The Master of 'Ma': Legendary Director Hayao Miyazaki Is Set to Retire

Hayao MiyazakiJapanese director Hayao Miyazaki has captured the hearts and imaginations of many with his keen ability to reproduce a kind of melancholic innocence in his films -- a slow-moving, yet always-moving emptiness that is best described by the Japanese word "ma," which Miyazaki explains in an interview from 2002 with the late Roger Ebert. However, it's a sad day for anyone who admired his whimsical animated films. Studio Ghibli president Koji Hoshino announced at the 2013 Venice Film Festival that the legendary director is retiring, and The Wind Rises will be his final film. Continue reading to explore what made Miyazaki's films so unique, both technically, cinematically, and emotionally.

In 1985, Miyazaki, along with fellow animator Isao Takahata, founded Studio Ghibli, the studio that would be responsible for producing some of his greatest films, like My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke Spirited Away, Ponyo, and my personal favorite Howl's Moving Castle.

Hayao Miyazaki has been described, to his displeasure, as the "Japanese Disney" or the "Walt Disney of Japan." Steven Spielberg described the action scene in Miyazaki's The Castle of Cagliostro as the "greatest car chase in any film ever." This Tokyo-born filmmaker isn't without a hoard of professional admirers, as well as dedicated and loyal fans.

The reasons behind his success are many, but there are a few areas worth taking a closer look at.

A Technical Tradition: Hand-Drawing Films

My favorite kind of animated films are the ones that were hand-drawn by animators. The aesthetic is moving to me, though I'm not sure why. For his own films, Miyazaki draws thousands of frames by hand, not allowing more than 10% of the footage in them to be computer generated, which gives them that traditional aesthetic that reminds me of my own childhood as I watch those of his characters unfold on the screen. In the Ebert interview he says:

We take [handmade] cell animation and digitize it in order to enrich the visual look, but everything starts with the human hand drawing. And the color standard is dictated by the background. We don't make up a color on the computer. Without creating those rigid standards we'll just be caught up In the whirlpool of computerization.

 The Cinema of "Ma": Cinema

In the interview, Ebert tells Miyazaki that he loves the "gratuitous motion" in his films -- the sighs, the walks, the background and foreground elements -- the "extra." Ebert says:

Instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or they will sigh, or look in a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.

To which Miyazaki replies:

We have a word for that in Japanese. It's called ma. Emptiness. It's there intentionally. [claps his hands] The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it's just busyness. but if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.

Miyazaki filmsSo, what makes this technique so special? What's the point? It's a beautiful one, yes, but why go to all the trouble to sprinkle subtleties into a film that is already beautiful and engaging, and have them be potentially lost on audiences that may be used to more action-packed fare.

The people who make the movies are scared of silence, so they want to paper and plaster it over. They're worried that the audience will get bored. They might go up and get some popcorn. But just because it's 80 percent intense all the time doesn't mean the kids are going to bless you with their concentration. What really matters is the underlying emotions -- that you never let go of those.

Emotional Engagement

That's a good segue into the final aspect of Miyazaki's filmmaking that stands out to me as unique: the emotional connection he makes and demands of his audience. It takes a great bit of empathy and emotional intelligence to not only reach across continental, cultural, and societal barriers, but also emotional walls, desensitization, and general feeling of ennui to reach and arrest the imaginations of youths all over the world.

One of the most powerful things Miyazaki says in the interview, not just as a filmmaker, but as a human being, is that our go-to side-show acts, like violence, sex, explosions, and car chases aren't needed if you make a real emotional connection to your audience. Miyazaki says:

What my friends and I have been trying to do since the 1970's is to try and quiet things down a little bit; don't just bombard them with noise and distraction. And to follow the path of children's emotions and feelings as we make a film. If you stay true to joy and astonishment and empathy you don't have to have violence and you don't have to have action. They'll follow you. This is our principle.

