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28 October 2014
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Big in Japan: The Strange World of Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Jamie Russell
updated 9th September 2003

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Read our film review of "Spirited Away"

Read our film review of "Princess Mononoke"

In America they call him the Japanese Walt Disney, but for 62-year-old animator Hayao Miyazaki, that's not exactly a compliment. Ever since the creator of the Oscar-nabbing "Spirited Away" began his career in Tokyo in the 60s, he's been trying to do something very different from Uncle Walt - deliver top notch animated stories with depth and resonance.

Not even the aquatic delights of the excellent "Finding Nemo" can compare with the marvellous landscapes of Miyakazi's imagination, and the Disney studio knows it. Which is why they've been snapping up the foreign distribution rights to the Japanese animator's back catalogue, releasing his films on video in the US with "Walt Disney Presents..." flying proudly at the top of the mast.

The motto seems to be: If you can't beat them, buy them.

So far, none of these titles have caused much of a stir. Straight to video launches of "My Neighbour Totoro" (1988) and "Kiki's Delivery Service" (1989) in the mid-90s hardly caused riots in the aisles of Blockbusters in Cowpoke, Indiana. And after Disney botched the theatrical release of the sublime "Princess Mononoke" (1997) - the director's biggest domestic hit before "Spirited Away", taking $160 million in Japan alone - conspiracy theorists wondered if the plan was simply to bury the competition in cinematic no man's land.

Fortunately, things are beginning to change with "Spirited Away". With an Oscar already under its belt, the film's been gathering momentum since its Stateside release last year, wooing American audiences with its intricately beautiful yet understated visuals. Not to mention its collection of strange creatures and a resourceful little heroine.

Relying on traditional 2-D cel animation rather than the computer-heavy CGI of Pixar, Miyazaki's films are unlikely rivals to the digital delights of blockbusters like "Monsters, Inc.". Yet interest in Miyazaki, and the work of Studio Ghibli, is reaching a record high.

Basing his stories on European and Japanese folklore, targeting an audience of children (rather than some marketing man's vision of the "kids") and eschewing excessive merchandising, Miyazaki's stories have a hippy dippy beauty all their own. His is a Shakespearean vision of life, full of incidental characters and underpinned by a warm humanity that emphasises taking care of one another and the planet we share.

It's an idiosyncratic world that's quite distinct from the quest-narrative, three-act setups of most Pixar movies. Moving along at odd tangents, with a cast of often quite unusual characters, Miyazaki's films deliver something different every time - from the epic spectacle of "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind" (1984), to the aviator pig in 20s Italy in "Crimson Pig" (aka "Porco Rosso", 1992), to the home-grown simplicity of idyllic adventures like "My Neighbour Tortoro".

American animation may not be on the ropes just yet, but peel back the CGI art of "Finding Nemo" and you'll find little more than a string of binary code. Lurking beneath Miyazaki's movies is the heart and soul of a man who's spent his entire life dreaming with a pen in his hand.

And that's something that no amount of gigabytes can match.

"Spirited Away" is released in UK cinemas on Friday 12th September 2003. Check the film listings to see where it's playing and if it's the subtitled or dubbed version.

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