Master Spotlight Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki by Rama Hughes

Hayao Miyazaki is a Japanese animator, comic book artist, and director of anime. Anime are animated cartoon films. His most famous movies are My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.

Hayao was born in Tokyo. He wanted to be a mangaka, or comic book artist. In high school, Hayao “fell in love” with the heroine of The Tale of the White Serpent. The animated film inspired him to study animation. In college, he joined the Children’s Literature Research Club. It was the “closest thing to a comics club in those days.”

Upon graduation, he got a job as an in-between artist at Toei Animation. He was first noticed for his work on Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon. He didn’t like the ending. So, he pitched his own idea which was accepted and featured in the finished film. Over the next few years, Miyazaki played an important role in the creation of numerous Toei films like Hols: Prince of the Sun, Puss in Boots, Flying Phantom Ship, Animal Treasure Island, and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

In the 1970s, Miyazaki worked on television shows for several animation studios. He collaborated with his mentor, Isao Takahata, to create a cartoon about Pippi Longstocking, the famous Swedish children’s book heroine. When Pippi’s creator refused the idea, Hayao adapted it to create Panda! Go, Panda! A cartoon about a red-headed girl adopted by a panda bear. He went on to direct Future Boy Conan, an adaptation of another favorite children’s book. His directorial debut was The Castle of Cagliostro, a sequel. His first original film was Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, based on his own manga or comic book series. These early cartoons established some of Miyazaki’s most enduring themes: pacifism, feminism, environmentalism, morally ambiguous characters, and a fascination with flight.

The success of these early projects allowed Miyazaki to organize his own animation company, Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki named the studio with the Italian word for wind. His purpose was to “Blow a new wind through the anime industry.” Their first film was Castle in the Sky about two orphans in search of a magical castle. My Neighbor Totoro is about two girls who discover forest spirits in their backyard. The largest Totoro became the symbol for Studio Ghibli. Kiki’s Delivery Service told the story of a young girl who goes to the big city to become a witch.

Princess Mononoke was the studio’s breakout success. Its conflict between animal spirits and industrial humans allowed Miyazaki to explore ecological themes within an exciting fantasy world. The movie won Japan’s award for Best Picture. But Miyazaki had drawn 80,000 of the cartoon’s frames himself. He was exhausted by the process, and announced that Princess Mononoke would be his final film.

During this semi-retirement, Miyazaki spent time with some friends and their daughters. One of these girls inspired his next movie. Spirited Away is about a young girl who must rescue her parents from a bizarre spirit world. The film elaborates of Miyazaki’s philosophy of good and evil. “In Spirited Away,” Miyazaki said, “The heroine is thrown into a place where the good and bad dwell together. She manages not because she has destroyed the ‘evil’, but because she has acquired the ability to survive.” The movie was Miyazaki’s greatest success. It won the Japanese Academy Prize, a Golden Bear from the Berlin Flim Festival, and an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. It is still considered one of the best films of the 2000s.

Miyazaki came out of retirement to help his studio complete Howl’s Moving Castle. His son, Goro, directed Tales from Earthsea based on some of Hayao’s favorite novels. During a vacation by the sea, Miyazaki kept sketchbooks and was inspired to direct another movie. Ponyo was a modern day adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Little Mermaid. Miyazaki used no computer animation for the film at all. “It will be the director’s challenge to express the sea and its waves with freehand drawing.” Miyazaki co-wrote Studio Ghibli’s next films, The Secret World of Arrietty (based on Mary Norton’s novel, The Borrowers) and From up on Poppy Hill.

In 2013, Miyazaki completed his final film. The Wind Rises, and announced his retirement from animation. He told reporters that he is “quite serious” this time. He explained that an animator’s life as “quite strenuous” and he believes he is getting too old for the business. He is contributing to his son’s next film, but he plans to pursue new goals like working on the Studio Ghibli Museum. During a recent interview, he explained the purpose of his work: “I wanted to convey the message to children that this life is worth living.”

Totoro study by Hayao Miyazaki

My students lit up when I presented Miyazaki as our master of the month. Few of them knew who he was but almost all of them knew and loved his movies. He is, of course, a perfect example for my sixth graders’ animation lessons. I was excited to share his watercolor studies for my students who are watercoloring. But my favorite Miyazaki lessons are his philosophies and encouragement. Besides his words on his retirement (that life is worth living), his movies are full of inspiration. Whispers of the Heart is practically a manifesto for young artists. A grandfatherly figure encourages a young writer by comparing her to an unpolished stone. “When you first become an artist,” He says, “You are like that rock. You are in a raw, natural state, with hidden gems inside. You have to dig down deep and find the emeralds tucked away inside you. And that’s just the beginning. Once you’ve found your gems, you have to polish them. It takes a lot of hard work.” When she finally delivers her first novel to him, he commends her and criticizes her. Understandably, she melts down in tears. It is such a genuine portrayal of the artistic process and of human emotion. (The movie itself is one of Miyazaki’s rough gems, but worth a viewing to see how he honed his own craft.)


Spirted Away was my first favorite Miyazaki movie. I vividly remember the afternoon that I first saw it. For those two hours I was transported into that world, and it is the only film that I have ever described as breathtaking. As extraordinary as the spirit world was though, I was most impressed by the ordinary moments that the movie noticed and took the time to animate. How Chihiro taps her toe when she puts her sneakers on. How she loses her balance on the stairs. Most of Miyazaki’s movies take the time to show us these things. Because of that, they do more than entertain me. They help me see my own life more clearly and with more curiosity.

Portrait of Hayao Miyazaki drawn by yours truly, Rama Hughes

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Thomas James

Thomas James

Thomas James is an Illustrator who has worked with The New York Times, WIRED, Pentagram, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. You can see his portfolio at
Thomas James

Posted by Thomas James on 10/09/13 under master of the month
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