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Hayao Miyazaki: A Master of the East

November 10, 2010 | By

Miyazaki alone drew 80,000 individual drawings out of 140,000 created for Princess Mononoke, when he was 54/55-year-old. The sheer number – 80,000 – can take one’s breath away.

Principal Genre : Epic/Eco-Fantasy
Technique :
Innumerable Drawings and Paintings on Paper and Cel (thin sheets of Acetate)
Format :
2D on 35 mm film

First Impression

A public bus looks like a yellowish-orange cat.
So, the bus is covered with soft fur.
Instead of the ribs, the cat has a row of windows and a door.
Instead of wheels, the bus has ten legs to run with.
When called by Totoro, a huge and friendly creature, the bus appears flying over the huge trees.
We have seen the Cat-bus in My Neighbor Totoro, a Miyazaki Animation.

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro

But why is the Cat-bus required when there are real bus-stops and the real buses running on the rural road? To answer the question, one has to remember a bit of the story of the film, My Neighbor Totoro.

Mei’s mother is in a sanatorium for a long time. She has possibly grown a nearly incurable disease. But Mei doesn’t know it; as she is only four.

Mei has come to the countryside for staying there for a few weeks. She is actually accompanying her father and her elder sister. They have come here to see their mother as often as possible. The hospital is nearby.

After spending a day or two in the quiet village, Mei and her elder sister find a huge creature staying in the small forest close by. The creature sleeps for a long time in its moist layer under the canopy of huge trees. The corner of its layer is cool and shadowy. The sisters named the creature Totoro, who is quiet and kindly, in spite of its huge size and a huge mouth filled with two rows of big and square teeth.

One late afternoon, Mei, only four, wants to go to the hospital alone to gift her mother a corn. An angry elder sister scolds her. As a result, little Mei shouts in the top of her voice and threatens to go to her mother alone. That’s what she has really tried to do. So Mei is lost.

The elder sister becomes anxious and stressed with constantly trying to find out where the four-year-old has gone. Has she really gone away by a bus?

The elder sister visits Totoro and requests it to help her find the lost Mei. Totoro is almost weightless in spite of being huge. Climbing in a moment on the top of the Camphor tree, it calls ‘something’ shouting in a strange voice, which is magically subdued yet very strong. The tree tops shiver by the power of its call. The elder sister also shivers imagining that little Mei is really lost.

After a few moments we see a giant cat with ten legs rushing towards them. It is not coming by the road. On the contrary, flying over the shuddering tree tops, it arrives in front of the elder sister. Oh god! It’s a bus with a row of open windows. A door opens up letting the elder sister get into the Cat-bus. The seats inside are soft like the tummy of a real cat.

Following Totoro’s wish, the Japanese letters expressing MEI appears on the hump-like back of the Cat-bus. Nothing more is done. Now the bus runs fast towards the direction where the lost girl Mei is waiting and crying to be rescued. …

Mei is found.

Finally, the Cat-bus reaches the sisters to the hospital where their mother is now staying to be treated.

Childhood : From School to the University

Like the story of the film My Neighbor Totoro, the young Hayao’s mother was in a hospital for eight long years, far away from Tokyo. She had grown tuberculosis – nearly incurable that time – within a couple of years of the ending of the Second World War. The Miyazaki family often used to visit the hospital staying in a picturesque village. Those visits – happy as well as sad – totally occupied Hayao’s heart. So, he was internally compelled to make a complete animation feature film on the basis of that memory.

Like any serious and honest creative artist, Miyazaki is deft in reflecting the reality around himself. That’s why his mother, with her ailment, has returned to his film. Like that, he has reflected another trend of the family tradition: the love of aircrafts.

Till the age of 17, Hayao endlessly drew elaborate drawings and designs of various kinds of aircrafts which would never be made. And those were not merely ‘artist’s impressions’. From the engineering point view, the designs were rather practical. Watching the designs, one still feels that the novel aircrafts would have flown had those been made from Hayao’s drawings!

But why was the boy interested so much in aircrafts?

