Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Miyazaki: Greatest Living Filmmaker?

I want to step back from my descriptive and analytical consideration of specific sequences and motifs in Miyazaki’s films and confront a question that’s been on my mind as I’ve been doing this work. Fred Turner, poet and scholar, put the question in a post, Who is the Best Film Maker in the World Today? His answer: “That, in my humble opinion, is Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki mines all human myths, all genres, even our dreams.”

That’s what I’ve been thinking about. How would you argue that point? Turner’s post is short and provocative. He indicates in general terms his sense of the terms and dimensions of Miyazaki’s achievement. But he doesn’t offer an argument.

And that’s one thing that puzzles me. THE best, I’m thinking, the ONE and ONLY best out of 100s and 1000s of filmmakers? Why not a weaker claim, that he’s a film-maker of the highest order? But still, what would it take to argue that weaker claim? A theory of what art does and why it’s important in human life and culture, surely we need that. And from that we can derive criteria by which to judge art and apply those criteria to Miyazaki.

I doubt that Turner’s done that in arriving at his judgment– and I don’t say that as a criticism. I’d guess that his judgment is an intuitive one. He’s a poet and a scholar and has devoted his life to studying art and to producing it. He puts Miyazaki’s work though his accumulated experience and out it comes, the judgment that Miyazaki’s the best living film-maker.

Still, I want more, I need more. How to get it?

As I thought about the question, even while I reviewed several films – Porco Rosso, Spirited Away, and, most recently, My Neighbor Totoro – I thought about Harold Bloom’s claim that Shakespeare invented our modern sense of the human of personality, and that’s why he’s great. He invented it and subsequent writers elaborated and developed his invention.

Could a similar claim be made for Miyazaki? Of course, we are still very much in Miyazaki’s time, and he in ours. We aren’t in a position to look back on what he did, and one what others did with it. We can only guess at the future.

And yet, I find this vague and ridiculous notion – that Miyazaki is doing something that no one else is doing – somehow more tractable than the question of whether or not he’s the best. Forget about that. Is he doing something that no one else is doing? And is that something indispensable?

Let’s turn to Starting Point, 1979-1996, a collection of Miyazaki’s interviews, essays, and occasional pieces. In the his pieces on scenarios (the same piece that prompted my thoughts how the use of storyboards in planning films) he notes (p. 107):
Up to a certain point in time, when creating a drama all you had to do was to depict the relationships between people. This was true until relatively recently. Even up until around 1960, I would say. But now you can’t make a film just focusing on human relationship … we believed that if human relationships were handled properly, and if things like the distribution of wealth and the means of production were properly taken care of, everything would get better … this sort of thinking ended on a human-wide scale around 1960. It was around this time that we could no longer ignore that fact that our society—including our homes and families and way of living—was actually predicated on a supported by photosynthesis in the natural world.
And so Miyazaki’s raised the ecological theme so widely associated with him, in particular, with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke. Other film-makers have dealt with ecology and the environment, and have done so for some time. But it’s not in dealing with such “issues” that I see Miyazaki’s contribution. His contribution is of a more philosophical nature–which Turner acknowledges in his brief post, in a remark where he find’s Miyazaki superior to Cameron’s Avatar.

If that’s where Miyazaki’s genius shines brightest, then I’m thinking it shines very bright indeed in My Neighbor Totoro, a film that has nothing to do with ecology and the environment, not as those are understood as issues meriting critique and political action. This modest film about two young girls, their professor father, and their ailing mother, is very much about the relationship between humans and the natural world and, indeed, about the nature of reality itself. When I consider the variety of worlds Miyazaki has created I can’t help but think that that is one of his central concerns: How do we apprehend man’s life in the world?

This, I understand, is a long way from justifying the claim that Turner has made for Miyazaki. But it is a place to look for such justification. It is what I’ll continue to hold in my mind as I pursue narrower and more focused investigations.


  1. I share with you the feeling that labeling something or someone "the greatest" isn't particularly useful -- it leaves open too many questions of definition and evaluation, and makes the individual speaker the surrogate and substitute for the immense number of fans, viewers, readers, critics, and other folks who may -- or may not -- have the same opinion. Personally, I prefer to talk about "mastery" of the art, because I think we can certainly justify the assertion that Miyazaki is a world-class master of animation.

    That's not to say I don't have personal opinions. For example, My Neighbor Totoro is one of my all time favorite films, one that I will spontaneously reach for if I want to see something I know I like. But then I also love Paprika, Revolutionary Girl Utena, and Sergeant Frog. So go figure.

  2. For what it's worth, Tim, Time Out London has declared Totoro to be the best animated film ever. Their write-up also suggests that Mei and Satsuki were merely imagining the Totoro, an assertion I find rather questionable. But that's rather a bigger question than I want to take up in a comment.

  3. some on the other side of the divide would consider bergman as the highest or antonioni or eisenstein or coppola (bliah) or (wait wait .. hold your breath the animatronics mechanic stevespl - may be that last one would fit both bills)

    some see that as the empire getting too comfortable with itself - the fires the spectacle the heads chopped off the peole thrown into their own deaths

    some would see it as "young directors making a revolution"