If you’ve never seen a Hayao Miyazaki film, then I envy you profoundly. The magic and beauty of his animation insights offers an ethereal quality that transports viewers back to childhood. Not just because his films elevate the concept of ‘cartoons’ into high art; but because the films’ use of storytelling, character development, and visual aesthetic takes viewers back to a time when filmmakers were magicians who suspended audiences’ disbelief through captivating visuals that they make look effortless. So if you’ve never seen his animation, you’ll get to live that magic for the first time (most of Studio Ghibli’s films are now available on Netflix).
Animation Insights Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
“When young, nearly all of us want to be taken seriously, as soon as possible. Perhaps because of this we tend to overemphasise technique… In reality, however, once you enter the industry, the techniques required to make animation can be mastered very quickly.” Hayao Miyazaki, Animation: Monthly Picture Book Special, March 1979
Miyazaki-san has been creating animation insights since the 1960s and directed his first production Lupin the Third, Part 1 in 1971. Throughout the 1970s, Miyazaki-san kept animating, writing, and directing a variety of productions. In 1982, Miyazaki began creating his manga Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which was serialised into seven volumes for a combined total of 1,060 pages.
Although initially reluctant to adapt the manga into a film, Miyazaki eventually agreed on the proviso that he could direct. The 1984 film was a run-away success and set the foundations for Miyazaki to launch his own animation studio – Studio Ghibli – the following year.
Studio Ghibli grew from a small Japanese film studio into an international powerhouse for animation. Six of Studio Ghibli’s films are among the ten highest-grossing anime films worldwide, with 2001’s Spirited Away being the Studio’s highest, grossing over US$360 million worldwide and remaining the only non-English film to win an Oscar for Best Animated feature.
Anyone who’s ever seen a Studio Ghibli film can appreciate the quality of its productions. While some films use a small amount of computer-generated animation insights, Miyazaki-san is a purist, so the frames in his films are still completely hand drawn, with CGI only being used to assist with complicated scenes or to speed up production.
“I believe, in fact, that nostalgia is one of the fundamental starting points for most people involved in creating animation.” Hayao Miyazaki, Animation: Monthly Picture Book Special, March 1979
There’s an iconic scene in the early moments of 1997’s Princess Mononoke where a giant demon comprised of countless snake-like figures undulates seamlessly across the screen. The fluidity of its movements looks like computer animation, but it was actually hand drawn.
While the scene is only a couple minutes long, it supposedly took 19 months to complete with a total of 5,300 drawings all done by hand. For perspective, Miyazaki-san has noted that his animation process equates 24 drawings to one second of film. This attention to detail and appreciation for animation’s origins demonstrates why Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki are in a league of their own.
Make Mincemeat out of that Mouse
Many people compare Miyazaki-san with Walt Disney, but personally I think he’s more closely aligned to the likes of Jim Henson – a visionary auteur with a rich appreciation for tradition and an incredible talent for character design and world building, which has defined generations of subsequent filmmakers worldwide.
“In fact, precisely because animation insights is a depiction of the fantastic, those creating animation should do their utmost to devise new ways of faking things, or lying, for the sake of viewers.” Hayao Miyazaki, Animation Monthly, July 1980
Besides, Miyazaki-san has been open in his criticism of Disney’s various practices throughout the years. In 1987, Miyazaki-san noted that Walt Disney once described the process of finding good animators as more difficult than finding a speck of gold in a vast desert. However, at the time, it was clear to Miyazaki-san that Disney was unable to break away from its own hierarchical origins.
“They say that Disney Studios failed to nurture successors,” Miyazaki-san explained. “The core animators, called the ‘Nine Old Men’, stayed at the top too long. They became stale and lost their energy. In reality, Disney did try to cultivate new animators. Disney formed a school and trained animators and unearthed talent, even bringing animators to the US through immigration. And yet no successors to the Nine Old Men emerged.”
The Nine Old Men were essentially handpicked by Walt Disney to carry on the legacy, as each man was instrumental in creating the Disney aesthetic that dominated media for over 50 years. While some of the original nine were still creating Disney characters during the 1990s, the last film directed by any of them was 1977’s The Rescuers.
At the time Miyazaki-san made the above statement, Disney was in a rut – the 1970s and 1980s were challenging for several reasons. Firstly, the deaths and Walt and Roy Disney had left the studio (for the first time) in the controlling hands of non-family members. What followed was two decades of underperforming films – both critically and commercially.
