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The movie Hayao Miyazaki calls “my destiny and my favourite film”

It’s hard to explain the impact of the Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli without reverting to hyperbole, with the revolutionary filmmaking team being responsible for an entire shift in attitudes toward the artform. 

Founded by trio Isao Takahata, Toshio Suzuki and Hayao Miyazaki, ever since its very inception, Ghibli has been dedicated to an ethos of wholesome creativity, instilling a magical vibrancy to each and every one of their movies. Its name, ‘Ghibli’, was chosen by Miyazaki, with its origins referring to the Libyan Arabic name for ‘hot desert wind’, with the idea behind the name referring to Miyazaki’s ambition to “blow a new wind through the anime industry”. 

With an impact more like a gale-force wind, Studio Ghibli has since created 23 feature films, with each one challenging the very nature of the animation genre, elevating it beyond cliches of being mere ‘children’s films’. 

Suzuki became a prolific producer and Takahata directed several classics including Grave of the Fireflies and Pom Poko before his untimely death in 2018, but it was the impact of the animator, writer and director Miyazaki who would arguably have the greatest impact. 

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Helming some of the studio’s finest projects, including My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki has become an icon of the animation world, famed for his imaginative visions and intricate humanitarian themes. Often concerned with the connection between nature and modern industrialism, Miyazaki has created films that are creative marvels as well as genuinely important pieces of political cinema. 

His journey to success hasn’t been easy, however, with the filmmaker becoming disillusioned with the industry in the late 1950s, until he saw one Soviet cartoon that would forever change his life 

Released in 1957, The Snow Queen was directed by Lev Atamanov and followed a lonely and powerful fairy, who kidnaps a human named Kay, only for his best friend named Gerda to save him from her clutches. Becoming obsessed with the film, which seemed to possess everything he wanted to achieve in animation, the director wrote that when his friend recorded the audio from a screening of the film he, “borrowed it and listened to it over and over again at work”.

“Had I not seen The Snow Queen during a film screening hosted by the company labor union, I honestly doubt that I would have continued working as an animator,” the filmmaker and animator later wrote, with the structure and form of the Soviet film informing his later projects. 

Speaking about one of his favourite parts of the movie, when the girl frees her friend from Gerda, along with several captive animals, Miyazaki writes, “[W]hen she hears Gerda’s story she realizes that, unlike Gerda, she has no one to love. She tried to lord it over all sorts of things, but she realizes that what she really wants is not to keep animals in cages and tied up in ropes, but to love someone”. 

The Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke director loved the film so much that when the Ghibli Museum re-released The Snow Queen, the blurb for the movie had a quote from Miyazaki that read, “my destiny and my favourite film”. 

So whilst we have Studio Ghibli to thank for some of the best animated movies of all time, we should also doff our caps to Lev Atamanov and his Soviet cartoon classic.