Before Studio Ghibli, discover the beginnings of the master Hayao Miyazaki

On the occasion of the release of the remastered version of “Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro” (1979) as well as the imminent distinction of Studio Ghibli with an honorary Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, let’s return to the beginnings of the great master of Japanese animation, Hayao Miyazaki, from his first steps in the world of cinema to the creation of the iconic studio.

(An article by Damien Brodard)

A Vocation: Miyazaki’s Beginnings as an Animator

Born in the ravaged Japan of the beginning of 1941, at a very young age Hayao Miyazaki spent the first years of his life tossed by the horrors of the Second World War, notably forced to flee with his family the city of Tokyo bombed by the American army in 1944. A few years later, while he was on the benches from school, Miyazaki indulges in his favorite pastime: drawing. The little boy actually enjoys reproducing the characters from his favorite manga-ka, while trying to improve his pencil strokes by sketching his own comic strips. It was at this time that his father, an aeronautical engineer and cinema lover, regularly took him to theaters to discover new releases.

And one day, the shock! “The White Serpent” (1958), the first Japanese animated feature film in color, seemed like a revelation to him, as he explained in 1979: “It’s thanks to him that I chose to become an animator. In the fifteen years since, I have always had a common thread in my work: “Watch good animation, then make something that surpasses it.”. It is with this in mind that Miyazaki perfected his technique and became interested in children’s literature, alongside his studies in economics and political science.

He then began his career at Toei Animation in 1963 as an intervalist animator, that is to say the person in charge of drawings between two important stages of a movement. There, his life takes a major turning point, as Miyazaki meets his future collaborators, including Isao Takahata – future director of “Pompoko” (1994) or “The Tomb of the Fireflies” (1988) – and Akemi Ota, who would become his wife. He also began to be politically active by becoming chief secretary of the Toei workers’ union.

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Hayao Miyazaki meets Isao Takahata, director of “Grave of the Fireflies,” at Toei Animation in 1963.
© “The Tomb of the Fireflies”

Ten years of experiments

Various projects then followed at Toei with Miyazaki as animator, the most notable of them being the feature film “Horus, Prince of the Sun” (1968), unusually intended for an adult audience and for which all the team wanted to instill strong political messages. The failure of the film and tensions with Toei, however, pushed Miyazaki and Takahata to leave the studio in 1971 to train their careers across Japan for around ten years.

Everything does not immediately go as planned of course, certain projects are aborted, including a series on Pippi Longstocking which still allowed the duo to leave Japan for the first time in their lives, heading to Sweden. Many animated series followed which were indeed brought to fruition. Among them, we can note the first season featuring the gentleman burglar “Lupin III” (1971-1972) which Miyazaki partly co-directed; “Heidi fille des Alpes” (1974) which required a trip to Switzerland to scout this exotic setting for Japanese audiences; or even “Conan, the son of the future” (1978), the only series entirely supervised by the master and carrying his thematic and political concerns such as ecology.

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“Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro”, first feature film by master Hayao Miyazaki
© Film Verleih Gruppe Waldner

A first feature film: “Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro”

Drawing on his experience acquired on the eponymous series, Miyazaki was ultimately responsible for directing “Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro” (1979), but also took charge of the scriptwriting as well as all the creation of the sets. With these multiple hats, the artist then manages to impose his touch and his own influences, the most remarkable being the architecture of the castle borrowed from the French feature film written by Jacques Prevert“The King and the Bird”, first released in 1953, then completed by its director Paul Grimault in 1980.

The Japanese kept this imagery in the back of his mind throughout his career, using it occasionally in his works, for example for the apocalyptic weapons in “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (1984) or even for the robots present in “ The Castle in the Sky” (1986). This French animated film has constituted over the years a fundamental Source of inspiration for artists throughout the world: it is difficult not to see a vibrant tribute in “The Iron Giant” (1999) by Brad Birdto name just one.

Miyazaki therefore completed the directing of his first feature film in just seven months, offering in the process his own vision of the character of Lupine III. If the series does not enjoy great fame in the West, it is however a huge success in Japan. The making of this film therefore represents a most crucial step for him. The author of the original manga, Kazuhiko Katôsaid Monkey Punch, declared about the project: “They called Miyazaki to make it more geared towards children’s audiences”. Katô would have preferred that the director stay closer to the original work, more violent and adult than the final result, which he describes as being anchored in Miyazaki’s universe.

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Hayao Miyazaki
© Frenetic Films AG

A new beginning: the creation of Studio Ghibli

Having never stopped his manga activities, Miyazaki received the opportunity to publish one of his stories in 1982, “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” in the Animage magazine, owned by the Tokuma Shoten company. The said company, familiar with the work of the director and manga-ka, offered to produce a film adapted from his own story, which he would direct in 1984 within the Topcraft studio. The resounding success of the feature film then allowed Miyazaki and Takahata, who remained at his side all these years, to found Studio Ghibli in 1985, taking with them the members of the team who worked on Nausicaä.

“Ghibli” is above all a word borrowed from Libyan Arabic to designate a hot wind from the Sahara desert, the sirocco. The choice of such a nickname can be explained, poetically, by the fact that Miyazaki wanted to breathe new life into the world of animation, whereas at that time in Japan, it was very mainly intended for to children. More pragmatically, the name “Ghibli” also refers to the Italian reconnaissance aircraft model “Caproni Ca.309 Ghibli”. Eternal fan of aviation or evenAntoine de Saint-Exupérythe director will not fail to allude to it as soon as he can in most of his works, “Porco Rosso” (1992) and “Le Vent de leva” (2013) in the lead.

The following story is known to everyone. Through hard work and films, each more extraordinary than the last, with marked artistic directions and aimed at all audiences, Studio Ghibli sees its international influence grow from project to project. At 83 years old and now director of twelve feature films, Hayao Miyazaki has established himself as one of the most important artists in Japanese and global animation, inspiring many artists, whether from the world of cinema or from other backgrounds.

Trailer for “Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro”

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