His body of work is almost unparalleled and is marked by the fact that you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who'd call any of his films an outright failure or bad movie. This is a rare quality, the man over 3 decades just hasn't slipped up.
Of course not every director is like this, yet I'd hazard a guess that many wish they were. So I thought I'd try to help out by compiling this list of lessons that every director (and some directors more specifically) could learn from Mr. Miyazaki.
1. Don’t be afraid to switch genres: Too often people mistakenly contend that the art form animation is a genre in and of itself (as one would speak of drama, or comedy, or action movies). This is wrong for many reasons; the most damaging is that it limits the form, and limits the respect we pay to masters of the form. Hayao Miyazaki has made films in the following genre: action, adventure, fantasy, comedy of manners, message movie (if that’s a genre), family, political satire, farce, coming of age, and straight up drama (to name a few). Had he done so in live action the Academy would have replaced plain old Oscar with an image in the likeness of this Japanese genius! So to those directors out there, afraid to branch out, afraid to venture off the well worn path of familiarity, look to Mr. Miyazaki for inspiration and proof that not only can you jump between genres, or meld multiple genres, or throw out the whole idea of genre – you can do so without the work suffering. Far from the ‘little genre experiments’ that directors are prone to do between their ‘important’ projects, every Miyazaki film, regardless of genre, has the same level of care, quality, and excellence. I’d like to think this is because he isn’t interested in genres at all – rather he’s interested in telling a story about people. Which leads us to point 2.
2. Invest in your characters: Watch one frame of any Miyazaki film and if you’re in any way familiar with him you’ll be able to pick that the work is his simply from the look. Another reason you might be able to pick it is that Miyazaki has his messages, he has his beliefs, and these come across quickly. Ideas such as environmentalism, or the innocence and importance of children, are prevalent in his films – but they are not primary! Miyazaki is one of the most convincing and articulate directors when it comes to communicating a message or idea but never at the expense of character! Never at the expense of people!* Chihiro, Kiki, Nausicaa, Fio, and Sheeta are all young women who are expected to do more (or take responsibility for more) than their age would deem appropriate, and many are in films that cover similar ‘territory’. BUT each and every one of those women are distinct, each is unique, each is fully human, fully engaged, fully understood. They are not tools or puppets for Miyazaki to use to further his agenda or explore his themes. They are people who are having their story told. Obviously I only mentioned a handful (literally a handful) of characters because the list of brilliantly developed, intricately understood people* in Miyazaki’s films would be more like an armful (perhaps two or three or in the case of Kamaji…) if fully spelled out. This is a big part in why his films are so easy to revisit, it’s like going to a party with all your friends, and a few people you love to hate.
3. Make it hard for yourself: There’s a moment is Princess Mononoke where Ashitaka is riding his whatchamacallit through the forest and they near a creek bed. They move forward brushing by an overhanging branch. THEY BRUSH AGAINST THE BRANCH, IT MOVES, IT MAKES A SOUND, THE CHARACTER AND THE WORLD INTERACT. And this isn’t even during a scene where such a thing needs to occur. And when one considers the herculean task Miyazaki set himself by animating some 100,000 frames of this movie himself, I think we would have given him a pass had he wanted to draw the branch a little higher so that Ashitaka could skirt by unmolested. But no, if this were out in the world, in an actual forest, more than likely someone would brush against a low hanging branch, and so it’s in the film. Just because it’d be easier not to, and people probably wouldn’t notice, isn’t a reason not to do something. Because when you create art, you do it right, and you do it well, even if it’s harder! There’s a reason his films never fail, there’s a reason they have such a special quality, HE PUTS IN THE WORK. (And I haven’t even mentioned the moment Chihiro taps the toe of her shoe on the ground to make it fit right.) So to all you budding directors out there, I wish to quote another great artist by saying: “The work waits.”
4. Falling in Friendship is often more interesting than falling love: Go watch Ponyo. Done? Good. Now go watch whatever love story’s playing at the cinemas right now. Done? Well if it wasn’t Before Midnight then it’s safe to say one movie was remarkably more interesting, right? Miyazaki’s filmography is overflowing with touching, memorable, fascinating friendships and stories of people* becoming friends. Because that's something that we experience far more frequently – and generally lasts far longer – in our lives. But who’s out there creating art about it? Very few – I blame pop music.
5. Don’t dumb it down because children might watch it: A friend's 4 year old said to her recently; “mum, why do they call it a hand bag, it should be called an arm bag.” When was the last time you heard an adult say something so insightful, or engage with a easily held truth is a fresh way? Maybe regularly – good for you, you have fine friends – but even if that’s the case it still shows you don’t need to dumb things down for kids. You also don’t need to make things tamer for kids. There’s a line in Nausicaa where Lord Yupa is questioning a captured Princess Kushana when she reveals injuries suffered from an Ohmu attack years before by showing that her arms are (let’s say) mechanical. Yupa says “an Ohmu did that?” her response: “Yes, and believe me the man lucky enough to become my husband is going to see a lot worse.” When I first heard that (I was 25 at the time) I flipped! I couldn’t believe it, I may have had to readjust sitting position it hit me so strong, even as I was writing it now tears came to my eyes. I couldn’t believe someone said something this beautiful, this powerful, this simple honest in any movie let alone “one of those cartoon movies for kids” – but you know what? Look around, a lot of kids have seen this movie (not as many as should have but still) and the world’s still going (and probably better for it). So don’t tame it down, kids can handle it, and the world will thank you. Note: Miyazaki follows this exchange with one of his more childish jokes involving two kids and a password and its hilarious, so that just goes to show you can have it all!
6. If you’re going to have action sequences make them exciting and make them followable: Go watch any recent blockbuster, now watch Princess Mononoke (or Porco Rosso, or anything really) enough said.
7. Never Ever Retire: Did you know Miyazaki was going to retire early on in the millennium? Then he came out of ‘retirement’ to make SPIRITED AWAY! Have you seen that film? Well then you know how grateful we should be, and if not check out it’s rotten tomatoes score – it’s so fresh it’s been hung off rear view mirrors in taxis everywhere. So attention Mr. Soderbergh, Mr. Tarantino – artists should never retire: who knows if you’ve reached your greatest work yet – don’t risk it forever been lost wandering in the recesses of your creative mind – keep creating!