Miyazaki’s Missing Biography: Sketching the Life of a Master Animator

Still of Hayao Miyazaki in The Wind Rises © Studio Ghibli

In our Biographies We Need series, Signature writers look at the lives of some extraordinary individuals and ask the nagging question: Where's their definitive biography? 

Few if any have been as instrumental in the global popularization of anime as Hayao Miyazaki. Known to Americans as ‘Japan’s Walt Disney,’ Miyazaki has had a hand in the production of some of the medium’s biggest international hits: "Princess Mononoke," "My Neighbors the Yamadas," and the Academy Award-winning "Spirited Away."

Miyazaki is a superstar in Japan; an institution all his own. One of his former homes is a museum, and Studio Ghibli, the production house he founded with colleagues Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki, is a revered creative powerhouse held in the same esteem that Americans hold Pixar.

While Miyazaki doesn’t enjoy the same level of name recognition here in the United States, it says something that even people who don’t generally watch anime will at least recognize the names of his films. However, even his biggest American admirers know little to nothing about the man himself.

These are the facts: He was born in the first days of World War II. His family manufactured parts for Japan’s "zero" fighter planes. His mother was sick for several years of his childhood. He dreamed of a career in animation and illustration, and that dream, plus plenty of hard work, was enough to carry him through. But that’s not a biography, it’s a crude sketch, and for a man whose art is so intimately tied to his very being, it’s not enough. There’s not been a proper Miyazaki biography published in the states, and we desperately need one.

The 2013 documentary "The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness" has brought us as close as we've gotten to Miyazaki, but what it reveals suggests more questions than answers. For example, why would a man like Miyazaki refuse to edit his films? There’s a moment in "Kingdom" in which Miyazaki refers to a mistake he’s made in a still-in-production film as one he’ll have to live with.

For that matter, why does he even make films? What is he trying to communicate? When asked about the lack of dialogue at the ending of one of his movies, Miyazaki opines that the world is too complicated for words. Maybe the same might be true of Miyazaki himself, whose beautiful stories belie the despair that is evident throughout "Kingdom."

The Miyazaki found in "The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness" believes that the world has gone mad, the time for making meaningful films is long past, and Studio Ghibli is destined to fall apart. How can these be the sentiments of the man who shepherded "Howl’s Moving Castle" into the world?

Maybe it is the tension between the world as he sees it and the world as he wishes it to be that keeps Miyazaki at his drafting table day after day. He doesn't need the money, and it certainly isn’t for his own pleasure, if you take him at his word. In the final moments of "The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness," Miyazaki offers his thoughts on happiness, and how little it relates to his work at Studio Ghibli.

"Do you work for your own happiness? I don’t ever feel happy in my daily life. Really, isn’t that how it is? How could that ever be our ultimate goal? Filmmaking only brings suffering."

Perhaps Miyazaki’s idea of a perfect world is one that doesn't need him. That world isn't likely to arrive any time soon, but that won’t stop Miyazaki from trying to bring it into being, one frame at a time. Nothing probably could. He recently retired, but that’s not likely to last. This might be the perfect moment -- maybe the only one -- for a biographer to try to reach out to Miyazaki with these and so many other questions.

Below, Hayao Miyazaki receives an Honorary Award at the 2014 Governors Awards