Eyeless in Japan
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Eyeless in Japan

Exploring Miyazakiworld

Photo of Hayao Miyazaki by Thomas. Some rights reserved. Source: Flickr.

This is a book review of Susan J. Napier’s biography of Hayao Miyazaki, Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art. You should preferably watch most, if not all of Miyazaki’s films before reading this review as plot details will be discussed. Page numbers cited come from the Kindle version of the text, as after much trial and error, I was unable to consistently calculate the page numbers as listed in the index.


The first Hayao Miyazaki film I ever saw was Kiki’s Delivery Service. I can barely recall my first viewing. I certainly knew nothing about Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli, but I was greatly moved by the film. Even now, I can still remember those warm feelings. I can also distinctly remember the first commercials of Spirited Away I saw as a child. Having grown up on the anime of Pokemon, Digimon, and Yu-Gi-Oh, I was deeply unsettled by the imagery, as though I had fallen into one of my nightmares. I was even a little nauseous after viewing the film for the first time. Ecstasy. Fear. Nostalgia. These are were my impressions of Miyazaki’s films, which might also be fairly descriptive of the man himself.

Susan J. Napier’s biography of Hayao Miyazaki, Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art (2018) is her best book thus far. In it, she manages to blend her academic background in Japanese literature with her scholarly interest in anime and manga. Most otaku know Napier for her 2001 classic text, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke, which was later revised in 2005. Napier’s book probably isn’t the first English language biography of Miyazaki, but it’ll be the first one that everyone references. Not only is it up to date with his last film, The Wind Rises, but it also draws upon a wealth of Japanese resources, including her interviews with the man himself.

For Napier, the term “Miyazakiworld” refers to an “immersive animated realm that varies delightfully from film to film but is always marked by the director’s unique imagination” (9). While Napier will be looking at him through his works, she also wants to provide the reader with a more complex and intimate portrait of the man behind the art. She was first inspired to write this book after her 1992 visit to Studio Ghibli. In her conversation with him, they connected over the Tokyo suburb of Tokorozawa, which at the time had suffered from some serious environmental pollution. It is in this suburb where My Neighbor Totoro is set and it was also place where Napier lived while she studied Japanese in the 1970s (16). Even before they knew each other, they had a mutual connection.

The Birth of an Animator

The book starts with Miyazaki’s childhood during World War II and its aftermath. He was born in 1941 and though he was only four by the war’s end, he can still recall the air raids. Miyazaki’s family owned a factory that helped build the warplanes, which made them quite wealthy during the war. Napier points to this as contributing to the “mixed blessings of technological progress” in his films (20). No doubt, his fascination with flying machines began with the invention of new planes, such as the Mitsubishi Zero, but the terrible purpose for which they were used also showed him war’s all too human costs.

A significant memory of Miyazaki’s occurred during a firebombing in 1945. His family gathered onto his uncle’s truck and he distinctly remembers a woman and her child asking to be let on, only for the truck to leave them behind. To this day, Miyazaki regrets not asking his parents to stop for the mother: “I guess it doesn’t seem realistic that a four-year-old child would tell his parents to stop the car, but I felt that if such a child were to exist, this would have been a good time to tell them to stop” (32). Napier connects this wish to the sorts of children who take on adult responsibilities in his films.

Such children were also inspired by personal experience. Throughout most of his childhood and adolescence, Miyazaki’s mother, Yoshiko, had been bedridden with tuberculosis and relied “on her four sons to bring the world to her” (27). In My Neighbor Totoro, the ten-year-old Satsuki does the chores while their mother is ill. Miyazaki once compared Satsuki to himself, saying, “A ten-year-old can do kitchen chores. I did. I also cleaned house, fired up the bath, and cooked” (40). Tuberculosis also ails the female lead, Naoko, in The Wind Rises, which Napier interprets as “another way for the director to process his personal loss” (290). Unlike Naoko, however, Yoshiko recovered and lived to seventy-two. Yoshiko’s tough character always stuck with Miyazaki, her favorite saying was: “Human beings are hopeless” (44). While he often clashed with his mother politically, he always respected her intellect, and indeed, she was a probable influence on his older female leads, Lady Eboshi, Yubaba, and The Witch of the Wastes.

