Hayao Miyazaki: The Gift of Creative Magic
Ask anyone who is a true fan of anime what one director has perfected the landscape of the artform more than anyone else in the last 20 years, and the answer will almost unanimously be "Hayao Miyazaki". Certain animators, like Osaka Tezuka, have won praise on this side of the Pacific, and others like Leiji Matsumoto have become well-known due to their shows and characters. However, it's arguable that no one else has captured the magic of the animated format like Miyazaki, not even Walt Disney himself. Although I would love to delve deeply into the subject, I'm just going to make a few brief points...for a wonderful, detailed look at Miyazaki's life and work, I recommend the just-published Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation by Helen McCarthy. Another good place to look is at Roger Ebert's interview with the master in October '99.
Ultimately, what makes Miyazaki's work stand out from the rest of the anime milieu is the underlying humanity. Miyazaki's first major work was Lupin III: The Castle Of Cagliostro. Although Lupin III has taken flight in hundreds of TV episodes and several feature length films, Cagliostro stands out from most all of them. It's ultimately Miyazaki's ability to bring out the human side of the story that makes the exciting film so fascinating, which usually gets lost in the often madcap world of Lupin. From that first work on, Miyazaki stayed true to form: this ability to bring the human touch to "action" flms also shows in Nausicaa, Laputa, and Porco Rosso. In an artistic venue where over-the-top violence and "the cool factor" are often prevalent, Miyazaki has taken the road less travelled by telling stories through fantastic yet very realistic eyes. In fact, films like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service embody the fantastic within the mundane of everyday life. All are excellent, in my opinion.
Although all of Miyazaki's films are wonderful, My Neighbor Totoro stands out in my mind as his best. Why? Well, it has a simple reason in my mind: it defies audience expectations and simply awes us with its simple magic. What other film doesn't introduce its title character until over a third (and nearly half) of the way into the picture? What other film concentrates itself primarily on the day-to-day life of two little girls acting just like little girls? What other film so vividly captures the beauty of a rainstorm, or gives us the sheer joy of meeting a wonderful, absolutely new creature who seems to solely exist to exude wonder? The film begs to fail--the audience could be bored by the time a Totoro appears--but it doesn't. It succeeds by making the simple fantastic and the fantastic joyful. No violence, no real conflict, only one crisis to speak of...such things do not make up modern film. Instead, they make up Totoro, a film that should stand up for a long, long time.
I could go on and on about Miyazaki, but that would spoil the surprise. Go see Princess Mononoke when it plays at a theatre near you. Rent My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service if you don't already own them. And keep an eye out for Disney's release of Laputa: Castle In The Sky in 2000. You'll be happy you did. Miyazaki is a wonderful treat for both young and old, and he deserves recognition here in the States.