How the Films of Hayao Miyazaki Work Their Animated Magic, Explained in 4 Video Essays

Last week we fea­tured a video that con­vinc­ing­ly places the char­ac­ters of Hayao Miyaza­ki and his Stu­dio Ghi­b­li’s ani­mat­ed films into real life-set­tings. It jux­ta­posed two very dif­fer­ent kinds of real­i­ty, the con­crete three-dimen­sion­al one in which we live and the fan­tas­ti­cal two-dimen­sion­al one those char­ac­ters inhab­it, in the process demon­strat­ing that both some­how car­ry an equal weight. How, then, do these most respect­ed of all ani­ma­tors so con­sis­tent­ly pull it off, cre­at­ing real­is­tic worlds through an inher­ent­ly unre­al­is­tic medi­um? In “The Immer­sive Real­ism of Stu­dio Ghi­b­li,” the video essay just above, Ash­er Isbruck­er address­es that very ques­tion, look­ing into the nuts and bolts of their ani­ma­tion tech­niques as well as, through Miyaza­k­i’s own words, what we might call their ani­ma­tion phi­los­o­phy.

Stu­dio Ghi­b­li has stayed (at the very least) a cut above oth­er ani­ma­tors not just by virtue of their exper­tise at cre­at­ing con­vinc­ing phys­i­cal worlds — whether or not their physics aligns with that of our own — but at cre­at­ing con­vinc­ing emo­tion­al worlds, pop­u­lat­ed with char­ac­ters full of desires and con­tra­dic­tions of their own. In “Hayao Miyaza­ki — The Essence of Human­i­ty,” which Ayun Hal­l­i­day wrote up here last year, video essay­ist Lewis Bond of Chan­nel Criswell exam­ines Miyaza­k­i’s “approach to ani­mat­ed film­mak­ing that con­cen­trates on the emo­tion­al intri­ca­cies of his sub­jects, as opposed to cre­at­ing — iron­i­cal­ly — car­toony char­ac­ters,” result­ing in ani­mat­ed films that don’t speak down to chil­dren but “help us all fur­ther under­stand the human con­di­tion.”

Once you start seri­ous­ly try­ing to answer the ques­tion of what makes a Nau­si­caä of the Val­ley of the Wind or a My Neigh­bor Totoro or a Spir­it­ed Away so cap­ti­vat­ing, an abun­dance of rea­sons occur. Just above in “Hayao Miyaza­ki: What You Can Imag­ine,” JD Thomp­son iden­ti­fies the pow­er of imag­i­na­tion that ani­mates, lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly, all of Ghi­b­li’s movies. Below in “Hayao Miyaza­ki — Every­thing by Hand,” the video essay­ist RC Ani­me con­sid­ers the sheer amount of labor that goes into work that flies under the flag of “one of the hard­est-work­ing ani­me direc­tors,” and how it ulti­mate­ly deliv­ers more impact with sim­ple ges­tures than oth­er high-pro­file pieces of ani­ma­tion do with extend­ed action set pieces.

All these video essays touch on one espe­cial­ly impor­tant part of Miyaza­k­i’s cre­ative process: he begins mak­ing a film not with a script to be strict­ly adhered to, but with a series of sketch­es and sto­ry­boards. Dur­ing the long and ardu­ous course of pro­duc­tion, the sto­ry can thus change to suit the needs of the char­ac­ters, their emo­tions, and the worlds imag­ined around them. This pri­ma­cy of the image makes sense for a cre­ator like Miyaza­ki, who began with the child­hood dream of becom­ing a com­ic artist, and who dur­ing his peri­od­ic “retire­ments” returns his focus to that much sim­pler medi­um. He has, in fact, just emerged from the lat­est such retire­ment and got­ten to work on anoth­er ani­mat­ed fea­ture, as revealed in a tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary on his life and work appro­pri­ate­ly titled Owaranai Hito — “The Man Who Does­n’t Stop.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Essence of Hayao Miyaza­ki Films: A Short Doc­u­men­tary About the Human­i­ty at the Heart of His Ani­ma­tion

Watch Hayao Miyaza­ki Ani­mate the Final Shot of His Final Fea­ture Film, The Wind Ris­es

Soft­ware Used by Hayao Miyazaki’s Ani­ma­tion Stu­dio Becomes Open Source & Free to Down­load

Watch Hayao Miyazaki’s Beloved Char­ac­ters Enter the Real World

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Mariko Yaguchi says:

    Dear crew

    Thanks a lot for this incred­i­ble, clar­i­fy­ing, touch­ing video essay.

    I have been touched — smiled and cried, sighed in relief, fist­ed my hands in anger with the amaz­ing char­ac­ters. And at the end of the films I have felt cleansed, a lit­tle bit under­stand­ing and aston­ished by human nature.

    Now with your essay I can see how this is beau­ti­ful con­struct­ed and I will def­i­nite­ly enjoy them much more. I am eager to watch them again.

    Once more thank you.
    Mariko Yaguchi

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