How Hayao Miyazaki Sees The Beauty in The Mundane

One of the most enjoyed and oft-recounted anecdotes about Hayao Miyazaki- filmmaker, manga author, animator and co-founder of Japan’s Studio Ghibli- is his tussle with Hollywood’s now infamous mascot of predatory behaviour, Harvey Weinstein. Originally printed in The Guardian, the story runs thus:

Harvey Weinstein, one of Hollywood’s most belligerent producers, received a samurai sword in the post because his reputation preceded him. It came with a note that said simply: “No cuts.” By 1997, Weinstein’s Miramax Company had been taken over by Disney, which had a distribution deal with Japanese animation revolutionaries Studio Ghibli. Weinstein became one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers by acquiring and ruthlessly cutting films to make them as commercial as possible. Fearing his masterpiece Princess Mononoke would be butchered, director and animator Hayao Miyazaki sent Weinstein the sword with the note advising him not to do it. [….]” I did go to New York to meet this man, this Harvey Weinstein, and I was bombarded with this aggressive attack, all these demands for cuts. I defeated him.

There is a lot to unpack in this tale. Obviously, it carries all the red flags that would later come to be associated with Weinstein. It is an amusing snippet of a battle between two of the biggest names in the global filmmaking industry. But more poignantly, it is, perhaps, a real-life enactment of Miyazaki’s favourite story to tell in each of his works: the desire to preserve a rapidly fading simplicity, which has its roots in a kind of psycho-emotional-cultural nostalgia, but which also faces the risk of obliteration by the hideous tide of forced Western assimilation and glitzy consumerism that Japanese culture and media faces to this day.

I defeated him. No cuts.

While he is often popularly addressed by the epithet Walt Disney of Japan, I have personally always disliked this particular comparison between the animators, each a legend in his own right. That is because Studio Ghibli, the Tokyo-based animation house that is often described as Disney’s whimsical Japanese twin in many ways, acts more like a foil as opposed to a mere Eastern counterpart of the former. Where Disney seeks to impress with the opulence of scale and blissfully escapist glamour (think bewitchingly beautiful princesses, operatic songs, almost demonic villains), Ghibli seeks out what’s relatable even in the extraordinary, tries to make a mark in more subtle ways, not through escapism but through its polar opposite really, through well-crafted realism.

In fact, if you ask someone to tell you what the best part is about Ghibli films, nine out of ten times the answer will inevitably end up being, either the delightfully animated technicolour food or the painstakingly drawn verdant landscapes of some sort of quasi-utopian, Kyoto countryside-meets-wonderland realm, peopled with mythical beasts and bizarre spirits. Or perhaps it might just be the underlying extended allegories of ethnic traditions and a love for environmentalism, which seeps through pretty much every Ghibli film in the past two and a half decades. Whatever it is, one thing stands out in crystal-sharp clarity: Miyazaki’s philosophy centres not around grandiose but around the mundane, which he moulds to his own liking through the most skillful blending of cinematic, emotive and artistic devices till the ordinary is idyllic and the commonplace enchanting.

So, what constitutes the Hayao Miyazaki school of thought, exactly?

In his informative visual essay, The Immersive Realism of Studio Ghibli, video journalist Asher Isbruker chalks out the main reasons as to why Miyazaki’s creations feel so disarmingly familiar and relevant, despite some of them being as displaced from reality as most of our childhood bedtime tales. “No matter how far-fetched and imaginary [is] the story,” Isbruker emphasizes, “the world of a Ghibli film consistently feels tactile and realistic.” To prove his point, he cites the example of the 2001 Academy Award winning film Spirited Away, directed and written by Miyazaki. The film revolves around Chihiro, a young human girl forced to work as a servant in a bathhouse frequented and operated by the most incredible array of ghosts and spirits. She does so in an effort to save her parents, who - courtesy of a whirlwind series of unfortunate events - have been turned into pigs by a malevolent witch. While you stop to reread and completely understand that sentence, it is worthwhile to take a look at what Isbruker says about world-building in the film:

“…the bathhouse feels alive and real. While it is inherently unbelievable, we believe it exists in the context of the world (of the film) because it’s so well established. There are employees with jobs to do, sleeping quarters, a coal-powered furnace that heats the baths, different kinds of soaps for different clients… If you followed another employee, what would their day be like? That’s fun to imagine.”

