Searching for Hayao Miyazaki in the details of his film


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

The director’s film, Spirited away – a huge hit both in Japan and abroad – had been nominated for an Oscar, but Miyazaki refused to attend the Oscar ceremony in a silent protest against the Iraq war.

This forgotten act of defiance is an incredible detail that reveals insight into the complex man who is Miyazaki – but it is not one you will find at the Academy Museum’s Miyazaki exhibition. Instead, the museum simply offers replicas of the filmmaker’s two Oscar statues for the Best Picture award in 2003 and the honorary award Miyazaki received in 2014.

It is the absence of the kind of critical details that made me feel empty and craved more as I walked through the crowded exhibit.

It is clear that the Academy Museum has placed great emphasis on showcasing Miyazaki’s lifelong work – a daunting task for any curator. The opening space of the exhibition has angled walls filled with clips from various Miyazaki films, and the sound from each of the films bathes over each other and creates a remarkable effect.

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

Other spaces offer similar engaging immersive experiences. In one dark room, glowing kodama, or tree spirits, from Princess Mononoke (1997) disappears and reappears around a life-size glittering tree. In the middle of another room sits a patch of grass where you can lie down and watch a soothing blue sky – a backdrop for countless Miyazaki movies.

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

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

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

The forest where Skovånden lives

Is a world where life flashes and sparkles.

It is a forest that denies people access

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

While reading the poem, a clip from Princess Mononoke – when a character, San, brings his wounded friend Ashitaka to Forest Spirit to try to save him – played on the loop nearby. It was a scene I had seen countless times, but the poem made the moment so much more meaningful. Here is a place where Miyazaki says that no human is allowed to pass, but two people enter, and we intuitively understand that the course of history will change forever. As I read the poem along with the film clip, I felt like I had gained my first “real” insight into Miyazaki’s mind.

But in the end, I wanted to get away and know more about the complex man behind the legend, and in that sense, the Miyazaki exhibit could not help but disappoint.

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

I like best to experience Miyazaki with solitude and quiet space to reflect. My most vivid experiences of watching Miyazaki are alone – whether I’m curled up in a small dorm in college or watching from my couch after a long day at work. A busy museum environment would never be the right place for me to experience Miyazaki, and that might be okay.

As a Studio Ghibli fan, it gives me no great pleasure to say this: I did not love the Miyazaki exhibition. But that does not mean you can get away with it with an empty mind or an empty heart – not with 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. The exhibition is curated by Exhibitions Curator Jessica Niebel and assistant curator J. Raúl Guzmán and was organized in collaboration with Japan’s Studio Ghibli.

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