Hayao Miyazaki’s Legacy Is Far Greater Than His Films

Movies Features Hayao Miyazaki
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Hayao Miyazaki’s Legacy Is Far Greater Than His Films

On Sunday, June 25, Fathom Events and indie animation distributor GKIDS are kicking off their inaugural, six-month-long Ghibli Fest with a screening of the 1998 classic My Neighbor Totoro. Totoro is the one of six Hayao Miyazaki films set to be screened across North America, followed by the U.S. premiere of On Animation’s 2004 children’s film Mune: Guardian of the Moon. If your interests align anywhere within the lines of animation or children’s cinema, Miyazaki is a name that’s hard to be more than three degrees removed from. Finding praise for Miyazaki’s status as a director is about as hard as sitting down and enjoying his films. Which is to say, not at all.

Miyazaki is one of anime’s great auteurs, crafting stories of such singular thematic vision and unmistakable aesthetic that even audiences who would otherwise never consider themselves ‘anime fans’ more often than not find themselves enraptured by the inimitable passion and resolute humanism which define his body of work. And, for a vocal contingent of anime fans, therein lies a problem. When we published our Top 100 anime films list this past January, many readers took umbrage with our decision to list the entirety of Miyazaki’s oeuvre among the rankings, as well as other contentions. Given the natural effusion of passion and opinion that anime evokes, We at Paste not only expected such a response, but wholeheartedly encourage it. After all, disagreement and debate, when channeled positively, can solicit a deeper appreciation of an artform and its history—so long as those disagreements don’t deteriorate into say, presumptuous dismissals of curatorial taste or ad hominem attacks tepidly disguised as passive-aggressive compliments.

While Miyazaki’s films are persistently lauded by western critics and publications as requisite viewing for western neophytes, many anime fans nonetheless take issue with Miyazaki so often being trumpeted as the end-all be-all of Japanese animation, the erroneously dubbed “Walt Disney of anime”; dominating the conversation of the medium at the expense of marginalizing animators and directors of arguably equal merit and significance. I empathize with (and to an extent share in) these frustrations, but the fact of that frustration alone does not merit a conscious dismissal of Miyazaki’s work ,or an impulse to in turn minimize or exclude him from the conversation of contemporary anime. The reason for this is simple: while yes, Miyazaki may be “overrated” in the west, he is also consequently underappreciated.

Though at first glance that statement might be interpreted as facetious, it is anything but. The answer to how Miyazaki could be unanimously praised, yet fundamentally misunderstood lies not in the appraisal of the man’s films, but in that of the man himself. A majority of mainstream conversations surrounding Miyazaki, to be frank, have grown too fawning, complacent, and reverent in their reliance on self-evident arguments of greatness as the sole means with which to meaningfully gauge Miyazaki’s impact on anime. This complacency in turn engenders an attitude of dilettantism within newcomers to the medium, which subsequently fosters resentment among its fan base and connoisseurs. The solution to this isn’t through the exclusion of Miyazaki, but through the candid reappraisal of who he is, what exactly he did throughout his career and why any of that matters now. There’s no shortage of editorials espousing the artistry of Miyazaki’s films. What’s missing is a conversation on the crucial significance of the times in which most of those films were produced, and how Miyazaki first became the adopted patriarch of modern anime through a distribution deal with one of the most powerful media conglomerates on the planet.

The history of anime in the west is the history of licensing, and the history of licensing is the history of globalization itself. By the time of the release of Miyazaki’s second feature film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, anime had already made landfall in the states twenty years prior, with Osamu Tezuka’s seminal 1963 animated series Tetsuwan Atomu, debuting in America across NBC stations that same year under the title Astro Boy. In the intervening years between Astro Boy’s premiere and Miyazaki’s ascent, the process of introducing Japanese animation to western audiences took many strange and dramatic turns. While titles like Tezuka’s aforementioned masterpiece and Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Battleship Yamato (retitled Star Blazers in the west) remained more or less intact when compared to their original broadcasts in Japan, other shows (and films for that matter) were not so lucky.

If you’re an anime fan of a certain age, you already know the horror stories—from something as innocuous and typical as renaming Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Tetsujin 28 to Gigantor and the show’s protagonist Shotaro Kaneda to Jimmy Sparks, to the egregious editing and censorship cuts inflicted on shows like Macross, Gatchaman, and Kimba the White Lion. The complicated legacy of Carl Macek, the producer who first brought Macross (a.k.a. Robotetch) to the west, would go on to embolden fellow U.S. producers with a prevailing attitude for decades to come: that American producers knew better what to do with anime in the west than their Japanese counterparts (i.e. the writers and animators who actually created these works) and that, so long as they secured the rebroadcasting rights outside of Japan, they were free to cut, compress, obscure or outright erase any elements that they deemed “inconvenient,” “culturally inconsistent,” or “inconsequential” to western audiences. Y’know, things like plot, characters, and thematic subtext. In essence, the raw beating heart of artistry in first-generation anime was laid bare, found wanting, and subsequently vivisected to conform to a facile, dated, cookie-cutter perception of what animation in the west (i.e ‘cartoons’) could or ought to be. As a result, Japanese animators went largely unacknowledged for their work, with the only staff being credited during rebroadcasted anime runs being the localization producers.

