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The Art of Animation: Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli

I am a long time fan of Studio Ghibli, and I still consider Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away to be the finest animation ever made (a close runner-up being The Illusionist by Sylvain Chomet).

One reason that I am a fan is the beautiful environments (often urban) created in many of their films. These are works of art in their own right, and I have done my best to capture (with my own screenshots) some of the ones that I particularly like.

In order to keep this post a reasonable length, and because the art in many of the films can only be appreciated in animated form, I have chosen only three films (omitting, for example, the beautiful natural environment of My Neighbour Totoro along with many others). Click any image if you would like to see links about that film.


Kiki's Delivery Service

This charming story about the early difficulties of a trainee witch, based on a children's fantasy novel, would be worth watching just for the artwork of the beautiful Scandinavian-style landscape and city. When the weather is lousy or everything seems miserable, I watch this film again, thinking how much I would like to live here - and how much designers of modern architecture could learn from the film.

Kiki standing outside the bakery, overlooking the sea. Behind her is a glimpse of the lower part of the fictional city. The (apparently hand-painted) details of mortar, stones, plaster, tiles and so much else is incredible - the more you look, the more you see. As with so many of Miyazaki's urban environments, it is set on a hill, giving it added interest as a place and a wonderful three-dimensional feel as art.

The fictional city is “Koriko” or “Coriko”, although the characters don't mention it. Miyazaki's inspiration for it was the town of Visby on the island of Gotland, Sweden (worth looking at), although the fictional Koriko is a much larger place.

This is animation at its finest (no still images can convey how good it is), and one of my all-time favourite movies. (The version I have is in Japanese, with English subtitles, which I generally prefer.)


The bakery, with another glimpse of Koriko rising above it, lit (as often in Miyazaki's films) by a low sun. The room at the top of the stairs is a kind of storage loft, which Kiki can use free as her room (and have free use of the telephone for her delivery business) in exchange for helping out at the bakery.


The view from Kiki's room, as evening falls.


The bakery at night.

The Wind Rises

This is to be the last of Miyazaki's films (see here), and in many ways is very different from the others. A very good description of it can be found here.

It is a fictionalized version of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the Mitsubishi fighters that flew in WWII. It features many things: the love and mystique of aviation (and a repugnance for its use in war) that is Miyazaki's own, a stunning sequence covering the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, 7.9 on the Richter scale, that devastated Tokyo and the surrounding area, and a bittersweet story concerning his love for Nahoko, a girl whom he rescues during the earthquake and then doesn't see again for some time.

The story is fascinating from a historical point of view, but it also features some fine art work that somehow makes even factories and aircraft hangars things of beauty. I have selected just a few here.

A train journey during a period of tranquillity. Jiro is on his way to a hotel where he will again encounter Nahoko. Trains, and other means of transport, feature in many of Miyazaki's films with an extraordinary attention to realistic detail. (In Kiki's Delivery Service, when looking through the front window of an old-fashioned bus about to depart, we can see its nose rise as it is lifted by the torque of the engine, before setting off - a detail most people wouldn't even care about, or notice.)


The outfall from a beautiful spring pool, near the hotel where he encounters Nahoko.


Walking back to the hotel, caught in a sudden rain squall. Wind, rain and clouds are often major features of Miyazaki's films.


The hotel where Nahoko and Jiro meet.


Nahoko sadly dies of tuberculosis. They marry so that they can live together for the short time left, but Nahoko disappears one day, returning to the sanatorium so that he will remember her as she was. Together with other patients, she lies (well bundled up) on the verandah of the sanatorium, and in this beautiful short sequence she looks up at the sky as snow falls.

Whisper of the Heart

This is another great favourite of mine. It's a coming-of-age story set in modern Tokyo. Its heroine Shizuku is led on a journey that becomes more and more magical at it progresses - not, in this case, the magic of myths or legends, but a way of seeing the real world through the eyes of a young teenager that becomes a true voyage of enchantment.

The film was written by Miyazaki but directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, whom Miyazaki hoped would take over from him. Kondo's premature death shortly afterwards, apparently caused by overwork, seems to have led Miyazaki to announce his retirement, although (fortunately for us) he continued to work for a further 15 years but at a more relaxed pace.


The apartment block where Shizuku lives is far from luxurious...


The door is metal and the interior is very small and cluttered. Nevertheless Shizuku's family lives happily there, and apart from the expected occasional friction with Shizuku's older sister, is very supportive of her.

Shizuku's life is one of an ordinary young teenager. She attends a local school, remarkable only for the respect that Miyazaki always shows being given by children to their elders and teachers. Shizuku writes two translated versions of John Denver's “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (hilarious when translated back to English in subtitles) - she doesn't really understand the concept of a “home town”, and her second version is entitled “Take Me Home, Concrete Roads”.

Shizuku is a voracious reader, borrowing books from the library, and keeps encountering the name of a previous borrower, Seiji Amasawa. She encounters Seiji several times without realizing who he is, and is extremely cross when he teases her. But things will change...


One day when Shizuku travels on the local train, she is joined by an unusually independent cat. When they get off together she follows him...


...losing him...


...but discovering him again higher up the hill.


The cat leads her up a steep, narrow rubbish-strewn alley.


(Monitor test: you should be able to see considerable detail even on plain concrete walls.)


Shizuku emerges into what, to her, is a different world...


...and discovers an open, and apparently deserted, antique shop...


...in which she will discover Seiji's grandfather, and learn that Seiji himself lives downstairs, learning to be a violin maker.

Here she also meets The Baron, an amazing statuette with crystal eyes, whose story links to an unfulfilled love in the grandfather's past life.


Seiji's grandfather shows her a marvellous clock that he is repairing, whose mechanisms include another depiction of unfulfilled love.



Shizuku later meets Seiji here, and learns that he hopes to leave schooling early for a career making violins - but first he will have to prove himself by becoming an apprentice to a strict violin-making master in Cremona, Italy.


Shizuku realises how much she will miss him, and decides to challenge herself while he is away by writing a long story, which she calls Whisper of the Heart, inspired by the story of The Baron.


Seiji's grandfather wants to be the first to read her story, and Shizuku waits for hours on his lower verandah while he does so, in an agony of suspense. He finally appears and tells her that her story is a little rough, like any craftsman's first work, but she has dug out some real gems from her heart - and makes the hugely relieved Shizuku a supper of Ramen noodles.


Early one cold morning Seiji returns, and calls to Shizuku to come down.


He takes her high up to one of his favourite places...


...to watch a magical sunrise above Tokyo




If you like this...

[Wingsee, a delightful site dedicated to the work of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki]
[The painting "Ship Flying Over The Rainbow" from "Kiki's Delivery Service"]
[Joe Hisaishi plays his piano music from "Spirited Away"]
[The Art of Animation: Disney's “Tangled”]