Searching for Hayao Miyazaki in the Details of His Films

LOS ANGELES — In 2003, the world-renowned animator Hayao Miyazaki made headlines, but not for the reason you might think.

The director’s film, Spirited Away — a smash hit both in Japan and abroad — had been nominated for an Academy Award, but Miyazaki refused to attend the Oscars ceremony in a quiet protest of the Iraq War.

This forgotten act of defiance is an incredible detail that reveals insight into the complex man that is Miyazaki — but it isn’t one you’ll find at the Academy Museum’s Miyazaki exhibition. Instead, the museum simply features replicas of the filmmaker’s two Oscars statues for the 2003 Best Picture award and the honorary award Miyazaki received in 2014.

It’s the absence of these kinds of critical details that left me feeling vacant and craving more as I walked through the crowded exhibit.

It’s clear the Academy Museum put great care into showcasing Miyazaki’s lifetime of work — a daunting task for any curator. The exhibition’s opening room features angled walls filled with clips from different Miyazaki films, and the sound from each of the films bathes over one another, creating a remarkable effect. 

Hayao Miyazaki, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (photo by Joshua White, JWPictures/ © Academy Museum Foundation)

Other rooms feature similarly engaging immersive experiences. In one dark room, glowing kodama, or tree spirits, from Princess Mononoke (1997) disappear and reappear around a life-sized sparkling tree. In the center of another room sits a patch of grass where you can lie down and look at a calming blue sky — a backdrop to countless Miyazaki movies.

Yet, much like Miyazaki’s films, the exhibition’s greatest strength lies in its quieter moments, such as the animator’s storyboard panels showcased under glass. Through these storyboards, we get a sense of how much careful planning went into every single frame of Miyazaki’s movies, from Porco Rosso (1992) to Ponyo (2008).

Imageboard, Hayao Miyazaki, Castle in the Sky (1986) (© 1986 Studio Ghibli)

I was similarly moved by another understated aspect of the exhibit: a poem on the museum’s walls entitled the “Forest of the Deer God,” which Miyazaki wrote for the film’s crew during the production of Princess Mononoke. The poem’s final stanza reads:

The forest where the Forest Spirit lives

Is a world where life glistens and sparkles.

It is a forest that denies entry to humans

Imageboard, Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke (1997) (© 1997 Studio Ghibli – ND)

As I was reading the poem, a clip from Princess Mononoke — when one character, San, brings her wounded friend Ashitaka to the Forest Spirit to try and save him —  played on loop nearby. It was a scene I had seen countless times, but the poem gave the moment so much more meaning. Here is a place where Miyazaki says no human should pass, but two humans enter, and we intuitively understand the course of the story will change forever. Reading the poem alongside the movie clip, I felt like I had gotten my first “real” glimpse into Miyazaki’s mind. 

But ultimately, I wanted to come away knowing more about the complex man behind the legend, and in that sense, the Miyazaki exhibit couldn’t help but disappoint. 

Unanswered questions still linger in my mind. What motivates this man to devote his life to creating hand-drawn worlds, despite CGI technology? How does he feel to see humans ravaging planet Earth, despite his film’s warnings about ecological devastation? Where does he draw the line between art and politics? The museum’s walls offer up brief quotes from Miyazaki as an attempt to answer these questions, but they only scratch the surface.

I like to experience Miyazaki best with solitude and quiet space to reflect. My most vivid experiences of watching Miyazaki are alone — whether curled up in a tiny dorm room bed in college or watching from my couch after a long day of work. A busy museum environment was never going to be the right place for me to experience Miyazaki, and maybe that’s okay.

As a Studio Ghibli fan, it gives me no great pleasure to say this: I didn’t love the Miyazaki exhibition. But that doesn’t mean you’ll come away from it with an empty mind or heart — not by a long shot. 

Background, Princess Mononoke (1997) (© 1997 Studio Ghibli – ND)

Hayao Miyazaki continues at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (6067 Wilshire Boulevard, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles) through June 5, 2022.

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