Miyazaki’s masterpieces: Exploring the iconic filmmaker’s ongoing legacy in preparation for ‘The Boy and the Heron’

The Lantern
An image from Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron.” Credit: Studio Ghibli (via TNS)

Co-founder of Studio Ghibli and a household name in the world of animation, Hayao Miyazaki has come out of retirement yet again to create another fantastical film.

“The Boy and the Heron” — which follows a young boy named Mahito Maki, who must explore a new and bizarre world in search of his mother — will be available to view in theaters worldwide Friday, according to film distributor GKIDS’ website . This upcoming release marks Miyazaki’s first animated feature in a decade, the website states.

A cinematic auteur in his own right, Miyazaki has popularized Japanese animation on a global scale. His widely beloved film “Spirited Away” was awarded the 2003 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, making it the only film produced outside of the United States to receive the award at the time of publication.

“You can pull out a secondary character from one of his films, put it on paper and you’d know they came from a Miyazaki film,” David Filipi, the head of film and video at the Wexner Center for the Arts, said. “He has this bottomless well of visual creativity.”

Miyazaki began his artistic career at Toei Animation in 1963, where he met future Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, according to his 1996 memoir “Starting Point.”

In the ensuing years, Miyazaki and Takahata would collaborate on numerous animated films and TV shows — including “Panda! Go, Panda!” (1972) and “Future Boy Conan” (1978) — at a handful of different Japanese studios. His feature-length directorial debut came in the form of 1979’s “Lupin the III: The Castle of Cagliostro,” his memoir states.

Nick Oshiotse, secretary of Ohio State’s Animation Club and a fourth-year in English, said Miyazaki exhibits great intention when deciding how specific shots’ animation should look and feel.

“He revolutionized the layout system to be even more sensitive, distinct, human and immersive for people watching,” Oshiotse said.

In 1984, Miyazaki created the widely acclaimed film “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” which is considered a Ghibli work even though it was released prior to the studio’s official founding. Its critical and commercial success triggered the founding of Studio Ghibli in 1985, his memoir states.

Though Studio Ghibli is often compared to U.S. film studios like Disney and Pixar, Filipi said Miyazaki’s expert use of nuance differentiates his works from their Western counterparts. Unlike many Western films that depict distinct “good” and “evil” characters with crystal-clear motivations, Miyazaki’s films lean directly into humanity’s innate ambiguity, Filipi said.

“Something that makes his films so popular is that the character will run into some kind of fantastic, wondrous things, but there’s no explaining or rationalizing it,” Filipi said. “There’s no waking up and realizing it was just a dream. The characters deal with the wonderment head on, and I think that really moves the audiences in a different way.”

In contrast to many modern-day animators, Miyazaki rejects the use of computer animation and chooses to make hand-drawn films in the 2D style, Oshiotse said.

“He wants his work to be amazing,” Oshiotse said. “He doesn’t take shortcuts. His work ethic has produced movies that people will be instantly immersed in within the first few seconds.”

His work has changed how animation is viewed, often being written off as “just for kids” into a medium of storytelling that deserves a legitimate place in our library of fiction, Oshiotse said.

Because many of Miyazaki’s films take inspiration from his own life experiences, such as his father’s aviation career in the World War II-era Japanese aviation industry, Filipi said the filmmaker’s stories and characters are especially human.

Or, Filipi said the director’s films share universal themes such as environmentalism and pacifism, as seen in “Princess Mononoke” (1997) and “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004), respectively.

“There’s not a lot of judgment of his characters in his films,” Filipi said. “You get to see their human flaws, and I think he does a good job of creating a canvas to let the characters figure things out.”

Though most of Miyazaki’s fans thought “The Wind Rises” (2013) would be his final Studio Ghibli project, his decision to direct another film has generated massive excitement among fans, Filipi said.

Filipi said he and a colleague got to see “The Boy and the Heron” — originally titled “How Do You Live in Japan” — in September at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

“It’s a really surprising film,” Filipi said. “It starts off in one way, and you think you know where it might be going, but then it really goes off in some crazy directions. I recommend seeing it in theaters.”

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