Guest Post: A Tribute to Hayao Miyazaki by Conor Holt

A Tribute to Hayao Miyazaki
By Conor Holt


I don’t have a clear memory of when I saw my first Hayao Miyazaki film. I didn’t grow up watching his films – my childhood was built on Disney & Pixar. I believe I was around 12 when my younger cousins convinced me to watch Princes Mononoke.  I vaguely remember reading the back of the DVD case, which speaks of a young warrior “infected with a deadly curse”, who travels to the west and meets a princess “raised by wolves!” Maybe it was that silly exclamation point, but I can remember thinking: this sounds dumb. How wrong I could be. I don’t even remember watching the film, but I remember the feeling. I can’t quite express it, but it’s some powerful mix of enlightenment, wistfulness and joy. There is a special richness you get from watching a great film, a feeling that doesn’t diminish no matter how many times you watch it. I can’t say how many times I have watched this epic masterpiece, but that feeling, whatever it is, is there every time.

I think that feeling is key to understanding the greatness of Miyazaki’s films, and how they represent the very best of Animation. If I can put my finger on what I love about animated films so much, it’s that animated films can touch our emotions on a profound level. As a live-action filmmaker myself, I love live-action films, but there is something magical about animation in how it makes you “feel.” There are moments in every Miyazaki films that feel so alive, so close to you, that nothing else compares.

Sadly, Miyazaki’s career as a filmmaker may over – he claims that latest film The Wind Rises will be his last. This is not the first time Miyazaki has said this (he famously “retired” after Princess Mononoke, only to return for Spirited Away). But he seems quite sure this time – now that he is 72, directing an animated film where he is the key animator (which has always been Miyazaki’s style) is too much work. If this is to be the end, Miyazaki has left us with a wonderful farewell gift – The Wind Rises is a somber, souring, meditative look at the role of an artist and the sacrifices needed to achieve your dreams. The end of a great filmmaker’s career (by choice or death) is always sad, but Miyazaki’s towering filmography will still remain, waiting for another animation lover to discover it.

Click to enlarge

Animation is a strange thing to love as an adult. Many see animation as simply “for kids”, and animated films are often marketed at children. Even Miyazaki himself says he creates most of his films with an audience of Japanese children in mind. So why then do I still love and adore his films, and all of the films of Studio Ghibli? For one, they are beautiful. As hand drawn animation becomes more and more rare in the animation world, Miyazaki and his colleagues uphold the tradition, and Miyazaki even draws the entire storyboard for his films by himself. There’s also the music – each Miyazaki film since Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind has been scored by Joe Hisaishi, and his sumptuous scores mirror Miyazaki’s stunning animation perfectly. But perhaps the biggest thing that keeps me coming back is the subtle depth and layers of Miyazaki’s films, and the relatable characters and stories they feature. For example, Kiki’s Delivery Service is about a young girl training to be a witch, but the core story of moving to a new city and struggling to find your way is relatable to all ages. Re-watching the film, this time as a recent college graduate who had moved to Los Angeles, I was struck how similar my own concerns and fears were to Kiki’s. Miyazaki has told a variety of stories in his career, but he makes every one of them honest and believable, no matter how old you are.


So how does Miyazaki’s latest film The Wind Rises fit in with his peerless filmography? On paper, this is a significant departure in many ways for Miyazaki. It’s a (heavily fictionalized) biopic of a real person – Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Zero fighter plane. While the film features several stunning dream sequences, it is grounded in real life, with the real issues of Japan in the early 20th century and the lead up to World War II. There’s also a love story – Miyazaki’s films often feature the beginnings of teenage romance, but this film features a full & and heartbreaking portrait of love between Jiro and Nahoko. And yet when you watch it, you can instantly tell this is a Miyazaki film. The careful balance of visual storytelling and carefully written dialogue. The humor, which Miyazaki finds even in the most dramatic moments, often in simple things, like Jiro staring in awe at the beauty of a fishbone.

