When it comes to animation insights and masterful techniques, Hayao Miyazaki should be seen as the global standard. His animation production house, Studio Ghibli, brought Japanese animation to the mainstream market in a way that elevated the medium into fine art, creating feature films that are adored by critics and audiences alike.

I will forever look for excuses to write about Miyazaki-san’s animation, his way of thinking, and his hopes for the future. In this lengthy blog, I’ve compiled quotes that look at his work habits, his environmental advocacy, and how he believes children should be raised for the betterment of society.

Studio Ghibli Animation: Making Films, not Cartoons

“I realised that in animation you can depict human emotions with amazing conciseness.”

Neppu, Studio Ghibli, November 2007 issue

Animation is often dismissed as an artform, regarded as childish and novel, rather than a respected medium for creative narratives and fantastical designs. This harsh categorisation by cinema purists, hasn’t hindered the scale of talent and creativity animation has developed globally. However, it has made widened the bridge between generations as older generations can struggle watching feature-length films created by hand drawings or 3D renderings.

“We have consistently tried to make ‘films’, not ‘anime’. That is, to express time and space with more universality. We try to find ways of representation understandable to a country grandpa watching our film for the first time.”

Yomiuri Shimbun, evening edition, 8th August 1997

Animation faces several challenges in bridging generational gaps, particularly the lack of human facial expressions. However, what animation may lack in realism, it greatly compensates with world building – the capacity to create entire worlds and new realities through captivating designs and storytelling.

“It’s true that they’re a form of escapism. Cartoons are fake world. Because cartoons are fake, they disarm viewers, making them think that they’re ‘just cartoons.’ Liberated from reality and relaxed, viewers find themselves pulled into scenes showing the protagonists and a cartoon world and then may find that the experience evokes secret hopes and longings in themselves. They may start feeling braver and more heroic, more generous in spirit. And then they may also find that they feel a little more energised, or that their lover’s face looks even prettier than it did before.”

Mata aeta, ne! Animage bunko 31st October 1983

While animation has always held a special space in the hearts of children, adults weren’t always emotionally invested in the inherent sanctimony of most mainstream animators, such as a certain ‘magical kingdom’ turned global enterprise.

“The generation ten years older than my colleagues and me was influenced by Disney. The earlier Disney films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, and Pinocchio were all wonderful in terms of technique. But their depiction of the inner thoughts of human beings were so simplistic that I didn’t enjoy them very much.”

“If we make films to give form to the confusion and depths of ideas that can’t be expressed in words, each part of the film must be an important part of that effort. Each shot should express the film’s world in its entirety.”

Roman Album Animage Special: Hayao Miyazaki and Hideaki Anno, Tokuma Shoten, 10th June 1998

“When watching films recently, I often sense there’s something like a ‘coming-of-age myth’ because they seem to imply that when you grow up everything will be fine… I wanted to overturn this stupid idea in films that if you just grow up and fall in love, everything will be alright.”

Spirited Away Roman Album, Tokuma Shoten, 10th September 2001

Miyazaki-san didn’t just tell stories, he created universes that lived and breathed without the need for audiences. Avoiding the cliches and moral certainties of other animation studios, his films regularly deal with complex questions regarding war, death, mourning, and environmental destruction.

“I want to create films that both generations can watch and love together. That also means I can’t afford to create films that follow the fashion of the moment… When the whole world seems to be talking about going to war, we’ve got to make films about something totally different. That’s what I believe. When everyone’s going on and on about how peaceful the world is, well, that’s when we’ve got to make films that show people there are always traps awaiting us, no matter how peaceful things seem to be.”

Interview with Tetsuya Chikushi; Shukan Kinyobi, weekly Friday, 11th January 2002

“In American films, as long as it’s an enemy, you can kill as many people as you want, and that’s true of Lord of the Rings too. You can kill indiscriminately without worrying about whether they are civilians or military. As long as it can be called collateral damage… If you read the original novels you can also tell that the people being killed are really Asians and Africans. And I think the people who don’t understand that, who go around saying how much they like ‘fantasy works’ are really idiots.”

