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Hayao Miyazaki Themes

Page history last edited by Anna Bernard 13 years ago


                                              "However, even in the middle of hatred and killings, there are things worth living for... a beautiful thing can exist."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    - Hayao Miyazaki



          Hayao Miyazaki, born in Tokyo, Japan in 1941, is well known for his work as an animator and director. Internationally recognized, he was won several awards, including an Oscar for his film, Spirited Away, in 2002. In the last decade, his work with Studio Ghibli (which he co-founded) has become more well known through it's connection with John Lasseter from Disney's Pixar Animation Studios. What makes Miyazaki stand out from all of the rest of Japan's anime artists is not only his unique style, but also how he incorporates certain themes and develops characters within his movies that an audience identify with. Most of Miyazaki's work is aimed towards a younger audience, but his work has received a positive response from both children and adults.


Female Leads


An interesting theme that occurs in many of Miyazaki's films is the use of a female lead. Not all of these female leads have the same characteristics or personalities, but they may look similar in form. Some of these young ladies are fierce and courageous, whereas others are more timid.  Miyazaki once mentioned the sensation felt between viewing a man with a gun and viewing a woman with a gun: it's a powerful thing. 


One of his first leads was a young princess named Nausicaa. In Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, she works as a peacemaker to protect the "insects" within the toxic jungle that spreads across the land. But, as humans do, she makes mistakes. After her father is murdered, she becomes enraged and kills several men. After this scene, Nausicaa works against the hatred of communities to kill off the insects, but does it in a less violent way.



Another well known female character is Chihiro from Miyazaki's Spririted Away. In this film, Chihiro (along with her parents) gets caught in the spirit world. When we first meet Chihiro, she is an ordinary, whiny ten-year-old. But when her parents get turned into pigs for eating the food of the spirits, she must work to find a way to change them back. Taking on the name Sen, she works in a bathhouse for spirits, facing many challenges that you wouldn't expect a ten-year-old to face... ultimately becoming a new Chihiro.


One of the most violent female leads, San, from Princess Mononoke, lives with a pack of wolves in the land of the Forest Spirit. Throughout the film, she fights against humans and makes her hatred for them very clear. She fights with animal gods that dwell in the forest to defend the Forest Spirit (and themselves) from the humans. It isn't until she meets Ashitaka, a human who has the same respect for the forest and its creatures, that she begins to feel love for a human again.


Animism and Nature vs. Man


In many of his films, Miyazaki creates a voice for nature through different characters that appear as spirits and gods and demons.  Most of these characters do interact with humans, but in different ways.  This theme of animism shows the influence that Miyazaki gets from nature itself, whether it's big or small; it shows admiration and respect for all things nature.  Miyazaki also makes the argument clear about how, with the disrespect that humans have for nature, nature has the power to fight back.


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These black puffs shown above are known as soot sprites (or soot gremlins) and have appeared in My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.  In Totoro, the soot gremlins are known to hide in old abandoned houses. They are harmless to the young children they interact with and end up moving out when the house has new occupants.  In the clip selected from Spirited Away, however, it shows a different side of the soot sprites, a more manipulative side.




Calcifer, a fire demon appearing in Howl's Moving Castle, works for Howl, a self-centered wizard, to move his "castle." Calcifer's motives in the beginning of the film is simply to get rid of the spell put on him. Although he may be selfish at times, he also has a soft side, very human-like qualities.


Perhaps an environmental point that Miyazaki attempted to make within Spirited Away was through the cleansing of the Stink Spirit. In this scene, Chihiro, while filling the bath for the Stink Spirit, notices at "thorn" in its side. Yubaba, the owner of the bath, has a suspicion about the thorn. After tying a rope around the thorn, an entire group of staff have to work together to pull the thorn out. After enough pulling, the thorn starts to come out... appearing as the handle of a bicycle. As they keep pulling, mounds and mounds of trash, scrap metal tubes, mud, etc spills out onto the floor. The Stink Spirit is then revealed as a river spirit that had been polluted.



As stated above, Miyazaki wanted to represent what consequences could arise if nature isn't respected. In Princess Mononoke, the boar god, Nago, becomes a demon. Blinded by hate and rage against humans, he attempts to attack a village. Ashitaka, the lead male in the film, stops him, but not before Nago can hurt him. Ashitaka receives a scar and learns that it will turn him into a demon and kill him. This phase of Nago turning into a demon was actually caused by an iron ball that had been shot into the boar by humans. The film, and several others, including Nausicaa, deal with the themes of this battle between humans and nature. In the same way Nago tried to attack the village, a stampede of giant insects in Nausicaa try to attack the village in the Valley.




Another common theme within a handful of Miyazaki's films is the use of aviation. Whether it's a thousand years after the destruction of civilization or in a spirit world, there is bound to be something flying. The reason Miyazaki is so greatly influenced by aviation is because his uncle ran a business for making rudders for fighter planes. Most of the first drawings Miyazaki ever did were of airplanes. Various types of flight in his work do show a magical aspect that he wanted children to connect with, but it's also nostalgic for adults. However, there are other types of flight in his films that represent reality, in the sense that violence does exist, and Miyazaki wants children who watch his films to understand, "Violence is innate in humans. The real issue is how to control it." Miyazaki is known for incorporating more violence in his films than, say, a Disney film, but he doesn't over glorify it; he gets the point across.




Porco Rosso:


Kiki's Delivery Service:


Spirited Away:


Howl's Moving Castle:




Antagonists: Not Completely Evil


There's no doubt that Miyazaki uses argument in his films; there's plenty of fighting, killing, and decapitation for all to enjoy. But what's fighting against the "good" side? Is it really evil? Many of Miyazaki's antagonists (not considered villains) are more so "misguided" than inherently evil. In many cases, these characters will play an antagonistic role and then learn of his or her errors. The perception of these individuals changes, perhaps even siding with the protagonist by the end of the film.


Lady Eboshi is one of the strongest female antagonists within Miyazaki films. Running Iron Town in Princess Mononoke, she understands the threat that the creatures of the forest have, though, she does not fear going against it. She can be seen as evil from one point of view, and that point of view is from the spirits and the gods from the forest. However, the people of Iron Town love her. She provides jobs, food, and shelter for them. She has even taken in a group of lepers, those who would have been left for dead, to help make the guns shown in the film. Here, we have a character that can be "good," like humanity in general, but do not respect and appreciate the forces of nature.


Miyazaki sets up many of his antagonists to go through a transformation of "changing sides." Here are the many faces of the Witch of the Waste, an antagonist from Howl's Moving Castle. In this film, she seems "beautiful" at first, but Miyazaki shows much of her personality through her physical appearance. She is powerful in the beginning of the film (top left corner), putting a spell on Sophie (the lead character), but then loses her powers (bottom right corner). Her "misguidance" comes from being rejected by Howl in the past, and she acts out on Sophie.



  In Spirited Away, a character named No Face appears at the bathhouse and is invited in by Chihiro, the main character. No Face is quite innocent in his entrance to the film, trying to help out Chihiro in different ways. Chihiro, thanking No Face for his attempts, politely turns down his help, taking up the responsibility in front of her. No Face, hurt and lonely, turns into a monster in attempt to get Chihiro's attention and friendship. Chihiro ends up feeding No Face medicine from the River Spirit, which helps No Face return to his former physical state. What's important to know about No Face is that he communicates more so through his actions than his words. The only words he can utter are "Aah." It isn't until he eats a talking frog that he can communicate with language.



"Interview to Hayao Miyazaki." <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJLBED-6M8I>.

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