From a young age, Miyazaki had a talent for drawing with “exactness and attention to detail” (36). He nourished his talents with a number of classic works: The Count of Monte Cristo, The Secret Garden, Night on the Galactic Railroad, the cartoons of Max and Dave Fleischer, and the manga of Osamu Tezuka. Being from a middle-class family in the 1950s, it was expected that Miyazaki would become a salaryman after high school. A career in animation was unheard of at the time, so the young Miyazaki kept his passions to himself, “I was probably the only guy I knew in high school who actually read manga. If I’d told people then that I also drew comics, they would have treated me as though I were an idiot” (35). An anime that seemed to have had a profound effect on him was Panda and the Magic Serpent (1958), which was the first color anime movie, and lacked the cynicism of the stark gekiga comics of the time:

“I was moved to the depths of my soul and — with snow starting to fall on the street-staggered home. After seeing the dedication and earnestness of the heroine, I felt awkward and pathetic, and I spent the entire evening hunched over the heated kotatsu table weeping” (50).

Miyazaki became an animator for Toei in 1963 at age twenty-two. During these years, he met future Ghibli colleagues Isao Takahata, Yasuo Otsuka, and Yoichi Kotabe. Miyazaki also took part in the union activities as a secretary. Their early projects at Toei were Gulliver’s Travels and Horus: Prince of the Sun. After leaving Toei, they traveled to Sweden to get Astrid Lindgren’s permission for a Pippi Longstocking adaptation. She refused, but the journey to Sweden would later inspire the backdrop for Heidi and Kiki’s Delivery Service. The team found some early success with Panda Go Panda (1972), which capitalized on the Panda craze after China sent two pandas to a Japanese zoo.

Miyazaki, Takahata, Otsuka, and Kotabe then moved to Zuiyo Eizo (now Nippon Animation), which specialized in anime adaptations of Western literature. Their first hit was Heidi (1974), based on the delightful novel by Johanna Spyri. Napier credits the show’s beauty, charm, and psychological complexity for its enduring popularity, having been voted as the best anime by female viewers as recently as 2014 (67). Their next hit, Anne of Green Gables (1979), based on the novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery, has become so popular among Japanese girls, that Napier credits it for most of the Japanese tourism to Canada’s Prince Edward Island. It is in the series Future Boy Conan (1978), however, based on The Incredible Tide by Alexander Key, where we start to see “Miyazakiworld” take shape.

Future Boy Conan is set in a post-apocalyptic Earth where most of world is covered in ocean. Conan, like Mowgli and Tarzan, is a wild boy raised on an island far from civilization. Civilization is divided into two opposing societies: The authoritarian empire of Industria, where the poor work in slave camps, and the socialist utopia of High Harbor, where everyone works together to provide for the common good. Conan straddles between the two poles on his journey to rescue Lana from Industria’s clutches. The theme of apocalypse would recur in later works, like Nausicaa, as Otsuka put it, “The fundamental element of Miyazaki’s work is destruction and recreation” (70). We also see the beginnings of his morally nuanced antagonists, with Mosley being transformed from a “Soviet-style apparatchik into an immeasurably more complicated figure, both empathetic and endearing” (72). Conan is also strongly political, with Napier noting that, “Miyazaki’s Marxist leanings come through both his addition of a heroic community of resistance activists in Industria and in the collaborative farming that the inhabitants of High Harbor engage in” (72).

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), Miyazaki’s first film, was based on the Lupin III anime and manga by Monkey Punch. While not his original creation, Miyazaki managed to adapt Lupin to suit his own tastes. This included Lupin himself, who instead of being driven by “money, jewels, or women,” is now “is fighting to give his life meaning and is yearning for someone who can lead him to that fight” (79). Napier suggests that this new depiction of Lupin was aimed at those who had grown up in the 1970s and lacked either “ideological commitment” or a “willingness to sacrifice” (79). Miyazaki’s reworking of Lupin’s character was also rooted in the director’s own malaise about approaching middle age at thirty-eight. He had married fellow animator Akemi Ota at twenty-four with the intention that they would both continue to work. However, when they had two boys, Akemi stayed at home to raise them while Miyazaki threw himself into animation. He rarely spent any time with his sons.

“Miyazakiworld” Emerges

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) was Miyazaki’s first original film, which was based off of the manga he had written around the same time. He brought in Takahata to produce and the then-new composer Joe Hisaishi to create the score. Napier notes that Nausicaa came at a time when science-fiction anime, such as Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) and Space Battleship Yamato (1974), had grown in popularity (95). Miyazaki based Nausicaa off of a character of the same name in Homer’s The Odyssey. When the epic poem opens in media res, Odysseus is shipwrecked on an island where he is looked after by the Princess Nausicaa until he can return to Penelope. In Miyazaki’s film, Princess Nausicaa’s duties shift from saving Odysseus to saving the world itself. Napier traces Nausicaa’s themes of a polluted world from the environmental crises that plagued Japan throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the most infamous being the dumping of chemical wastes in Minamata Bay. The resulting incident infected the fish with a deadly and deformity-causing disease, which then spread to the humans who consumed them (98).

