To the casual American movie goer, the name Hayao Miyazaki means nothing. But to fans of animation, Miyazaki holds a place alongside such hallowed names as Walt Disney and Pixar founder John Lasseter as one of the most inspirational artists to ever work in the field.
“In the history of animation, which dates back to the earliest years of film itself, there are two figures whose contribution to our art form place them above all others,” Lasseter said at the 2014 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Governor’s Awards. “The first is Walt Disney. The second is Hayao Miyazaki.”
As animators, Disney and Lasseter built empires out of their talent that continue to thrive and seem destined to endure for eternity. But neither has amassed as personal a body of work as Miyazaki, who has written and directed eleven feature-length animated films. Born in Tokyo, Miyazaki, now 74, is the son of Katsuji Miyazaki, who oversaw the family-owned Miyazaki Airplane parts manufacturer during World War II. The constant presence of the aviation industry throughout his childhood clearly inspired the varying visions of flight that appear in many of his films.
After working for famed studios such as Toei and Nippon Animation, and flush with the success of his second film as a director, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki teamed up with fellow acclaimed animator Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) and others in 1985 to launch Studio Ghibli, which took its name from an Italian word than means wind – a symbolic intent to reanimate the anime (Japanese animation) industry with a fresh creative breeze.
What ensued is one of the most remarkable and consistent creative stretches in movie history. In celebration of his work, the Coral Gables Art Cinema is hosting a retrospective series titled “Miyazaki! Ghibli’s Master of Japanese Animation” June 19-25, featuring nine of his best-known films (including Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro), projected in digital and 35mm formats in both subtitled and English-dubbed versions.
Miyazaki’s films are worthy of the honor, for their detailed animation, gorgeous art, complex characters and compelling narratives rich with thematic and metaphorical content.
“Miyazaki is fascinated by flight, he’s a pacifist, a defender of ecology, a feminist; there’s a lot in his films that was marked by his youth,” says Nat Chediak, director of programming at the Gables Cinema. “People tend to look at animation as solely a work of fantasy, and certainly you can get lost in that if you don’t look further. But in Miyazaki’s case, you can truly speak of a vision.”
Like the best animators, Miyazaki makes movies that speak to audiences of any age – child or adult – and although they are often rooted in Japanese culture, they are also able to travel the world due to his tendency to blend dream worlds with reality. To enjoy a Miyazaki film, you only need to sit back and allow his imagination to sweep you away.
“I was talking to an executive at the premiere of Pixar’s Inside Out and he said that one of the things we have to remember is that animated films are the first ones most children will see,” said Frank Gladstone, animator and executive director of ASIFA-Hollywood, who run the Annie Awards [the animation Oscars]. “There’s a certain responsibility to that. And when people see a Miyazaki film, they realize it’s something special. Everyone I know in the business, and I mean everybody, points to Miyazaki as their big influence.”
“There’s nothing wrong with making films for kids,” Chediak adds, “as long as it’s not condescending. You have to trust kids, open up their imagination, and understand what they’re capable of understanding.”
There are distinct stylistic and narrative connections between Miyazaki’s animated works and the movies of live-action Japanese filmmakers who came before him. And they, in turn, revere him. The late Akira Kurosawa, arguably the most influential Japanese filmmaker of all time, was an avowed Miyazaki fan, once admitting that Kiki’s Delivery Service made him cry and naming My Neighbor Totoro as one of his favorite films of all time.
Since all of Studio Ghibli’s films are made in Japan, the original language of Miyazaki’s films is Japanese. For their US distribution, popular actors are often hired to voice the characters. In Ponyo, for instance, the voices of Matt Damon, Tina Fey and Liam Neeson are featured. But hardcore fans argue there is an inherent difference in watching the films in their original format, because some of the purity is lost even though most of the sound work and score remains the same.
“I don’t care how well you do a foreign-language version,” Chediak says. “That’s not what Miyazaki heard in his head. Although some of the characters on the screen aren’t human, they’re humanized by their creator and given a voice and a texture. That’s an important element. You might not have to worry about lip-syncing like you do with a live-action film. But what’s wrong with seeing the original versions?”
Although Miyazaki’s films have never broken through to the American mainstream (only three of his films received a wide theatrical release here), his cult of fans is strong and devoted. And how many animators have been awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar after just three decades of work? Only one. As Pixar’s Lasseter once said, in terms of stature, influence, and the range and quality of his body of work, there will never be another to rival him.
Here is a rundown of the nine films that will be screened as part of the Coral Gables Art Cinema’s Hayao Miyazaki retrospective:
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984): Made prior to his Studio Ghibli era, Miyazaki revealed his environmentalist roots in this dystopian sci-fi story about a princess trying to stop a war between two nations during an environmental disaster. Miyazaki wrote and drew a best-selling manga (a series of Japanese comic-books) as he was making the film, which helps explain why the animation is so stunningly detailed, from wide landscapes of a dying planet to close-ups of grotesque insects. Also present: The themes of war, the folly of mankind, the fantastical flourishes, the non-gratuitous violence and the female protagonist, all of which would become recurring themes in his work. This is not a film made for children, but one that children can enjoy despite its serious content. (Plays at 9 p.m. June 24 and 25.)
