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ICONS: Hayao Miyazaki

One of the most extraordinary films at Sunday’s Oscars is the latest from Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Studio Ghibli and a pillar of Japanese cinema, The Boy and the Heron. This is the Japanese master’s fourth Oscar-nominated animated feature, following the now-classic Spirited Away (2003), Howl’s Moving Castle (2006) and The Wind Rises (2014).

However, the Best Animated Feature award is still up for grabs for the category favourite, a true American superhero, which this year is Sony’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, which has strengthened its position in recent months after winning a total of seven awards, including Best Animated Feature, at the 51st ASIFA-Hollywood Annie Awards on 17 February. It also won for FX, character design, directing (Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson), music (Daniel Pemberton, Metro Boomin), production design and editing. Miyazaki’s film, on the other hand, also won two Annie Awards, but triumphed at the BAFTAs, ending an 18-year streak of US-funded productions winning the Best Animated Feature at BAFTAs – which began in 2006 with Happy Feet – and becoming the first Japanese production to win the title.


Ten years after his last big success, the 83-year-old Japanese animation classic has once again interrupted his retirement to tell one last story to his grandchildren, and of course to us. His twelfth feature film is a semi-autobiographical, hand-drawn fantasy about destruction, loss, and rebuilding a better future through imagination, inspired by a novel he loved as a child (How to Live). Eleven-year-old Mahito loses his mother in a Japanese bombing during World War II and moves to the countryside, where his father marries his sister-in-law. In this troubled state, the boy meets a talking grey heron, which leads him into a parallel universe and a life-changing adventure of a magnitude. The English-language version features a dubbed cast that includes Luca Padovan as Mahito, Robert Pattinson as the heron, Christian Bale as the father, Gemma Chan as the stepmother, Willem Dafoe as the noble pelican, Mark Hamill as the uncle, Florence Pugh as Kiriko, Karen Fukuara as Lady Himi, and Dave Bautista as the parrot king.

“Easy-to-understand films are boring, I’m a fan of breaking conventions,” Miyazaki said in his 2019 documentary 10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki. And it should be noted that, true to Miyazaki’s claim, it would be difficult to find a dull moment in a Ghibli film. Founded in 1985 by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, Studio Ghibli quickly became a cornerstone of the animation world, not only capturing the imagination of film critics and a niche audience of anime fans, but also quickly becoming a global phenomenon. Over the years, many of the film world’s greats have been inspired by these cinemas: Wes Anderson and Guillermo del Toro, among others, are huge fans of Ghibli films, as well as Miyazaki. Guillermo del Toro claimed that he couldn’t stop crying while watching My Neighbour Totoro. And Wes Anderson said that he was inspired by Miyazaki while filming Island of Dogs: “With Miyazaki, you get nature and moments of peace, a kind of rhythm that is not so present in the American animation tradition. It was quite an inspiration for us”. James Cameron’s huge commercial entertainment film Avatar is also said to have been inspired by Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke (1997).

Compared to the usual animated films, Miyazaki’s characters have immense depth, and his stories always tell something beyond what we see on screen. Every frame is perfectly thought out, every frame… simply art.