The Rear-View Mirror: Hayao Miyazaki (1941)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

I have the writer Neil Gaiman to thank for my first experience with director Hayao Miyazaki and his fantastic worlds: at the time, Gaiman wrote the script for Princess Mononoke‘s English dub, which was probably the first dub of a Miyazaki movie that didn’t cast actors primarily known for their voice work in the main parts. Instead, we got names such as Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton and Gillian Anderson – and we also got a wider release than anime features (as opposed to, say, the latest Disney princess movie) usually got in my neck of the woods.

Which gave me the chance to go and see Princess Mononoke at a cinema. It was a relatively late showing, starting at 9pm, and the film is probably the most graphically violent of Miyazaki’s works, but Switzerland being Switzerland, there were parents with children aged 8 or 9, because obviously animation equals children’s movie.

It’s not the best way to be introduced to a director, to watch one of their films while next to you a boy keeps asking why this person on the screen had just lost a head or an arm. (Princess Mononoke isn’t gory, but it is violent – startlingly so, compared to many of Miyazaki’s other films.) Nonetheless, I was rapt: here was a world that was fresh and mythical, yet real and entirely immersive. Here were talking animals that weren’t designed to sell toys – they were gods and creatures of legend. And here was a director who used myth and folklore to tell a story that wasn’t about good and evil but about flawed, fully human characters, driven by goals both noble and selfish.

While Princess Mononoke was the first film directed by Miyazaki that I’d seen, though, I had seen his work before. When I was growing up, many of the animated shows they were showing on TV were Japanese. I didn’t know the word ‘anime’ then, but I watched Japanese adaptations of children’s classics and fantastic literature, from Pinocchio and The Wonderful Adventures of Nils Holgersson to Sinbad‘s Adventures.

And then there was Heidi, Girl of the Alps, based on the 1880 novel by Swiss author Johanna Spyri. I was born in Switzerland and have lived most of my life here, so what I’m about to say borders on national blasphemy, but my Heidi was always the little, feisty girl with the black hair and the big anime eyes. Heidi was directed by Isao Takahata, another one of Studio Ghibli’s miracle workers, but Miyazaki was responsible for the layout, scene design and screenplays.

Even if I hadn’t been conditioned to like Miyazaki’s worlds as a child, though, I would have fallen for his films, and fallen hard, after Princess Mononoke. Once I got around to watching more of his earlier films, such as Porco Rosso, and once Spirited Away was released, I was hooked. How could I not be? Miyazaki’s worlds were so fully imagined, but also nuanced and filled with empathy, each of them took me to places and introduced me to fascinating, funny, warm, courageous characters.

Hayao Miyazaki, born in 1941, has announced multiple times that he’s retiring. Various of his films have been called his final works. Nonetheless, he is currently working on a film called How Do You Live? that’s slated for a 2020 release. It may well be Miyazaki’s final, final farewell as a director. The world of cinema will be poorer without him – but it would be greedy to ask for more, as Miyazaki has given us so much. Domo arigato, Miyazaki-san.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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