The Early Years of Hayao Miyazaki Part 1 - Starting Point: 1979-1996
Hayao Miyazaki is a pioneer of film who paints his stories through the lyrical brush strokes of animation. Born in Japan in 1941, many in the West came to know him first through his film, Princess Mononoke, and later, Spirited Away, which was the first anime film to win an Academy Award. The fact that he’s a cinematic genius is undisputed. His stories resonate with their naturalistic themes, his characters having a dignity and humanism that is nearly unparalleled in any medium. In a Miyazaki film, you’ll empathize with the monsters just as much as the protagonists. Which was why I was thrilled to find out about Starting Point, a collection of essays and interviews by Miyazaki covering his life and work from 1979-1996. This book review will be split into three parts, each covering different aspects of the book. The first part will start with Miyazaki’s descriptions of his earlier life as well as his experiences in the animation industry.
Ironically, the first time I heard about Miyazaki, it was in pursuit of another writer, Neil Gaiman. Gaiman had co-adapted Princess Mononoke for American audiences and an early screening was taking place at the Embarcadero in San Francisco. I was curious what type of film the scribe of Sandman had taken part in. Princess Mononoke was a cinematic experience that defied expectations with its probing of nature vs. technology. No pat answers were available, and the deities of the forest were just as uncannily horrifying (and sympathetic) as the soldiers who sought to exploit them. From there, viewings of the rest of his films followed including Nausicaa, My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky, and Porco Rosso.
Starting Point provided inspiration for the man behind the movies with all too relatable stories about the early years of the nascent animation industry in Japan. Some of the pieces are essays while others come in interview form, though the pieces seamlessly blend into one another. Miyazaki’s candor throughout is refreshing and at times, surprising. As he reflects on his past, rather than waxing about a golden age, he tells it as he experienced it, complete with long hours, endless sacrifices, and low salaries:
“When we were around twenty-four or twenty-five (years of age), shortly after we started working as animators, we had no guarantees, no prospects, no money, and not even any particular talents. For us the job of being an animator actually depended on one thing and one thing only, and that was having what might be called hope or ambition. So in those days, when animators got together the only thing they ever seemed to talk about was whether they should get out of the business, or whether they might find better work somewhere else.”
I found it fascinating that there were so many parallels between CG animation and the 2D animation of decades ago. The struggles and the motivations remain the same. Even the conversations seem to ring in synchronous chords. While some may say animation is still relatively young in the history of entertainment, there are many roots. Starting Point highlights many of the original seeds. Miyazaki talks about his experiences on a TV series, Heidi, to illustrate what compelled him to try to advance animation to another level:
“The reason we always pushed so hard with Heidi is that, even in a medium as commonplace as television, we wanted to provide the children watching our series something that would inspire joy, not just be cute, beautiful, or fun. We wanted to go beyond the limitations of normal television. To do this, I sometimes slept on the floor of the studio, consoling myself with the idea that when we overcame this extraordinary situation, I would be able to sleep in my own bed the next time around. Of course, when we eventually finished producing the series I realized that what had seemed an extraordinary situation wasn’t unique. I realized that it would continue on and on. When one series ended, another is waiting.”