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  • Shaikha Al Thani

Hayao Miyazaki, a living legend.

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

I imagine a great number of my peers have chosen or considered the renowned Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki for their blog post on an inspiring animator. This would come as no surprise given the great strides of progress and innovation the acclaimed animator contributed to the animation industry in addition to his playful approaches to storytelling and the lasting effects his films have had on its many devoted viewers.

The Beginning

Hayao Miyazaki was born on the fifth of January 1941in Tokyo. The son of Katsuji Miyazaki and Yoshiko Miyazaki. His father, Katsuji, directed his brother's company, Miyazaki Airplanes, during WW II, a company that manufactured rudders for fighter planes. Although Hayao Miyazaki was never formally taught how to create anime or manga per se, he developed a fervent passion for the art form quite early on. During high school, Miyazaki aspired to professionally become a manga artist. He would often practice and polish his craft. However, he soon found that drawing people was his Achilles heel as an artist. So much so that he resigned to only drawing vehicles such as planes, tanks, and battleships for many years. He was strongly influenced by many prominent manga artists of the time, like Tetsuji Fukushima, Soji Yamakawa, and Osamu Tezuka. While seeking his own art style, Miyazaki soon found himself emulating stylistic elements from his models (the aforementioned artists). As a result, he would destroy his creations as he considered them "bad form" as, according to him, it wouldn't permit him to grow as an independent artist. Although Miyazaki harbored a very strong and passionate love affair with the manga industry during his early years, his appreciation for animation was triggered by Japan’s first fully animated and colored feature-length film: Hakujaden (Legend of the White Snake).

Screencap of japan's 1958 film: Hakujaden

During his time at Gakushuin University, where he pursued a degree in political economy, Miyazaki sought what he describes as “the closest thing back then to a comics club,” The Children’s Literature Research Club. He was, at times, its sole member. It was here that he practiced and developed as an artist the most while drawing manga.

Miyazaki's Career

Miyazaki’s position as a prominent and celebrated animator owes its beginnings to the spring of 1963, where Miyazaki became an animator for the company Toei Animation. Beginning at the bottom of the hierarchy, Miyazaki was often given menial tasks such as filling in the cel-by-cel movements of the animation’s subjects. However, he thoroughly enjoyed doing so and was taught the basics of animation in the process. In the following year, he met the animator Akemi Ota, his future wife. Not long after starting his work at the studio, his talent and colorful imagination lifted him to assuming important collaborative roles within Toei Animation. After working on a few projects that did not kick off the ground at the company A Pro and moving between a few studios, Miyazaki had his first taste of success with his film Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro.

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro

Despite this, the place where Miyazaki's name became synonymous with innovative anime is Studio Ghibli. It is with certainty that I can say that all the films produced at Studio Ghibli have enjoyed great box office successes. Particularly the film Princess Mononoke which was the highest grossing domestic film in Japan’s history up until it was surpassed by Spirited Away, another of his works.

Miyazaki's Art Style

An autodidact in his own right, Miyazaki was never formally taught art. Despite this (and perhaps because of this) he developed a very unique art style. Arguably, it is so distinct that one can easily distinguish a Studio Ghibli film by its trademark mellow and muted scenery, bright colors, and general softness of character (for lack of a better word). Additionally, there are always elements of whimsy and magic peppered all throughout his films.

Princess Mononoke

Another notable element of Miyazaki's works is the intricacy of his backgrounds in contrast with the generally simply rendered characters (see below)

Howl's Moving Castle

This brings to mind a common element used in comic making called "masking." When an artist deliberately simplifies the characters and sets them across a very detailed background. There are a few theories as to why this element is used, however, the conventions of comics and anime are very different so I won't be applying them here.

His Creative Process

Miyazaki has credited his approach to visual storytelling to the way children create. This is apparent in the playfulness and whimsical nature of Studio Ghibli films. He would also often begin his projects blind and would, so to speak, go with the flow of where his inspiration may take him. He'd draw inspiration from his surroundings, the people around him, and his own memories.

"Children make great art just by doing. They don’t think, they do and do, make and make, wasting shocking amounts of paper and art supplies, indifferent to quality, but fearlessly making art in a state of playful, Seussian quasi-thinking." -Hayao Miyazaki


There are many recurring themes throughout Miyazaki's films. One is the notion that no one is ever truly good, and no one is ever truly evil. His antagonists are rarely ever portrayed as apathetic to the protagonist's plight. In Howl's Moving Castle, one of the villains called the Witch of The Waste ended up helping the protagonist during the story's turning point. Another instance where his antagonists are morally grey is in the film Princess Mononoke, where (one of) the antagonists, Lady Eboshi, regretted her actions and stance in the end of the film.

Another very prominent theme is to love and respect nature, a call for an environmental consciousness of sorts. This is apparent in Princess Mononoke where the plot centers around conflict raised due to human's mindless cutting of tress and My Neighbor Totoro, which is set near a forest (interestingly, this forest was modeled after the forest Miyazaki grew up next to). Both these films (and more) feature magical forest creatures / spirits. This may be due to the fact that his father had moved his family to Utsunomiya City between 1944 and 1946, during this time, Miyazaki was strongly influenced and inspired by the nature he was exposed to as a child.

My Neighbor Todoro

There are also strong traces of feminism across his films. Women play significant roles and are, more often than not, the protagonists of the story. In Princess Mononoke, women are working in the furnace (a taxing bit of physical labor). In Porco Rosso, women are the ones repairing a plane. In Spirited Away, women are working at a thermal bath instillation. This is all indicative of the notion that female empowerment is a possible theme present across Miyazaki's works. Hayao Miyazaki has expressed guilt over his parents profiting from WW II (Miyazaki Airplanes). This has filtered through to his films in the form of a strong distrust of military organization. This is shown in films like Porco Rosso, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and Howl's Moving Castle. Lastly, a prominent element in Miyazaki's films (this is less of a theme, more of a notable motif) is flight. From Castle in the sky, to Howl's Moving Castle, to My Neighbor Totoro, to Porco Rosso which all contain some element of flying vehicle or structures. It would not be a far stretch to suggest that perhaps Miyazaki was influenced or directly drew inspiration from his uncle's company, Miyazaki Airplanes, where his father worked for some time.

Hayao Miyazaki has retired as of 2013, however he has returned for one final film he is currently working on fo this grandson called How Do You Live?

He has stated that he will not be producing any more films past this final one. However, it is interesting to note that he has come out of retirement back in 1998 to work on more animations. So, who knows? How do You Live? may not actually be his final film. Nonetheless, whether or not Miyazaki returns to his drawing table again, he has led an indisputably fascinating and inspirational life full of magic and has impacted people from all corners of the globe with his poignant animations, leaving a lasting legacy that future animators can aspire to live up to.

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