Hayao Miyazaki: The Anime Industry is Full Of “Otaku”

The great Japanese animator and famed director of Studio Ghibli: Hayao Miyazaki is said to be retired now, leaving his latest film “The Wind Rises” as his last piece of art. I haven’t seen it yet, but I certainly look forward to seeing it later this month.

Recently, he said in a interview that the anime industry is filled with staff who are “otaku.”

Now, this term is used somewhat loosely. According to Wikipedia, “otaku” refers to someone with “obsessive interests,” but is often used as a derogatory term for people who obsess over these things as a replacement to real life. Common examples are anime, manga or video game otaku, where the person might use these forms of entertainment media instead of actually going outside and spending time with people. Miyazaki continues to explain his point in this manner, that modern animators in the anime industry “don’t spend time watching real people” and are “humans who can’t stand looking at other humans.” And because of this, animation quality suffers.

Miyazaki is known for being old-fashioned, having said in other interviews his distaste for things like the iPad and other computer devices. But while some people have tried to defend what he said here by reiterating what he meant, I think Hayao Miyazaki meant exactly what he said, and I fully agree with him.

Walt Disney would probably agree. Back when he was alive, his studio would hire real actors to perform scenes live in character, and the animators would study and record footage to use as reference when designing the animated characters and their movements. This is a common practice, or at least it was. Even today, animators commonly keep a mirror next to their table to at least help them with lip-synching and facial expressions (basically, the animators themselves must be fantastic actors). Don Bluth also did this for his characters and moving objects (such as he said in a interview regarding “The Secret of Nimh”).

But does this still happen today? I can’t say… I haven’t had the opportunity to step inside a real animation studio. But I do know that most games, television and film that uses computer animation now relies on motion-capture, which provides realistic movement almost instantly. Certainly, I imagine using live-action reference footage is less common now. As for anime… it’s evolved from being made with shortcuts and minimalism to being made with cuteness in mind. How many of you can look at an anime and say that the characters move, look, and feel like they could exist in real life? Ok, maybe “The Flowers of Evil” is an exception…

But that’s where anime is right now. The characters are meant to be marketable, to be super cute or super cool, to make your heart melt when you see them on the screen. This certainly prevents animation from being seen as a true art form, at least in the way Studio Ghibli and Disney have with critics around the world. But seeing different styles that are purposely NOT realistic can have merit too, in fact I live for that sort of stuff. I love animation because it isn’t real, because it can take me places that live action or real life simply cannot do. Take “The Triplets of Belleville” for example: where the characters and world look so strange that they couldn’t possibly be real. And yet, the best artists can make the strangest things feel real at the same time… again, the movements of the characters from “Belleville,” in the way they walk and stand, feels not unlike any stranger you would find in the city.

As someone who adores animation but animates very poorly, I find this a great hint on how I should try making my animations in the near future. Yes, the story and music and characters themselves are important, but the visuals are the first thing people see, and the first thing to get them through the door to your creation…