It’s interesting that in a story bristling with absolutely wild events (a river becomes a dragon, the dragon becomes a boy, a witch ‘steals’ the names of her employees, thus rendering them disoriented, a faceless spirit materialises gold coins by clenching his fist) what sticks out as the most endearing bits are the little, uncharted moments that could have easily been from any slice-of-life indie film: waking up alone in an unfamiliar room to the view of an ocean, menial-labour employees gathering at the end of the day on a balcony to wistfully share their future plans of moving to the big city where prospects are better, two young children eating rice cakes in a garden full of spring flowers, the simple beauty of a wide-angle animated shot, downpour on the streets of a ghost-town. Nothing grand.

Isbruker also speaks of the very specific attention Miyazaki devotes to details as unostentatious as personalising the action of running in different characters. “Movement must be used to convey a sense of relative scale and weight,” he says. “Ghibli not only accomplishes this with grace but also conveys the emotions and traits of their characters through attention to minute details of their behaviour.” Instead of using technical shortcuts like pre-generated run cycles or rotoscoping (tracing live action footage), the veteran director and his animating team painstakingly created different patterns of movement to suit the circumstances and motives of every character, major or minor, be it the swift catlike sprint of wild, mountain-bred San and her horde of wolves from Princess Mononoke (1997), the giddy, happy, flighty run of the innocent Kusakabe sisters joyfully exploring their new house in My Neighbour Totoro (1988) or the comical, laboured struggles of the young witch from Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) to mount an enchanted broom. These details, seemingly unimportant, embellish and enrich the Ghibli cinematic experience, attesting yet again to the importance of the extraordinary, so to speak.

Then there is food. Even those not well acquainted with that particular brand of Japanese animation are largely familiar with the mouth-watering, aesthetically pleasing scenes of food in every single Ghibli film. When we think of a retelling of The Little Mermaid, food is not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet, it is the most enduring motif in Ponyo On the Cliff (2008), Miyazaki’s lightest, brightest film yet. The most iconic scene in his take on Hans Christian Andersen’s Danish fairytale is a simple, homely scene of little importance plot-wise, where Lisa, the mother of Ponyo’s human companion Sōsuke, prepares a wholesome meal for her; ham and a bowl of steaming ramen noodles. It is a slow, drowsy scene, right after an extended, fatiguing driving sequence through the storm; the warmth and gastronomic aspect of it feel deliciously homely. Not just Ponyo, who can forget the enchanted buffets of Spirited Away, the mouth-watering Bento boxes from Totoro, or the eggs-and-bacon breakfast scene in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)? None of these movies are wanting for magic and mischief, conflicts and adventures, yet what we take back at the end of the film are these small, humane moments of nurture and domesticity, opportunities to forge reel-to-real kinship with the protagonists.

When we speak of Ghibli food and Ghibli landscapes, we cannot avoid the underlying theme that Miyazaki strives to emphasise in his craft: romanticising the ordinary and trying to achieve a sense of balance between the magical extravaganzas of spirit-infested bathhouses and flying castles and benevolent cat-bear tree deities. One of Ghibli’s favourite tropes to use is the incomplete or unexplained aspects of its multilayered, kaleidoscopic universes. We are given rich tapestries of magical worlds- enchanted forests, prehistoric oceans, deserted valleys and idyllic small towns, with creatures and people unlike any of our own- but not all of it revealed through exposition, just enough to make us already familiar with, aware of the sensory experience we’re being thrust into. It definitely helps that Miyazaki prefers to work with young, starry-eyed protagonists for most of his films- it helps to convey a sense of newness and wonder at the good in the world.

