Walking into the board rooms of a perniciously cold office building in downtown Tokyo in the late 1980s, Hayao Miyazaki declared that he did not want to finish the production of My Neighbour Totoro. The material wasn’t long enough to be made into a film; the internal rivalry between himself and fellow Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata was becoming far too stressful, and the film itself was composed of ‘silly’ characters – one specific ‘catbus’ raising eyebrows.
By the end of 1988, a younger sister had been added, increasing the film’s length, the names of the ‘silly’ characters were dancing around the media as well as the lips of every child in Japan, and a rivalry was soon eclipsed as My Neighbour Totoro was beginning its ascent to being one of the greatest animation pieces of all time.
It may bring a single tear to know that one of the sweetest examples of sisterly love came out of productive expediency, but floods surely well when contemplating the idea that Totoro was almost never made. It wasn’t the first of Miyazaki’s films (Castle of Cagliostro being his first fully credited film). But possessing the fullness of an artistic masterpiece, it became the guide which drew light upon a small animation company that would, over the course of 20 years, bring stories of wonder and emotional maturity to the young and the not-so-young.
“Miyazaki’s gift of looking into the human character is far too sharp and irrepressible”
So when Miyazaki announced his retirement from the film industry in 2013, it was very much to everyone’s sadness. Signing off his voluminous career with the very personal and intimate film The Wind Rises, he embarked into solitude, resigned to spending the rest of his 72 years old life cloistered in the Studio Ghibli Museum tending to the precious memories he had collected in his 50 years of filmmaking.
And now, he is back. With news that Ghibli is developing a film set to be released in 2019 – based upon a short story from the Studio Ghibli museum - the animation world is glowing with the knowledge that Miyazaki is at its helm. But it is largely unsurprising.
“The animation world is glowing with the knowledge that Miyazaki is at the helm of Ghibli’s next film”
Throughout his career, Miyazaki has explored ideas and themes which have been left untouched elsewhere. Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle – all these are films which deal, in some large or small way, with environmentalism, with pacifism, with war, with feminism and globalisation and individualism. Such restless and powerful themes cannot simply be walked away from, and Miyazaki speaks with the power of a prophet when doing what he does best.
It would be wrong, however, to describe Miyazaki’s works as solely politically motivated. Miyazaki sees the ghosts of things. He can see the seams of life as they decorate and as they are unwoven. He can watch the joy and happiness of human life as it blindly proceeds, yet trace moments of such precise and subtle melancholy into the picture that they are almost imperceptible.
To say that he is past his prime is nonsense: Miyazaki’s gift of looking into the human character is far too sharp and irrepressible. And with the world being far stranger than 20 years ago, his insight, I think, is not unwelcome.