Very soon, The Wind Rises will be released, marking both Studio Ghibli’s 18th feature film and the inevitable end to Hayao Miyazaki’s career. The co-founder of animation company Studio Ghibli has become an icon in the word of modern animation, influencing and shaping the industry with a remarkable career spanning six decades, and his 11th film as a director for Studio Ghibli will be his last. The quality of The Wind Rises barely matters at this point; his career, with its countless films of pure genius and unrelenting wonder, has given us quality that begs to be watched for years and years, generations and generations. In my journey to be the film fanatic that I am today, Miyazaki’s work has had an immeasurable effect on me. My appreciation for both foreign cinema and animation would not be as strong as they are today without the influence of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, the worlds he conjures up for the audience. I got lost in the imagination of Hayao Miyazaki a long time ago, and I haven’t found the way out yet.
I remember watching my first Studio Ghibli film, back when I was twelve years old. It was the then mega-hit Spirited Away, a remarkable, confusing, hallucinogenic example of animation which captured both the animation and the heart. I’d never seen a Japanese film before, but the beautiful visuals and the engrossing tale made the need for subtitles unimportant. Hayao Miyazaki’s work reaches beyond language, transcending cultural boundaries to become almost universally acclaimed in a way which many foreign films can only dream of achieving. The pure magic of Miyazaki was deep in Spirited Away, and it grabbed me almost instantly with my first taste of his work. This extraordinary tale of a little girl who has to work in a bathhouse for spirits to save her parents is the typical ‘masterpiece’ of Miyazaki’s collection; the one film everybody seems to know, without knowing who made it or how they’ve only really experienced the tip of the iceberg. It’s akin to watching Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and not then going off to experience his other works, like E.T, Saving Private Ryan or Jurassic Park; a whole collection of masterpieces is just in your reach, if only you’d stretch a little further. Later on, I discovered Howl’s Moving Castle on television a year or so later, not at that moment realising the connection. Although considered by some as a weaker entry into Miyazaki’s legacy, I instantly fell in love with its incredible style, its bonkers storyline and the sheer imagination that stemmed right through the roots of the film. For me, it went beyond the charms of Disney, or the beauty of Pixar; it seemed to have more substance and more style than any other animated film I had ever seen. Studio Ghibli draw up worlds that you never want to leave, whether they be the mystic bathhouses of Spirited Away, the walking house of a wizard in Howl’s Moving Castle or, as I experienced next, the underwater haven of Ponyo. They may all be very different films, but the charm and the wonder that Studio Ghibli can create sticks hard and true from film to film.
After the aquatic charms that Ponyo so sweetly provided, I searched out and experienced what is perhaps my favourite of all of Miyazaki’s work; My Neighbour Totoro. This story of young sisters who find forest spirits in the woods behind their house is a simply remarkable piece of work, a film that goes above and beyond the standards set for animation in film. It taught me that action, violence and even just general peril were not necessary pieces of the puzzle in terms of filmmaking, and Miyazaki deliberately stays clear of that. The characters develop, the mystery deepens, and you as the audience will simply enjoy the film through sharing company with these wonderful characters. The mystical forest creature, Totoro, has become the symbol of Studio Ghibli, and besides from that he also represents what is so brilliant about the studio itself. Totoro represents the innocence and the beauty of Miyazaki’s animation, the avoidance of general, boring Hollywood contrivances, proof that films can do remarkable things without resorting to conflict, explosions, big guns, and half-naked women. I would argue that My Neighbour Totoro is a vital part of anyone’s education on film, as it was in mine.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly what captivates me, what moves me and what inspires me when I watch one of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies, but it always does without fail, regardless of the film. They are quite simply perfect examples of cinema, sucking the audience into a fantastical world that holds the power to excite, sadden, amuse and scare. Studio Ghibli’s marvellous films introduced me to another world of cinema, left me breathless in ways few other pieces of cinema have, or ever will do. Miyazaki’s retirement marks the end of an era for animation, a glorious age that spans all the way from 1986 to 2014, an age where the wonder and imagination of his films have lit the world alight. Cinema is losing a master of his craft, a man who redefined in the western world the very concept of anime and foreign language film. He passes the torch on to his son, Goro Miyazaki, but it is hard to see the old magic ever getting rediscovered by the studio, even though the 2011 film From up on Poppy Hill was an encouraging example of what we can expect to come from Hayao’s protégée. Overall though, Miyazaki’s work has encouraged and influenced me to learn more about animation, taught me to appreciate foreign cinema, and showed me what can happen when you break the boundaries and limits set by Hollywood. His films are not only magical, breathtaking or jaw-dropping; they are also important. They are cinema at its very finest.