It was March of 2003, and it was the night of the 75th Academy Awards. Cameron Diaz took the stage at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California. Standing in front of the podium, the famed actress began to introduce the first awards category of the night: Best Animated Feature. This was only the second year of the young category’s existence. The award had finally been created with the arrival of major animated competitors for Disney like DreamWorks. Now, experts said, there were enough animated films in theaters each year to justify the award.
While the Best Animated Oscar was not yet the source of controversy it would eventually become, it was still assumed that popular animation from the US possessed an insurmountable advantage amongst Academy voters. Let’s be honest here; why else would a movie like Ice Age have even been competing?
Diaz read off the list of nominees, each accompanied by a single still image from the film in question. Fox’s Ice Age; Disney’s Lilo and Stitch; DreamWork’s Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron; Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away; and Disney’s Treasure Planet (the Mouse was doing double duty – triple-duty, really, considering they were distributing the Ghibli film). While each film received a smattering of applause from the crowd, it was the odd film out and probable underdog, Spirited Away – the first full-length Japanese animated film ever nominated for an Oscar – which received audible cheers.
At the same time as Diaz stood on that stage, I sat watching the category be announced in distant, snowy Minnesota, far away from the Hollywood lights. At only 14 years old, this moment held outsized importance in my Ghibli-devoted heart. I’d been obsessed with the studio ever since Princess Mononoke first released in the US back in 1999, and had been foisting what movies had arrived in America onto friends and family ever since. Here, now, was the first time Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki – really, anime in general – were being featured on a prestigious setting being watched at homes around the United States.
Still, I was certain Lilo and Stitch would take home the award; it was a full-blown Disney film, it had great name recognition, and it was already fairly beloved. (And, interestingly, its protagonist shared an English-language voice-actor with Spirited Away‘s own main character, Chihiro.) Spirited Away, on the other hand, was anime; a foreign film from a medium still associated primarily with Pokémon and 80’s excesses.
So, when Diaz announced Spirited Away as the winner – and even nearly pronounced Miyazaki’s name correctly! – I was pretty elated. Amidst my sense of pride-by-proxy, I was only somewhat disappointed by the absence of anyone from Ghibli accepting this major award. Instead, Diaz announced that the Academy was accepting the Oscar on Miyazaki’s behalf and simply walked off-screen. The moment – which would be touted in US-based Ghibli marketing materials for years to come – was over. But Miyazaki’s aloof relationship with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had just begun.
The Legend Grows
In the nearly two decades since the 75th Academy Awards, Miyazaki’s star has seen a near-meteoric rise in the English-speaking world. Back in 2003, film critics like Roger Ebert and directors like Miyazaki-diehard (and now disgraced) Pixar honcho John Lasseter were already raving about the Japanese maestro’s masterful animated films; they lauded the world-building, characterizations, imagination, and intelligent messaging of movies like My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Princess Mononoke. Indeed, Spirited Away was essentially the best-reviewed film in the United States for that year, featuring a rare 100% on Rotton Tomatoes.
Still, Miyazaki had essentially no name-recognization outside of critic and animation circles. I remember seeing Spirited Away in theaters, and there being parents with their kids who clearly had no idea what to make of it. It was fantastical, yet dark. Its imagery was deeply rooted in a mythology and culture far from what most American audiences had experienced. They’d never seen anything like it before.
After Spirited Away took home the Oscar, however, things began to change. Miyazaki’s name now carried a sense of prestige in the US, and people came to understand his connection with the sleeper VHS hits Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Disney began releasing the Studio Ghibli backlog – movies that had been hits as much as a decade and a half earlier in Japan, but were essentially unknown in the Americas or Europe. Movies like Castle in the Sky, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Porco Rosso started showing up in family DVD collections.
Back in Competition
2006 came around, and Miyazaki’s then-newest film, Howl’s Moving Castle, netted the director a second Oscar nomination. This inaugurated a long tradition of new Ghibli films being nominated, yet never again taking an award home. Howl‘s lost out to Wallace and Gromit; in 2013, Miyazaki’s assumed swan-song, The Wind Rises, fell to the worldwide phenomenon that was Frozen; the next year saw Ghibli co-founder Takahata Isao’s final film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, lose out to the thoroughly ok Disney feature Big Hero 6. (If you’ve seen my Ultimate Ranking of the Studio Ghibli Universe series, you can likely guess how I feel about this upset.) In 2015, the current last-released Ghibli film, When Marnie Was There, also netted a nomination (losing out to Pixar’s Inside Out).
(Since 2014’s Marnie, Studio Ghibli has been on hiatus – but that’s soon to change, with Miyazaki’s son Goro directing a film to be released on Japanese TV this winter, and Miyazaki Sr. himself reportedly around 20% finished with his newest movie, How Do You Live? [君たちはどう生きるか].)
Although Miyazaki became more and more a household name, beloved by American filmmakers and big-name actors (many of whom jumped to be included in Disney’s English dubs of Ghibli films), he never seemed to show up for the biggest night in Hollywood – despite any nominations for himself or his studio. So just why had Miyazaki stayed home on what might have the biggest international moment of his life?