It is from Nausicaa, and later works like Princess Mononoke, that Miyazaki acquired a reputation for being an environmentalist. Napier writes that Nausicaa was influenced science-fiction novels with ecological themes, such as Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), which featured giant sandworms that probably inspired the giant Ohmu. Miyazaki himself has a rather apocalyptic outlook on ecology, at one time telling a journalist that “I want to see the sea rise over Tokyo and the NTV tower become like an island. Money and desire — all that is going to collapse and wild green grasses are going to take over” (10). The director, however, has denied that he deliberately sets out to make films with “messages,” insisting that the living story must always come first:

“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 environmentalist 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” (100).

Miyazaki has denied that My Neighbor Totoro (1988) is a “nostalgia piece,” but it nonetheless evokes a wistful vision of an older Japan, as its catchphrase says, “We are returning to you something you have forgotten” (125). Totoro was released during Japan’s economic boom, now known as “the bubble economy,” which Miyazaki despised. In an interview done a year after Totoro, he said, “Surely there can be no more superficial people than the Japanese. They were not able to transcend the demon of rapid economic development. And as a result, [we have] the corruption of the world, the loss of ideals, and the worship of material things” (125). This is why it’s significant that Totoro is Miyazaki’s first film to be set in Japan itself. Napier adds that part of Totoro’s aesthetic appeal came from its presentation of a “frugal, nonmaterialistic society distinguished by small rural communities in which neighbors supported each other and respected and appreciated the natural environment” (126).

In her chapter on Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Napier opens with a personal anecdote. While she was teaching a seminar on Miyazaki, a student complained to her that Kiki’s premise was unrealistic. They didn’t believe that a young girl on her own would encounter so many kind strangers. Napier disagreed, drawing on her own experiences teaching English in Japan (145). Kiki became Miyazaki’s first major hit since Nausicaa, because it tapped into the new experiences young Japanese people (especially Japanese women) during the 1980s. At the time, Miyazaki compared Kiki with all the “young women who come to big cities all alone, dreaming of making it as manga artists” (160). Napier makes particular note of a scene where Kiki, while staying at the baker’s home, discreetly goes to the bathroom one morning, adding that it reflected “an unusual new reality for a Miyazaki film — an urban lifestyle in which virtual strangers come together is disparate modes and moments (147). That being said, the film still takes jabs at Japan’s bubble economy, with Napier writing that “Kiki’s hard work, honor, and perseverance contrast with that era’s culture of hedonism” and that the director even “includes skeptical glimpses of young people who appear to spend their lives partying” (158).

Porco Rosso (1992) is one of Miyazaki’s most political works. This is not to say that Miyazaki had been shy about his politics before. Future Boy Conan had a worker’s uprising. Nausicaa carried antiwar and ecological themes. In Castle in the Sky (1986), the supporting cast of poor, working class characters were shaped by Miyazaki’s solidarity with the Welsh mining strikes of the 1980s (112). Porco Rosso continues and expands on his ideas. Set 1920s Europe with fascism on the rise, Napier draws parallels between Porco Rosso and the 1942 film Casablanca, as both involve former lovers, a romantic nightclub, a song that invokes old memories, and antifascist resistance (175). Porco Rosso reflects Miyazaki’s horror with the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, which paralleled Marco’s own distaste with World War I, as he said during the film’s release:

“We felt that the world was getting better, bit by bit. Our history was that things would get better. So when the Yugoslavian ethnic wars happened we were dumbfounded. What was going on? Were we just going backward? These last two years [since 1992] I’ve really been running around in a haze” (181).

Napier refers to Porco Rosso as Miyazaki’s most personal film as it deals intimately with middle-age. There’s a surreal flashback sequence where Marco reveals to Fio how he became a pig. The scene is lifted Roald Dahl’s short story “They Shall Not Grow Old” (1945), in which a WWII pilot joins a procession of fallen warplanes and nearly enters the afterlife. Marco has a similar experience, but this time around he sees his friend flying away. It is this survivor’s guilt (which parallels with Miyazaki’s childhood) that turns Marco into a pig. Napier further adds,

“By using the magic of animation to make his other self a pig, Miyazaki pungently explores such issues as survivor’s guilt, his disillusionment with ideology, the complexities of desire (embodied in Fio’s kiss and Marco’s reaction), and what we all face when, unlike the airmen of Dahl’s title, we do indeed grow old. Marco, only a little younger than Miyazaki was at the time of the film’s creation, is a flawed hero trying to come to terms with the loss of youth, the loss of idealistic dreams, and the pressures and disillusionments of middle age” (187).