Hayao Miyazaki's films transported his audience into what looked a lot like the real world -- only with more magic and splendor. His characters were complex, afflicted, and inspired our affections (yes, even the Witch of the Waste.) It's a shame to learn that this great filmmaker is leaving the world of cinema, but the films he has left behind will continue, hopefully, to enrich and invigorate the minds of those who see them.

What's your reaction to Hayao Miyazaki retiring? What's your favorite Miyazaki film? Let us know in the comments.

Link: Hayao Miyazaki Interview -- Roger Ebert

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Your Comment


It's really sad that we will not have the fresh air of this great master, as deeply human and close to wisdom. "Howl's Moving Castle" is a practical teaching of movie magic and life. "Castle in the Sky" is the quintessence of the movement "Steampunk". "Princess Mononoke" is the only movie that can show a child the confusing conflict between the nature of man and his own true nature. The enormous legacy of Miyazaki is stronger because of its plurality and universality.Thank you for this post!

September 1, 2013 at 7:27PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


damn, I'm surprised nobody else seems to be weeping about this.

September 1, 2013 at 10:46PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I actually shed a few tears writing this, so --

September 2, 2013 at 9:31AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

V Renée
Content Manager at Coverfly

Deserving tears...

September 1, 2013 at 10:57PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Zachariel J Shanahan

Sad indeed, but well deserved. I keep telling myself that he said the same thing after each film since "Princess Mononoke" and hope he can't stay away, but in recent years he have spent more time writing and producing and let new young talents sit in the director's chair and it have started to pay off with "Arrietty" and "From up on Poppy Hill" (the later which is made by his son Goro who made the flop "Tales of Earthsea"), so I guess he now feels confident in the future of the studio, something that has worried him ever since Yoshifumi Kondo died after "Whisper of the Heart".

I hope he pops in with more scripts and act as a producer and guide to the young ones, my fav movie "Whisper of the Heart" was "Only" written and produced by him, so I feel good about the future. All I can say is thank you, Miyazaki-san.

September 1, 2013 at 11:36PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM



September 2, 2013 at 12:09AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Sad sad news indeed. But, I can't be too sad, the man's collective works are just astounding. His resilience and persisting insistence to create film on his terms is what drew me to him and his work. In a cynical world, where its fashionable to be negative and embrace nihilism, many had Miyazaki's films. His deeply humanistic themes, with a love for characters, respect for nature, an uninhibited sense of imagination, and just a mind-altering level of dedication to drawing shockingly-detailed frames by hand, is something I will miss in the world of cinema.

A rare example in any discipline, where a ferocious work ethic meets an unyielding love for the art.

September 2, 2013 at 1:10AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Steve Lee


September 2, 2013 at 2:41AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


This is one of those days I'm sad I opened the Nofilmschool website..

September 2, 2013 at 1:47AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Raphael Wood

I can't help thinking that he isn't going to be able to retire so easily. I always felt that he is kind of a workaholic.

September 2, 2013 at 2:02AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Great article.He's old, and making animation films (especially in Japan, where they can work like crazy) is tiring, so I guess it's good for him to stop. He already give us several masterpieces. My favorite is of course Princess Mononoke, which is still for me the greatest animation film ever. And then of course you have Spirited Away, full of beauty and magic, so dreamy. And all the others... I dream about a complete blu-ray set of his work!!!

September 2, 2013 at 2:16AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Spirited Away is so beautiful and perfect.

September 2, 2013 at 5:18PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Micah Van Hove

Miyazaki is my favorite director, seen and love all his films.

But it was known for quite some time now that he will not be doing any more movies, Ponyo was already known as his last movie before it screened.

