Book Review: Starting Point: 1979-1996 by Hayao Miyazaki

Ricky Grove [gToon] - Staff Columnist

Book Review: Starting Point: 1979-1996 by Hayao Miyazaki

Title: Starting Point: 1979-1996
Author: Hayao Miyazaki
Publisher: Viz Media
Pub date: August 5, 2009
500 pages, ISBN: 978-1421505947
Translated from the Japanese original.

Starting Point is an essential book for Westerns to understand Miyazaki. This really is the first anthology to seriously explore the man and his art, to really dig deep into his insights, his worldview, his history. I don't think most people, and particularly movie critics and scholars, look beyond the surface level of his films. They love Spirited Away and Ponyo and Totoro, yes. But there's still the expectation that these are nothing more than sophisticated kiddie cartoons and nothing more. I think this book is going to open up a lot of minds.

-Studio Ghibli blog


Hayao Miyazaki (wikipedia commons)

Lovers of animation will already know the films of Hayao Miyazaki, the great Japanese animation director. He is one of those artists that the word “genius” truly applies. In films from “My Neighbor Totoro” to the recent “Ponyo on the Cliff” (2009), Miyazaki has consistently crafted remarkable works of art that rival (and at times exceed) the films of Walt Disney in his prime. His films are intelligent and beautifully poetic stories that often feature the inner and outer lives of young women, and deal with some of the most pressing issues of our day, like: the environment, corruption of power, and religion. Even the remarkable artists at Pixar are in awe of Miyazaki.

Miyazaki is not as well known in the United States, and Disney, who distributes his films here, has struggled with how to present his unusual style/stories to an American audience (the casting/marketing for “Princess Mononoke,” a personal favorite, was dreadful). Recently, films like “Spirited Away,” which won the Oscar for best animated film in 2002 (the first non-English film to do so), “Howl's Moving Castle,” and the most recent “Ponyo on the Cliff,” have brought overdue recognition to Miyazaki's works in the United States.


Screen cap from "Howl's Moving Castle"

As someone who has spent over a decade watching, re-watching and thinking about Miyazaki's incredible films, I was surprised to discover that a book had been released which combines his essays, speeches, journal sketches and interviews covering the years 1979 to 1996. Originally published in Japan in 1996 (the same year “Princess Mononoke” became the biggest selling film in Japanese history), it is only now reaching these shores, thanks to the efforts of Viz Media, a San Francisco-based company that has been bringing Manga and Anime to the US since 1996.

Of course, I moved at warp-speed to get a copy of Starting Point. And even though I'm disappointed that Viz chose not to update the book with more recent Miyazaki interviews, I'm grateful that there is an English language version of this remarkable collection at all. Readers looking to find out more information on Miyazaki's more recent films can look to the excellent book by Colin Odell, titled Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.

Starting Point is not an easy book to read for several reasons. The translation is quite good (Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt are listed as translators). No, it's not the language, per se, but the main reason the book is more difficult than I expected is because of Miyazai himself. Whatever preconceived notions I had of him had to be thrown out the window in the face of the man who emerges from this superb collection of magazine articles (“On Creating Animation,” “My Random Thoughts Notebook,”“The World of Anime and the Scenario,” etc.) - a contradicting, cantankerous, exacting director who is not afraid to speak his mind. This is far from the image I had constructed in my mind of the quiet, fatherly figure who is filled with love for humanity.

It didn't take long for me to get over it though. This brings me to the second level of difficulty with this collection: you really have to know a bit about Japanese animation history and Hayao's early works, both somewhat obscure topics to American readers (but not to crazy film fanatics). Despite the really good introduction by John Lasseter (Pixar director), there are no introductions to the 7 main sections of the book, which makes some of Miyazaki's speeches and essays hard to follow.

“It has always been my sincere hope that you will watch animation from the perspective of your own, real life.”

-Hayao Miyazaki, Starting Point

On the other hand, even not knowing the context of some of Miyazaki's essays doesn't keep you from appreciating the deeply thoughtful nature of his writing/speaking. He is a man obsessed with detail and authenticity. Even though at one point Miyazki passionately agues in favor of animation being more than mere “cartoons,” later in the book he claims that animation wasn't meant to contain such “complex themes” and should simply serve to lift people's spirits. Here's where the lack of editorial comment actually works to an advantage: you get to see these contradictions in Miyazki, directly through his own words and not from annotation, which makes the reader's encounter with the personality of this great man more direct and life-like.

The first half of the book (“On Creating Animation,” “On the Periphery of the Work,” “People,” “A Story in Color,” “My Favorite Things”), covers a lot of Miyazaki's early work in the field, and his constant complaint is the lack of truly creative work that comes with grinding production schedules. He did a good deal of writing for animation. As he says, “The only things I've been able to rely on are my own determination and ambition.” This, in the face of a cynical, exploitative industry that simply burns down new animators and artists. Sound familiar?

One of my favorite talks in the book is the one Miyazaki gave to a sixth-grade class of a Japanese Elementary school in 1992, titled “The Type of Film I'd Like to Create.” This talk encompasses everything that is great about Miyazaki: his intelligence, his love of Japanese history and nature, and his passionate desire to help the children understand that it's through their imagination that they can empathize with the world and the people in it. His effort to describe how rain would look to a honeybee is remarkable. He then goes on to ask the class if “birds can see the wind.” Aside from a brilliant introduction to the ideas behind animation, Miyazki gets the kids to start thinking and laughinng about the world around them.

At times, I wondered if Miyazaki is really more comfortable in the worldview of children. Seeing the world with a sense of wonder, and not through cynicism or selfishness is often the theme of his films (remember the parents at the beginning of “Spirited Away” who become pigs through being selfish?). You'll find many drawings from Miyazaki's notebooks and extensive interviews in the later half of the book, along with more of a focus on his actual works (“Planning Notes,” “Works”). He addresses recent (at the time) films like "Porco Rosso" and "Nausicaa" in great detail. His use of watercolor to create his “image boards” for these films is remarkable, especially if you have any of the Studio Ghibli (Miyazaki's film studio in Japan) books on the making of his films. The Art of Porco Rosso contains many of these wonderful watercolor works that help to guide the animation crew towards the colors, sizes, shapes and mood of the film they are working on.


Screen cap from "Ponyo on the Cliff"

Starting Point is a treasure of a book, but like the man it is about, you won't find easy or a lot of “behind the scenes” stories in the book. Instead, you'll encounter a mind struggling with trying to work too many hours and still stay creative. You'll meet a man who isn't afraid to criticize his own industry. You'll also find him depressed, annoyed and at times, morose. You'll want to argue with him about one essay, and then cry at the poignancy of the next essay. In other words, you'll encounter a real human being who encompasses all of the contradictions we all share. You'll also encounter a man of genius talent and insight on creating animation.

I highly recommend Starting Point for those readers/filmmakers who want to spend time with a book. You'll have to look up references; you'll be scouring the net looking for cuts from some of the animations he discusses (The Old Mill, last work in the Disney Silly Symphonies is a major find), and you'll be doing what I've been doing for years: watching and re-watching Hayao Miyazki's great animated films. And if you haven't seen any of his films, put “My Neighbor Totoro” on your Netflix list and after you watch it, go out and by this book to read the interview where Miyazaki says: “Totoro was not made as a nostalghia piece.

PS: Disney will be bringing out Ponyo on the Cliff on Blu-Ray (along with Totoro) on March 2, 2010. I can't recommend these films more highly.

Starting Point: 1979-1996 by Hayao Miyazaki can be purchased through VIZ Media.


Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
March 1, 2010

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