous Spotlight Director Tomino on storyboard, the action and mature pace of the series set the standard for future adventure series. Based on the novel The Incredible Tide, the characters and story are simple and effective. It also would show the budding talent of Miyazaki that would evolve into later films, like Castle in the Sky and Spirited Away, that feature a similar male-female duo in adventure.
With an offer to direct his first film, Miyazaki would leave Nippon Animation halfway through Anne of Green Gables, to return to TMS Entertainment and the Lupin III series in 1979. The film features a lot of Miyazaki’s action centered storylines and design, along with a female lead that is an early mock-up of later films like Nausicaä and Princess Mononoke. Steven Spielberg also thinks it’s pretty good, so that is a nice plus.
Miyazaki would shift the Lupin dynamic in the film to make it more fun and energetic. The main character, Lupin, changed from a thief who drove cars ‘Hitler would like’ while stealing with his evil pals, to a bumbling hero running around the countryside with his pals who drove a Fiat 500. A defining moment of the series story and marked as the moment Lupin III ‘grew up’.
Miyazaki would go to Disney Studios with a group from TMS Entertainment and show the film. John Lasseter of Pixar fame would be at the event and be heavily influenced by Miyazaki. This would bleed into all of Pixars works and directors like Pete Docter, making Pixar into a western animation powerhouse that mirrored Miyazaki’s style. Glen Keane would also cite Miyazaki as a major influence during the height of Disney’s works in the 90’s, as chief animator on Little Mermaid and similar films.
The Birth of Studio Ghibli
The Castle of Cagliostro introduced Miyazaki to producer, owner of Animage and investment founder of Studio Ghibli, Yasuyoshi Tokuma. Tokuma would enlist Miyazaki to make a manga series for Animage, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The series ran for 12 years, a sprawling epic of a story often compared to the Akira manga in scope and depth. Miyazaki would also work on Lupin III: Part II and Sherlock Hound, before leaving TMS Entertainment to turn Nausicaä into a film.
Tokuma encouraged Miyazaki to turn the manga into a film, and Miyazaki eventually said yes on the condition that he direct. With Isao Takahata finished Anne of Green Gables, he ‘reluctantly’ moved into Topcraft Studio with Miyazaki to create their first major film. The studio was small and chosen to allow the duo as much control as possible with a top notch art team. Topcraft would go bankrupt during the process of making the film so Tokuma, Miyazaki, and Takahata would buy the company to create Studio Ghibli’s first office.
Nausicaä is a stunning piece of work. Miyazaki tried to avoid making any side good or evil, attempting to cross various perspectives into a pattern of moral ambiguity. Though it gets a bit muddled at the end, due to time constraints and difficulty in writing the screenplay on Miyazaki’s part. A rocky, but suprisingly grand start to the Ghibli name, it’s an amazing film.
Our protagonist is the perfect form of a strong woman and Miyazaki would keep the trend in most of his works. So many “strong” women fall into this weird “I can do it too” area. That only highlights how the author views the women as weaker in some sense. Or worse, they simply turn the women into mannish caricatures that dwindle the female part of the person. Miyazaki on the other hand, comes out of the gate swinging. This is a woman, she has strength, determination, and a brain. And none of it is mannish, or proven through displays against a man to measure. She is her own person.
Hideaki Anno would get his first real job working under Miyazaki and the director would push him into animating the most important scene of the film. Miyazaki had previously planned a storyboard that he would turn into Castle in the Sky, Anno would take the same storyline and direct Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water later on in his career.
Anno’s famous ‘God Attack Scene’ that launched his animation career.
Nausicaä would get a Western release under the name Warriors of the Wind that would brutally cut 20+ minutes from the film and destroy the story. Studio Ghibli then instituted a strict ‘no cuts’ policy, where any release of their films must be as originally planned with no changes unless directly approved.
