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Hayao Miyazaki and the Art of Anime

The director of PRINCESS MONONOKE redefined Japanese animation.

By Andrew Osmond     November 05, 1999

With Hayao Miyazaki's PRINCESS MONONOKE expanding into more cities this weekend, American audiences will be getting a chance to look at a kind of animated epic that many of them have never seen before. To most Western viewers, the subject of Japanese animation conjures up images of POKEMON; those with longer memories may recall SPEED RACER, GIGANTOR, and ASTRO-BOY, while a more select group may be aware of 'anime' for its more adult aspects: hard-edged cyberpunk science fiction or hardcore sex-and-Gothic horror. This kind of perception is misleading, however. PRINCESS MONONOKE, like the rest of work from Miyazaki's Studio Ghibil, doesn't fit into any of these categories; it's almost a category unto itself, thanks to the company's dedication to perfecting its craft. So don't let vague memories of limited movement and bad dubbing scare you away. For those who need a brief crash course in the subject of Japanese animation, we present the following primer.


'Anime' is the Japanese word for animation. Simple enough, but the word has taken on different meanings and connotations in other countries, so clarification is needed.

In Japan, 'anime' (both singular and plural) refers to any animation under the sun, irrespective of where it is produced, what techniques it uses, or whether it is a Disney blockbuster or a two-minute student film. On this definition, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS is as much an anime as PRINCESS MONONOKE The same could be said of TOY STORY, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, the Mickey Mouse short cartoons or the experimental films of Norman McLaren.

Outside Japan, the word 'anime' has been borrowed by Westerners as a label for specifically Japanese animation, as opposed to animation elsewhere in the world. In practice, the word is further confined to Japanese cel animation produced by commercial studios. (There is a huge amount of Japanese experimental animation, usually in the form of short films, which frequently involve stop-motion, pixilation and other less mainstream techniques.)

It is important to realize that, even in the restricted sense, anime is a vast medium. Although it dates back to the early twentieth century, the birth of Japanese animation as a mass industry is usually traced to the late 'fifties and early 'sixties. The pioneering titles included feature films such as HAKUJADEN ('Legend of the White Snake,' 1958) and TV series like MIGHTY ATOM, better known in America as the '60s network champion ASTRO BOY. From such beginnings, the industry exploded outward to the point where, three decades later, there are thousands of hours of anime produced each year.

Most anime (in the sense of Japanese animation) is made for television, but a large amount is produced direct-to-video, where minor one-off titles rub shoulders with lengthy ongoing series. Anime direct-to-videos are commonly known as 'OAVs', or Original Animation Videos - the self-explanatory variant 'OVA' is also used. There are numerous anime movies released as well, many of which are national box-office hits.

Anime has never existed in a vacuum. In particular, it exists in a symbiotic relationship with Japan's comic-strip industry. Japanese comics are called 'manga.' Like anime, the manga industry became a national phenomenon in the '50s and '60s, a fact often credited to Osamu Tezuka, a genius artist and storyteller reported to have created 150,000 manga pages in his lifetime. As well as manga, Tezuka created the ASTRO BOY TV series and many other anime titles, adapting them from his manga bestsellers.

Following his lead, a large proportion of anime today is adapted from manga. Typically, a successful manga is turned into a TV show, which then may spawn direct-to-video spin-offs, feature film versions or both. In more recent years, other areas of Japanese pop-culture have increasingly converged with anime and manga, such as the computer games industry. For example, the world-famous 'Final Fantasy' computer adventure series has had several anime spin-offs.


Anime is a very diverse medium. Compared to commercial animation in most other countries, it appeals to a broad audience. There are children's serials, such as the endlessly popular DORAEMON (about a blue robot cat, sometimes seen as Japan's answer to Mickey Mouse) along with adaptations of Western classics like HEIDI and ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. There are soap operas and sit-coms, varying from subtle and restrained drama through to outrageous slapstick. There are historical dramas, such as ROSE OF VERSAILLES, based on a manga classic set around the French revolution.

A great deal of anime has been imported to America and other Western countries in recent years, usually in dubbed form. Many of these imports are targeted toward male consumers in their teens or early 'twenties, who prefer science-fiction adventures, action films and horror stories. This skews the anime released in the West toward these genres.

The anime imports are also taken out of context. It is common to find a big-budget feature film by a respected director sold next to a cheaply made, sexually explicit OAV, and for the latter to be more enthusiastically marketed. Again, it is common for a spin-off from a popular manga/anime franchise to be released in the West with no background explanation, making it incomprehensible to the average viewer.

As a result, anime has gained a stigma in the West. Many journalists see it as a cultish sub-genre, characterized by obscure plots, science-fiction settings, explicit sex and violence, and cheap animation. Some pundits have redefined the word 'anime' to fit those characteristics, so that the notion of an intelligent, refined anime becomes self-contradictory. To add to the confusion, several importers believe 'anime' is an ugly word and label Japanese animation 'manga animation,' borrowing the Japanese name for comics. Thus any Japanese animation is a 'manga cartoon' or 'manga movie,' ignoring the fact that many individual titles have nothing to do with manga (comic-strips) in the proper sense of the word.


Hayao Miyazaki is a veteran of the anime industry, and by some people he is thought to have transcended it. As a teenager, he was enormously moved by HAKUJADEN, the first color Japanese cartoon feature. He became an animator in 1963, starting as an in-betweener at Toei Doga (Toei Animation Studio), the makers of 'Hakujaden.'

One of Miyazaki's first major projects was the 1968 Toei feature film THE ADVENTURES OF HORUS, PRINCE OF THE SUN, (a dubbed version appeared in the West as THE LITTLE NORSE PRINCE.) Miyazaki worked as a key animator, and contributed a huge number of story ideas. The film was made by a team of idealistic young Toei staff, who wanted to make something completely different from both Disney films and Toei's earlier, more child-oriented pictures. The film took three years to complete, far beyond the initial schedule of eight months.