September 2, 2013 at 2:40AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I was HUGELY into anime as a kid. One day I felt like trying something new but didn't want to commit to a 13 or 26 episode series. I decided to watch a film called Spirited Away because it was new and had a pretty good score on Animenewsnetwork (my Bible when I was in my early teens). I fell in love with it and decided to watch every Ghibli film I could get my hands on. I eventually ended up at Grave of the Fireflies. I couldn't get my head around how sad and different it was from the other Ghibli films I had watched. I was sure that some kind of mistake had been made in the labelling of the film. After some extensive sleuthing it eventually dawned on me that, although both films were put out under the Ghibli banner, they were made by different people. I had never considered that films could be written or have something called a director presiding over them. Or that you could tell who wrote and directed a film by the way it looked and the way it made you feel. After this I became obsessed with films and the people who wrote and directed them but I would always-and still continue to-return to the Ghibli films that opened the world of cinema up to me. Miyazaki's (and Takahata) drastically but subtly changed the course my life has taken. This news made me sad and happy at the same time… does that even make sense? He will always occupy a sacred place in my heart. Please forgive my disorganised ramblings.

September 2, 2013 at 11:34AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Japanese culture does not see retirement in the same way the western world does. I am guessing Miyazaki will be back. I certainly hope he helps his son Goro.

September 2, 2013 at 5:22PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


As always, great post Renee !
I'm a huge fan too, his movies might just be one of the reasons i came to live in Japan 10 years ago ;)
Thank you for mentioning Ma! It is so often overlooked, but so important. People tend to forget that to create those"extras", they can't just roll the camera but have to draw, colorize, animate 100s of frames.

His retirement is also a pretty big deal here in the news but the general feeling is that he will still play a big part in Ghibli productions to come. (he also said he would retire a couple times before, only this time it sounds more official)

I went to see The wind rises last month, it is very different than his other work but enrich its legacy.
(Think about a mix between Grave of the fireflies and Porco Rosso.) I loved it, my wife didn't so much (she's a fan too) but we agreed it was a great human story.

Apparently, a great documentary on the making of The wind Rises and Ghibli in general will hit the theaters this autumn :
Yume to kyōki no ōkoku (Kingdom of dreams and madness)

September 2, 2013 at 6:32PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I guess we all saw this coming, but that doesn't make it any better. But there's one thing i'm certain of, hes not done yet, alltogether. He will not direct any movies, but I am sure that he will still be in Ghibli, but maybe more as a mentor for the young generation. an inspiration, a legend. hell, I even wrote my high school exam about this guy.

September 2, 2013 at 6:37PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Ole Jørgen Gården

First, let's wait and see how long he can stand his retirement, and then let's complain and moan ;-)

September 3, 2013 at 7:25AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Thyl Engelhardt

"Miyazaki draws thousands of frames by hand, not allowing more than 10% of the footage in them to be computer generated"

This isn't quite right. It's true there are a few CG elements in his films starting with Mononoke, but more recently Miyazaki insisted that all of his future films be exclusively hand drawn, shutting down the computer graphics department at Ghibli before producing Ponyo.

September 3, 2013 at 6:50PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Very very sad indeed! An icon of our lifetime no doubt... Favorite Hayao's movie for me is definitely "spirited away"- simple awesome and magical

September 4, 2013 at 7:40AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I wonder about the relation between Miyazaki's 'ma' and Ozu's 'mu'. Descriptions of each seem to resemble the same notion; emptiness, nothingness, the void. Ozu is said to have the 'mu' character engraved on his headstone. I wonder if any Japanese speakers could clear this up for us? The same thing or two related yet unique notions?

September 4, 2013 at 8:31AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Just watched yesterday press conference for Japanese Media, Miyazaki said some interesting things:

He'll still be around Ghibli Studio, wanna work for the next 10years (he's 73!) freely doing things he wanted to try for a long time, but he didn't what ;)
Also, he doesn't consider the writing, planning, meetings... as "working time", only the time he needs to sit at the drawing board. (so basically, "I'm too old for this 8 hours /day drawing routine...")

To the question "Will your future endeavors have a message to the world ?" he replied, "I don't want to become any cultural figure, i'm just a local small factory grandpa "

September 6, 2013 at 5:41PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM