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Magic is an overused word and an underused commodity. As a word it is thrown around unstoppably every day, whether as a street superlative or a multitasking journalistic approbation. As a commodity it is as rare as dragons’ teeth. Where can it be found and in what form? In a conjuror’s act? Perhaps, though true magic is more than illusionist trickery. In a Hollywood fantasy adventure film? Too often as kitsch, glitter and the show-off shape-shiftings of CGI.
But what about the magic that contains the word “mage” — seer, visionary, enchanter? What about the magic that the OED defines as “influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces”, or that Wikipedia, in a rare moment of searching exactness, defines as “an attempt to understand experience and influence the world using rituals, symbols, actions, gestures and language”.
If the great magician in fictive drama is Shakespeare’s Prospero, magician agent of a magician artist, the great magician of modern cinema is Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, with and without the characters he creates to execute his enchantments. He is moviedom’s great fantasist because his films are more than fantasies. Like The Tempest, his best films are fables sounding the depths of mortality and morality. He remaps, even “re-myths” experience using — to re-borrow Wikipedia’s list — rituals, symbols, actions, gestures and language.
Somehow sheltered from the storm, I had never seen a Miyazaki movie before Spirited Away in 2001. I swiftly realised it was the greatest animation film I had seen. It still is. In a fairytale set among gods, beasts, youngsters and tyrants — in an apparent abandoned theme park that becomes an empire of oneiric possibility — it tackles themes of loss, love, growing up and identity.
It boasts some of the great images of fantasy storytelling. The parents turned into gobbling pigs; the hero doubling as a flying dragon; the ravening mud monster; the train that travels on water. It is still the only movie to which, using the magic of surreal maths for that review, I gave six stars out of five.
For Miyazaki, the changes wrought by “magic” have moral purport and poetic import. His concern is not just with shape-shifting or transfigured beings, human or animal, but with shape-shifting lives, ideas, aspirations, emotions.
Everybody in his cinema can be somebody else, even several somebodies, within the same story. In Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) Sophie, the spell-cast heroine, mutates between young girl and witchlike crone. Howl, the handsome castle-owner, is also in fleeting metamorphoses a dog, a scarecrow and a human fighter plane. Even the hearth fire “Calcifer” — with dancing eyes and wisecracking mouth — leaps about metamorphically to index changes of mood, emotion, need.
Who a character “is” at any time depends on which slipstream of the story, or of his or her evolution, he or she is in. In the life of a Miyazaki character or tale, catastrophe can speed alongside hope and expectation, horror alongside humour, reality alongside dream or nightmare.
Nor is physical transformation always needed. Miyazaki has a Hitchcockian gift for finding the apocalyptic in the everyday. Nowhere more indelibly than in the opening sequence of Spirited Away. A car pounding along a country lane is stopped dead by a big blank wall, like a railway embankment, pierced by an undriveable tunnel. It’s the surreal mundanity — an ordinary structure in an extraordinary place — that’s eerie, even sinister, in this portal to another world. It’s Miyazaki’s version of Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole.
That connectedness with the real empowers Miyazaki’s realm of the unreal. His father worked in an aircraft parts factory and we seldom forget it. Flying machines, realistic, fantastical, beautiful, ferocious, grotesque, are in almost every story, climaxing in his farewell film, 2013’s The Wind Rises. This biopic of a Japanese fighter plane designer is also a biopic of Miyazaki’s patrimony. Beauty and terror, good and evil, live both in his own past and in that of Japan.
But what good artist ever created an art beyond himself? If art isn’t wired, however distantly, to the creator’s own life — his dreams, desires, loves, hates — it has no energy supply. An artist’s greatness lies in the scope of that “beyond”. Miyazaki’s themes and insights are miraculously far-ranging, while also underground-cabled to his own psyche.
He is fanatical about the environment and the spoiling or saving of our planet. Away from the film studio he is known to help his local community dredge their river of debris. From this Miyazaki comes the magisterial comedy-menace of the Mud Monster (Spirited Away), the eerie ubiquity of the shape-changing Blob Men formed of oil (Howl’s Moving Castle) and the climax of Princess Mononoke in which curse and redemption come, spectacularly, to a landscape sullied by industry’s satanic mills.
War is a second passion — or passionate antagonism. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds (1984), a manga-born sci-fi/folklore fantasy and Miyazaki’s first major international hit, is a virtual nonstop Armageddon. War too — aerial war — is the background noise, and background colour palette, in Howl’s Moving Castle, like a wound in the sky that keeps bursting fierily open. In The Wind Rises war is the Faustian pact made by Inventor Man with evil, the price he pays for the freedom to dream.
Third obsession: children and growing up. If the young are the world’s hope, we can’t let that hope depend on unspoilt innocence. Kids in Miyazaki’s films are put to the test: not least (for a film-maker often dubbed a feminist) girls.
Summer for the two little sisters in My Neighbour Totoro (1988), robbed of their hospitalised mother (as Miyazaki was during his own mother’s confinement with spinal tuberculosis in the 1950s), becomes a fantasy-rich enactment of birth, childhood and growing to wisdom. They befriend a giant cuddly forest beast, Totoro, a kind of antic mother surrogate. She provides nurture (in one scene magicking a tree to grow) and life-initiation (flying them over the countryside on a spinning top).
And when it comes to a mother’s obligation to trade womb-to-grow for room-to-grow, Totoro shares that role with her friend, the “Cat Bus”. This omnibus formed in the shape of a living cat — with windows, head-light eyes and paws for wheels — is one of Miyazaki’s great comical-surreal creations. It is like a uterine refuge that has grown to travel the world.
Spirited Away is also, in large part, a pageant or pantomime about growing up. Chihiro, the little heroine, is being driven to her new school. Not finding it, the family stumbles on a phantasmal realm which gives Chihiro the true “education” she needs. Education in life, wisdom and feeling.
Among the things she learns: no human quest is fulfilled without hard work and adversity; no authority figure (including parents) should be uncritically trusted; always believe what you see, not what you are told; and if love says it will go with you to the ends of the earth, make it keep its promise.
Miyazaki isn’t all life lessons. There are grace-notes, glories and throwaway gags scattered through every film, careless minutiae that speak of an indefatigable imagination. Look at the tiny creatures he keeps strewing, like mad choruses, through his movies. In Princess Mononoke the little forest ghosts with their hollow eyes and chittering, circularly cranking heads. In My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away, the spidery soot creatures, scuttling, conspiratorial, mischievous.
Or look at the delirium of invention that created Howl’s moving castle. Part tank, part fortress, part factory, part tenement building, part giant teapot, it heaves and rumbles across the land on chicken-like legs, all the parts wobbling and jostling separately as it moves. It toots and rattles and blows steam from its chimneys.
It’s a triumph of organised, poetic insanity touched with magic. Which is perhaps the best way, or only way, to sum up the cinema of Hayao Miyazaki.
Nigel Andrews is the FT’s film critic ‘The Hayao Miyazaki Collection’ is available on Blu-ray box set
Photograph: Nibariki, Yuya Shino/Reuters