Children and teenagers are increasingly exposed to Japanese animation. Victor Sirl comments on the work of Japan’s legendary Academy Award-winning animator Hayao Miyazaki in the context of his nation’s love for animation and comics and its impact on Australian audiences.
Anime (Japanese animation) and, to a much lesser extent, manga (Japanese comics) are two art forms enjoying a growing following with teenagers worldwide.
The two are often closely linked. Recently, the work of one of Japan’s greatest, if not the greatest animator, Hayao Miyazaki, toured Australia in its own film festival.
In 2001, Miyazaki produced Spirited Away for both Japan and Hollywood. It won the Academy Award for Best Film Animation in 2002.
It tells the story of Chihiro, a 10-year-old girl, distraught at having to move to a new home and school. Driving to their new home, the family take a wrong turning and stumble into a mysterious town with dilapidated buildings and statues. It’s the “other world” of gods and monsters, ruled over by a witch. There, humans are changed into animals and disappear.
An agreement with Miyazaki’s distributor and the Disney Corporation resulted in a pledge to share earlier works with foreign audiences. Titles available in English include Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Laputa: The Castle in the Sky (1986), Porco Rosso (1992), Princess Mononoke (1997) and My Neighbour Totoro (1988).
The films that toured Australia featured the much loved old-time favourite, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) – about a princess of a small nation devastated by a holocaust, called the “Seven Days of Fire”, who tries to stop other warring nations from destroying themselves – and four other films screened with subtitles.
When you watch a selection of Miyazaki’s animation, you realise that this director works with a diversity of subject matter and historical settings.
His films, famous for their hand-drawn, beautiful, often scenic, settings, appeal to children and adults alike.
Like the deceased movie director Akira Kurasawa, Miyasaki and other animators have had a profound influence on Hollywood directors – and not just those making animation.
Plots and scenes from Japanese anime are often reproduced in movies with live actors in the same way that, decades ago, the Kurasawa classic Seven Samurai was reworked as the Western, The Magnificent Seven.
While Kurasawa has inspired American directors such as Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas, it is worth remembering they in turn have an appreciation of anime.
We often hear laments about America influencing our popular culture, but no-one talks much about the Japanese who, thanks to anime, are communicating with a huge number of Australian children, via films and promotional products – such as warrior-robots from GigantorTransformersPokemon.
And how can anyone forget the Americans getting into the anime act with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
Parents often hear their children cry, “Let’s duel!”, from the Japanese animation series Yu-Gi-Oh, which represents a long tradition of Japanese anime that is steeped in violence, action and magic – something about which parents should exercise caution.
Whereas Miyazaki’s work is far more serious in plot and depth of meaning, it is products spawned by such creations as Yu-Gi-Oh that will be consumed by far more Aussie kids.
Anime has had success with overseas audiences ever since the first wave hit western shores in the 1960s, courtesy of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion.
Like Miyasaki, the late Tezuka was not just an animator but a renowned cartoonist, earning from his many Japanese admirers the venerated title of manga no kamisama (“the God of Comics”).
Miyazaki helped found the famous Ghibli Studio where he collaborated with his friend and fellow-animator, Isao Takahata.
Viewing Takahata’s masterpiece Tombstone for the Fireflies – a film based on a true story – one can see why parents have sometimes been uneasy about very young children viewing Japanese anime.
Set at the end of World War II, it follows the fate of two orphans, a brother and little sister, who eventually starve to death.
The story is so movingly and realistically told that, halfway through it, one ceases to view it as animation.
Christians concerned about the occult and supernatural featured in Harry Potter, may also be concerned about Buddhist and Shinto mythology and imagery in Miyazaki’s and other Japanese animators’ works.
Princess Mononoke – set in the Muromachi Period (1333-1568) – is the story of the mystic fight between the animal-gods of the forest and humans.
In Takahata’s Pom Poko, where reference is made to both Buddhist and Shinto traditions, the tanuki (Japanese animals resembling a racoon or dog) lose a struggle against humans to save their forests situated around modern-day Tokyo.
Tragedy has a long and popular tradition in Japanese literature and so it is hardly surprising that this is reflected in some Japanese animation. Such tragedies often relate to the conflict between nature and humans.
The 2002 triumph at the Academy Awards of Japan’s greatest living anime artist, Hayao Miyazaki, indicates that the influence of Japanese animators on Hollywood will not wane in the immediate future. Indeed, Japanese anime will continue to bob up on our screens from time to time, resulting in the inevitable by-products of toys, PlayStation and CD-ROM games.
Parents, as always, should examine this material carefully to determine if it is suitable for their children. After all, children, teenagers, and even some adults, will not have to speak Japanese to absorb some of that culture, often without even realising it.
Meanwhile, audiences can be grateful to the great master Hayao Miyazaki (and subtitles) for creating so much of the best in Japanese anime and, in doing so, some of the best films ever made in the world.