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Hayao Miyazaki is a director and animator who is hugely popular in Japan, and is well respected by the rest of the film world. His films tend to feature strong young women as principal characters. Miyazaki's films are perhaps best known for their fantasy element and their willingness to take on serious issues like environmentalism and anti-fascism.
Miyazaki was born in 1941 in Tokyo, during the Second World War. His father owned an aviation company, and most of Miyazaki's films represent his long-term fascination with flying. After the war, Miyazaki watched his mother battle with tuberculosis for eight years. Her love of reading greatly inspired him, and she was known for her need to question authority. Film critics suggest that most of Miyazaki's female leads are either a tribute to or based on his mother.
The director graduated from Gakushuin University with dual degrees in political science and economics, but it was his membership in the Children's Literature Research Club that was more influential on his later work. The club was similar to a comic book club. There, Miyazaki met others interested in both children's stories and animation.
Hols: Prince of the Sun, which was released in 1968, was the first film where Miyazaki was principal illustrator. In 1979, The Castle of Cagliostro was his directorial debut. Both represent collaboration with director Isao Takahata. After the success of the 1984 film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki and Takahata co-founded Studio Ghibli, which would produce most of Miyazaki's later endeavors.
Castle in the Sky is the earliest Studio Ghibli film. Miyazaki was introduced to English speaking audiences with his next film, My Neighbor Totoro; early versions of this film on VHS were produced as My Friend Totoro. Totoro is significant for its lack of a villain, and it is also a tale of environmental responsibility. It is often considered to be an excellent film for even very young children because it does not have the traditional hero/villain climactic ending.
Much like Totoro, the 1989 film Kiki's Delivery Service has no central villain. Miyazaki introduces the strong female character Kiki, a little witch who must strike out on her own for a year as part of her training. Kiki was released in the US in a dubbed version and was acknowledged by film critics as an excellent film for children.
1997 brought the release of Princess Mononoke. The film set box office records in Japan, and received the Award of the Japanese Academy for Best Film. It also stresses environmental and pacifist themes, but with a PG rating, it may be a bit scary for young children. It did not enjoy much commercial success in the US until years after its release.
Miyazaki retired after the success of Mononoke but re-entered the business to direct Spirited Away. The film enjoyed huge success in Japan and in English-speaking countries, where it was dubbed. It garnered Miyazaki another Best Film Award of the Japanese Academy in 2001. The film also won the first ever Oscar® in the newly established category, Best Animated Feature, in 2002.
Spirited Away was distributed by Disney, who helped dub the film. Disney's involvement was largely due to the friendship between Miyazaki and John Lasseter, director of Pixar. The two have enjoyed a significant friendship since Mononoke, and Lasseter has been instrumental in distributing Miyazaki films in the US.
2004 brought the release of what some consider Miyazaki's best film, Howl's Moving Castle. The film takes an anti-war stance, and its animation is often described as "breathtaking." It is important to note that most animation in Miyazaki films is hand drawn, with few computer additions.
Miyazaki has continued to direct, releasing several shorts after Howl's Moving Castle. His 2008 film Ponyo, about a boy who meets a goldfish princess who wants to be human, won several awards. As with several of his previous films, it was dubbed into English and released by Disney.
@robert13 - My favorites are probably Princess Monoke and Kiki's Delivery Service, but I think they're all worth watching. You don't have to be into anime to watch them, although I would recommend watching them with subtitles as opposed to English dubs, which are usually of a lower quality.
I love Miyazaki! I saw Spirited Away when it first came out and fell in love and then went back and watched the others. Even though they're children's films, they're quite layered and can definitely be enjoyed by adults. Watching his movies bring back the nostalgia for childhood but they also deal with issues like war, environmentalism and good and evil. He's a very clever filmmaker. What's your favorite Miyazaki film?