Happy Birthday

hayao miyazaki
Andrew Medichini/AP

Happy Birthday, Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese Walt Disney

January 05, 2010
by Isabel Cowles
Animator Hayao Miyazaki is often called the Japanese equivalent of Walt Disney. His prodigious imagination has given rise to Japan’s most popular manga, animated films and television series. Miyazaki’s work, which appeals to both children and adults, portrays pastoral beauty and human innocence coupled with darker themes of warfare and destruction.

Hayao Miyazaki's Early Days

Hayao Miyazaki was born in Tokyo on January 5, 1941, the second of three brothers. Miyazaki’s father owned a small airplane parts factory, which most likely inspired the future animator’s love of flight, which heavily inspired the plot, atmosphere and animation style of many of his films.

Other elements of his early life show up in Miyazaki’s films. For example, his mother suffered from tuberculosis and was largely bedridden during Miyazaki’s youth, prompting the filmmaker to create characters with absent or frail parents, as is the case in “My Neighbor Totoro.”

Throughout his youth, Miyazaki was drawn to animation, though he did not initially pursue it as a career; instead, he opted to study political science and economics at Gakushuin University.

After graduation, however, Miyazaki began working as an animator’s apprentice at Toei Animation. In 1963, his career took off when he was asked to work as an assistant on a feature and television series.

Miyazaki's Notable Accomplishments

Miyazaki quickly garnered attention not only for his artistic skills, but also for his “seemingly endless stream of movie ideas.”

After working for two years at A Pro studio, Miyazaki went to work at Nippon Animation studio in 1973, where he helped create and directed a series of highly successful television shows, including the World Masterpiece Theater TV and “Conan, The Boy in Future.”

In 1979 Miyazaki transferred to Tôkyô Movie Shinsha, where he directed his first film, “The Castle of Cagliostro,” which featured the popular animated TV character Lupin III in a James Bond-like adventure in a fictional European country. In 1984, Miyazaki released the postapocalyptic “Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind,” based on a seven-volume series of manga (graphic novels) he had written. In addition to the use of flight as a plot element (the heroine, Nausicaa flies a glider), the movie introduces another of the themes that appears so frequently in Miyazaki works: respect for nature, which can prove either friendly or exceedingly dangerous, depending on how one treats it. “Nausicaa” was so successful it led Miyazaki to create his own studio, Studio Ghibli.

Miyazaki’s best-known films are associated with Studio Ghibli, including “My Neighbor Totoro,” a story of two little girls who befriend a forest spirit; “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” about a 13-year-old witch who develops her independence and meets new friends when she starts a package delivery service in a new town; and “Spirited Away,” in which a 10-year-old girl must earn her parents’ freedom from enchantment by working in a bathhouse that caters to gods.

For Miyazaki, one of the most important aspects of a project is to create a comprehensive narrative without relying purely on logic. In an interview with film publication Midnight Eye, Miyazaki explains, “I try to dig deep into the well of my subconscious. At a certain moment in that process, the lid is opened and very different ideas and visions are liberated.” Only when those ideas are available, does Miyazaki begin creating his films. However, Miyazaki admits that artistic impulses must also be controlled, noting that social and family life become impossible if the subconscious overpowers logic.

The Rest of the Story

In addition to sharing his inspiration and imagination with fans through film, television and manga, Miyazaki has created an interactive space where the public can experience his work and the creative process behind it.

Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Japan, is designed to show viewers the filmmaking process. The museum is geared primarily toward children and includes exhibits of props and elements from Miyazaki’s work. It also has sample rooms that a filmmaker might inhabit as well as showings of a short film made uniquely for the museum.

Miyazaki also continues to make films. The latest is “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea,” and was released in Japan in July 2008. Intended for young children, the story concerns a goldfish princess wishing to become human who becomes friends with a five-year-old boy.

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