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Wednesday 20 August 2003

Hayao Miyazaki:
The Greatest Fantasy Director You Never Heard Of?

by Cynthia Ward

Hayao Miyazaki is the greatest fantasy director who ever lived. But chances are good you react to his name by saying, "Isn't he that Japanese animation guy with a movie on the Hugo ballot?" Or, maybe, "I heard he won an Oscar for Spirited Away, and he did that other movie, Princess Mononoke." Or even "Never heard of Hayao Miyazaki." Unless you haunt science-fiction convention "anime rooms," you probably don't know this giant of Japanese animation has a career reaching back to 1963. Miyazaki's earlier films received little or no American theatrical distribution, though outside the U.S. the brilliant director/writer is as famous and popular as Walt Disney.

Six of his eight full-length feature films are available in the U.S. on DVD.


"He stole something quite precious. Your heart."

A fantasy in the Ruritanian sense and a 'Sixties-style crime caper, The Castle of Cagliostro (Rupan Sansei: Kariosutoro no Shiro, 1979; Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro) is Hayao Miyazaki's directorial film debut. However, the movie's hero wasn't created by Miyazaki, but by the Japanese manga/anime artist Monkey Punch. A Japanese descendant of Arsene Lupin, the fictional French gentleman-thief, Lupin III is a womanizing super-thief who flees a failed Monte Carlo casino heist into the imaginary duchy of Cagliostro. Packed with shootouts, car chases, Bondish gadgetry, ninja assassins, a sinister count, a runaway bride, and more, The Castle of Cagliostro is great fun, but it's not a typical Miyazaki movie. However, it offers the first filmic glimpse of his talents and his fascinations (nature, strong female characters, and flying).

The DVD (Manga, 2000) presents the 109-minute movie in widescreen letterbox format, with a stereo choice of English, Japanese, or Japanese with English subtitles. The sound quality is good, but the video was digitized from a mildly flawed print. Bonuses are limited. The "Manga 2000 Trailer" runs several anime previews in sequence; you can't play the previews individually. The DVD catalog is a thumb-driven slide show of available titles.


"Beyond those clouds is an island we've only dreamed of."

The Castle of Cagliostro suggested Miyazaki's talents; Castle in the Sky (Tenku no Shiro Laputa, 1986; Laputa: The Castle in the Sky) displays them in full flower. The art is outstanding. Character designs are stylized yet realistic (no plate-eyed, spike-haired cartoon characters here). Landscapes and skyscapes are both realistic and fabulous, with a richness and depth of beauty that Miyazaki movies share with only the finest Disney animation; the scenery stunningly supports Miyazaki's theme that humanity must live in harmony with nature.

Set in an alternate history that commingles Victorian Wales with Imperial Germany, Castle in the Sky opens with a girl fleeing kidnappers by crawling out an airship window (the movie bursts with Miyazaki's beloved steampunk aircraft, not to mention trains, tanks, and robots). Sheeta slips and plunges earthward...and the curiously marked blue stone on her necklace begins to glow. She sinks feather-gently into the arms of a wonder-struck fellow orphan, the miner boy, Pazu. You won't notice the movie is 195 minutes, as the well-paced plot (involving spies, imperialists, brawling miners, matriarchal air pirates, a treacherous usurper, and a lost heiress) brings Sheeta and Pazu through a storm-wracked perpetual cloud-cover to the sky island of Laputa, last glimpsed by Pazu's late father, and last visited by a traveler named Gulliver.

Castle in the Sky (Disney, 2003) is a two-DVD set. Disk 1 offers the movie in high-quality widescreen, with English language dubbing and original Japanese dialogue with English subtitles. I always opt for subtitles, but if you're curious about the English-language voice acting, Disk 1's Bonus Features include "Behind the Microphone," as well as an introduction by Pixar founder John Lasseter and the original Japanese trailers. Disk 2 presents the original storyboards.


"You can see him only when he wants you to."

My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro, 1988; Next-Door's Totoro) is an 86-minute pastoral fantasy that absorbs the viewer while avoiding traditional tension-building tricks. The plot is deceptively simple: two girls, ten-year-old Satsuki and five-year-old Mai, move with their father to the Japanese countryside, where they experience the rhythms of the seasons and encounter supernatural creatures, among them the forest's giant, furred totoro (the word is reportedly the Japanese pronunciation of "troll," but there's nothing of Scandinavia's grim man-eaters in Miyazaki's gentle nature spirits). The girls' mother is in the hospital with an unnamed, lingering disease; when she worsens, Mai disappears. If you're sick of smartass movie brats, Satsuki and Mai offer a welcome change. If your brain was pulped by idiotic scifi flicks like Independence Day and the Planet of the Apes remake, My Neighbor Totoro will restore your wits and your sense of wonder. You can hardly do better if you're seeking an outstanding movie for children. Or adults.