The Wind Rises is also one of Miyazaki’s most complex films, following the life of the designer of a WWII fighter plane, but focusing not on the war and it’s consequences but on his personal obsession with planes and the personal sacrifices he makes to pursue his dreams. Many have criticized the film for ignoring the horrors of war or whitewashing Japan’s war crimes. I believe that Miyazaki’s work here is thematically rich and deep, and will continue to grow in future viewings (I’ve already seen it three times). I believe that Miyazaki made a definite choice to focus on the artist’s pursuit in this film, not on the war itself (which his colleague Isao Takahata has done in the masterful tragedy Grave of the Fireflies). In many ways this reminded me of Princess Mononoke, another film that struggles with the complex nature of war, as well man’s relationship to nature, a key theme with Miyazaki. Mononoke features a forest-destroying businesswoman who helps lepers and prostitutes, and gods who will kill innocent people to protect the forest. In films like this and The Wind Rises, Miyazaki addresses the messy reality of life, and chooses to leave things open to discussion, and I love him all the more for that.


Still, I keep coming back to that emotion, that feeling I get when watching his films but I struggle to put it into words. It’s a wistfulness, a sense of capturing the fleeting nature of time. The greatest beauty of Miyazaki’s films may be the endings – each film leaves you not with the entire story but with a snapshot of a life. Every time I finish a Miyazaki film, I am filled with ideas and dreams of what the characters will do next, where they will go in their life. I don’t really want to see sequels, because I don’t need to – the film has so perfectly captured this world that I can feel the ebb and flow of its life. This is the special magic of Miyazaki – he has the magical ability to capture life. And thus the motto of The Wind Rises – “the wind is rising, we must try to live”, taken from a French poem quoted by characters in the film – sums up Miyazaki’s entire filmography. This is more than just an expression of Miyazaki’s pacifist stance – it’s a prayer for the importance of life, of finding the beauty in the world and protecting it. The importance of life cannot be better defended than through expressing it’s beauty, and Miyazaki has done that time after time with his films. In that sense, Miyazaki is not just a great artist, he is an inspiring artist, and even if he is retiring, he has inspired not just me, but millions across the world.

Conor Holt is the writer, director, and producer of multiple short films. His most recent film, A Better Life, a science-fiction drama about marriage & control, which he directed & co-wrote, played at the 2013 Fargo Film Festival and the Twin Cities Film Fest, and recently won Best Editing & Visual Effects at the St. Cloud Film Festival. He is a graduate of the Minnesota State University Moorhead Film Studies program, and currently lives in Los Angeles, working odd jobs in the film industry and volunteering at film festivals.

For more information on A Better Life, check out the Facebook page at Follow Conor on Twitter.

As a tribute to Mr. Miyazaki, what is YOUR memory of seeing a Studio Ghibli film and which one(s) is your favorite?

Musings on Asian directors… why so few of them thrive in Hollywood?

StokerPosterI had just seen STOKER on Tuesday night, which inspires me to write about this post. Now, a lot of you know I was born in South East Asia but I moved to the US to go to college and has been staying here since. I feel like I need to preface this article by saying that I am actually guilty of not being familiar with Asian cinema even though my brother was into Kung Fu movies at the time (particularly the Sin Tiaw Hiap Lu series). I personally am not a fan of martial arts nor samurai movies, which explains why I have not seen any of Akira Kurosawa films.

Even today, there are only a handful of Asian directors I could name whose work I’m familiar with. I’m focusing primarily on Asian actors born outside of US soil. One of the most successful one is the Taiwanese-born Ang Lee, who’s got two Best Director Oscars under his belt by now. Sense & Sensibility is one of my favorite films of ALL TIME, whilst Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Life of Pi are two of Lee’s films I’ll remember fondly. I’ve become quite familiar with Chinese-born John Woo (Face/Off) and Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers, Hero), Japanese Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), South Korean Jee-woon Kim (The Last Stand) and most recently, fellow Seoul-born Chan-Wook Park with Stoker. I still haven’t got around to seeing Wong Kar Wai‘s work, especially In the Mood for Love and Chung King Express.

JackieChanThis article from Film Junk has asked a similar question back in 2009, focusing specifically on Jackie Chan. I bet many of you were surprised by that, and so did I, but apparently one of Chinese’s most famous action hero has directed 18 films since 1979! The article even mentioned that “…there are action scenes in Chan’s Police Story aka Police Force that have been duplicated in Hollywood films…” citing Tango & Cash and Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II as examples. Yet the writer argued that Chan could only find work in Hollywood as an actor.

I discussed a few of these articles with my pal Ted (who’s also a South East Asian native) who’s perhaps more familiar with Hong Kong action films/thrillers. He agreed that “…it’s hard for these established directors to come over here and be successful. Most studio executives wants them to make the same kind of films but with Western actors. Then a lot of audiences here aren’t used to their kind of film-making so their films won’t make any money.” Of course this issue isn’t just limited to Asian actors, apparently it’s also tough for most European directors too, unless they’re Brits. Most well-known French or German directors have failed to make it in Hollywood.

Now, since Stoker is still fresh in my mind, let’s talk about Chan-Wook Park for a bit. I know Park is quite popular to Western audiences thanks to his vengeance trilogy, particularly Oldboy. He’s done about a dozen feature films in his native South Korea, so Stoker is his first English-language film and his first time working under the Hollywood system.

I found this Wall Street Journal blog interview with Park, and asked about his Hollywood debut, he replied that he…” felt there was a slight barrier and the humor that was found in my Korean films [did] not always travel well…” Now, the cultural barrier certainly could play a part in whether a non-American directors could make it in Tinseltown, though having seen Stoker, I don’t think that was an issue for Park. Even fellow Korean Jee-woon Kim did very well with the action-comedy The Last Stand despite the language barrier with the actors (I mentioned in my review that he barely speaks any English).

So perhaps it’s something else that might’ve been a hindrance for them to making it big. This article from The Grid points out that perhaps the key that a foreign director could thrive in Hollywood is versatility. It stated that “…[John] Woo’s problem may have been typecasting. As a vaunted Asian action director, he was expected to work the same magic in his American vehicles, and every one was compared (usually unfavourably) to his earlier movies in Hong Kong.” The writer Martin Morrow astutely compared Woo’s career to Ang Lee’s impeccable versatility.

Ang Lee and John Woo

I saw Lee’s Taiwanese film The Wedding Banquet before I saw the Jane Austen adaptation Sense and Sensibility, and he’s been genre-jumping ever since with The Ice Storm, Marvel superhero Hulk, Brokeback Mountain, and going back to his roots in creating the martial-arts fantasy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the highly risque NC-17 sexual thriller Lust, Caution. The article quoted an interview with NPR where he said, “I was afraid that if I stayed in one place doing [the] same type of movies, I’d be pigeonholed.. and I would have a very limited career.” Of course the road to success did not come easy for Lee either, as veteran Chinese-born actress Lisa Lu — who knew Lee from his days as a film student in NYU in early 1980s — revealed in this Voice of America article, “He asked me to see his thesis film, and when I looked at the film, I knew he was very talented,” Lu said. “So from there on, we became very good friends, and I tried to introduce him to everybody, but the timing was too early. At that time nobody wanted anything Chinese.”

Going back to Park, currently he seems to be associated with cerebral, violent thrillers, even though he did a Korean sci-fi rom-com I’m A Cyborg but that’s OK, but I don’t know how many western audiences are familiar with that one. Ted gave me a script review of an ultra-violent Western that supposedly Park was attached to direct, I’ll post that later this month, but that gives you a hint that Park might also be capable at genre-jumping. I’m curious whether Park could make the leap the way Ang Lee did and perhaps even make it to the awards circle.

I certainly would like to see more foreign directors not just make it but thrive in Hollywood. I mean, since Hollywood is notorious for ripping off Asian and European cinema anyway, why not make room for their filmmakers to do well here?

So what do you think? Curious to hear your thoughts on this one, folks. While you’re at it, who’s your favorite Asian director(s)?

DVD Picks: Letters to Juliet & Spirited Away

Well, I didn’t get a chance to see The Social Network this weekend, though they hardly need my patronage to take the top spot for the second weekend, dropping only 30% to take in $15.5 mil (per Box Office Mojo). Initially I wanted to see the dark comedy/drama The Joneses with David Duchovny and Demi Moore (see trailer here), but it wasn’t available at the DVD vending machine at my office, so I got this rom-com instead.

Letters to Juliet

I gotta admit I’m not a huge fan of rom-coms in general, but I actually like the trailer when I first saw it. Perhaps it’s the Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero casting that grabbed me, I mean romance knows no age after all, so it’s nice to see the 70-something real-life couple getting all lovey-dovey on screen. Of course there’s the gorgeous setting in Verona, Italy where most of this movie was shot, it’s one of those flicks that made you wish you could be transported right into the screen!

