In Japan, animation is considered a high art, and no artist is more esteemed than film director Hayao Miyazaki. Last year, Miyazaki's masterwork, Spirited Away, became the biggest box-office hit ever in Japan, pulling in a staggering $214 million over eight months and displacing Titanic in the Japanese record books. A coming-of-age fantasy about a little girl working in a resort frequented by gods and ghouls, Spirited Away became the first animated film to win the Golden Bear award, the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival in April.
Miyazaki isn't new to international acclaim. The 61-year-old animator has been in the top ranks of the world's innovative artists since the 1980s. He didn't start out that way, though. Miyazaki studied economics and political science at the elite Gakushuin University in central Tokyo, graduating in 1963. He then spent years doing TV animation for low wages at Toei Animation Co. He got his first big break in 1979, when he directed the now classic film Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. The wise-cracking thief named Lupin in this romance adventure story is probably one of Japan's most popular characters.
Soon after, film critics began dubbing him the Walt Disney of Japan. Miyazaki has admirers at the entertainment giant of the same name. In April, Walt Disney Studios acquired the U.S. theatrical and television rights to Spirited Away for an undisclosed sum. An English-dubbed version of the film is due out in the fall.
Miyazaki is admired for the shimmering bucolic settings and other-worldly creatures in films such as My Neighbor Totoro, which are mostly hand-drawn. The specters in Spirited Away are far more pleasing to the eye than other Japanese animation icons, such as Pokemon. Nor does this film or previous works--such as Miyazaki's 1997 release Princess Mononoke, which pulled in $208 million that year--follow the formulaic plots of anime, which rely on violence, gore, and thinly-clad female characters. Miyazaki's themes reject the crass materialism of modern society and focus instead on self-reliance and quiet determination. He also weaves a fair amount of environmentalism and humanism into his works.
Since 1985, Miyazaki has been associated with Studio Ghibli, an animation studio fully dedicated to producing his works. Although Miyazaki isn't a young man, he shows no signs of slowing down. He has several unnamed projects in the works. Miyazaki once said that he measures the success of his films not by box-office receipts but by whether his young fans today will want to show his works to their children 20 or 30 years from now. Given the appeal of his films to adults and children around the world, that seems a sure bet.