About the worst news any lover of animation could receive came from the Venice Film Festival this week, when the Oscar-winning director Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement.
Miyazaki is the most admired and influential director working in animation today. When you speak to animators anywhere in the world, they invariably name him as the artist they most admire. John Lasseter says that when they get stuck on a film at Pixar, they screen one of Miyazaki’s features for inspiration. Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois at DreamWorks cite him as an influence; so do the directors at Disney.
Miyazaki, who co-founded Studio Ghibli, has made 11 features, plus a few TV shows and few short films. There’s not a bad film in the lot, and many of them are brilliant.
Like Walt Disney, Miyazaki understands that animation is often most effective when it’s presented without dialogue.
Satsuki and Mei waiting for the "bus" in the rain in My Neighbor Totoro ...
... or Chihiro riding the mysterious train in Spirited Away. These are magical moments. Their influence can be seen when Hiccup befriends Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon, and in the heartbreaking vignette in Up! that tells the story of Carl and Ellie’s marriage.
How much less enchanting would those moments be if the characters nattered.
Miyazaki, who is now 72, has talked about the need to groom new directors at Ghibli, noting that he and fellow director Isao Takahata are getting older. He talked about retiring in 1998, after Yoshifume Kondo, the promising young director he worked with on Whisper of the Heart, died of an aneurism, reportedly brought on by overwork. He complained that his eyes were bothering him after Spirited Away and that he might retire. But he kept on making films.
The last time I spoke with Miyazaki was in Tokyo few years ago, when he was clearly still a vigorous man, in full command of his artistic powers. And 72 seems too young to retire: Kurosawa made Ran when he was 75; Takahata is 78 and at work on a new film. Animation artists tend to have long careers: Betty Boop creator Grim Natwick continued animating into his 90’s; Bambi designer Tyrus Wong remains active at 102.
If Miyazkai’s decision proves final, he leaves behind an extraordinary body of work that will continue to influence the art of animation for decades to come. But animators and fans everywhere hope he’ll change his mind and keep making movies, and further enrich the art of animation, for years to come.
Hayao Miyazaki's final feature, The Wind Rises, will be released in the US by Touchstone Pictures on November 8 for a one-week award Oscar-qualifying run at the Landmark Theater on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles.
Animation expert Charles Solomon is author of, among other books, The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation: Celebrating Fifty Years of Television Specials.