The incredible aesthetics and unique sense of wonder that characterize each film’s universe certainly contribute to Miyazaki’s signature style, but there is also something more. His visionary films all have recurring themes, symbols, and unique elements from Miyazaki’s own life and imagination.
For example, have you ever noticed that Miyazaki’s protagonists are often strong, female characters? And what about the presence of natural, uncontaminated, landscapes? is it an aesthetic choice, or does it tell us something about the director’s worldview? And among the multitude of bizarre creatures and characters, have you ever wondered if there are any real villains? These are just a few of the questions Miyazaki's films raise!
So, in today’s video, we will try to go beyond mere technique to grasp the philosophy and underlying vision of one of Japan’s greatest directors — Hayao Miyazaki. So, let’s get started!
Born in 1941, Hayao Miyazaki started work as an animator in 1963, when he was just 22 years old. He quickly became a central figure in the growing film industry of Japan and is still praised to this day for his insightful stories and beautiful imagery. From a technical standpoint, Miyazaki is a strong advocate of hand-drawn art; historically, nearly all of his films have been drawn by hand. Only recently did the director introduce small segments of CGI, but his films still retain the same natural creativity that they have for decades.
Looking Beyond Good and Evil
In Miyazaki’s narratives, there is never a clear dichotomy between good and evil. Instead, the characters are dynamic and free. Even the antagonists are not completely evil, so you won’t find any cookie-cutter Disney endings in which the good guys triumph over the bad guys in a Miyazaki film. In fact, villains are often absent or shown to have redeeming qualities. For example, in Kiki's Delivery Service and Howl's Moving Castle, Miyazaki teaches us to go beyond superficial appearances and try to understand human beings — with all of their innate complexities.
The Importance of Environmentalism
One of the most obvious recurring themes in Miyazaki’s films is an intense focus on the natural world and all of its beauty. Moreover, Miyazaki's films often emphasize environmentalism and Earth's fragility in an attempt to develop ecological awareness among his viewers. The Japanese director has often expressed his concerns regarding the excessive urbanization and modernization of Japan. This is why Nausicaa’s character in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind struggles to find something clean in a post-apocalyptic landscape, while the young Chihiro in Spirited Away must fight against the "stink spirit" of the polluted river. Respect for nature plays an important role in My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke as well.
A Passion for Flying
Another recurring theme that Miyazaki’s most attentive fans have probably noticed is his love of flight and flying machines. The director's father was the co-owner of an aircraft parts factory, and this almost certainly contributed to his love of aeronautics. The protagonist of Porco Rosso is, for example, a curious aviator, while the protagonists in Kiki's Delivery Service and Howl's Moving Castle also experiment with flight. For Miyazaki, flight is the ultimate expression of freedom — a unique way for humans to liberate themselves from the natural bounds of gravity.
Mixing Fantasy and Japanese Mythology
Miyazaki is known for his bizarre characters, but many viewers may not realize that they are frequently inspired by Japanese folklore, mythology, and religious tradition. Although the director is not a strict disciple of Shinto, influences from the Japanese religion can be seen throughout his cinematic universe — particularly in the form of spirits. The most striking example comes from his Magnum Opus, Spirited Away, in which an entire city is inhabited by otherwordly spirits who frequent the local bathhouse to be cleansed. It is a concept that is deeply rooted in Shinto culture: everything in the natural world has its own spirit, and all of these spirits seek purification. Even some of the main characters and creatures from his films are taken from Japanese folklore, including Totoro, a giant furry creature of the woods, Yubaba, Ghibli's iteration of Yama-Uba, a female entity from Japanese folklore, as well as the sacred water dragon, Haku, from Spirited Away.
Strong, Brave Heroines
Finally, how can you not fall in love with the heroines of Miyazaki's films? Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä, Chihiro, Kiki, and Sophie are all independent young women who do not adhere to traditional gender roles. Miyazaki often expresses his feminist sentiments through his heroines and even some of the tertiary women in his films. For example, strong women repair the plane in Porco Rosso and work in a hot furnace in Princess Mononoke. In this way, Miyazaki challenges the stereotypes perpetuated by the film industry — and society at large.
As you can see, Miyazaki's worlds can be explored and analyzed in so many different ways! They stimulate our natural sense of wonder and curiosity, while also subtly critiquing a society threatened by overconsumption and techno-industrialism. Despite their distinctly Japanese visual style and themes, all of Miyazaki’s films are universal pieces of art that help break down stereotypes, arouse ecological consciousness, and reimagine the relationship between the natural and spiritual world.
So what do you think about the worlds that Miyazaki has created? Are there any particular films or characters that speak to you on a personal level? If so, be sure to share your thoughts in the comments!