It takes a special kind of beloved artist to place over 5000 bums in seats in an instant. But all the tickets for the London Film Festival screenings of The Boy and the Heron were snapped up in minutes, a reflection of the feverish anticipation surrounding the first film in a decade from Studio Ghibli icon Hayao Miyazaki.
Why the furore surrounding a film with a plum, Boxing Day release date in cinemas? Because, even if the studio has denied rumours that this is the 82-year-old’s final project, this is the auteur whose animations dominate Japan’s all-time box office rankings. The director of the sole non-English language winner of the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The filmmaking legend whose classics My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and that Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001) were the only animated works to rank in Sight & Sound’s 2022, once-a-decade poll of the greatest films of all time (Disney and Pixar were left eating dust).
How deep is the cult surrounding Studio Ghibli, which he co-founded in 1985? Just look at the demand for Miyazaki-focused arena concerts, stage plays, theme parks and museums, and the breadth of his cultural impact is made clear. Today, everything from blockbuster video games to Mercury Prize-winning musicians cite his influence.
But what is it about Miyazaki’s work that ignites and unites the imaginations of so many of us – not just kids, the traditional targets for animated media, but teens, adults, cinephiles and casual movie-goers, too? To mark the master’s long-awaited return to filmmaking, we interviewed hardcore Ghibli fans to better understand how Miyazaki’s appeal defies generational boundaries. And how, in the process, his masterpieces have transformed global perceptions of animation.
After Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was a box office hit in 1984, Miyazaki launched Studio Ghibli with director/screenwriter Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) and producer Toshio Suzuki. The intention was not just to cement their place in a booming animation industry in Japan, but to elevate the medium beyond that of syndicated children’s shows and bootleg video tapes. Their brand would be a guarantee for superior craftsmanship, meticulous detail and a freedom of imagination befitting of cinematic marvel. That’s why, from the offset, they referred to their work as manga eiga (“animated films”), rather than mere anime.
Ever since, in sumptuous film after sumptuous film, the Studio has brought to life whimsical creatures, believable characters, incredible environments and delectable food. Their hallmark is illustration and animation so meticulous that even mundane daily chores like cooking breakfast and cleaning a house (Howl’s Moving Castle) can feel magical. So painstaking was the work on The Boy and the Heron, in fact, that it would frequently take 60 animators a full month to produce just a single minute of animation. Evidently, over 13 Ghibli films as writer and/or director, Miyazaki’s quality control has not slackened.
It’s this perfectionism that ensures such broad and passionate fandom. These “gorgeous images [and] complex, intriguing worlds keep viewers of all ages interested, absorbed,” says Susan Napier, Tufts University professor and author of books such as Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art, “and coming back many times to watch them again.”
It’s more than just surface attraction that makes Miyazaki’s work so broadly fascinating, though. Beyond the spectacle, his films are imbued with a narrative depth that convinces kids and twentysomethings alike that films such as Kiki’s Delivery Service are “directed squarely at them”.
So says Ghibliotheque podcast co-host and The Unofficial Guide to the Movies of Studio Ghibli co-author Jake Cunningham (who hosted an LFF event, The Ghibliotheque Guide to Hayao Miyazaki). Indeed, that 1989 story of a teen girl venturing into the world and reckoning with newfound responsibilities has, in recent years, even been dissected as an allegory for workplace burn-out. “But it does also have a talking cat and witches,” notes Cunningham. “[It’s] very much a child-friendly film.”
Fans of Takahata’s harrowing animated war drama Grave of the Fireflies will, moreover, appreciate Ghibli’s propensity for exploring darker themes even in the stories of young children. Miyazaki is no stranger to that either. Even in his most bright and joyful films, the realities of death, loss and grief are enduringly present: see Satsuki and Mei’s sick mother in My Neighbour Totoro, or Chihiro’s absent parents – transformed into pigs – in Spirited Away.
The Boy and the Heron continues this sobering trend: it’s about a 12-year-old boy who struggles to make his way in a new town in the wake of his mother’s death.
“What makes the Studio’s offerings so strong is its willingness to acknowledge a complex and sometimes difficult world, and yet still offer hope and joy,” says Napier. In a class she teaches that compares Disney to Studio Ghibli, she points out that many students find the former’s works to be overly simple and predictable, whereas Ghibli fascinates with its credible psychologies and layered characters. “Ghibli created animated characters whom many fans deem more ‘real’ than Hollywood actors, and situations that deal with adult themes such as war, death and environmental despoliation.”
These ideas are more broadly engaging because they reflect real world issues, says Cunningham. Environmental corruption has been present in Miyazaki’s work since Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which was inspired by the infamous mass mercury poisoning of Minamata Bay in the mid-20th century. Even one of his cuddliest works, 2008’s Ponyo, climaxes with a huge environmental catastrophe.
But those concerns are most striking in 1997’s Princess Mononoke. A film full of fast-paced action and violence that harks back to the samurai epics of Japan’s “golden age” of cinema, it concerns the toxic mutation of a giant boar in a forest threatened by the building of an iron foundry. “Go back and watch the end of the movie,” says fellow Ghibliotheque host and author Michael Leader, who highlights the more grounded and realistic perspective Miyazaki offers. “The planet’s still doomed. [The protagonists] just have to find a way to co-exist with all their differences.”
It’s this nuance and ambiguity that leaves mature viewers with something to chew on after the excitement wanes and the credits roll.
“The heroes aren’t all clean-cut, and the baddies aren’t all bad,” says Cunningham. “You get to The Wind Rises and your main character [WWII aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi] is the guy who designed a plane that killed a huge number of people around the world… For so many families, Miyazaki’s films are these cute things. But a lot of them are living in these moral grey areas.”
This tendency to avoid the villain-hero binary, adds Napier, makes the work of Miyazaki more satisfying, his films more complex, the viewing experience deeper and more rewarding. His is “an animistic worldview that suggests the need for respectful engagement on the part of humans with nature and other non-human forces”. We might have missed some of that, of course, in our earlier viewing, and those references probably go over the heads of younger fans. But it’s what, ultimately, keeps us going back for repeat viewings.
That multi-layered richness explains how, over the past four decades, the Miyazaki canon has contributed heavily to a transformation and maturation of global perceptions on what animation can be. And perhaps, ultimately, that’s the legacy of Ghibli and the director.
“Most Western audiences [once] thought of animation as being primarily for children with cute, amusing plots full of gags and pratfalls,” Napier concludes. But now we know that it can also be about “serious, heart-breaking subjects, as well as a showcase for the spiritual and even the sublime.” With that kind of assurance, Guillermo del Toro can sincerely liken Miyazaki to Mozart.
The rest of us, meanwhile, can turn out in droves for a “cartoon” like The Boy and the Heron without any stigma attached. That is, as long as we’re OK sharing the queue with people half our size. Here’s hoping it very much isn’t a great director’s swansong.
The Boy and the Heron screens at LFF on 15th October, and is in cinemas on 26th December