Napier’s chapter on Princess Mononoke (1997) also opens with an anecdote. She’s in the theater watching it with a friend who was unfamiliar with anime in general. This friend was very confused about the moral ambiguity of the film, prodding the author to tell them who the heroes and the villains were (211). Napier softly scolded her friend for missing the point, noting later in this chapter that: “The director treats both humans and nature evenhandedly in the movie. The film is not simply an environmentalist paean that blames humanity and suggests that a return to nature is a simple and easy solution” (220). This is part of the reason why the film has retained its effectiveness, it reflects world conflicts with realism.

Napier also notes that Mononoke also came at a difficult time in Japan’s history, with 1995 marking two catastrophic incidents: the Kobe earthquake which killed between 4,000–6,000 people and the Aum Shinrikyo incident, were an apoclayptic cult released sarin gas in a Tokyo subway station that killed 12 and injured thousands (216). Few Japanese literary works are better attuned to catastrophe than Kamo no Chomei’s the Hojoki. Chomei was a 12th century Japanese poet who abandoned society to live as a hermit. The Hojoki records his meditations on the various disasters of his time, and is considered a classic of Japan’s mono no aware aesthetic, which refers to a pathos for impermanence. Mononoke sprang out of Miyazaki’s initial desire for a Hojoki adaptation, with the idea of “a medieval period piece treating natural and technological catastrophe and the question of how to live in a complicated and terrible world” (216).

Napier suggests that the film’s title character, San, embodies the director’s anger at an increasingly chaotic and stupid world (217). San’s foil is Lady Eboshi of Irontown, whom Miyazaki once told Napier was his favorite character in the film. She figures that the director must see a lot of himself in Eboshi: “She is, after all, the head of a community who is forced to make tough decisions and still not lose her humanity, a complex dynamic that Miyazaki faced everyday at Studio Ghibli” (218). Napier also notes how Mononoke subverts the conventions of the jidaigeki genre, with one example being that its protagonist, Ashitaka, is a tribal Emishi and not a “Yamato” Japanese.

Spirited Away (2001) continues the themes of childhood, loss, and spiritualism from Totoro and Kiki. It is once again from the perspective of a young girl in a strange, new world. Napier notes that Chihiro also suffers what she calls an “intimate apocalypse”, where a child deals with “an intimate and potentially traumatic loss” (234). Satsuki and May had to deal with their mother’s life-threatening illness in Totoro, while Kiki had to endure the temporary loss of her powers. Chihiro’s “apocalypse” is seeing her parents turn into pigs while she must work at the unfriendly bathhouse to save them. Miyazaki was sixty when he completed the film, as Napier describes: “old enough to understand the complexities of modern life, but still vigorous enough to be angry and disappointed” (235). Spirited Away serves as his critique of the modern society through the gluttony of Chihiro’s father, the apathy of her mother, and the initial brattyness of Chihiro herself. Miyazaki once lamented, “The whole world seemed covered in concrete,” and so through the magical bathhouse, he evokes “centuries-old traditions of cleanliness and purification now used to revitalize the exhausted gods, who no longer seem welcome in the contemporary world” (236-237).

As with Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away broke box office records in Japan and helped increase Miyazaki’s profile among Americans. Spirited Away was also the first, and so far, the only anime film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Miyazaki himself, however, refused to go to the ceremony out of protest against the 2003 Iraq War invasion. Napier writes that his anger over Iraq shaped his direction of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), where he expressed a desire for a “melodrama set among the fires of war” (250). These changes to Diana Wynn Jones’ novel result in an enjoyable, but disjointed feature. While Howl and Sophie do have chemistry in the film, their delightful back-and-forth from the book is absent. The antiwar theme also feels kind of forced and slightly jarring in this children’s fantasy story, as Napier writes, “In contrast to its charmingly domestic scenes of hanging laundry or cooking breakfast, the movie gets rid of the bloody reality of war and instead offers a distances perspective” (260). The war’s trauma is thus seen primarily through Howl personal conflicts, and by extension, Miyazaki’s. Also, for what it’s worth, Jones herself enjoyed the film, and had such a delightful dinner conversation with the director that their interpreter almost didn’t get to eat.

