Hayao Miyazaki’s Starting Point: 1979-1996

Review by Ed Sizemore

Imagine being immersed in a long, meandering conversation with someone that speaks their mind openly on any and everything. Further imagine that you look at your watch and discovered you’ve been captivated by this person for several hours, and it’s only been the two of you the whole time. That’s what it’s like to read Hayao Miyazaki’s Starting Point: 1979-1996. It’s one of most delightful, enlightening, and at times surprisingly confessional books I’ve read in a great while.

Starting Point: 1979-1996 cover
Starting Point: 1979-1996
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Starting Point is a collection of Miyazaki’s writings and interviews. There is a nice bonus in the center of the book, an eight-page, full-color manga on the history of in-flight dining done for Winds, Japan Airlines’ magazine. This is followed by nine black-and-white pages from Miyazaki’s notebooks. (The last three are untranslated so you can see the quality of Miyazaki’s penmanship.) The foreword is by John Lasseter, one of the founders of Pixar and friend of Miyazaki. The afterword is by Isao Takahata, long-time collaborator of Miyazaki and co-founder of Studio Ghibli.

Over the course of the book, the reader is able to develop a well-rounded picture of Miyazaki, both the man and the animator. In high school, Miyazaki originally wanted to be a gekiga manga artist (49). (Gekiga is a style of realistically drawn manga. The stories are often gritty, dark portrayals of modern life.) However, the Japanese animated movie Hakujaden (The Tale of the White Serpent) literally changed his life.

It made me realize that, behind a facade of cynical pronouncements, in actuality I really was in love with the pure, earnest world of film, even if it were only another cheap melodrama. I was no longer able to deny the fact that there was another me — a me that yearned desperately to affirm the world rather than negate it. (70)

Miyazaki went off to college where, surprisingly, he majored in political economics. While in college he was also part of the Children Literature Study Group (311).

In 1963, he was hired by Toei Animation as an in-between animator (the entry-level job for animation companies). He found the daily grind of television animation becoming unbearable. He was ready to return to his former dream of becoming a manga artist, when a Russian animated film reignited his passion. “Had I not one day seen Snedronnigen (The Snow Queen) during a film screening hosted by the company labor union, I honestly doubt that I would have continued working as an animator.” (71)

In 1978, Miyazaki would make his directorial debut with the television series Future Boy Conan (yet to be released in the US). In 1979, Miyazaki directed his first feature film, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. In 1985, Studio Ghibli was founded. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Miyazaki has a great deal of faith in the unlimited potential of animation as a storytelling medium. In this sense he reminds me of Tezuka, who believed that manga had unlimited potential and was an art form on par with novels, short stories, and theater. I find Miyazaki’s passion for cartoons compelling and share his belief that the only limits to cartoons are the imaginations of animators.

In other words, I am talking about doing something with animation that can’t be done with manga magazines, children’s literature, or even live-action films. I’m talking about building a truly unique imaginary world, tossing in characters I like, and then creating a complete drama using them. Simply put, this is what animation is to me. (17)

He has equally high hopes for what his films will accomplish.

To my way of thinking, creating animation means creating a fictional world. That world soothes the spirit of those who are disheartened and exhausted from dealing with the sharp edges of reality, or suffering from a nearsighted distortion of their emotions. When the audience is watching animation, they are apt to feel light and cheerful or purified and refreshed. (25)

But if we can free ourselves from the various complexes we have and the tangled relationships we are in to live a freer, more open world, we might be able to become strong and heroic. I think everyone entertains thoughts of becoming more beautiful, or more gentle, or of having a more meaningful existence. (306)

His high ambitions for animation have made him a harsh critic of much of the animation he sees. “I frankly despise the truncated word ‘anime’ because it only symbolizes the current desolation of our industry.” (72)

But I’d like to see effort put into filmmaking sufficient to withstand the bare-knuckled criticism that I’m providing here. Cartoons have certain weaknesses that we normally don’t notice, and a type of laxity arises precisely because the films are treated as mere cartoons. (118)

His most vehement criticism is leveled at television animation.

“Producing an animation series merely to fill time slots in the broadcast schedule is like generating cultural pollution.” (186)

TV cartoon shows were all just a bunch of slapdash, amateurish, uninspired, derivative creations. We used to say among ourselves that making them was like working with still-open wounds. (279)

Is it any wonder that one he was given the freedom to make animated films, he never returned to television again?

I was also amazed some of the personal confessions that show up in this book. A touching reflection on his relationship with his father and his perceived failings as a parent, “I tried to be a good father, but in the end I wasn’t a very good parent.” (204) His flaws as a first-time director, “The schedule slipped and I caused a lot of trouble for the staff and the production company. This was entirely due to my failing, as I can only work following my intuition and feelings.” (66) Even his personal shortcomings, “I’m a careless sort of person, so I am often quick to say bad things about people.” (211)

My favorite sections of the book are where he discusses Future Boy Conan and each of his films in detail. We learn Miyazaki didn’t intend for the ending of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind to have the religious overtones that it did. But once the film headed in that direction he couldn’t steer it otherwise. (393) Further, we find out Kiki’s Delivery Service was actually made for young women heading to Tokyo to find their first job and make a place for themselves in this world. (262, 378) Porco Rosso was made, “…for tired, middle-aged men whose brain cells have turned to tofu.” (267) There are so many more interesting facts about the production and themes in each of his major works.

So many great quotes can be pulled from this book. There are tons of fascinating ideas that could fuel extended discussions among its readers. Not to mention, lots of behind-the-scenes glimpses of the reality of making animated TV shows and feature films. There is such a wealth of information, no review can truly hope to touch on everything contained within the pages of this book.

I honestly believe that every anime fan needs to read Miyazaki’s Starting Point: 1979-1996. It’s a chance to see deeply inside the anime industry, as well as an opportunity to intimately know one of anime’s greatest directors. I highly recommend Takahata’s afterward as a loving, but brutally honest, portrayal that only a real friend could write. This is also a must-read for American animation fans. It offers a different perspective on cartoons, and how they should be made, than we generally hear in the US. Simply put, this is too significant a book to let simply pass you by. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

Bonus Feature: I showed Johanna what my copy of Starting Point looked like when I was reading it and she thought it would be fun to take a picture of it share with you. So here are my photos. I annotated each photo in an attempt to justify/explain my process.

3 Responses to “Hayao Miyazaki’s Starting Point: 1979-1996”

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