The reason came from the family itself. Hayao’s father was a director of an aircraft manufacturing company, which was owned by the boy’s uncle. The boy grew up watching aircrafts being designed and made. Coming from an affluent family, he got nearly the best possible education in Japan – in Toyotama High School.

But how did Hayao come out from his obsession with aircrafts? It was caused by an animation film called Hakujaden (The Tale of the White Serpent). He watched it in 1958. In Japan, Hakujaden was the first animated feature film made in color. It changed the course of Miyazaki’s life for ever. The 17-year-old decided that he would be an animator. The resolution was unusually firm.

But would only aircrafts do? No. Animators must also know how to draw human figures. Could there really be Animation films involving aircrafts only? Realizing that, Hayao started learning the techniques of drawing all sorts of human beings – from the children to the grown-ups, from the beautiful and honest to the ugly and wicked. That nonstop practice gradually prepared him for animation films.

On the other hand, Hayao’s parents were serious about studies; therefore he was admitted to Gakushuin University, one of the most celebrated academic centers of Japan. But his time was hardly wasted there. Learning Economics and Political Science helped him understand the orders of the world. (He became a youthful Marxist.) That knowledge played a positive role in shaping him as a film-maker with a socio-historical understanding, which was/is rather rare in the world of the mainstream, commercial animation films.

Social influences

Two factors, simple yet strong, formed his future as an animator: (a) Workers’ Union, and (2) Children’s literature. Let’s see how.

Conquering the lure of an easy life in the family venture of aircrafts, Hayao directly came to the mainstream animation industry in 1963. He joined the Toei Douga Studio in the lowest rung of the Animation hierarchy, i.e., an ‘in-betweener’. In that position, he worked in Heidi, a TV animation series still admired globally.

The responsibility Miyazaki had willfully taken then played an important role in shaping him in future. It was something that inspired him to portray a group of people or animals as disciplined and enthusiastic. What was that?

As an in-betweener, Miyazaki came close to the workers’ union of Toei Studio. In less than two years he became its chief secretary, i.e. the voice of the people placed lowest in the chain of command. The experience he thus gained is still palpable in his treatment of the creatures of Princess Mononoke (1997), his most popular film till date. Through his eyes, the groups of all kinds of creatures – from the people to the wolves – are awfully disciplined and enthusiastic; as if they are united in a Marxist way during a social struggle. In the characters of his films, we find a blend of two streams of discipline – the Samurai order and the Marxist one.

During the same time, he became a member of the ‘Children’s Literature Research Club’. Discussing children’s literature inspired Miyazaki to imagine themes and stories for children. Some of those imaginations turned into comic books (Manga) and feature films for children.

The Writer, Artist and Director

Miyazaki is a prolific artist.

In his early twenties, he used to produce good drawings and watercolor paintings endlessly. At the same time, he could imagine fantastic ideas of stories suitable for cinema. Both the qualities together were driving him towards a definite goal: the life of a film maker.

But before becoming a director, Miyazaki tested the validity of his own stories in an alternative medium. That was Comic book, called ‘Manga’ in Japan. In his spare times, Miyazaki transformed some of his own ideas into Comic books.

One of those Manga’s – Kaze no tani no Naushika – was transformed into a film by him. The film was a triumph – critically as well as commercially. Miyazaki got a strong ground to stand on as an individual. He formed (in partnership) his own Animation Studio –Ghibli.

Since 1984, Studio Ghibli is still going on producing animation films on epic scale. Most of the films are directed by Hayao Miyazaki on the basis of his own stories/Mangas and designs. Therefore, he became an auteur having passed through the filter of Comic books – a very unusual path indeed in comparison with the other auteurs of the world cinema like Chaplin, Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Godard and so on.

His working methods are also very unusual. For most of his films, he personally checks almost all the in-between drawings. And for a number of his films, he has often drawn more drawings than what all other artists have done in all! It’s incredible. Let’s cite an example to show the scale of his personal contribution to a film.