From pamphlet for Dark Blue World, Albattos, 26th October 2002

The glorification of war begins early for children – whether from family members and older friends who’d survived the horrors of battle, to warfare’s ubiquity across film, television, news, and video games. However, what is often ignored isn’t just the human impact, but war’s colonial history. Warfare has been used as a tool for conquering black and brown people across the globe. Even when the glories of battle hide behind fantasy, it’s propaganda undertones should not be ignored.

“Even though we’re just looking at drawings, after a while an entire world is created. When the project is over, it seems as though that world really existed somewhere, and still exists. It transcends drawings.”

“At Ghibli we actually use plenty of computers in a variety of different ways. But at the same time we have staff members on hand who also understand the advantages of an analogue approach. The appeal of an analogue approach is quite connected to human physiology. And the Ghibli computer graphics staff do all sorts of things in the hope of eventually being able to express that physiological element with computers.”

From press conference at 62nd Venice International Film Festival, 8th September 2005

Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli recently released its first feature film produced entirely with computer graphics. Immediately the lack of warmth and intangible magic has disappeared from the screen. Capturing the spirit of hand-drawn animation is difficult, particularly with a long history of lauded films all animated by hand.

“Making films is all about – as soon as you’re finished – continually regretting what you’ve done. When we look at films we’ve made, all we can see are the flaws; we can’t even watch them in a normal way. I never feel like watching my own films again. So unless I start working on a new one, I’ll never be free from the curse of the last one.”

From talk with Nick Park at 18th Tokyo International Film Festival, 23rd October 2005

Miyazaki regularly said in interviews that his latest film would be his last, constantly threatening to retire upon release. This contradicts his quote above, but it further illustrates the tenacity and energy he pours into each production. The creative process can be exhausting, but more than anything, it’s an endless pursuit that doesn’t stop when the project ends.

“I am not attempting to solve the entire world’s problems. There can never be a happy ending in the battle between humanity and ferocious gods. Yet, even amidst hatred and carnage, life is still worth living. It is possible for wonderful encounters and beautiful things to exist.”

Princess Mononoke Proposal (15th April 1995)

The Battle Between Nature and Humanity

“There is no mistaking that going into the forest is extremely good for my mental health. After spending some time there, I become kinder to others, perhaps because I begin to long for people.”

Interview by Kentaro Fujiki; Seiryu, Seiryu Shuppan, August issue, 1997

Travel, isolation, and nature can all be very restorative for people. While COVID has put restrictions on travel, isolation has been an unescapable part of daily life. A temporary cure for this sense of disconnect is escapism, whether physically through travel or mentally through animation films that create a hopeful world.

“When making a film, even if it is a film for children, we mustn’t tell the story without presenting its ecological issues. Also, since the things around us, like plants and water and animals, are always affecting an important part of our hearts in some way, isn’t it strange to forget that and think that the problems of this world consist only of those between people?”

On directing Princess Mononoke, Cine Front, Cine Furontosha, Jully 1997

“It would be easy to solve the problems of human beings were we to label those who decimate forests and destroy nature as evil, base, and savage. On the contrary, the tragedy of human beings is that the people who try to push forward the most virtuous parts of humanity end up destroying nature.”

Roman Album Animage Special: Hayao Miyazaki and Hideaki Anno, Tokuma Shoten, 10th June 1998

A critical challenge about the human condition is our consumer-based existence. Human beings require food, shelter, and comforts that are produced through environmental destruction. From the petrol in our cars to the plastic wrapping around our food – our way of life is built on exploitation. Corporations that deliver our daily conveniences love shifting the blame to individuals, urging us to recycle rather than reforming the way it conducts business. Even Miyazaki pushes for personal responsibility rather than blaming capitalism, but he also understands how important culture and creativity can be in keeping us entertained rather than enraged.