HORUS, a mythic tale about a young boy's battles with an evil sorcerer, was a commercial failure (perhaps because Toei only ran the film for ten days). Nonetheless, it was critically praised and became a great favorite among Japanese students and animators. Since then, Miyazaki and his colleagues have continually 'pushed the envelope' within anime.

In the '70s, for example, Miyazaki was involved in the TV serialization of HEIDI, which rejected adventure or comedy routines in favor of day-to-day naturalistic drama. This seemingly ran counter to all established animation wisdom, but the audiences loved it. Miyazaki's later serial, FUTURE BOY CONAN, which he wrote and directed, was more of an adventure story, but still emphasized an evolving plot and the import of 'slow' episodes among the adventure and excitement. The resulting sagaabout the adventures of two children in a post-catastrophe worldwas more like a ten-hour movie than a TV series, with a well-defined beginning, middle and end. Like HEIDI, it was a great audience success.


The values and ideals represented in HOROUS, HEIDI, and CONAN continue in the Studio Ghibli films of the '80s and '90s. As well as Miyazaki, some of the creators of those early titles became Ghibli's biggest names. Isao Takahata, who directed HORUS and HEIDI and assisted with parts of CONAN, directed four Ghibli films (GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES, ONLY YESTERDAY, POM POKO, and MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMADAS). The late Yoshifumi Kondo, who provided art for CONAN and other early works by Miyazaki and Takahata, became one of Ghibli's most important animators. He directed the box-office hit WHISPER OF THE HEART (the most successful Japanese film of 1995) and was a supervising animator on PRINCESS MONONOKE.

Studio Ghibli (pronounced 'ji-bur-i') was originally established because Miyazaki wanted a studio capable of producing animation of the highest possible quality. It is an unusual studio, both in Japan and worldwide, in that it specializes almost exclusively in feature film animation. Ghibli values strong, self-contained stories, appealing characters and intelligent subtexts. Within those bounds, practically anything goes. Ghibli has released fantastical children's adventures (LAPUTA: CASTLE IN THE SKY), intense mythic dramas (PRINCESS MONONOKE), tragic war-stories (GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES), and naturalistic, real-world romances (ONLY YESTERDAY, WHISPER OF THE HEART). Remarkably, all these diverse types have found favor at the box-office.

Ghibli animation avoids the stylization of much contemporary anime, which itself owes much to manga conventions. Ghibli characters often (not always) have the 'big eyes, small mouths' look of popular anime, but not to a hyper-exaggerated degree. Indeed, Ghibli's links with the manga industry are tenuous. Of the eleven movies generally counted as 'Ghibli films,' only five are based on manga (NAUSICAA, ONLY YESTERDAY, PORCO ROSSO, WHISPER OF THE HEART, and MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMADAS).

Further, the manga adaptations tend to be loose, redesigning the characters and reworking the stories with none of the closeness associated with franchise tie-ins. NAUSICCA, probably the closest such adaptation, was taken from Miyazaki's own strip, which itself broke with manga conventions. For example, there was an unusual amount of background detail; a heavy reliance on words, storytelling and disciplined layouts; and an overall 'look' that many people found closer to the French comic industry than anything in Japan. Ghibli animation has a similarly mould-breaking approach.

Miyazaki has been openly critical of the anime industry, its dominance by TV animation and its close bonds with manga. In 1988, he wrote a scathing account of the medium's shortcomings (1). '(Japanese animators) have to make their product by using movement, the biggest characteristic of animation, as little as possible. The reason why such a strange style was accepted was probably because the image language of manga had penetrated society. Instead of putting life into a character with gestures or facial expressions, anime and manga design was required to express all the charm of a character with just one picture.'

Miyazaki continued: 'The depiction of characters' action in everyday life, which anime was not good at to start with, was eliminated as something unnecessary and out-of-date. To depict a character's feeling, the method of manga was borrowed to get it done with music, angles, or decorating a single frame without motion. A hero can only sneer, since if he smiles that would screw his face up. A heroine has huge eyes that suddenly turn into dots without any connection between these two types of eyes. Extremely deformed characters with no sense of existence pretend to be cool in a deformed colorful world.'

In contrast, the Ghibli films and their predecessors emphasize detailed movement, subtle facial expressions, and a more naturalistic approach than many anime contemporaries (although the degree of naturalism varies from film to film, as with a Western studio such as Disney).


Although anime appeals to a broader age group than animation in many countries, it tends to be 'looked down' on by older Japanese people. One sign that Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli may have transcended the medium is that their titles do not bear this stigma. PRINCESS MONONOKE, Miyazaki's greatest hit, was watched by a vast cross-section of the viewing public, from schoolchildren and teenagers to housewives and businessmen, to men and women in their fifties and sixties. MONONOKE and its predecessors were regarded as serious filmswhich was demonstrated by the fact that two Ghibli films (POM POKO and MONONOKE) were put forward as Japan's contenders for Best Foreign Film Oscars (although neither got onto the shortlist).


Ghibli films are part of the anime industry, but have found far wider appreciation than the vast bulk of anime, both inside and outside Japan. In the end, it may not matter if a film like MONONOKE is described as an animated film, a Ghibli film, an anime film or a film that transcends anime. It stands up in its own right, exactly as the makers intended.

(1) Course Japanese Movies 7 · The Current Situation of Japanese Movies,Iwanami Shoten; January 28, 1988. An unofficial English translation by Ryoko Toyama is available on the 'Nausicaa.net' site at


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