“Miyazakiworld” by Susan Napier

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A few years ago, I discovered Studio Ghibli and fell in love with Japanese anime. I’m particularly fond of Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki’s ability to use animation to tell stories that are emotionally moving, visually stunning, and intellectually stimulating. Miyazaki’s films combine whimsical settings, strong female protagonists, and unconventional plots. I’m still new to this brave new world of anime, so I was excited to find Japanese culture expert Susan Napier’s latest book to help me make sense of Miyazaki’s oeuvre.

There have been many, many books, articles, and YouTube videos analyzing Studio Ghibli’s films. Miyazakiworld brings a new perspective by looking at the films through the lens of Hayao Miyazaki’s biography. Unlike high-profile storytellers in the West, Miyazaki is a very private person who seldom sits for interviews. However, he has been outspoken about some of his beliefs, particularly when it comes to war and the environment. Napier pieces together bits of biographical information and statements from interviews and looks at how they can help us interpret Miyazaki’s art.

After a brief biographical sketch of Miyazaki’s early life, the book looks at each of his major works in chronological order. Napier is admirably comprehensive, covering not just at Miyazaki’s more prominent Studio Ghibli films, but also his earlier films, such as Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, and his brief foray in TV with Future Boy Conan. She even dedicates an entire chapter to his epic Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind manga, an important yet often overlooked work in Miyazakiworld. In taking a chronological approach, Napier is able to show how Miyazaki’s view changed over time, and in turn how these changes influenced his art. While Miyazaki has remained consistently opposed to war and in favor of environmental protection, his faith in humanity’s ability to navigate these challenges evolves in interesting ways.

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Miyazakiworld isn’t a detailed biography in the conventional sense, despite the fact that shows how Miyazaki’s life influenced his art. For example, there’s surprisingly little about the founding of Studio Ghibli or Miyazaki’s family. By the end of the book, Hayao Miyazaki remains something of an enigma wrapped in contradictions. The man who produced such whimsical children’s films also as a cantankerous side. While I wouldn’t characterize all of his films as optimistic, they do suggest a faith in the wonder of human imagination that belies Miyazaki’s more cynical statements about humanity in interviews. Napier does an excellent job trying to unpack this complex artist’s work, but I definitely feel like there’s more to learn about Miyazakiworld.

Highly recommended to fans of anime and Japanese culture, particularly Studio Ghibli.

[Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.]

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