Ponyo (2008), his creative adaptation of Hans Christan Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, drew inspiration from Japan’s Tomonoura Harbor. The film contains the well-established tropes of the Miyazaki brand, an exiled man with a disdain for humanity and a natural apocalypse caused by imbalance. Napier notes that the catastrophe is resolved, not by humans, but through a goddess’s divine intervention. She then cites an interview where Miyazaki noted that masculine authority was growing weak in the modern world, and that the only male heroes one could make were very young ones like Ponyo’s Sosuke (274). The giant waves swallowing the Japanese coast also became eerily prophetic after the Fukushima disaster.

“You Must Live”

Some have wondered how Ghibli would function without Miyazaki or Takahata at the helm. Takahata, who directed the classics Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Only Yesterday (1997), managed a final masterpiece, The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013), before his death in 2018. Hiromasa Yomebashi has risen to the plate with the lovely Arietty (2010) and the moving When Marnie Was There (2014). Yomebashi has also shown promise at Studio Ponoc (founded by former Ghibli staff) with his fantasy film Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017). Ghibli also did its first foreign co-production through The Red Turtle (2016) with Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit. While Miyazaki and Takahata will certainly be missed, the future of Ghibli remains bright.

It’s also hard not to mention Miyazaki’s son, Goro, in all of this. Goro’s debut at Ghibli was his lackluster adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, Tales from Earthsea (2009). Not only was the film a jarring interpretation of Le Guin’s work, to point where Le Guin herself disavowed it, but Goro’s visual aesthetic was also too nakedly derivative of his father’s. Goro did redeem himself, however, with From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), which takes a different direction from most Ghibli films (being set in a 1950’s high school), but succeeded in humorous, emotional soap opera. That redemption, though, was short-lived. Goro’s latest film, Earwig and the Witch (2021), is a stilted CGI-nightmare, whose animation is outclassed by the average RWBY episode.

NHK’s four hour documentary on Miyazaki, “10 Years With Hayao Miyazaki”, sheds some light on their troubled father-and-son relationship. You get a sense that Goro is still resentful of how absent his father was and seems desperate to prove himself. Miyazaki, though, seems skeptical that his son can succeed as an animator. While it was moving to watch the two finally work together on Poppy Hill, Goro still lacks his own voice, and should move to another studio where he isn’t constantly under pressure from his father’s shadow.

At the time Napier’s book was published, Miyazaki’s last film was The Wind Rises (2013), and it remains his most controversial. The film was inspired by the life of Jiro Hirokushi, who designed the Mitsubushi Zero warplane that was used by the Japanese military in World War II. Miyazaki takes a step back from the politics of Jiro’s actions to celebrate, in Napier’s words, “the brilliant, but grinding, almost superhuman efforts that went into its development, a paean to the remarkable achievement of the Zero and to the meticulous engineering, relentless work, hope, and dreams” (284). While Napier suggests that the film is a tribute to the labor of animation itself, such an aim could get lost in a romance about a military man in 1930’s Japan. Many accused the director of ignoring Japan’s wartime responsibilities in this movie, such as film critic Minohiko Onozawa, who labeled it fascistic (287).

Napier describes the film as being about two romances: that of Jiro and Naoko and that of Jiro and his plane. The tragic romance with Naoko is fictional and is lifted from Tatsuo Hori’s romance novel The Wind Has Risen (1937). Napier writes that the tuberculosis theme not only refers to Miyazaki’s ill mother, but also to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924), which is about a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps (290). Jiro’s love affair with his plane appears to win out in the end, but that too ends in death. In the ending scene, Jiro sees the destruction caused by the plane around him, and laments: “Not a single one came back.” Napier adds the historical footnote that Mitsubishi Zeros were the plane of choice by kamikaze suicide bombers (293). While rebuffing the idea that The Wind Rises is an apology for fascism, she is careful to note that it hits upon a contradiction in much of his art, “On the one hand, Miyazaki loathes war and fiercely protests against it. On the other, he creates manga and films that celebrate the glories of military technology” (294).

The film ends with the deceased Naoko telling Jiro that he must live. Napier makes the point that learning how to live in fraught times is a running theme in Miyazaki’s work. In the Nausicaa manga, the Princess and people must learn to live in a polluted world. In Porco Rosso, Marco must learn to live as a middle-aged man with broken ideals. In Princess Mononoke, nature and man must learn to live together in peace. Napier says that Miyazaki’s works are about “Resilience, not suffering” (23). The invocation to live is one of continuing relevance, which is why Miyazakiworld will continue to thrive and invite new viewers long after he has passed.

The title of Miyazaki’s newest film will be How Do You Live?



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Sansu the Cat

Sansu the Cat

I write about art, life, and humanity. M.A. Japanese Literature. B.A. Spanish & Japanese. email: sansuthecat@yahoo.com