Hayao Miyazaki: The Greatest Director You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of

Hayao Miyazaki might very well be the best regarded filmmaker working today. He is worshipped by animators everywhere; John Lasseter, the head of Pixar and director of “Toy Story,” called him “one of the great filmmakers of our time.” He is by far the highest-grossing filmmaker in Japan; in his home country, his 2003 Oscar-winning masterpiece “Spirited Away” proved to be a bigger box-office draw than “Titanic.” Miyazaki-themed merchandise has filled toy boxes of Japanese children for a generation. And a few years ago, he even opened the Disneyland-like Ghibli Museum on the outskirts of Tokyo. Yet in the States, he remains a relatively obscure name.

This week that might start to change as Miyazaki’s latest movie, “Ponyo,” is finally getting its American release. Boasting the voice talent of Liam Neeson, Matt Damon, Tina Fey along with Miley Cyrus’ little sister Noah and the Jonas Brothers’ younger sibling Frankie, “Ponyo” is an exceedingly loose adaptation from Hans Christian Andersons’s “The Little Mermaid.”

The differences between this film and Disney’s beloved version of the same tale couldn’t be more striking. No one belts out show-stopping musical numbers in “Ponyo.” There’s no real villain; the only character who comes close is Fujimoto, an undersea wizard who is really just Ponyo’s loving, if overly protective, father. There are no cute and cuddly anthropomorphic crustaceans. Instead, thanks to Miyazaki’s meticulously rendered hand-drawn animation, the undersea creatures in “Ponyo” retain the dignity of real animals while seeming wondrously alive. In short, Disney’s “Little Mermaid,” like any good entertainer, plays to audience. Miyazaki’s approach is different. Like all great artists, he invites the audience to surrender to his gentle, mystical world.

And that’s the pleasure of watching his films. One of his most beloved movies, and perhaps the finest children’s movie ever made, “My Neighbor Totoro,” is about two young girls who are forced to move to the countryside to be near their ailing mother. They soon realize that they can see a secret world of Soot Sprites,” fuzzy, whiskered wood spirits, and, most fantastic of all, a Cat Bus complete with headlight eyes, a Cheshire grin and a warm, womb-like interior. It’s as surreal and whimsical as a child’s drawing. The great director Akira Kurosawa (“Seven Samurai“) reportedly really dug the Cat Bus.

When I had a chance to sit down with Miyazaki, who looks like an especially dapper college professor, I asked him about the themes in his movies. He jokingly answered, “I’ve been told by a friend of mine that all the movies that I’ve made are essentially the same!” Indeed, watching his movies one gets a sense of just how consistent this world of his is. Most of the protagonists of his movies are girls. He populates his universe with old women, magical shape-shifting creatures, and pigs. But his most dominant theme is an almost shamanistic reverence for nature. Rocks, tree, rivers, and oceans all seem to be alive and aware.

In his masterpiece “Princess Mononoke,” the ancient forest life-force is embodied as a deer-like creature that looks like it was yanked straight out of Japanese mythology. When the rare antagonist does appear in his films, he or she inevitably violates this natural world. Lady Eboshi, the leader of the pollution-belching settlement Irontown in “Princess Mononoke,” wages war on these forest spirits. Yet true to form, Lady Eboshi is given more depth than your average scenery-chewing villain like Cruella Deville; she feeds lepers and shelters ex-prostitutes. Nothing in Miyazaki’s universe is fixed; nothing is wholly good or bad.

For those uninitiated in Miyazaki’s work, “Ponyo” is not a bad place to start. The animation is stunning — the opening sequence, an almost psychedelic tracking shot through an impossibly abundant ocean, is worth the price of admission by itself. And it’s a perfect film, like “My Neighbor Totoro,” for anyone in the Sesame Street set. I plan to take my five-year-old niece to it. Other films to watch include “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away,” and “Howl’s Moving Castle,” though they are darker, stranger, and more layered. All of his movies, though, are worth watching. And there aren’t too many filmmakers out there you can say that about.

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