For more than 20 years, the Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki has been crafting films more lusciously illustrated and rapturously imaginative than almost anything else on the silver screen full of spirits, walking castles, flying machines, cat buses and owl-raccoons called totoros (which only children can see). A fearsomely hands-on artist who does everything from scriptwriting to storyboard sketching to correcting many of the final frames of his movies by hand, Miyazaki is Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg and Orson Welles combined, with a dash of Claude Monet in his sumptuous landscapes and more than a smidgen of Roald Dahl in his sly, sophisticated understanding of children.
Miyazaki was not the founding father of Japanese animation. Its first master was Osamu Tezuka, creator of iconic characters like Astro Boy; it was Tezuka who pioneered the "big eyes" style of Japanese illustration and inspired every spiky-haired hero who ever took up arms against a giant robot. But more than that of any other director, Miyazaki's name and that of his animation house Studio Ghibli have become synonymous with Japanese animation. "He's a wonderfully creative storyteller who has somehow found a way to tell the stories that he wants, and that puts him in an incredibly small bracket of writer-directors worldwide," says Jonathan Clements, co-author of The Anime Encyclopedia. "All the smaller in that his works are also blockbuster successes." Princess Mononoke, an ecological fable set in Japan's distant past, was the country's top-grossing movie until Titanic eclipsed it in 1997; Miyazaki reclaimed the title in 2001 with the Oscar-winning Spirited Away the tale of a 10-year-old's quest to deliver her parents from a spell that has turned them into pigs. Like many of Miyazaki's films it's a rumination on the importance of self-reliance, selflessness and the challenge of growing up. This thematic richness is key, says Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki: "Our films are the result of serious and earnest consideration of what kind of films should be made for children."
What makes Miyazaki's movies all the more remarkable is that in an era when each computer-animated feature from the likes of Pixar and Disney is more kinetic than the last Cars! Toys! Fish! he continues to handcraft a world of Zen-like stillness and beauty: water dripping on mossy rocks, or a train gliding over the sea in twilight. The dramatic punch is delivered not with a showstopping musical number or high-tech wizardry but with simple, stunning imagery that still takes your breath away.