Long before Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, acclaimed filmmaker, author, screenwriter, and animator Hayao Miyazaki’s passion for storytelling began with a young boy falling in love with a beautiful goddess. This is just the starting point.
It’s a classic story. A young boy is forced by his parents to free his pet, a small snake. He is devastated, heartbroken. Many years pass and one night, during a treacherous storm, the snake, now free, magically transforms into a beautiful goddess named Bai-Niang. Bai-Niang searches for and finds Xu-Xian, the young boy who loved and cared for her. Tragically, the lovers are separated by a local monk who believes the beautiful Bai-Niang is evil. Xu-Xian is captured and taken away, separated from his true love. Xu-Xian’s two panda friends, Panda and Mimi, try to find him and help set him free and reunite him with the princess. In the end, Bai-Niang gives up her magical powers and remains in human form to prove that her love for Xu-Xian is genuine.
A beautiful, young and magical woman. A handsome, heroic prince. A tragic connection akin to Romeo and Juliet. A young boy in the audience watches, gripped with pangs of emotion at the sight of the young girl. An impressionable, high school student, Hayao Miyazaki, falls in love.
Based on a Chinese folktale from the Song Dynasty, which tells of a white snake goddess who falls in love with a human boy, giving up her magic to marry him, Hakujaden, or Panda and the Magic Serpent, was Japan’s first color feature-length animated film produced by Toei Animation in 1958. It was also Miyazaki’s first love. In fact, the film had such an impact on Miyazaki that he chose to become an animator because of it.
“To my way of thinking, creating animation means creating a fictional world. That world soothes the spirit of those who are disheartened and exhausted from dealing with the sharp edges of reality, or suffering from a nearsighted distortion of their emotions. When the audience is watching animation, they are apt to feel either light and cheerful or purified and refreshed.” – Hayao Miyazaki
A Fascination with Manga
Hayao Miyazaki was born in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, in 1941. As a young boy, Miyazaki was fascinated with manga magazines, such as Taiheiyo X Point (Pacific Ocean X Point) by Osamu Tezuka, and Tetsuji Fukushima’s science fiction manga Sabuku no mao (Devil of the Desert). In high school, he began drawing manga in the gekiga (dramatic story-oriented manga similar to the graphic novel) style. Throughout his schooling, he chose this manga style as a weapon to fight against his growing anxiety as he studied for his college entrance exams. However, after seeing Hakujaden over and over, he began to have his doubts about gekiga.
The story he fell in love with on the big screen had power. Telling a story in this way was more honest. As he was maturing into adulthood, he came to realize that he wanted to depict the honesty and goodness of children in his work. Instead of confining himself with drawing angsty, graphic novels, where adults were often over-bearing, he would focus on telling stories of encouragement for children.
Creating Stories of Significance
“My foundation is this: I want to send a message of cheer to all those wandering aimlessly through life.” – Hayao Miyazaki
After graduating Gakushuin University in 1963, Hayao Miyazaki began working as an animator for Toei Animation, the studio responsible for his “first love.” He worked as an in-between artist (the process of animating intermediate frames between two images to show the transition of movement) on Wanwan Chushingura (Woof Woof Chushingura), directed by Daisaka Shirakawa, as well as on the TV series Okami shonen Ken (Wolf Boy Ken).
As Miyazaki became more involved with the production work at Toei, he began to feel uneasy about the works the company was creating. He didn’t feel an emotional connection. He didn’t believe in the stories they were telling. Not until seeing the Russian feature, Snezhnaya Koroleva (The Snow Queen), did Miyazaki experience the feeling of love once again.
“Snezhnaya Koroleva is proof of how much love can be invested in the act of making drawings move, and how much the movement of drawing can be sublimated into the process of acting.” – Hayao Miyazaki
With this renewed hope and encouragement, Miyazaki married Akemi Ota, a colleague of his at Toei. And, in 1965, began working as a key animator on his first feature-length theatrical film Little Norse Prince Valiant.
“To my way of thinking, creating animation means creating a fictional world. That world soothes the spirit of those who are disheartened and exhausted from dealing with the sharp edges of reality, or suffering from a nearsighted distortion of their emotions. When the audience is watching animation, they are apt to feel either light and cheerful or purified and refreshed.” – Hayao Miyazaki, 1979
Hayao Miyazaki’s time at Toei Animation brought challenges as well as successes. Miyazaki’s exploration of understanding story as it relates to the viewer’s emotion stayed central in the creative process. And as his family continued to grow, now with a wife and two sons, Hayao Miyazaki’s impact on Japanese animation would also become more impactful.
“Times may change, but I believe that children will always be seeking something with the same sort of impact I experienced when I first encountered Hakujaden.” – Hayao Miyazaki, 1988
Miyazaki likens himself and his fellow animators to relay runners. Having grasped the baton, they (animators) must continue running forward in order to hand it over to someone else. The work of an animator, especially in Japan at the time, was fundamentally different from most other art forms. Miyazaki’s passion was to create something better. The solution for him was to go back, again and again, to his starting point.
Resource: Starting Point: 1979-1996. By Hayao Miyazaki; translated by Frederik L. Schodt and Beth Cary. April 2009.
Kendall Schroeder saw the original Star Wars in a small theater in the summer of his 10th birthday and immediately fell in love with the Far Away Galaxy. Pretending to be either Jedi Luke Skywalker or Colonel Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man, Kendall always believed he had special powers. Maybe that’s why he truly believes there is good in all people. And, he will stop at nothing to help rid the world of evil. When Kendall is not creating art, he is leading educators as the head of an online school. Kendall lives in West Michigan with his wife and two kids.