Miyazaki alone drew 80,000 individual drawings out of 140,000 created for Princess Mononoke, when he was 54/55-year-old. The sheer number – 80,000 – can take one’s breath away.

The net profit of Princess Mononoke after its first release was 150 million USD. It was the highest grosser among all the films ever released in Japan till then.

Therefore, Miyazaki is not only a dreamer, but also a person who can turn his personal dreams into concrete reality almost by the sheer force of his personal will and hard work. He can be an idol for the students and the budding directors of Animation films.

Drawing and Painting: The Miyazaki Style

The Miyazaki storyboard itself is a work of art. Each and every drawing carries his personal marks. What are his personal features? It’s not difficult to observe.

While drawing with pencil, Miyazaki never uses flowing and complete lines. He draws with broken lines instead. Therefore, his drawings seem to mildly shudder before us. It seems that the drawings are throbbing with life.

Like his branded outlines, his usage of colors is also broken; that means he never uses solid colors filling the entire area covered by an unbroken outline. (It happens when we apply colors with the help of software.) On the contrary, Miyazaki applies watercolor rather in a random manner, often leaving white spaces between the outlines and the internal colors. So, thin yet irregular paper-whites play and dance flanking the black/blackish outlines. The dancing paper-whites infuse a special liveliness to his watercolors done for the storyboards of his films.

One may think that Miyazaki maintains the unevenness only in his artworks for films; because, those paintings are not meant for exhibitions. But it’s not correct. He leaves the same kind of paper-whites even in his paintings for the comic books. That proves that the paper-whites are his hallmark – in any form of painting.

He does not paint shadow with black. Instead, he often uses olive green or yellow ochre as a substitute of black. He covers the space with many vertical lines created with colored pencils and crayons. In spite of the apparent roughness, the positions of the characters drawn in a storyboard are so perfect that those are exactly maintained even in the final film.

Even during drawing for the storyboard, he doesn’t forget that he is very successful as an artist of ‘Manga’.

Does Miyazaki apply the techniques of Manga in cinema? Or, does he apply the techniques of cinema in Manga? It’s difficult to resolve. One, who knows Miyazaki’s works in both the fields, is often tempted to conclude that both are true.


Miyazaki is often called ‘The Disney of Japan’ – the way of admiration Miyazaki doesn’t like.

He is quite right in this respect. His drawings and designs look so different from the branded style that gradually evolved, in the last 70 years, at the Walt Disney Studio.

Miyazaki has always avoided the baby-like cuteness of the characters that we see in a Disney film. On the contrary, his main characters often get rid of the norms of the ideal hero and heroine in an Animation film. Miyazaki’s main characters are often sharp, toiling, rough, scarred and thin (Princess Mononoke). That’s why not only regarding the themes, but also regarding the look the Miyazaki Animations are totally different from the Disney Cartoon-films. Since he is original, his contributions should be analyzed separately.

Miyazaki’s contributions to the world of Animation can be stated in three levels: a) Tale, b) Technique and c) Philosophy. In all the three levels, his contributions are so elemental that he has changed the face of Animation cinema for ever.

a) Tale : Miyazaki uplifts his films to an epic scale. He rarely confines his stories between the personal joy and sorrow of a couple of characters. On the contrary, he loves to depict in most of his films, the ecstasy and grief of an entire community fighting a big battle to survive and thrive. It can even be the communities of wild creatures – white wolves, wild boars and so on. Miyazaki is often concerned with the gallant rise and heroic fall of an entire society of people and of animals. (Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and so on.) That’s why his films often attain the epic height. No other director in the history of Animation cinema has scaled the height so often.

A few other directors and studios have tried it; though infrequently and without repeated success. (The Walt Disney Studio, for instance, tried the same with a grand success in The Lion King – however the tale was woven around a personal quarrel for supremacy between two males who were brothers.)

b) Technique: The hand-painting in the Animation industry started vanishing towards extinction in the late 1990s. The animators started believing that outstanding works could only be done with the help of computers. Accordingly, all the major studios of the world started squeezing the departments of hand-painting. The transition seemed to be inevitable.

