Big in Japan: A Guide to the Films of Animation Master Hayao Miyazaki

The revered director earned an Oscar nomination for his controversial 'The Wind Rises'

Hayao Miyazaki
Jun Sato/WireImage
Hayao Miyazaki
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On February 21st, The Wind Rises, director Hayao Miyazaki's 11th, and supposedly final, feature film hits American theaters. The movie is a departure for the legendary animation auteur, whose films are often fantasy tales set in imaginary worlds. This time around, he's produced a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical designer behind the Mitsubishi A5M and its descendant, the A6M — the plane used by the Japanese air force in the attack on Pearl Harbor. As Miyazaki tells it, Horikoshi was largely peaceful in nature, and merely aimed to design beautiful machines rather than weaponry. It was that tension that drew Miyazaki to the story, and that tension has made the film a source of controversy in Japan, where critics on the left have condemend The Wind Rises for celebrating a man who designed a tool of destruction, while those on the right have decried it for being anti-nationalistic.

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Nonetheless, the film garnered Miyazaki his third Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature (an honor he won for 2001's Spirited Away), and solidified his place as one of history's most esteemed animated film directors. Indeed, the 73-year-old director isn't just held in high esteem by cartoon buffs, he's arguably the most famous living Japanese filmmaker. He's reached this level of acclaim thanks to his beguiling use of whimsy, grace and compassion, whether his focus is a 10-year-old  kid trying to hold onto a job in the spirit world or a teenage witch coming to grips with her powers. Like any artist, Miyazaki's work features recurring themes, imagery and narrative devices. With that in mind, for all you Miyazaki neophytes out there, here are five key elements of the master's films.

Hard-Nosed Heroines
The Wind Rises has a man for its protagonist, but that makes it something of an outlier in the director's filmography. Miyazaki's most famous leads are tough-minded young women who refuse to bend to societal expectations. 1984's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and 1997's Princess Mononoke, for example, center on tenacious young women, royals who must go to battle knowing that they're responsibile for protecting their kingdoms. Below, in the Nausicaä trailer, we see the eponymous adolescent princess fearlessly dodging gunfire while soaring on her one-woman glider.

A Natural Beauty
Watch any Miyazaki film and it's clear how enthralled the director is by Miyazaki is by scenes of nature. In Miyazaki's world, you will never see a glossy skyscraper or parking garage. He'd much rather focus on the pastoral elegance of rolling vistas, the serene calm of moss-covered trees or the perfect ripple of a passing wave. In the below scene, from 1988's My Neighbor Totoro, two youngsters seek refuge in the forested surroundings of their new home and come across a magical entity. It's a good example of how nature is represented in Miyazaki's films as a place of wonder and enchantment.

Lovers Not Fighters
Miyazaki's films show a clear contempt for war. That doesn't mean that the filmmaker is averse to depicting confrontation, it's just that the fights which interest him usually aren't fought on battlefields. Even in a film like The Wind Rises, which focuses on the creator of a weapon used prominently in World War II, Miyazaki is more concerned with the main character Horikoshi's domestic life and moral struggles than with destructive power. On those occasions when his characters do arrive at blows with their opponents, it's clear that victory comes at a cost. In the following scene, from 2004's Howl's Moving Castle, instead of fighting his attackers, the enigmatic and extremely powerful wizard, Howl, uses his magic as a distraction and thus allows others to escape unharmed.

The Villains Aren't So Bad
Miyazaki steers strongly away from the kinds of one-dimensional "bad" characters so often associated with children's entertainment. He's less concerned with passing moral judgment on his antagonists, whether they be misguided warriors, over-competitive rivals or confused parents, than he is with portraying them as conflicted beings who have simply made some bad choices. One of the best examples of this is the underwater-dwelling wizard Fujimoto from 2008's Ponyo. The character is an overprotective father who is willing to unleash a giant tsunami on a coastal town rather than figure out why his daughter desires to experience the surface world. Fujimoto is so driven by paternal love that he doesn't realize the consequences of his decisions, an attribute that, weirdly, has made him a favorite among Miyazaki fans and frequently the focus of compilation videos like this one.

Incredible Flying Machines
Just like Hirokoshi in The Wind Rises, Miyazaki grew up in a changing Japanese culture that was obsessed with airplanes. As we've noted, the director does tend to emphasize natural beauty, but he's also enamored with the intricacy of heavy machinery. Look at this Japanese trailer for 1992's Porco Rosso, where the lovingly recreated planes get as much screen time as the misanthropic hero of the film's title.