Conscientious ObjectorHowl's Moving Castle netted the director a second Oscar nomination. This inaugurated a long tradition of new Ghibli films being nominated, yet never again taking an award home. Click To Tweet
Initially, when asked if he would be attending the 2003 Oscars, Miyazaki had simply demurred. “I’m quite busy working on my newest film.” It wasn’t until 2009 that he fully admitted his real reasoning:
“The reason I didn’t go to America for the Academy Award was that I didn’t want to visit a country that was bombing Iraq. At the time, my producer [Ghibli president Suzuki Toshio] told me to shut up about it, and I wasn’t able to speak about my real reasoning, but I don’t see that producer around here today. By the way, he also shared in that feeling.”Miyazaki Hayao, as quoted in Nikkan Geinou on 7/27/2009. The quote also corresponds to why Suzuki Toshio did not attend either – although his excuse had formerly been that he was “worried about airline safety.”
This news broke to some interest abroad in the US. But those who had followed Miyazaki’s career or watched his films were generally unsurprised. After all, Miyazaki was someone who had been born during WWII and seen the devastation it had wrought. As a young man, he had been involved in the anti-war movement of the 1960s. His life experiences had created both a great interest in and abiding hatred for war. According to Suzuki Toshio, “Miyazaki is very knowledgeable about war. He is familiar with the history of not only Japan’s wars but also of wars around the world… At the same time, he most desperately longs for peace more than anyone.”
Consequently, Miyazaki’s movies are rife with anti-war themes. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) is starkly pacifist. Castle in the Sky (1986) speaks to the foolhardy nature of those who rely overmuch on technological weaponry. Porco Rosso (1992) is directly anti-fascist. Princess Mononoke (1997) tweaks the theming from Nausicaa, but maintains its strict sense of pacifism. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Miyazaki’s next film after his Oscar win with Spirited Away, inserted an anti-war plot into Dianna Wynn-Jone’s source novel where there had been none. Miyazaki described how his feelings during 2003 in the lead up to the Oscars affected his storytelling in Howl’s:
Actually, your country [America] had just started the war against Iraq, and I had a great deal of rage about that. So I felt some hesitation about the award. In fact, I had just started to make “Howl’s Moving Castle,” so the film is profoundly affected by the war in Iraq.Quoted from the 6/19/2005 Newsweek article A ‘POSITIVE PESSIMIST’.
By 2006, however, Miyazaki’s feelings towards American foreign policy had apparently mellowed enough to allow him to tour the US to attend a variety of premier events for Howl’s. Miyazaki’s disinterest in the Academy, however, had not yet waned.
The Academy Comes Calling
In the same year as Miyazaki set off to the United States for the North American premiere of Howl’s, Suzuki again revealed some interesting information about Miyazaki and the Academy. During a press conference, Suzuki said the following:
He was actually requested [to join the Academy] three times. He does not seem to be very happy about this, because it seems to mean his retirement is near. Miyazaki’s belief that ‘I want to be as active as possible,’ seems to be strong.
Miyazaki, of course, was still far from retirement in 2006. He continued to turn down invitations from the Academy. Membership would have conferred the ability to vote for and nominate films for the Academy Awards. It also allows for co-sponsoring new members, and is generally thought to be a high honor. But Miyazaki wasn’t the only Ghibli luminary to deny said honor. Suzuki Toshio himself was nominated in 2014 but similarly demurred."The reason I didn't go to America for the Academy Award was that I didn’t want to visit a country that was bombing Iraq." Click To Tweet
Long-time Ghibli collaborator Hisaishi Joe, who created the scores for all of Miyazaki’s Ghibli films and one of Takahata’s, was also invited to join the academy in 2013. Despite not being an Oscar-winner himself, the famed composer had scored two Japanese films which took home the golden statuette – the aforementioned Spirited Away, and 2008’s live-action Departures, which won Best Foreign Language Film. Hisaishi, too, decided not to join.
Following the 2016 “Oscars So White” scandal, wherein for the second year in a row all acting-category nominees were white, the Academy sent out a flurry of membership invitations to non-white filmmakers. Ghibli’s own Takahata Isao was among the Japanese invitees. But he also turned down the offer, ostensibly because he was simply “too busy with work.” Of course, this also came only a year after his nomination for Best Animated with Kaguya, about which an Academy member had said the following:
I only watch the ones that my kid wants to see…[but] when a movie is [as] successful [as the Lego movie] — for that movie not to be in over these two obscure freakin’ Chinese fuckin’ things that nobody ever freakin’ saw? That is my biggest bitch. Most people didn’t even know what they were!Quoted in Cartoon Brew. The second “Chinese fuckin’ thing” refers to Song of the Sea, an Irish animated film by the beloved studio Cartoon Saloon.
The Long-Awaited Arrival
With all this in mind, one could be forgiven for assuming that Miyazaki and Ghibli as a whole hold a sort of disdain for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Multiple combined refusals to join the Academy and award night no-shows do give off that sort of impression.
The 2014 Academy Awards, however, show a slightly different story. That year, the Academy decided to award Miyazaki with an honorary Oscar. Given this was following on the heels of Miyazaki’s then-permanent retirement announcement from the year previous, this would essentially be a lifetime achievement award. Despite all of his previous snubs, Miyazaki not only accepted – he also agreed to appear in person for the award.
