A Life in Art
by susan napier
yale, 344 pages, $30
Never-Ending Man, a documentary that recently enjoyed a limited release in the United States, shows an exchange between the animator Hayao Miyazaki, seventy-eight, and a group of young programmers from an artificial intelligence company. The programmers proudly show Miyazaki animation of a “man” with a body soft as jelly—legs, arms, torso, head flopping like gummy worms—squirming and twisting across the floor, dragging itself along by its empty head. “It doesn’t feel any pain,” they tell their hero. “This is what we have been working on.”
Miyazaki, a master of pencil, watercolor, and oil who has long resisted digital animation, is revolted—not only by the digital nature of the animation but by the broader contempt for life that the young animators express. He describes a disabled friend of his and says, “Thinking of him, I can’t watch this stuff and find it interesting. Whoever creates this stuff has no idea what pain is whatsoever. I am utterly disgusted. . . . I strongly feel that this is an insult to life itself.” The programmers struggle to respond. The documentary cuts to Miyazaki sketching and mumbling to himself, “I feel like we are nearing the end times.”
Hayao Miyazaki was born in 1941, the second of four sons. His father ran Miyazaki Airplane, a company that made rudders for the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the Japanese fighter that hit the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. Utsunomiya, where the company was based, was firebombed in 1945, and as the city burned the family fled, huddled together in a flatbed truck. While fleeing the bombing, Miyazaki says, his father refused a ride to a mother and child who tried to clamber aboard as they sped away—“it was a woman carrying a little girl, someone from the neighborhood running toward us saying, ‘Please let us on!’ But the car just went on going.” This memory (which is challenged by his older brother) has left a deep mark on Miyazaki, who accuses himself of cowardice: “I still think how much better it would have been if I had told them to stop.”
From that day forward, Miyazaki viewed the world, the Japanese people, his family, and himself as only one step from cowardice and barbarism. His films turn on conflagrations and catastrophes, but also rebirths, new beginnings, and children who say “stop.” (In Princess Mononoke, the young hero struggles to end a war in ancient Japan between an industrial colony and the gods of the forest.)
As Japan emerged from World War II as a manufacturing powerhouse, its villages, cities, countryside, family structure, and patterns of leisure were radically transformed. The “Japanese Miracle,” in which Japan, under American influence and with the help of U.S. dollars, recovered from the war with meteoric ascent, tipped the scales heavily toward the cities as the rural population dropped from roughly 50 percent of the total population to approximately 15 percent. This was the result of economic reforms that strongly favored manufacturing over farming. The occupying Americans mandated universal education for all children in order to craft a modern labor force and erased the three-generation family from the nation’s legal codes, exchanging it for an Americanized two-generation nuclear family. Miyazaki hated the militarism of his father’s generation, but as he watched the remnants of traditional Japanese culture disappear under modernization, he thought it would lead to disaster. He felt vindicated by the 1991 recession that stretched into “the Lost Twenty Years.”
Upon graduating from university in 1963, he went to work at Toei Animation as a bottom-of-the-ladder illustrator. Toei was at the center of the rising comic book and animation mega-industries that eventually became the unique, if not downright bizarre, new visual language. When Miyazaki joined Toei, it was making animation. Within a few years, it was making anime.
Miyazaki’s distaste for this new visual style led him, in the early 1980s, to join another animation luminary, Isao Takahata, in establishing their own studio, Studio Ghibli, where they could protect their work from commercial and cultural pressure. “We have tried to make ‘films,’ not ‘anime,’” Miyazaki says. He largely succeeded. His only bad film is his first one (not made by Ghibli), The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), a lackluster installment in an established franchise. All the rest express his singular vision, and four are bona fide masterpieces: My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Spirited Away (2001), Princess Mononoke (1997), and The Wind Rises (2013). These are, in the main, fairy stories for children. They are filled with hidden cities, forest kings, tree sprites, dragons, gods and demons, and lots of boys and girls running, flying, and being tested.
Susan Napier, a professor of Japanese at Tufts, has written the first major English-language assessment of Miyazaki. She helps us see how hard Miyazaki works to reveal the lovely things that dodge our notice and to inspire in children a desire to know and love the world as it really is. In Never-Ending Man, we see him train a magnifying glass on a potted plant with small yellow flowers to make a more defined sketch of its interlacing stems and petals. He expects similar attentiveness from his assistants: “Babies don’t turn their heads like that”; “No one runs that way”; “Do it now or you’re out! Quit now!”
Unfortunately, Napier’s assessment of Miyazaki is colored by her own political preoccupations. Rather than extol the formal merits of his films, Miyazakiworld celebrates them for their purportedly enlightened politics. Napier believes that they show how the “potential for genuine utopia remains with humans.” They are “feminist,” “transgressive,” “radical, even subversive.” One is an “ecofable”; another makes “social and political critiques.” With Miyazaki, she says, “the fantastic becomes not only a means of liberation and empowerment but also a form of utopian critique.”
But for Miyazaki, politics have never been the point. “I’m not making films to get my point of view or opinions across. When people are happy and enjoying my films, I’m happy too.” He does not see himself as an environmentalist, the thing for which he is so frequently praised:
Some people suffer from the misconception that Isao Takahata and I are both some sort of environmentalists, and that we will make a film out of anything as long as it has an environmental theme or message. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such a film would be like a fat dried-up log, propped upright. What we need is a living thing, with strong roots, a solid trunk and branches, so that we can be creative in the way we hang the ornaments.
Indeed, several of Miyazaki’s deep convictions run counter to progressive opinion. He has repeatedly urged young Japanese people to marry and have big families—“how can we not rejoice at the sight of newborn children?” he asks. “It is better to live fully, getting married and having children.” He adds, “Today’s children are surrounded by a high-tech world and increasingly lose sight of their roots. . . . We need to show what incredibly rich traditions we have. . . . People who have no sense of history . . . are destined to disappear.” While Miyazaki is a man of the left in many ways, it is impossible to understand his conservationist instincts without reference to these conservative tendencies.
“I often tell people that films are something that exist not in your mind, but somewhere above you [points above head],” Miyazaki says in Turning Point, a collection of his writings and transcribed interviews. Once he undertakes a work, he discovers hidden therein rules that must be followed for the good of the work: “It feels like the film is making me.”
Acceptance of and submission to reality are at the heart of Miyazaki’s vision, which helps explain why he hates anime. “What we have done is to narrow down the world of children and fill that narrow sliver with this subculture.” Anime and manga, he says, “[are] the source of the downfall of a people.” Miyazaki believes that manga and anime have a pornographic effect on young Japanese, who get caught inside of their world of disproportioned, warped, exaggerated, and often perverted imagery and end up liking it better than the real thing. They get “inundated with images” from childhood, and never break out. “Whatever experiences we provide for [children] are in a sense stealing time from them that otherwise might be spent in a world where they go out and make their own discoveries or have their own personal experiences.”
For Miyazaki, that which is beautiful is most vivid, real, and worthy of attention. “If you go out looking for something shameful or vulgar, then finding it in this society is one of the easiest things imaginable,” he says. “I thought it might be better to express in an honest way that what is good is good, what is pretty is pretty, and what is beautiful is beautiful.”
Michael Toscano is executive director of the Institute for Family Studies.