Japanese 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.
So, 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.
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.