Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Hayao Miyazaki and the future of animation

with 7 comments

Yesterday was the seventieth birthday of Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, the director of Spirited Away, which makes this as appropriate a time as any to ask whether Miyazaki might be, in fact, the greatest living director in any medium. He certainly presents a strong case. My own short list, based solely on ongoing quality of output rather than the strength of past successes, includes Martin Scorsese, Wong Kar-Wai, and Errol Morris, but after some disappointing recent work by these last three, Miyazaki remains the only one who no longer seems capable of delivering anything less than a masterpiece. And he’s also going to be the hardest to replace.

Why is that? Trying to pin down what makes Miyazaki so special is hard for the same reason that it’s challenging to analyze any great work of children’s fiction: it takes the fun out of it. I’m superstitiously opposed to trying to figure out how the Alice books work, for example, in a way that I’m not for Joyce or Nabokov. Similarly, the prospect of taking apart a Miyazaki movie makes me worry that I’ll come off as a spoilsport—or, worse, that the magic will somehow disappear. That’s one reason why I ration out my viewings of Ponyo, one of the most magical movies ever made, so carefully. And it’s why I’m going to tread cautiously here. But it’s still possible to hint at some of the qualities that set Miyazaki apart from even the greatest animators.

The difference, and I apologize in advance for my evasiveness, comes down to a quality of spirit. Miyazaki is as technically skilled as any animator in history, of course, but his craft would mean little without his compassion, and what I might also call his eccentricity. Miyazaki has a highly personal attachment to the Japanese countryside—its depiction of the satoyama is much of what makes My Neighbor Totoro so charming—as well as the inner lives of small children, especially girls. He knows how children think, look, and behave, which shapes both his characters and their surrounding movies. His films can seem as capricious and odd as the stories that very young children tell to themselves, so that Spirited Away feels both beguilingly strange and like a story that you’ve always known and only recently rediscovered.

Which is why Miyazaki is greater than Pixar. Don’t get me wrong: Pixar has had an amazing run, but it’s a singularly corporate excellence. The craft, humor, and love of storytelling that we see in the best Pixar movies feels learned, rather than intuitive; it’s the work of a Silicon Valley company teaching itself to be compassionate. Even the interest in children, which is very real, seems like it has been deliberately cultivated. Pixar, I suspect, is run by men who love animation for its own sake, and who care about children only incidentally, which was also true of Walt Disney himself. (If they could make animated movies solely for adults, I think they would, as the career trajectory of Brad Bird seems to indicate. If nothing else, it would make it easier for them to win an Oscar for Best Picture.)

By contrast, the best Miyazaki movies, like the Alice books, are made for children without a hint of condescension, or any sense that children are anything but the best audience in the world. And as traditional animation is replaced by monsters of CGI that can cost $200 million or more, I’m afraid that this quality will grow increasingly rare. We’ve already seen a loss of personality that can’t be recovered: it’s impossible to be entirely original, not to mention eccentric, with so much money on the line. The result, at best, is a technically marvelous movie that seems to have been crafted by committee, even if it’s a committee of geniuses. Toy Story 3 is a masterpiece, and not good enough.

Miyazaki is seventy now, and judging from Ponyo, he’s still at the top of his game. I hope he keeps making movies for a long time to come. Because it’s unclear if the world of animation, as it currently exists, will ever produce anyone quite like him again.

7 Responses

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  1. Hi Alec,

    Nice post, and a pretty spot-on analysis of the difference between Pixar and Studio Ghibli :)


    Charles K.

    January 6, 2011 at 11:39 am

  2. Thanks! And obviously, if I’m hard on Pixar, it’s only because I love it so much…


    January 6, 2011 at 2:10 pm

  3. I stumbled across Spirited Away when I was looking for a mindless cartoon to have on in the background while I rode my bike on a trainer. Needless to say, it was not what I was expecting. I spent WAY too much mental energy trying to figure out what was going on, who was good, who was evil, etc., and I’m still not sure I know.


    January 7, 2011 at 8:36 pm

  4. The funny thing is that, in the end, nobody turns out to be evil. (That’s what puts it at the very highest level of children’s movies, which don’t need villains to tell a great story.)


    January 8, 2011 at 10:26 am

  5. I completely agree with your take on Hayao. Our home watches a movie weekly, regardless of how many times our daughter has seem them, she is 6 and loves them all. I agree he will be impossible to replace, as outlined in your article above.

    Mike Swan

    January 12, 2011 at 1:35 pm

  6. I envy your daughter! (Except for the recut American version of “Nausicaa,” I didn’t see any Miyazaki until I was already in college.)

    My wife and I don’t have children yet, but when we do, I expect that they’ll be watching a lot of Studio Ghibli, as well as Disney and Pixar. It’s a good time to be a kid these days…


    January 12, 2011 at 1:42 pm

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