Unfortunately, the DVD (Twentieth Century Fox, 2002) offers only pan&scan, English overdubbing, and three previews of (American) animations. Picture, sound, and voice-acting are fine, but unless you're buying My Neighbor Totoro for small children, wait for the inevitable "deluxe" reissue with the widescreen movie, Japanese dialogue, English subtitles, and theatrical trailers that should've been included the first time.


"When a witch turns thirteen she leaves home for a year to begin her training."

In Kiki's Delivery Service (Majo no Takkyubin, 1989; Witch's Special Delivery), the titular birthday girl receives her mother's broom and ascends to the sky, accompanied by her familiar, the black cat Jiji. Leaving her village to seek her destiny as a witch, Kiki finds an Italo-Germanic coastal city and, while nearly getting herself killed by unfamiliar urban threats, catches the eye and heart of a flight-obsessed boy named Tombo (Miyazaki's movies make it clear he experienced a moment of realization that strikes many heterosexual boys: "Wow! Girls are great!" Miyazaki differs from Hollywood directors in having never forgotten it). In the city, Kiki supports herself by making deliveries on her broom, but an emotional crisis cripples her ability to fly. Will she regain her faith in herself and save the stranded Tombo from a damaged zeppelin's life-endangering drift? Miyazaki's recurring nature theme is subordinate in Kiki's Delivery Service to other subtexts: the importance of faith in oneself, and the observation that a boy friend is well and good, but a girl needs a career.

Disney's two-DVD set for the 102-minute Kiki's Delivery Service (2003) offers the same features and quality as Castle in the Sky.


"Is the Deer God's head all the Emperor really wants?"

In 1999, the world-famous animator saw his first major (though limited) U.S. theatrical release with the 137-minute Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime, 1997), Japan's biggest-ever domestic movie, and its box office champion until Titanic. Alas, this medieval-Japanese fantasy about an accursed archer, a wolf-reared wild-woman, and the death of the nature gods is Miyazaki's weakest release. Had it been my first Miyazaki movie, I would've been flattened by the transcendent artwork, nuanced characterizations, moral complexity, compassionate humanism, and environmental sympathies. But compared to other Miyazaki movies, Princess Mononoke delivers its eco-message with a sledgehammer. The message sometimes manifests in repulsive images, such as the walking-dead boar-god buried in a squirming mass of worms. The uncharacteristic grotesqueries and graphic violence terrified children and alienated parents expecting just another sweet Disney animation; an American blockbuster Princess Mononoke was not. However, it received widespread praise in the U.S. for its subtle eco-message. Maybe I overreacted.

The widescreen DVD (Miramax, 2000) offers three spoken languages, English, French, and Japanese, with English language captioning for the hearing impaired and subtitles of the literal English translation (not the Neil Gaiman adaption). American and English actors (Gillian Anderson, Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Billy Bob Thornton) provide a superior overdub. Bonus material includes the theatrical trailer and Hollywood's already-traditional DVD featurette of actors offering shallow sound bites.


"Yubaba rules others by stealing their names."

In 2002, a Miyazaki movie that deserved a massive big-screen release was distributed to U.S. art houses. Featuring a renewed thematic subtlety and a new character design, the modern fantasy Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, 2001; The Spiriting-Away of Sen and Chihiro) tells what happens when Chihiro and her parents become lost and investigate an abandoned theme park. A boy in archaic Japanese clothes briefly appears to warn Chihiro, "Leave before it gets dark." But, seduced by a supernatural feast, Chihiro's parents have made literal pigs of themselves; and ghosts are filling the darkening streets. On her quest to free her parents, Chihiro loses her name to the grandmotherly evil witch Yubaba and becomes a tub-scrubbing slave in a "bath house where eight million gods can rest their weary bones." A 2003 Hugo Award finalist, Spirited Away has already received the other award it deserves, the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film (in competition with Ice Age, Lilo and Stitch, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and Treasure Planet).

On Disk 1, Disney's excellent two-DVD Spirited Away set (2003) offers the 125-minute movie in widescreen with a choice of three languges (English Dolby 5.1, French, and Japanese), captions, and subtitles. Disk 2 has a "Behind the Microphone" feature about the English language voice acting; a "Select Storyboard-to-Scene Comparison"; innumerable "Original Japanese Trailers" (I burned out at twelve); and a Nippon Television Special on Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli and the making of Spirited Away, a fascinating, informative 45-minute feature that by itself justifies the second disk.


"The problem with writing about Hayao Miyazaki's work is the continual need to search for new superlatives." --Helen McCarthy, The Anime Movie Guide.

My summary can only hint at the power and grace of Hayao Miyazaki's animation, which is fantastic in every sense of the word. See his films. And join me in praying that Disney will release the rest of his movies, especially the legendary Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Nausicaa, 1984), on DVD and the big screen.

Cynthia Ward has published short fiction in Asimov's and numerous anthologies, and has written a monthly market column for Speculations. She has written many reviews for Her website is at

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