Sunday, September 1, 2013

Master Animator Hayao Miyazaki Retires

(cross-posted from DKos)

Studio Ghibli has announced that it's founder, renowned animator and film-maker Hayao Miyazaki will "retire from the production of feature-length films." The announcement was made this week at the Venice Film Festival in Italy. The spokesman, studio president Koji Hoshino, did not say anything about shorter films or about what role Miyazaki will be playing in his studio in the future, so it is possible that he will not be completely retiring from film-making.

The first Miyazaki film I ever saw was Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1978), based on a popular manga character, a master thief named Lupin the Third. Miyazaki had directed a couple episodes of the Lupin TV series, and didn't particularly care for the character; but he crafted a glorious action film with chases, hair-breadth escapes, ninjas and an autogyro. The car chase near the beginning of the movies has been called one of the best in film by Steven Spielberg; and the ending manages to be romantic and sweet, revealing a bit of the chivarlous knight underneath the skirt-chasing lecherous ways of the manga Lupin.

In addition to his work on the Lupin III television series, Miyazaki did a series called Future Boy Conan, and worked on a Japanese/Italian collaboration called Great Detective Holmes, (English title: Sherlock Hound), a delightful adaptation of Sherlock Holmes with an all-canine cast. He also did development work on a planned series which was to have been called "Around the World Under the Sea". The series never came through, but many years later was re-worked by the studio GAINAX as Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water.

Many of Miyazaki's films have strong ecological themes, such as NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind (1984), set in a world in which an apocalyptic war centuries earlier has upset the balance of nature and left only small pockets habitable by humanity; and Princess Mononoke (1997), whose heroine finds herself caught in a struggle between forest spirits and an encroaching village.

The success of NausicaƤ enabled Miyazaki to start up his own studio, Studio Ghibli. For his first Ghibli film, Laputa (1986) (released in English as Castle in the Sky), about a search for a legendary citadel floating in the air built by an ancient civilization, Miyazaki used material he had created for "Around the World Under the Sea."

From adventure, he went to a quiet pastoral story in My Neighbor Totoro (1988), a charming tale of two little girls who move with their father into a haunted house in the country and who discover magical creatures living in the nearby forest. In many ways this film was a tribute to the rural Japan of Miyazaki's youth, now long eaten-up by development. Totoro, the big, cuddly Guardian of the Forest, became the mascot of Studio Ghibli and appears on their logo.

Flight has always been a passion with Miyazaki and every one of his movies has featured flying in one way or another. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) is about a young witch who starts her own business delivering packages by broomstick, and who makes friends with an aspiring engineer who with his friends is trying to build a human-powered aircraft. Porco Rosso (1992) tells the story of a WWI flying ace who, in the years leading up to the Second World War, fights air pirates over the Adriatic Sea. But why does he look like a pig?

Miyazaki describes himself as something of a feminist. Not only do most of his movies feature strong female characters, but women frequently take on important roles in the story; such as Dolza, the matriarchal leader of the sky pirates in Laputa, or Yubaba, the witch who runs the bath-house for spirits in Spirited Away (2001). The magician Howl may be the title character in Howl's Moving Castle (2004), but it is the women of the story, the sorceress Sulimen, the Witch of the Wastes, and the protagonist Sophie, who propel the story.

In 1996, Studio Ghibli entered into an agreement with Disney to distribute the studio's films internationally. Because of Miyazaki's bad experience with the butchered American dub of NausicaƤ in the '80s, he insisted that there be no cuts to his films in their English releases and that he retain editorial control.

This past year, Miyazaki released what he says will be his last film, The Wind Rises, a love story set during the period leading up to and during WWII, based on a fictionalized biography of the designer of Mitubishi Zero aircraft. The film has seen some controversy in Japan, both from the right and from the left, because of the sensitive political issues it touches on. Leftists criticized Miyazaki for making the designer of war planes a hero; Conservatives criticized him for mentioning the "Comfort Women", women forced into sexual service for the Japanese soldiers during the War. But these things reflect a theme that has run through many of Miyazaki's films: the conflict of an idealist living in a cynical and corrupted world.

Miyazaki has left a legacy of some incredible animated films, and has brought Japanese animation to millions around the world who otherwise might never have cared about anime. I hope he continues to provide inspiration for animators for many years to come.

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