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.”
There are tales of fascinating co-workers, like a workaholic finish inspector who was a maestro when it came to getting shots completed, as well as amusing anecdotes about a director Miyazaki describes as having a nature similar to a ‘sloth.’ Even in these stories, there are keen insights into human behavior, an honesty that neither glorifies nor condemns. Any of the sketches would make for hilarious animation shorts, and the well from which Miyazaki draws his amusing characters is a testament to his ability as a scientist of human nature. He notices details others would ignore, latches onto physical characteristics of those around him as portals into their personalities. There’s an interesting tale Miyazaki tells about his father. During the Japanese invasion of Asia, the commander, in an attempt to raise morale, told the soldiers that anyone who didn’t want to go didn’t have to.
“But my old man took this statement at face value and announced to the officer,’ I have a wife and baby, so I can’t possibly go to the front lines.’ In those days, saying something like that was unthinkable. A sergeant who had taken him under his wings harangued him for disloyalty for two hours. As a result, my old man ended up being left behind in Japan. And then I was born, so I am grateful on that score.”
His descriptions of his interactions with his father resemble the outlines of a comedy highlighted by moments of poignancy. More and more as I read about Miyazaki life, I came to realize that his films were an extension of the joys he took in every day existence. Animation wasn’t just a job, wasn’t just a way of making money, but an expression of his personality. I think this is best summed up when he describes the key component of animation:
“The most important thing of all, it seems to me, is to have an interest in people, in how they live, and in how they interact with things.”
There’s a surprising sense of magic in the way Miyazaki views the world, where ‘bees can avoid rain drops’ and ‘birds must be able to see the wind,’ and a lot of that stems from his genuine interest in people. At the same time, there is a harsher side that is blunt in the fashion of all great directors. He doesn’t like just the pretty, filtered, side of humans, but the darker elements as well. While his dedication to quality is relentless, he doesn’t attempt to hide his criticisms. Such is the case when he describes Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy, considered by many as the father of Manga, Miyazaki says: “Everything that Mr. Tezuka talked about or emphasized was wrong,” because he was trying to emulate Disney, suffering “an inferiority complex, a fear that he would never be able to surpass ‘the grand old man.’” Perhaps as a glimpse of why Miyazaki was such a pioneer, he felt it was more important to find his own style and message rather than copy the greats of the time. Miyazaki goes on further to say,
“In 1963, Tezuka created Japan’s first TV anime series, Tetsuwan Atom, or Astro Boy¸ at the very low price of 500,000 yen per episode. Because he established this precedent, animation productions ever after have unfortunately suffered from low budgets... Without Tezuka, the industry might have started two or three years later. And then I probably could have relaxed a bit and spend a little longer working in the field of feature animation, using more traditional techniques.”
It’s rare to get such an honest statement about a revered personage. But that’s also part of what makes Miyazaki so compelling and powerful as a filmmaker. He lives his creed, he paints what he believes in, and he doesn’t flinch from uncomfortable truths. I found the essays and interviews enlightening, not just for what I learned about Miyazaki’s past, but all the things I learned about the early days of animation. There are lessons that are still relevant today and I’ve found comfort in reading many of these stories, reflecting back on my own early years sleeping at the office and struggling to advance the quality of the work I did. This book is a great starting point in understanding how we got to where we are now.
Part 2 of this Starting Point series will cover Miyazaki’s thoughts on his earlier films.
Peter Tieryas is the author of the recent collection, Watering Heaven, from Signal 8 Press and has published in magazines like the Collagist, Indiana Review, and ZYZZYVA. He is a character technical director for Sony Imageworks where he's worked on films like Hotel Transylvania and Men in Black 3. He likes traveling the world with his wife and seeing different types of animation. You can reach him on twitter @TieryasXu