"Spirited Away" and Political Protest: On Hayao Miyazaki, the World's Greatest Living Animator


"Spirited Away" and Political Protest: On Hayao Miyazaki, the World's Greatest Living Animator
Still from "My Neighbor Totoro" by Studio Ghibli (1993)

Arguably the greatest living animator, Hayao Miyazaki makes films that, unlike most anime and cartoons, impart nuanced and challenging messages about gender, politics, and humanity in general—and typically feature strong female leads. His 2001 classic Spirited Away, which follows the journey of a young girl working in a witch-run Japanese bathhouse, won an Academy Award for best animated feature. Of course, Miyazaki never showed up to receive his Oscar—he refused in protest of the Iraq War. In anticipation of New York's Metrograph Theater's upcoming mini-retrospective of Miyazaki's work, we discuss the Japanese animator's background, unwavering commitment to political dissent, foray into contemporary art, and the rumors spreading about his next (and last?) project. 

Castle in the skyStill from  Castle in the Sky by Hayao Miyazaki (2003). Image via Vanguard Seattle.

Miyazaki was born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1941. Like Jiro in The Wind Rises (2013), Miyazaki’s father was involved in airplane manufacturing during World War II. (He was the director of a company that produced rudders for fighter planes.) Miyazaki's family was forced to evacuate when he was three years old, and again, after the bombing of Utsunomiya, when Miyazaki was four, which left a lasting impression. Miyazaki’s mother developed spinal tuberculosis in 1947; she was hospitalized for the first few years of her illness before being nursed from home. The financial and emotional tolls of a loved one’s terminal illness are also themes in The Wind Also Rises.


Wind also risesStill from The Wind Rises by Hayao Miyazaki (2013). Image via the Harvard Crimson.

While a student at Totyotama High School, Miyazaki became interested in animation after watching Panda and the Magic Serpent (1958), the first color anime feature film, “falling in love” with the movie’s heroine. He joined Toei Animation after graduating college, which also kickstarted his involvement in leftist politics: he became the chief secretary of Toei’s labor union in 1964, and has continued to have strong pro-labor policies since then, stating in a 2008 interview that “a company is common property of the people that work there.”


Princess MononokeStill from Princess Mononoke by Hayao Miyazake (1999). Image via the IFC Center.

Miyazaki moved to Telecom Animation in 1979, where he was commissioned to develop a manga on the condition that it would never be made into a movie. This manga––titled Nausicaä Valley of the Wind (1984) and inspired by the Mercury poisoning of Minamata Bay—became so popular that Miyazaki was granted permission to turn it the first animated movie that he would ever direct. Soon after, Miyazaki co-founded Studio Ghibli; their first movie, Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), was partly inspired by the U.K. 1984-85 Miner’s Strike, which Miyazaki witnessed firsthand during a visit to Wales. Ghibli’s Spirited Away (2001) became the highest-grossing film in Japanese history; it won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and is widely considered one of the best movies of the decade.


NausicaaStill from Nausicaä Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki (1984). Image via the IFC Center.

But, as we mentioned, Miyazaki refused to attend the Oscar’s in protest of the Iraq War, stating that he "didn't want to visit a country that was bombing Iraq." Miyazaki has also leveled anti-imperialist critiques against Japan, condemning Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s militarism and arguing that Japan should issue official apologies to Korean comfort women—women and girls forced by the Imperial Japanese Army into sexual slavery in occupied territories before and during World War II. However, in another reminder that having "good politics" doesn't mean you're good to the people around you, Miyazaki was a workaholic who missed his son Goro's childhood. Goro gave him "zero marks as a father but full marks as a director of animated films."


Spirited AwayStill from Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki (2001). Image via the IFC Center. 

Perhaps the greatest theme throughout Miyazaki’s work is the tension between capitalism and nature. Growing up in the Showa period, Miyazaki saw how pressure to repair postwar Japan blindsided the environment: "Nature—the mountains and rivers—was… destroyed in the name of economic progress,” he said. This anger is present in works like Princess Mononoke (1997), which is about the struggle between ancient forest gods and humans who want to use the forest’s resources; even lighter movies like Ponyo (2008) take place against the backdrop of ocean pollution.


PonyoStill from Ponyo by Hayao Miyazaki (2008). Image via Opus Zine.

But humans are rarely straightforwardly vile in Miyazaki’s worlds. More often, they are driven by the Buddhist roots of evil––greed, ill will, and delusion––as well as their own material needs. Miyazaki’s romance plots are also concerned with how an individual’s needs can be met without harming a broader community. As critic Peter Schellhase argued, Miyazaki’s characters fall in love, but romantic coupledom never saves the world. Instead, the emphasis is placed on "the way lonely and vulnerable individuals are integrated into relationships of mutual reliance and responsibility, which generally benefit everyone around them."


KikiStill from Kiki's Delivery Service by Hayao Miyazaki (1989). Image via Film School Rejects.

As a visionary, Miyazaki has certainly influenced younger generations of animators, but his significance isn't confined to the world of film. Last year Vice wrote about a massive group show called "Miyazaki Art Showorganized by Spoke Gallery (New York/San Francisco), which showed some 75 works inspired by Miyazaki's work. But Miyazaki dabbles in fine art as well. His prints are sold on the art market, as well as original sketches of his animated characters. For instance, a drawing of Nausicaä of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) sold at auction earlier this year for roughly $310,000. 

While Miyazaki planned to retire in 2013, shattering hearts of fans around the globe, Ghibli has confirmed that the director is currently working on a new animated feature: an adaption of Boro the Caterpillar, a computer-animated short produced for the Studio Ghibli Museum. The movie is slated to come out sometime in 2019 (woo hoo!). Until then, brush up on Miyazaki's films and enjoy his retrospective at Metrograph in New York from December 10 to December 31. Alongside Never-Ending ManHayao Miyazaki (2018), a brand-new documentary about the director, Metrograph will screen some of Miyazaki's award-winning classics including Spirited Away (2001), Princess Mononoke (1999), and My Neighbor Totoro (1993). 

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