Studio Ghibli’s first official release would be Laputa: Castle in the Sky based around the novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and inspiration from Gulliver’s Travels. It would actually be the second work planned by the studio, with Miyazaki and Oshii working on a film called Anchor that fell through in production. The two directors had very different views on the anime and visual medium but would continue to be close friends.
The film would bring back the adventuring couple dynamic from his earlier series, Future Boy Conan, with a mix of the natural world morals from Nausicaä. With entertaining villains and a fast paced chase across the world, Castle in the Sky captured the hope and uplifting nature of Miyazaki’s will.
The water painting style of Miyazaki and the talented team of animators would make a timeless beauty of animation that is filled with vibrant color and movement that helped bring out Miyazaki’s love of flight.
Studio Ghibli would release a double feature film. Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro that explored the wonder of life and nature, and Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies that explored the connection of family through the darkest of times. The dual billing was considered “one of the most moving and remarkable double bills ever offered to a cinema audience”, but Takahata would regret the decision to join the movies as his was often mis-represented as a painfully sad film in contrast to Miyazaki’s.
Totoro became such a hit within Japan it’s comparable to Winnie the Pooh, with every child having a stuffed animal at their bed side. The childlike wonder and peaceful adventure storyline was Miyazaki’s proof that fantasy adventure was no crutch. His films were about the beauty of the world and the characters within it.
Miyazaki would draw on personal stories with the girls being framed after his niece, and exploring a time around his own mothers time in the hospital. Miyazaki’s mother suffered from spinal tuberculosis and was bedridden from 1947 until 1955 during his elementary years. But the film avoids the sad points and instead focused on the wonder of a child’s imagination and the beauty of the world arond us. Miyazaki brought in Kazuo Oga as animation director, and Oga would design the Studio Ghibli brand of animation and be a large part of future films.
Based on the novel by Eiko Kodano of the same name, Ghibli got the rights to make the adaptation while both the directors were busy on the double feature. Sunao Katabuchi was brought in to direct the film with animation director Katsuya Kondou. Miyazaki would often step in to the process to write, storyboard, and frame many of the shows scenes. Once done with Totoro, Miyazaki would assume control of the film and move Katabuchi into an assistant director role.
The film explores the standard Ghibli ideals of a maturing woman with a lack of proper villain that would be seen again in Spirited Away. With an emphasis on loneliness, isolation, independance, and reliance, the film explored the idea of youth reaching the age of decision. This mirrored Takahata’s film Only Yesterday released around the same time, though Takahata’s reality focused stories would not get accepted for release in the West like Miyazaki’s.
Disney and Studio Ghibli would make a distribution deal to bring the Japanese films to the West. Kiki would be the first film to be dubbed and released to the market and would gain a large popularity ranking in the Top 10 of rental films in 97′.
Miyazaki’s love of flight is quite clear in most his films, but Porco Rosso goes all out. A lovingly crafted narrative around 1920’s era animation, mixed with Miyazaki’s unique robotic designs, led to a wonder of flight in animation. I still love watching the take off scene.
The story was turned more serious to mirror the Slavic wars going on at the time, but was originally a light hearted adventure outlined in his periodic manga release, Day Dream Data Notes.
A sequel was planned with Miyazaki on story and Yoshifumi Kondou directing, but Kondou would die in 1998 and led Miyazaki to announce his retirement for the first of many times. Since then the film has gone on haitus and is likely to stay that way with Miyazaki’s latest retirement and step down from Studio work.
Miyazaki would act as producer on Takahata’s films Only Yesterday and Pom Poko. He would also script and produce the first Ghibli film directed by someone other than the Duo, Yoshifumi Kondou’s Whisper of the Heart.
With this first stretch of anime including Horus, Conan, Lupin III, and the first decade of Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s legend in the industry was already cemented. Next week we’ll cover the stretch of masterpiece films from Miyazaki beginning with 1997’s Princess Mononoke.
For now I’ll leave you with a music video directed by Miyazaki released in 1996. On Your Mark