The movie opens with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), an American girl on vacation with her fiance in Verona who finds an unanswered ‘letter to Juliet’—one of thousands of notes/messages left at the fictional lover’s Verona courtyard. Apparently, at the end of the day these letters are collected by one of the ‘secretaries of Juliet’ and of course it’s no surprise that Sophie inadvertently became one of those secretaries. The story pretty much picks up when the woman who wrote the letter 50 years ago, Claire, receives it and goes to Verona along with her handsome grandson to meet whomever writes her back. You know what happens next, as the trailer pretty much tells us so, that Sophie ends up going on a quest to find Claire’s long-lost love.

Love knows no age… Franco & Vanessa

As predictable as this movie is—you pretty much know what’s going to happen next scene after scene—I actually don’t mind it so much. The 25-year-old Seyfried is such an affable and sympathetic leading lady, she makes you want to experience the journey with her. She has such earnest quality about her that is a rarity amongst beautiful young starlets. Aussie actor Christopher Egan (who looks like a younger version of Matt Damon) makes for a pretty charming love interest, and the two have a considerable chemistry. But the highlight of the movie for me came when Franco Nero finally showed up, the way every prince charming did in those Disney fairy tale flicks… on a horse looking all macho and heroic! It’s schmaltzy no doubt, but I totally bought it and I couldn’t help get all teary-eyed in the scene when the two are reunited.

As I said in my trailer post though, the only head-scratching casting here is Gael García Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries, Babel) as the obligatory oblivious fiance. In the Special Features, it sounds like Bernal wanted to try a ‘lighter’ role, but the professional chef Victor is such a one-dimensional character that the talented Mexican actor is kind of wasted in this role.

In any case, I thought this was a nice little movie to spend on a Friday night. Definitely a good one to watch with the one you love.


Spirited Away (2001)

I’ve never been a fan of anime, even though growing up I did read a lot of Candy Candy manga novels. I had a high expectation going into this as the credentials are beyond impressive, according to IMDb Trivia: In 2006, this film was still the highest-grossing non-US-produced film in the world and still holds that record to this date. Spirited Away is also the first film to earn US$200 million before opening in the U.S. and the first anime film to be nominated for (and win) an Academy Award! Walt Disney Pictures dubbed this English adaptation, under the supervision of Pixar’s John Lasseter. Lasseter is a personal friend of the Spirited Away’s Hayao Miyazaki, considered one of the best Japanese animation directors.

The movie starts off when 10-year-old Chihiro, the protagonist, and her parents are on their way to their new home in the suburbs. Her dad inadvertently takes a wrong turn into a mysterious wooded path and ends up in front of a peculiar looking tunnel. Despite Chihiro’s persistent protests, her adventurous parents decide to enter the tunnel and find what looks like an abandoned theme park on the other side. As they wander around, they find a deserted restaurant and Chihiro’s parents decide to help themselves to some food while their daughter refuses to take part.

Chihiro finds a friend in Haku

The story pretty much picks up a few minutes later when Chihiro finds her parents have been transformed into food-gobbling farm animals and soon she too is whisked away into a magical and creepy world ruled by an old witch, with only a boy named Haku to help her to survive and hopefully be able to return to her own world once again.

This is definitely not a movie for young kids, there are imagery that would frighten them, and I even find myself spooked–not to mention grossed out–on a few occasions. The story actually speak to adults with themes of loyalty, courage, dedication, diligence, perseverance and ultimately love, that permeate Chihiro’s journey. I really sympathize with the previously-spoiled-brat young girl right from the get go and watching what she has to endure is heart-wrenching as well as uplifting. By the end, you really see her grow as a person and the message is that life lessons sometimes involve hard work and facing challenges head on without losing your identity.

Chihiro picks up interesting friends throughout her journey

I don’t know if it’s what the director intended, but I see the scene of cleansing of the stink spirit the same way that can happen on our human souls when we let it get bogged down with ‘junk’ and evil stuff. If we let all the bad stuff of this world ‘consume’ us and take over our lives, it can have awful consequences to ourselves as well as those around us, and sometimes it could take drastic measures to get rid of those so we could be ‘free’ once again.

Glad I finally got a chance to see this. Spirited Away totally lived up to the hype, it boasts a well-written, touching story and stunning visuals that definitely make a lasting impression on me. I don’t even mind the fact that this was dubbed to English, I normally would prefer that movies are left in its native language with subtitles.

I’m curious to check out Miyazaki’s other works now, such as Princess Monokone and Castle in the Sky.


If you’ve seen either of these titles and would like to add your thoughts about ’em, you’re more than welcome to do so!