Miyazaki’s work was no stranger to this.The initial home release of Nausicaa was a tragic and all too common example of this philosophy of editorial revisionism. New World Pictures, the right holders of the film at the time, presumably took one glance at Miyazaki’s masterpiece, shrugged their shoulders and said, “Eh, we can do better with this.” The result was a catastrophe; the once 117-minute movie was cut down to the 95-minute horror show that is Warriors of the Wind, a hodgepodge of poorly edited scenes and phoned-in voice performances that marginalized the film’s namesake female protagonist and left the original’s prevailing environmentalist message on the cutting room floor. Naturally, when Miyazaki caught wind of this he was furious. As a result, Miyazaki’s long-time producer Toshio Suzuki not only raised the price of his films so as to discourage shady opportunists, but contractually stipulated that none of Miyazaki’s films could be cut after acquisition. This worked. When New World Pictures’ license for the film expired in 1995, the Walt Disney Corporation approached Studio Ghibli through its parent company Tokuma Shoten in 1997 to purchase the distribution rights to Ghibli’s films, including Miyazaki’s. When Miramax, a Disney subsidiary at the time, was preparing the North American theatrical premiere of Princess Mononoke, Harvey Weinstein asked Studio Ghibli if they would permit cuts. What he received soon after, instead of resigned permission, was a Japanese sword attached with a note that simply read, “no cuts.”

It was only later revealed that the sword was not sent by Miyazaki himself, but by Suzuki in his stead. “Actually, my producer did that,” said Miyazaki in a 2005 interview with The Guardian. “Although I did go to New York to meet this man, this Harvey Weinstein, and I was bombarded with this aggressive attack, all these demands for cuts. I defeated him.” The significance and audacity of this gesture cannot be overstated. From Japanese animators being excised from their own works, to implicitly intimidating foreign producers with honorific gifts, this act alone was a watershed moment for anime in the west. One has to wonder, had Miyazaki and Suzuki not stood their ground with Miramax and Disney back in 1997, who knows if western audiences would have had the pleasure to enjoy films like Studio Shaft’s Kizumonogatari or Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name in their original, subbed, unedited splendor nearly two decades later. In the story of Miyazaki’s rise to cultural preeminence, Suzuki is the man behind the man, safeguarding the director’s creative vision and autonomy from disingenuous licensing deals and treacherous legalese. In a sense, Miyazaki and Suzuki’s firm defense in the ‘90s was not unlike Prince’s storied contractual battles with Warner Bros. during that same decade, though with nothing close to the latter’s eccentricity. They both represent consummately talented creators who fought for the respect, artistic freedom, and authorial control of their respective artforms, emboldening future artists of their ilk to argue for the integrity of their work through the precedent of their actions.

Studio Ghibli’s deal with Disney unsurprisingly proved to be a boon to not only Miyazaki’s career, but to the localization of anime, period. Finally, Miyazaki had what he wanted: for his films to be treated seriously and with respect, receiving english vocal performances from the cream of Hollywood’s crop and bringing his work to prospective fans worldwide. With the release and subsequent Oscar win of 2001’s Spirited Away, a first in anime history, Miyazaki’s profile exploded. The film’s nomination was not only to the credit of its acclaim, but to that of John Lasseter, who not only supervised Spirited Away’s English-language translation but spearheaded its successful Oscar campaign. It’s amazing what a cosign from Pixar’s chief creative officer can do for one’s career. Since then, only five anime films have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature—three directed by Miyazaki, one directed by his partner and mentor Isao Takahata and one by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. All of which were produced under Studio Ghibli, much to the chagrin of anime fans who would otherwise prefer anime’s profile in the west to grow outside of the shadow of Miyazaki’s mention.

Any critic or Oscar historian worth their salt would tell you that, despite the egalitarian pomp and pageantry that surrounds the ceremonies, when it comes to the Academy Awards the political more often than not supersedes the personal or critical with regards to which films get nominated. To put it bluntly: it’s all about who you know. You can’t compete with a Pixar cosign. Makoto Shinkai’s 2016 film Your Name was an enormous financial and critical success when it was released in Japan last year, becoming the second largest grossing anime film in the country’s history behind Spirited Away. And even that alone was not enough to earn the acknowledgement of an Oscar nomination. This is less the fault of Miyazaki’s precedent and more of a symptom of a consensus of Oscar voters whose conservative, myopic conception of anime’s artistic legitimacy allows only for Miyazaki by dint of his association to Disney and nothing else. Your Name’s Oscar snub is ridiculous, but it would be fallacious to harbor personal resentment towards Miyazaki for its snubbing. Just as it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the fight for recognition of anime’s primacy as a cultural artform continues.

All of this is interesting, but what does any of this matter today? To that point, it matters because too often when we look at Miyazaki for the luminary he is today, we forget the long history of small yet significant victories that anime has made since its inception, and the concerted attempts at cultural erasure that the medium has had to fight and overcome since those first fledgling broadcasts of Tezuka’s Astro Boy. To reiterate, Miyazaki is not the quote, “Walt Disney of anime.” That would be Tezuka. If anything, Miyazaki’s more akin to Francis Ford Coppola in terms of profile: two directors renowned for their part in creating some of the most accomplished films of the 20th century, influential despite remaining in a state of perpetual semi-retirement. Hayao Miyazaki’s legacy should not be thought of solely in terms of the critical and commercial success of his films themselves, but should also encompass the audacious and savvy strides he and Suzuki made as businessmen to surmount the creative roadblocks of localization and shepherd anime auteurism across the world. For sure, he alone cannot claim entirely the credit for this, but his contribution is such that the entirety of his oeuvre has left its mark on anime’s popular trajectory. And barring even that, Miyazaki’s body of work is such that, even by the standards of what might be considered his “worst” film, those films in question can still confidently be asserted as leagues beyond many of his peers in terms of their thematic depth, aesthetic accomplishment and resonant emotional appeal. There’s more to anime than Miyazaki, for sure, but what better way to open up your child, partner, spouse, neighbor, sibling, parent or coworker to the breadth of cinematic possibilities that the medium has to offer than through the works of one of anime’s best? And after you’re done, why not take a look back through our 100 list to explore the works of nearly 80 of the medium’s other finest directors. There’s a lot of gems out there, dive in and chase them.