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Hayao Miyazaki, Myth-Maker

The Japanese animator’s overwhelming influence stretches across the Pacific — and nothing is lost in translation

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

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After about 100 years of innovation, animation is as vibrant and varied as it’s ever been. It’s a medium as crucial as any other in the transmission of stories and culture from one generation to the next, and from East to West. Nowhere is this clearer than in the works of acclaimed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki — particularly in his legendary film Princess Mononoke.

In an essay titled “Religion and Belief,” published in the third edition of their Anime Encyclopedia, critics Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy discussed the mutability of myths. “Tradition is where belief, religion, and history fade into the timeworn ritual backdrop of everyday life, particularly in the countryside, and hence often appears in anime for or about the very young,” they wrote. In Miyazaki’s work, young and worldly pioneers of such “neverwhen” backdrops, predating all technology beyond prewar airplanes and personal radios, often encounter ageless spirits in the tall grass.

Miyazaki’s production house, Studio Ghibli, is a myth factory. It is Japan’s premiere producer of anime, a genre that knows no constraints of age, tone, or complexity. With its relatively realistic illustrations of magical heroism, Shinto and Buddhist values, and spirits of Japanese folklore, Studio Ghibli serves the history and spiritual constitution of Japan. But the studio also engages with the global imagination: For moviegoers the world over, Studio Ghibli’s myths are crown jewels of hand-drawn animation.

And Princess Mononoke is Studio Ghibli’s greatest myth, one that migrated the art of epic folklore to a new medium while marking Japanese animation’s independence from the influence of Disney.

Released to Japanese theaters in 1997, Princess Mononoke is the seventh film directed by Miyazaki and the ninth produced by Ghibli. It’s the story of the young warrior Ashitaka; the wild princess San, raised by wolves; and a preindustrial village’s war against the boar and spirits of a great forest. Mononoke is a story about the very young, and it may well be for them, too: It’s a visual spectacle that happens to star two powerful and adventurous teenagers. But what immediately distinguishes Princess Mononoke from the rest of Studio Ghibli’s oeuvre is the film’s overtones: It’s Miyazaki’s most pessimistic work and the bloodiest thing that his studio has ever produced. (Cofounder Isao Takahata’s 1988 wartime masterpiece, Grave of the Fireflies, is Studio Ghibli’s bleakest release.)

To describe Mononoke as “a fantasy cartoon” to an unsuspecting American friend is to sell this gulf a bit short, even if they know Miyazaki by childhood introduction to his simpler, more playful movies such as My Neighbor Totoro (1988) or Kiki’s Delivery Service (1990). Princess Mononoke is full of grievous physical injury and grotesque mutilations; in the film’s exponentially surreal third act, Miyazaki’s runaway spirits of the forest dazzle and horrify at once. More than anything else, Princess Mononoke is a testament to animation’s power to do more than tickle or amuse.

Miyazaki and Takahata had been making great animation together since 1974, but Princess Mononoke was the studio’s first true blockbuster. Earning 10.7 billion yen at Japanese box offices in summer 1997 — outselling its nearest competitor fivefold — it’s the film that minted Studio Ghibli as a workshop of premium, feature-length animation, Japan’s boutique answer to Disney’s mass-produced influence. It became a national treasure.

Mononoke cleaned up at the Mainichi Film Awards in 1997, and it earned Studio Ghibli a Japan Academy Prize for best picture in 1998. This marked the beginning of a period of runaway acclaim, which would peak in 2003, when Miyazaki’s Spirited Away beat out Disney’s Lilo & Stitch and Twentieth Century Fox’s Ice Age — two market-tested Hollywood toy boxes that outsold Spirited Away by, well, a lot — in the best animated feature category at the Academy Awards.

Studio Ghibli has come a long and profitable way since Mononoke.

At home and abroad, Studio Ghibli’s influence resounds. The anime film director Mamoru Hosoda, domestically regarded as “the next Miyazaki,” worked with Studio Ghibli in the early production stages of Howl’s Moving Castle. Even as the studio now attempts a great generational shift among its in-house talent — with Miyazaki having announced his retirement from animation in 2013 — Ghibli is still a beloved staple in Japan. And the studio’s movies are still a cherished import in the U.S., too. (Indeed, Studio Ghibli’s stateside allure is such that, as of 1996, Disney distributes its films internationally and dubs them into English on a Hollywood budget.)

In this sense, the postwar influence of Disney has come full circle. In the 1960s, Japanese animation style was seen as a foreign appropriation of Disney’s aesthetic, chiefly, the American studio’s “baby schema” model of postMickey Mouse character design: big eyes, small mouths, button noses. Over the course of a half-century, broadcasters imported anime TV series such Speed Racer, Lupin the Third, Robotech, Sailor Moon, and Dragon Ball Z to the U.S., the U.K., Italy, and France, flooding these markets with Japan’s increasingly distinct stylizations. The late Osamu Tezuka, “the god of manga,” pioneered much of this early distinction, and Studio Ghibli elevated the genre’s regard in the West, appealing to children and critics alike. So the animated works of Miyazaki and Tezuka have now raised two generations of admirers and professional animators in the West. If you watch Toy Story 3 closely, you’ll spot an ode to My Neighbor Totoro.

It’s no accident: In his foreword to a collection of Miyazaki’s essays and interviews called Starting Point, Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter recounts studying Miyazaki’s movies, chiefly Totoro and Castle in the Sky, during his team’s production of Toy Story 2. “Many critics mentioned that [his movies] had an emotional depth lacking in most animated films. In fact,” Lasseter said, “they were surprised to discover that a cartoon could deliver such depth.” Lasseter attributes this depth to Miyazaki’s signature cautious, halting pacing. In a keynote speech at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2014, Lasseter said, “Whenever we get stuck at Pixar or Disney, I put on a Miyazaki film sequence or two, just to get us inspired again.”

Princess Mononoke establishes a few core concerns that recur in Miyazaki’s later work: awe of nature, disgust with modernity, and fear of wherever humanity’s ecological footprint might inevitably lead us. The story is set “at the very point in time when humankind pushed Nature into submission,” Clements and McCarthy noted in their essay, “toppling the old ‘natural’ order and starting the long chain to the present day, when Nature itself seems under threat of extinction.”

The film begins with an abrupt and bruising conflict between man and beast, and it concludes with a sense that humans haven’t won against nature so much as they’ve simply survived it, at some uncertain cost to their future on this Earth. Miyazaki generally denies the suggestion that environmentalism and nostalgia are core, consistent themes of his stories, or that he means to address grave social concerns with stories such as Princess Mononoke or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

“Sometimes, I might think about the world ending or something,” he said in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a 2013 documentary about Studio Ghibli. “[But] I’d never say that to a child.”

Miyazaki is playing coy. Studio Ghibli has certainly nurtured the maturity and potential sophistication of animated works. And Miyazaki has rendered his fair share of wasteland panels, though we mostly associate him with brave, young girls and wild, blue vistas. But as bleak as the film gets, Princess Mononoke doesn’t conclude with the end of the world. Instead, we’re left with a thrilling uncertainty regarding how humanity will reimagine itself. As a workhorse curmudgeon who is known to troll and confound, Miyazaki is happy to leave a little something to the imagination.