Castle in the Sky (1986): Set in one of the most fleshed-out worlds of any of his films, Miyazaki’s third movie (and the first produced and released by Studio Ghibli) is a simple tale about a boy and a girl racing against pirates and armies to reach the floating island of Laputa and save the world. With riveting chase scenes, compelling emotional bonds between characters and Miyazaki’s trademark hand-drawn animation, the movie is a delight (and accessible) to adults and children alike, as impressive today as it was nearly 30 years ago. (Plays at 6:30 p.m. June 22 and June 23.)
My Neighbor Totoro (1988): No other Miyazaki film is as embedded into popular culture as deeply as this one, and for good reason. This fable about two girls who encounter a host of magical creatures during a walk in the woods has little plot, no villains to endanger the endearing characters, and a contained, beautiful realm that offers viewers a fantastical departure from reality that remains unparalleled to this date. It’s pure, unburdened bliss. (Plays at 1 p.m. June 19-20 and 11 a.m. June 21.)
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989): One of the most light-hearted entries in Miyazaki’s body of work, this story of a young witch who spends her apprenticeship year delivering goods for a baker boasts one of the two best titular characters in Ghibli history (the other being Chihiro from Spirited Away). Hoary wicked-witch cliches are replaced by the youthful heroine’s unbridled optimism, which is strong enough to entice even the most jaded viewer. This is a story about those moments in life when we become overwhelmed by the responsibilities of the adult world and how we learn to adapt to them. (Plays at 6:30 p.m. June 24-25.)
Porco Rosso (1992): This fantasy about a WWI fighter pilot who becomes a bounty hunter after being transformed into an anthropomorphic swine proves pigs can fly after all. Many of Miyazaki’s films feature all sorts of innovative forms of flying, but this one is his purest love letter to aviation and its history. A surprising follow-up to the kiddie-friendly whimsy of Kiki’s Delivery Service, this is an adventure film that is part swashbuckler, part historical drama and part romance, starring the most Bogartesque character Bogart never played. (Plays at 9 p.m. June 22-23.)
Princess Mononoke (1997): A near-flawless epic that blends traditional fantasy with Japanese folklore – and began the comparisons between Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa. A fable about a war between people, animals and super-powered creatures, this is the director’s most violent and goriest movie (it’s rated PG-13) despite its pro-peace sentiment and moral complexity. It is also one of his greatest, most rewarding works of art. (Plays at 9 p.m. June 19-21.)
Spirited Away (2001): If there is one film in Miyazaki’s career that best captures the reasons why he is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time (animation or not), this is the one. Just as the 10 year-old Chihiro is plunged into a surreal world she is unfamiliar with, so is the viewer, who must learn about the mystical elements within this strange, eerie and beautiful realm alongside her. While it’s easy to draw comparisons to Alice in Wonderland, the film is also a character study of the highest order – an exploration of how people can overcome a life-shattering event that nearly wounds them forever. The movie won Miyazaki his first Oscar for Best Animated Feature, beating out more commercially successful rivals such as Lilo & Stitch and Ice Age. (Plays at 3:30 p.m. June 19-21.)
Ponyo (2008): Although it suffers from one of Miyazaki’s weakest storylines, it would be a mistake to dismiss this charming fable outright. The lack of a heavy narrative, as well as the fact that not a single human character questions the strangeness of its scenario, are part of what make Ponyo so enchanting. The opening sequence alone – which introduces us to a magical world under the sea and a young girl longing to escape her drab existence – is one of the most detailed and colorful in any of the filmmaker’s works, presented almost entirely without dialogue. But the picture’s fluidity and beauty doesn’t end there: That’s just the beginning of Miyazaki’s lightest, fluffiest film, which is still strong enough to make most other directors envious. (Plays at 11 a.m. June 20 and 1 p.m. June 21.)
The Wind Rises (2013): Widely considered to be one of his masterpieces, The Wind Rises might be a little too all over the place for its own good. But it's an ambitious work of art, the culmination of a career spent creating films for adults and children alike. It's a biopic about the man who designed Japanese fighter planes during WWII, with occasional fantasy sequences that take glee in showcasing the beauty of animation and condemn humanity's destructive nature. Even though it is bogged down by romantic subplots and an attempt to cover too much narrative ground, the movie also delivers some of the most gorgeous imagery of Miyazaki’s career. (Plays at 6:30 p.m. June 19 and 6:15 p.m. June 20-21.)
IF YOU GO:
What: “Miyazaki! Ghibli’s Master of Animation”
When: June 19-25
Where: Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
Info: Each film will be preceded by an introduction recorded specifically for the series by legendary animator Frank Gladstone. For a complete schedule, including showtimes of dubbed/subtitled versions, visit www.gablescinema.com or call 786-385-9689.