On November 8th, 2014, Miyazaki took the stage at the Academy’s Governors Awards. He’d just been introduced by one of his constant champions in America, John Lasseter – himself still four years off from being forced from his position as creative head of Disney/Pixar. Lasseter, then still a giant of the animation industry, was effusive in his praise: “In the history of animation, which dates back to the earliest years of film itself, there are two figures whose contributions to our artform place them above all others. The first is Walt Disney; the second is Hayao Miyazaki.”
Lassetter concluded his introduction – which included telling about how Miyazaki’s first film as director, Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro (1979) had deeply influenced him. (“…It was proof-positive, as Walt Disney had shown so many years before, that animation truly was for everyone.”) Then, Miyazaki took the stage. He received his statuette from Lassetter as a much larger golden Oscar loomed behind them.
“I think I’ve been lucky,” Miyazaki then said, speaking through his translator, “because I’ve been able to participate in the last era when we can make films with paper, pencils and film.” Even here, however, Miyazaki was still focused on the concept of war – the very topic which had kept him away from the Oscars in 2003. “Another fact of luck is that my country has not been at war for the 50 years that I have been making films. Of course, we’ve profited from wars, but we’re very fortunate that we have not had to go to war ourselves.” He finished off his speech with a joke about how lucky he’d been to meet actress Maureen O’Hara, who was also being honored.
Miyazaki and the Oscar MuseumThat Miyazaki is now considered such a draw for American and international tourists as to validate his headlining the opening of the Academy Museum speaks volumes. Click To Tweet
By accepting his honorary Oscar, Miyazaki was following in the footsteps of another man to whom, like Disney, he’s long been compared: Kurosawa Akira. Both Japanese directors were widely considered the greatest by their Western contemporaries; both won a single Oscar amongst various of their nominated films; they both were given honorary Oscars for their life’s work and contributions. Miyazaki, however, is now receiving one honor Kurosawa never quite had the chance to.
This Spring, barring all interventions by way of the pandemic, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is scheduled to open in Los Angeles. The inaugural temporary exhibit will be a large-scale retrospective on Miyazaki and his career, marking the first exhibit of its type in North America. The exhibit will feature over 300 separate objects, many of which have never before left Japan.
The vast installation, which Ghibli helped design, will feature seven separate spaces. Visitors will follow young Mei from Totoro into the Tree Tunnel Gallery, a liminal space entering the magical realm of so many of Miyazaki’s films. The various spaces focus on character creation; Miyazaki’s early work with Takahata; world-building; Miyazaki’s detailed yet fanciful architectural designs, and; physical transformation (like those of Howl or Porco). Additionally, the Sky View room will focus on Miyazaki’s use of quiet moments and “…the desire to slow down, reflect, and dream,” while the final space, the Magical Forest, features the woodland environments which often play important thematic roles in Ghibli films. The gallery will be so extensive that guests will be able to purchase a 256-page tome dedicated to the exhibit.
Accepting Their Due Honors
The Academy museum’s director, Bill Kramer, has indicated why they’ve chosen Miyazaki to headline the institution’s opening. “We could not be more excited to launch our new institution with the most comprehensive presentation of Hayao Miyazaki’s work to date. Honoring the masterful career of this international artist is a fitting way to open our doors, signifying the global scope of the Academy Museum.”
Suzuki, always Ghibli’s greatest promoter, added his own thoughts. “It is an immense honor that Hayao Miyazaki is the inaugural temporary exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Miyazaki’s genius is his power of remembering what he sees. He opens the drawers in his head to pull out these visual memories to create characters, landscapes and structures that are bursting with originality. It is our hope that visitors will be able to experience the entire scope of Hayao Miyazaki’s creative process through this exhibition.”
Indeed, the fact that Miyazaki is now considered such a draw for American and international tourists as to validate his headlining the opening of a space like the Academy Museum speaks volumes. Whether or not Miyazaki himself cares all that much about accepting awards or breathing the rarefied air of the Hollywood elite is beyond the point. Rather, it actually seems to add to his image as someone devoted to his own unique craft, a veritable animation ascetic who exists beyond the petty vanities of LA-style stardom. As the constant, often spurned attention of the Academy shows, Miyazaki and Ghibli have become a true cultural force far beyond the shores of Japan.
And who knows — maybe some year soon, How Do You Live? will be nominated for Best Animated Film, and Miyazaki will actually appear on stage to collect his third Oscar statuette. Time will tell.
Miyazaki, Hayao. (2009). Turning Point, 1997–2008. Translated by Cary, Beth; Schodt, Frederik L. (2014 ed.). San Francisco: Viz Media.
Kimmich, Matt (2007). Animating the Fantastic: Hayao Miyazaki’s Adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. In Straytner, Leslie; Keller, James R. (eds.). Fantasy Fiction into Film. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company.
Hammond, Pete. (September 10, 2020). Academy Museum Stays On Target To Open April 30, Details First Exhibit Dedicated To Animation Legend Hayao Miyazaki. Deadline.