A section of critics have theorised that Miyazaki’s repeated emphasis on the synthesis of human-nature relationships, traditional and sustainable ways of living versus technology and economic progress, the portrayal of largely pacifist protagonists, ambiguous and somewhat redeemable antagonists, and anti-war motifs have much to do with Hayao Miyazaki’s personal experiences during the Second World War, particularly the 1945 bombings of Utsunomiya. “The characters who pursue war — generally government officials — are portrayed as vainglorious and arrogant schemers who rashly court cataclysm for the sake of their grandiose ambitions,” writes Dan Sanchez in his essay Miyazaki’s Beautiful Anti War Dreams, while also noting that Miyazaki allows for even such seemingly irredeemable paragons of wickedness their moments to redeem themselves. “The climax of the film comes not with the hero impaling or detonating his foe, as in so many Hollywood movies, or in the villain falling to his doom, as in so many Disney animated films. Miyazaki’s heroes achieve victory, not through the destruction of their enemies, but by foiling their plans enough such that the belligerents finally relent …. sometimes even …. to the point of converting villains into friends.” He adds, “…. (Although) Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a profound meditation on the corruption of power, its discussion of war and peace is crudely Manichean. Yet on this subject, and so many others, the fantasy of Studio Ghibli — especially the work of the creative genius Hayao Miyazaki— is wise and deeply moral, as well as exhilarating and achingly beautiful. It is a cultural treasure that stands and soars in a class of its own.”

Others note that Miyazaki might have been significantly influenced by the ethno-Japanese Shinto ideology, which attaches great importance to the worship of kami: the sacred presence that manifests itself everywhere in nature, from rocks to rivers to forests to the creatures that dwell in them. The sacredness and fragility of the Shinto balance is well portrayed in one of Miyazaki’s earliest and most powerful works, Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind (1984), where the titular protagonist Nausicaä battles fascist forces to establish harmony between the human world and the ancient creatures of the forest- dangerous, insect-like beasts called Ohms- even as Earth teeters on the brink of apocalypse. Mononoke deals with the same ordeal, when the forest gods are disturbed as their homes are destroyed by an industrial settlement that derives resources from hacking down the pristine mountain foliage. These may sound rather far-fetched in theory, but with the skill that only a Ghibli animator can demonstrate, Miyazaki spreads his messages in a beautiful art-on-celluloid format, preferring to concentrate, as always, more on the ordinary than the other-worldly; not the rampages, or the grand battles, but the lives at the centre of the crossfire between enemies, at the motivations of every character, princess or chieftain or sailor or just a small-town boy with big dreams.

Not all of Miyazaki’s movies come laden with ladles of fantasy, however. Whisper of the Heart (1995), written by him, is a heart-warming, lush take on childhood and childish dreams, yearning, hoping, loving and losing, all embodied in the very non-fantastic and yet endearing host of characters, especially Shizuku, the 14 year old, book-smart, imaginative protagonist. It is in these understated and realistic films, that could easily be swapped for live-action works, that Miyazaki’s touch works the best. For it is here that you get to see the legacy of Studio Ghibli. How everything becomes dreamy and magical with just the right dose of attention and love, with just the exact dollops of childish whimsy and adult musings to balance each other out. As Isbruker says, “Pay attention to the ordinary, the inconsequential, seemingly unimportant actions and elements … every single one was a conscious choice.”

“We depict hatred, but it is to depict that there are more important things. We depict a curse, to depict the joy of liberation,” says Miyazaki himself. He goes on to talk about the joys of hand-drawn animation, “When I think about the way the computer has taken over and eliminated a certain experience of life, that makes me sad. When we were animating fire some staff said they had never seen wood burning. I said, “Go watch!” It has disappeared from their daily lives. Japanese baths used to be made by burning firewood. Now you press a button. I don’t think you can become an animator if you don’t have any experience.” His words bring us full-circle- the Harvey Weinstein episode, the chronicle of the samurai sword, no cuts … a testament to a mind as fresh and transcendental as it was during his first endeavour, a staunch refusal to bow to artificialities and be a cheap copy of the West. No more being the Walt Disney of Japan, thank you very much.

The celebration of the common is, then, both the hallmark and the most overlooked facet of Studio Ghibli. There is magic in a nighttime flight across a village on the wings of your friendly neighbour forest spirit, or in your everyday battle against evil scheming fascists, but there is also magic enough in the simple pleasures of a bowl of warm, home-cooked food, served at the right time to suit the right mood, in a lilting conversation with a friendly stranger. It is a befitting paradox really, the harmony of opposites brought about with poise and delicacy. For you see, animation isn’t just for dragons and demons and great spectacles. It is also a medium to narrate stories in their purest, most non-distilled state, unfettered by the boundaries of logistics and science. It is the medium of dreams.

And what is Hayao Miyazaki after all, but a dreamer?


Sritama Sen

An undergrad student of English literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Sometimes, I ramble about books and films. Sometimes, my ramblings even make sense.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.