Center for Japanese Studies Set to Bestow Japan Prize on Hayao Miyazaki

The Acclaimed Japanese Filmmaker's Appearance At UC Berkeley Presents An Invaluable Opportunity

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Taking major steps to recognize one of modern cinema's most accomplished visual artists, UC Berkeley's Center for Japanese Studies has chosen animation director Hayao Miyazaki as the recipient of the 2009 Berkeley Japan Prize. As part of his much-touted stateside visit, the renowned filmmaker will participate in a two-hour interview at Zellerbach Hall on July 25, a highly anticipated event that will be moderated by Roland Kelts, Tokyo University lecturer and author of "Japanamerica."

Miyazaki will follow in the footsteps of noted Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who received the prestigious award last October for his literary achievements. "The Berkeley Japan Prize honors individuals from all disciplines and professions who, through their work, have brought worldwide audiences to come into closer proximity with Japan," explained Professor Duncan Williams, current chair of the Center for Japanese Studies, in an e-mail. "We are honored to give the prize to one of the world's greatest filmmakers, who has brought Japan and the best in innovative Japanese culture to the world through the medium of film."

Born on January 5, 1941 in Tokyo, Japan, Hayao Miyazaki became fascinated with animation while still in high school. After graduating from Gakushuin University with degrees in political science and economics, he found work at Japan's renowned Toei Animation as an animator and concept artist. The success he enjoyed at Toei paved the way for a fruitful collaboration with director Isao Takahata, who would later co-found the influential Studio Ghibli with Miyazaki. Their work on the popular animated television series "Lupin III" would eventually lead to Miyazaki's first feature, 1979's "The Castle of Cagliostro."

A promising animation career took off with 1984's critically acclaimed "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind," an adaptation of Miyazaki's own serialized manga about a heroine on a mission to salvage post-apocalyptic Earth. Two years later, his fantasy epic "Laputa: Castle in the Sky" met with similar critical and commercial success, catapulting Miyazaki to the forefront of Japanese animation. The films "My Neighbor Totoro" (1988), "Kiki's Delivery Service" (1989) and "Porco Rosso" (1992) soon followed, introducing themes of youth and self-discovery that would come to dominate many of his later films.

"Princess Mononoke" (1997) saw Miyazaki's gift for both elevating and challenging the medium to reach new heights. Deftly replacing traditional good-evil dichotomies with morally ambiguous characters, the film's combination of historical fiction and soaring action-adventure remains perhaps Miyazaki's most sophisticated work. In the vein of "Nausicaa," the filmmaker mixes social commentary with environmental concerns, contrasting the splendor of primitive forests and enchanted spirits with the anxieties incurred by technological progress.

Miyazaki's next two outputs would further cement his status as a world-class animator. The 2001 Academy Award-winning film "Spirited Away" frames a young girl's coming-of-age story within a harrowing alternate universe reminiscent of "Alice in Wonderland"; the 2004 Academy Award-nominated work "Howl's Moving Castle" follows a plucky hat-maker and her companions on a quest to overcome identity-altering curses. Together, the films represent Miyazaki at his most thematically ambitious, juxtaposing the filmmaker's fascination with childhood and empowered heroines with a cosmic sense of wonder all his own.

The emergence of Miyazaki's profile in the West can be seen as a direct extension of his influence within his native Japan. "It is safe to say that Miyazaki has had more influence on North American filmmakers, starting with Disney/Pixar's John Lasseter, than any other Japanese animator," noted Fred Schodt, author and co-translator of a compilation of Miyazaki essays and dialogues titled "Starting Point: 1979-1996." Indeed, Studio Ghibli, established by Miyazaki and Takahata in 1985, is often cited as an inspirational forerunner to Pixar and other similar establishments.

Given that his body of work as a whole has redefined the boundaries of both animation and narrative storytelling, Miyazaki's impact on global pop culture is no less palpable. When I wrote to him asking for his insights on this subject, Professor Kelts offered a rich array of examples. "The impact his films have had on Western popular culture is enormous-and, per usual in these cases, hard to specifically quantify," Kelts admitted. "But I think if you look at the imagery in productions as divergent as the Gorillaz music video for 'Feel Good Inc.'-which was inspired by Miyazaki's "Castle in the Sky"-and the more recent Disney release, "WALL-E"-which has Miyazaki etched all over it, from its post-apocalyptic wasteland setting to its use of silence and mystical imagery-you'll get a sense of just how deeply Miyazaki's work has penetrated the global consciousness."

Yet despite his ever-growing significance in the West, Miyazaki's stateside appearances have been exceedingly rare. After a 1999 visit in conjunction with the U.S. release of "Princess Mononoke," he has refrained from visiting the United States, most noticeably skipping out on the 2002 Oscar ceremony where "Spirited Away" won for Best Animated Feature. Schodt attributes this absence to political differences, citing Miyazaki's "deep reservations about some aspects of American society, especially its interventionist foreign policy." Indeed, many of Miyazaki's own films, such as "Nausicaa" and "Howl's Moving Castle," feature stirring anti-war agendas.

One notion remains indisputable: Miyazaki's appearance at Zellerbach Hall represents a once-in-a-decade experience. "Miyazaki's visit to the U.S. this month may well be his last," Kelts predicted. "He is 68 and will likely focus most of his remaining energy on his work-and he works incredibly hard. This might be the last chance for Americans to see a master artist discuss his craft and views without boarding a flight to Japan, where he rarely makes public appearances anyway."

In light of his illustrious career, the Berkeley Japan Prize stands as an especially fitting accolade for Miyazaki. It's no stretch to say that his films has played an indispensable part in elevating anime to a globally recognized art form, both culturally and commercially. Exploring the ideals of coexistence and harmony without shying away from stark realities, his art often achieves profoundly universal proportions. As reflections of humanism in a constantly evolving world, Hayao Miyazaki's films are labors of love, essentially timeless.


Give Miyazaki his due praise with David at [email protected]

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