In that period of shift, Miyazaki did not change his method. He continued to get his individual frames painted by the brush-strokes of his colleagues. In his full length feature films, about 80 to 90% of all the frames are hand-painted. Mainly a limited number of frames showing something transparent are painted with computer software.

But what is the special advantage with hand-painting?

The hand-painting creates – though accidentally – a very subtle throbbing effect. How?

One cannot hand-paint each and every frame with an even smoothness. Thus a fine texture is created while painting with hand. The textured surfaces are bound to be slightly different from each other. Therefore, when those are shown in rapid succession, the total effect is that of a throbbing – though very fine. The entire film becomes livelier due to the almost ‘invisible’ throbbing. One feels a heart that’s active beneath the surface of the visuals. That increases our involvement.

Now let’s come to the aspect of character design. Miyazaki creates the faces following the Noh-masks. Mainly the brows, eyes and the mouths are usually designed after the fixed expressions of Noh. The eyes and the mouths become almost rectangular following the Noh tradition.

Therefore, his characters echo the archetypal Japanese people. They become timeless in the process. Miyazaki does the same even in his films about the urban people (Kiki’s Delivery Service); though one point must be said at the same time. Two or three central characters of his films are not overtly modeled after the Noh masks. They remain sharp and realistic.

c) Philosophy: It should be made clear from the very beginning that few director of the mainstream Animation industry has so much to state philosophically.

Creative animation directors often believe in one rule. If one has to say something philosophical, one should keep a safe distance from the heavy demands of the mainstream commercial Animation industry. (Norman McClaren, for instance, is one of those kinds of animator.) On the contrary, In spite of making extremely popular films, Miyazaki can assert important statements that are philosophically significant and relevant, too, to the modern era.

Miyazaki clearly asserts that, the human race shouldn’t ever try to ‘win’ the nature. It’s impossible. In contrast, we should sincerely try to maintain a harmony with the nature: to strike a balance with its forces. That’s the call of the time that Miyazaki propagates.

He also visibly asserts that we should increase the level of our tolerance about the nature. At times nature may prick us: disturb us in small/big ways. In the film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, there is a small animal with sharp fangs, who always accompanies Nausicaa wherever she goes. On the very first day of their meeting, it bites her on the back of her palm. Nausicaa doesn’t do anything. She just waits for it to release its bite. Glad with Nausicaa’s tolerance, the erect ears of the small, angry animal droop down, and it slowly releases its bite. Drops of blood come out from the small yet sharp wounds. But the little animal becomes her friend for ever.

Miyazaki also states that the nature is only beautiful till you do not hurt it. The nature, when injured, can destroy us in a few moments. Here, one can remember the majestic Deer-God that one has seen in Princess Mononoke.

The reigning deity of the dense jungle shown in the film is a majestic Deer-God. Wherever ‘He’ steps, plants sprout out around his hooves and start growing before our eyes. One wonders: the entire jungle has possibly been created by the gentle footsteps of the Deer-God whose eyes are like that of the Indian Gods. We can never imagine that ‘He’ can posses any power and will of destruction. His big and beautiful eyes hypnotize us to see only his kindly aspects.

Therefore, we are stunned by watching what happens after the Deer-God is beheaded by the army of a manufacturer of steel weapons. The remaining body of the Deer-God bulges to devour and destroy the entire human community along with the factory of molten steel where the weapons are manufactured.

In the history of cinema, Miyazaki is one of the very few directors who could bridge between enormous popularity and profound philosophy.

From this point of view, he somehow resembles Akira Kurosawa, his forerunner in the field of live-action cinema. The Miyazaki films are close relatives of The Dreams of Akira Kurosawa.

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Ujjal Chakraborty is groomed in Italy on the techniques of Animation films. The author learnt the art of cinema by closely observing Satyajit Ray for many years. His book on film making, The Director's Mind, has brought for him a nation wide prominence in the field. He is a faculty member of Roop Kala Kendro, an Indo-Italian Institute of Films.
All Posts of Ujjal Chakraborty

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