A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
Like the exhibition itself, the publication is first and foremost a celebration of the singular writer-director.”
My first Hayao Miyazaki film – 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service – was like nothing I’d (wrongly) come to expect from animation: by turns contemplative and silly, wistful and innocent, it felt closer in spirit to Ozu than anything from anime. Below its surface tale of a young witch’s adventures is a commentary on rekindling one’s passion, as Kiki finds the inner strength to become what she knows she can be. This first viewing led to others: My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). All replete with memorable characters and carefully crafted environments, ones which – despite their supernatural elements – feel strangely tangible.
It’s fitting that Miyazaki’s internationally beloved oeuvre would be chosen as the focus of the inaugural exhibition for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which officially opened its doors this past September. After all, the Japanese artist is “responsible for some of film history’s most cherished animated movies” (6), writes Bill Kramer – Director and President of the museum – in his introduction to the accompanying book, Hayao Miyazaki (DelMonico). Like the exhibition itself, the publication is first and foremost a celebration of the singular writer-director; avid fans – especially those who can’t make their way to LA for the premiere – will drool over the beautifully illustrated and packaged text.
Though only two pages long, Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki’s entry offers some intimate insights on Miyazaki’s creative process: “Whether the object of his interest is buildings, landscapes, or people, he never picks up a camera to take a photograph.…It could be a year, at the earliest, or ten years later that he draws it” (8). The short piece also provides some enticing hints regarding the director’s long-in-the-making (the whole film will be hand-drawn, with no computer effects) How Will You Live? Suzuki, we learn, is a model for one of the characters in the mysterious project.
Daniel Kothenschulte’s “The Rise of the Miyazaki Medium” places Studio Ghibli in a broader cultural context, but the author’s appreciation too often teeters into superlative worship. “Even with 200 to 300 employees working on his films,” he writes about the studio’s unconventional setup, “there has never been a feeling of anything resembling an ‘industry’ at Studio Ghibli” (45). Such praise may very well be true – Miyazaki even developed a specialized preschool for his employees’ children – but it’s hard to believe that a company worth tens of millions with close ties to Disney (its major distributor) never feels like an industry to anyone.
Pete Docter’s “Fantasy in the Familiar” similarly exalts its subject, for whom the “pencil is an extension of his arm. He’s drawn for so many hours, for so many years, it’s as natural to him as walking” (71). Perhaps unintentionally, the CCO of Pixar acknowledges that maybe Studio Ghibli isn’t a utopian dream come true after all when he recounts “rows of silent animators working elbow to elbow” (71). Replace “animators” with “bankers” and you could have a sentence straight out of Kafka’s The Trial. I don’t intend to downplay the company’s importance or uniqueness – it sounds like a pleasantly low-key environment, the offices “quietly nestled between private homes and a flower shop, with no sign to announce them” (17) – but the contributors seem determined to avoid saying anything even remotely critical about it.
This unwavering praise, to be fair, makes sense: The text is – first and foremost – a supplement for a historic exhibit, after all. Why nitpick a celebratory book that was clearly put together with genuine admiration, even awe? If you’re going to make someone a cinematic god, at least make sure they’re really, really good, and you can’t do much better than Miyazaki.
Curator Jessica Niebel’s centerpiece essay “Hayao Miyazaki: Creator” – nearly 100 pages in length, it’s by far the longest piece – is a testament to the filmmaker’s staggering attention to detail. After a short introduction in which she details the ingredients common to nearly all of his features – “complex protagonists, often female; villains who are never entirely bad; fantastical worlds depicted in realistic ways; a fascination with flying; and meaningful encounters with elders, magical creatures, and trees” (78) – Niebel divides her piece into three areas of focus: character creation, world-building, and supernatural elements. Each section begins with a brief overview before delving into specific examples from most (but not all; 2013’s The Wind Rises, for instance, is strangely absent) of Miyazaki’s work. The first section’s lush illustrations allow viewers to follow character design: from initial concept designs, to imageboards, to production cells. The first of these illustration types are the most fascinating, as they allow viewers a glimpse of how Miyazaki first envisioned Kiki or San (of 1997’s Princess Mononoke); the differences between these early drafts and the final renderings are quite striking and speak to the artist’s meticulous process of “getting to know” the people (and creatures) who populate his stories. I would be remiss, however, to imply that the essay is mere window-dressing for its many accompanying illustrations.
Indeed, Niebel’s commentary is the most insightful of the featured writers. Take, for instance, her opening notes for the second section, entitled “Creating Worlds.” Here, she considers how Miyazaki’s unique perspective on nostalgia factors into his depictions of nature: “These scenes of nature often feel outside of time, and they prompt an experience of longing in viewers that has led Miyazaki to ‘indulge in the wild speculation that a sense of nostalgia is not simply something we acquire as adults, that it indeed may be a fundamental part of our existence from the very beginning’” (122). Later, in section three, she draws parallels between his incorporation of magic – specifically, his painterly use of natural light and trees – and Japan’s cultural ties with animism (148).
The final hundred or so pages are dedicated exclusively to large reproductions of selected works from Studio Ghibli. This section is much more than a collection of film stills and includes layout drawings, storyboards, production design drawings, key animation sets, maps, backgrounds, and even translations of notes etched into the drawings. The work speaks for itself, and Miyazaki’s brilliant imagination is on full display; it’s a peek behind the curtain that many will savor.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.