“Forests absorb carbon dioxide, but there are huge problems involved with carbon offset and carbon trading policies. Do we have to trade even the air? What a bleak future we will have if we always think in terms of making money off something as basic as the air we need to live. Life shouldn’t be just about making money. There has to be something more important. If there isn’t, we wouldn’t be an animation industry.”

Midori no bokindayori, National Land Afforestation Program, Spring 2002 issue

“Human beings have attacked and modified nature to make it more convenient for us. This certainly turns nature into something pleasant and beautiful for us, but the real character of nature is more cruel and brutal. If we discuss environmental issues or issues of nature without mentioning the irrationality, cruelty, and brutality of life itself, it becomes a shallow and insipid exercise.”

Kinema Junpo, Kinema Junposha, 2nd September 1997

“It is better to deal with nature with courtesy in specific ways, such as helping to clean up a nearby river, not clear-cut trees, and not pick up all the persimmons but leave half for the birds. Worrying about the fate of the world doesn’t lead to solutions. After all, Buddha worried, Confucius worried, Shinran worried, everyone worried, and we will likely continue to worry in the future. So we should all worry according to our own abilities.”

Interview by Masao Ota; Kikan: Ningen to Kyoiku, Junposha, June 1996

‘Don’t worry’ is a wonderful position to take once someone accepts their own helplessness. Animation production can illustrate these environmental issues, hopefully informing and inspiring the next generation of leaders to operate more sustainably – one can only hope.

The Children are Our Future

“There is also a large, latent audience of older viewers who yearn for a film to enjoy with a more naïve, childlike spirit. The future of animation is threatened by the fact that for most films being planned today the target age is gradually creeping upward. More and more animated films are being made to cater to niche interests, and there is ever more sub-categorisation and diversification taking place. In the midst of this, it is important for us not to lose sight of the fact that animation should above all belong to children, and that truly honest works for children will also succeed with adults.”

Original Proposal for Castle in the Sky, 7th December 1984

Honesty and authenticity are critical for animation – not only for creating a visually-engaging experience, but to ensure the narrative resonates. As the world of content grows obscenely large and access to content is ubiquitous, quality is bound to fall. Studio Ghibli has always managed to capture authentic characters (even if their situations seem supernatural). The honest portrayal of human nature makes the more magical moments of these films seem more plausible, suspending audience belief for the sake of following each compelling narrative.

“Even if I depict the growth of a person, it is dismissed as ‘just a movie’. When I was young, poverty encouraged us to have a passion for life, but today Japan is among the wealthiest economies in the world. This has widened the gap, or blank space, between the story and the audience. It’s not an easy problem to overcome. But the reason I said blank space rather than wall is that I think we can definitely bridge this divide. Films have the power not only to salve our discontent with the world but to make us realise the yearnings within our hearts.”

Interview by Jun Watanabe, Hokkaido Shimbun, evening edition, 6th March 1998

“Our films won’t be relevant if they only emphasise that all will turn out well as long as they have a positive attitude, full of cheer and vitality.”

A discussion with Takeshi Umehara, Yoshihiko Amino, Seiryu Kosaka, and moderator Keiichi Makino; Kino Criticism, Kyoto Seika Daigaku Johokan, 25th October 1998

“We often talk about ‘the future of our children’, don’t we? Unfortunately, our children’s future is to become boring adults. For children only the present instant exists. For that child, the present doesn’t exist for the sake of the future. What I want to say is don’t rob children of their precious childhood for the sake of tedious studies, their parents’ petty concerns for appearances and peace of mind, or their parents’ pedestrian thinking.”

Interview by Masao Ota; Kikan: Ningen to Kyoiku, Junposha, June 1996

If anything has become evident of the part two years, it’s that the old ways of working – 9-5 office work, unbridled capitalism, and environmental exploitation – are becoming unsustainable. Miyazaki-san recognises the damage caused by our consumer-based society and its proliferation that is driven by generational greed and ignorance. Thank goodness animation offers a window into a better world or the end game of our wasteful ways.

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