However, 1989 saw the beginning of the ‘Disney Renaissance’, which kicked off with the classic The Little Mermaid and gave us a solid decade of the studio’s most iconic films to date, such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Hercules, and Mulan.
This decade also saw Disney’s first venture into computer animation, establishing a partnership with Pixar animation studio, which it eventually acquired in 2006. It seems Miyazaki’s criticism almost pre-empted Disney’s return to glory by highlighting the company’s aversion to change and growth.
“If a change suggested by another person improves the work, it is a mistake to refuse to incorporate it under the misconception that one’s purview has been violated. Animation is a collaborative process.” Hayao Miyazaki, Koza Animation 3: Image Design, 15 January 1989
Animation That Trust Its Audience
The major differences between the works of Studio Ghibli and Disney are also vital elements that differentiate traditional eastern and western thinking. Disney is a much larger and more complex business entity with various brands, departments, and divisions working on different productions at the same time.
Studio Ghibli is far more focused and singular in its vision. Throughout the Studio’s 30-plus-year history, it has produced 21 feature films, of which Miyazaki-san wrote ten and directed eight. The other primary writer-director for the Studio, Isao Takahata, was a co-founder alongside Miyazaki-san and was responsible for five films.
With either Miyazaki-san or Takahata-san responsible for writing, directing, and animating three-quarters of the Studio’s filmography, there is a cohesion and consistency in the quality of production and content. However, this can result in a lot of Studio Ghibli films looking and feeling very similar, while Disney’s can vary greatly in aesthetic.
However, despite Disney’s army of writers, directors, and animators, all its films exist in worlds of moral absolutes where there are always clear-cut heroes and villains. Since Walt’s magic kingdom has always been much more focused towards children, morality can never be tackled in truly complex ways.
Sure, Disney films are always magical, beautifully constructed, feel-good stories; but there’s never any ambiguity in terms of good and evil. Disney films set out to entertain, rarely challenging viewers or going outside its formulaic approach to narrative despite Disney having so many different departments, teams, and studios within it.
“From my perspective, even if they are lightweight in nature, the more popular and common films still must be filled with a purity of emotion. There are few barriers to entry into these films – they will invite anyone in – but the barriers to exit must be high and purifying. Films must also not be produced out of idle nervousness or boredom, or be used to recognise, emphasise, or amplify vulgarity. And in that context, I must say that I hate Disney’s works. The barrier to both the entry and exit of Disney films is too low and too wide. To me, they show nothing but contempt for the audience.” Hayao Miyazaki, Films of Japan, No. 7, The State of Japanese Film, 28 January 1988
Studio Ghibli doesn’t play down to its audiences. Each film’s bright veneer of characters and settings mask some much deeper explorations of tragedy, death and loss, war and politics, and the inevitable loss of innocence we all go through.
For example, Studio Ghibli has produced at two films about World War II – one each from Miyazaki-san and Takahata-san – and each film doesn’t shy away from the horrors of conflict. One looks at the difficulties faced by two orphans in war-torn Japan, the other explores morality and conflict through the eyes of Jiro Horikoshi (designer of Japanese fighter aircrafts). Both films end in tragedy, yet both are astoundingly beautiful to watch because its characters are more complex than your traditional Disney hero or princess.
“To depict a war head-on in animation insights is to choose to depict a subject just as preposterous as the life of bugs in a city. But even if you’re only making a cartoon film, the moment you choose such a subject you should not flinch from pursuing it.” Film 1/24., No. 30, Anido, 1 November 1980
Studio Ghibli has done much more to make animation more appealing to adults than Disney. Disney have a diverse range of studios under its umbrella, but I’ve yet to see any its films offer morally ambiguous characters, challenging moral dilemmas, or even a tragic ending (although a few have started with sadness, such as The Lion King, Up, and Bambi). Every Disney films wraps up with a ‘happily ever after’ because that’s what children demand, and Disney is for the kids.
On the other hand, Studio Ghibli films aren’t just beautiful, hand-crafted experiences that capture audiences’ imagination; each film is also layered with rich themes and motifs that children will inevitably face and adults can knowingly appreciate. Animation isn’t just for kids and we can learn a lot from the way Miyazaki-san approaches his craft, his process, and his audience.
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