John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer at Pixar and the director of Toy Story and Toy Story 2, once told Roger Ebert that he watched Hayao Miyazaki’s films for inspiration. This would come as no surprise to anyone nowadays, since the release of Spirited Away in 2002 propelled Miyazaki’s animated films into mainstream recognition, but it was a different time then and he was relatively unknown. Now the Japanese master is internationally recognized and respected as one of the greatest animators in history, as well as one of the most influential. So where does he get inspiration to create some of animation’s richest and most complex films?
In 2010 Miyazaki listed the 50 books he would recommend to children —he read a lot when he was a kid—, and they gave us a glimpse into the works of art that helped him define his visual and storytelling style. The list includes titles that range from Winnie the Pooh all the way to The Three Musketeers, but I’d like to focus on three popular books in particular whose influence is palpable in Miyazaki’s stories.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Miyazaki has been praised for his approach to children stories. While most animators and cartoonists use hectic rhythms, non-stop action, and bright colors to try to keep children interested in their narratives, the co-founder of Studio Ghibli prefers to quiet things down and allow his films to breathe. "If you stay true to joy and astonishment and empathy, you don't have to have violence and you don't have to have action. [The children] will follow you. This is our principle,” he said in the same 2002 interview when Lasseter sang his praises.
His philosophy echoes that of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince. The novella presents children as wise, complex beings whose sensitivity and capability for love and friendship make them superior to adults in the eyes of the author. Miyazaki and Saint-Exupéry treat children with respect, a vision that propels their work to another level of complexity and makes them responsible for inspiring kids everywhere to care for others and dare to dream.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Besides the quiet moments, Miyazaki’s films feature great adventures, strong characters, and lots of action, very much like Bilbo’s journey through Middle Earth in Tolkien’s fantasy novel. And even more parallels can be drawn between them: they both create complex universes, filled with entire mythologies that complement their heroes’ journey. Both writers find inspiration in myths to create their worlds and the different races and monsters inhabiting them. Tolkien was a respected philologist and expert on European mythology –his main source of inspiration–, while Miyazaki incorporates Japanese myths into his films, the best example of this being Princess Mononoke. Their work also features environmentalist messages. Tolkien’s books idealize simple living, contact with nature, and the dangers of mechanization and industry, themes found in Miyazaki’s work as well.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Last but not least is Miyazaki’s use of strong female characters, specifically brave little girls who have to overcome great obstacles. His heroines are not sexualized, they are caring and utter badasses who complete their missions without flinching, whether it is Sophie overcoming her curse or Chihiro saving her parents from certain death. These traits are similar to the protagonist in The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox, a young girl whose curiosity and empathy help her bring balance to her caretaker’s house, by befriending a sickly kid, who recovers his health thanks to her friendship. Qualities everyone aspires to have.