What Pixar and Miyazaki have in common (and what anime can learn from them)

John Lasseter and Hayao Miyazaki at Comic Con 2009

The people at Pixar are well-known admirers of Hayao Miyazaki and his works. Creative chief John Lasseter and his crew often watch Studio Ghibli movies for inspiration when they are stuck. He personally introduced Miyazaki at last year’s Comic Con. Totoro even appears in their latest work, Toy Story 3, and Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki are named in the “Special Thanks” credits.

Pixar, of course, has one of the most consistent track records in animation quality and storytelling–one only equalled by…well, Miyazaki himself. I’d like to suggest that some of the reasons why are similar, and that anime in general might learn something from the consistency of their success.

Totoro in Toy Story 3

THEIR MOVIES ARE “DEEP” WITHOUT BEING PRETENTIOUS, PREACHY, OR PEDANTIC.

Watching the most recent Toy Story installment–which was just as emotionally resonant and compelling as the previous two–made me realize that just because something is labeled as a “kid’s movie” doesn’t mean that it can’t deal with presumably “heavy” subjects like mortality, abandonment, and loss. Toy Story 3 is shot through with those themes, and never in a heavy-handed or forced way: instead, it’s what is implied by the narrative itself: toys must deal with the fact that their owner has grown up and are thus trying to escape a terrible fate in the trash bin or worse. The very structure of the plot implies the themes.

I also think of the way My Neighbor Totoro is, on one level, about children dealing with a parent’s life-threatening illness: but wrapped in the joyous and weird package of grinning Totoros and catbuses. Spirited Away is as much about a child learning about responsibility and consequences, but the playful, visually delightful atmosphere is what compels. You don’t realize that you’ve been told a story with those ideas until it’s already burrowed into your eyes and your mind by the adventure.

Lesser stories will try to impress with overt profundity by gratuitous references (hello, Mamoru Oshii and the old Hideaki Anno), forced drama (too many shows to count), or outright preaching at the end.

THEY DON’T TALK DOWN OR PANDER TO THE AUDIENCE

In all the stories the children are portrayed realistically–not as smartass tykes or pure, mewing innocents but as people with varying emotions and motivations. Miyazaki is the absolute master of this, in my opinion. His films mainly feature children as main characters, often girls, and many are explicitly aimed at children like Totoro and Ponyo. There is never a whiff of condescension in any of his movies, aside possibly from Princess Mononoke, precisely because he is willing not only to show children with all the warts (Chihiro’s whininess in the beginning, Ponyo’s neediness) and also with realistic movement and behavioral patterns. (The sisterhood between Mei and Satsuki in Totoro is as closely observed as it is touching.) Miyazaki can talk on the level of children without looking down on them, something that is rare in any medium. That’s one of the reasons I found Ponyo so delightful.

Pixar movies don’t usually feature children as the main characters. Because they’re animated they are still considered children’s movies, though from the start the studio has claimed they aren’t making kid’s movies–they’re making movies for everyone. Perhaps that is the key, really; when you start writing a story “for kids” you immediately start patronizing them. Again, with the Toy Story movies, it’s not just in the typical American animation way of having action and slapstick for the kids and pop culture jokes for the adults (Shrek). Instead, you talk about the bond between a child and a beloved toy–something ordinary kids can identify with on their level–made with the realization that it is a proxy for the bond between a human being and any trusted friend. That’s why a scene about parting with a toy can make both children and adults cry, at the same time. The emotions are recognizable to all, and don’t need to be “explained.” They’re honest and real, so the tears are earned.

A lot of anime is now made with only a particular niche audience in mind–usually kids or otaku. There needs to be some more attempts to make shows aimed at a general audience again, but not in the bone-headed “mainstreaming” way. You just simply tell a story with universal, primal themes, with characters that are relatable and believable. Easier said than done, of course: but good storytelling is good storytelling, and should stand up to going beyond its niche.

Ponyo, ponyo, is a little goldfish

QUALITY ANIMATION

This is not just about how detailed the backgrounds or the characters are, though both Pixar and Studio Ghibli have traditionally excelled at both. It’s not even in the frames per second or the fluidity. It’s more about visual inventiveness and originality, about a unique stamp that they bring to their work that is instantly recognizable.

Ghibli’s works are instantly recognizable, of course, by their consistent character design and focus on detail. One of the more overlooked aspects of their animation quality, however, is in the quality of the character movements. I remember watching Ponyo and marveling at how much she runs around like real four-year-olds I’ve seen. The same goes with the way Mei plays in Totoro. This is not just incidental: it’s a valuable dimension in stories that usually feature some wildly fantastic settings or events. It really grounds the characters in reality so that they remain relatable. Miyazaki also has a wild imagination, shown on full display in films like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle: a willingness to jumble and juxtapose many different creatures and even visual styles in memorable ways. (No Face in Spirited Away; Ponyo as half-fish and half-human form; Howl’s castle itself.)

Pixar seems to take the more traditional route of making their backgrounds more and more photorealistic–there were certainly moments in Toy Story 3 where the backdrops looked like live-action film rather than CGI. CGI, in the wrong hands, can look sterile. However, Pixar has often managed to infuse their CGI creations with the sense of aliveness and beauty. The Paris of Ratatouille is indeed the romantic City of Lights of a gourmand’s dream, and the food in the kitchen practically looks not only accurate, but edible; the ocean of Finding Nemo teems with so many fish and creatures. (It’s instructive actually to compare the openings of Ponyo and Finding Nemo: they both feel very “alive,” but in different ways.) And let’s not mention their justly famous short films, which is where a lot of the visual invention gets poured in. The new “Night and Day” one that precedes Toy Story 3 is not only a great metaphor but filled with elaborate visual puns, all accomplished with nearly no dialogue. This is, after all, the company whose career began with two anthropomorphic lamps jumping around. It’s now their mascot.

Here I think recent anime is actually getting better. The quality of background art for TV anime has improved a lot in recent years, and with people like Makoto Shinkai on the scene the bar has been set high. It’s a reminder that setting is more important than people realize, and that part of the reason why people like animation in general is that it can illuminate and show things visually that other media can’t. (See: Paprika.)  Generic looking animation is often a function of generic storytelling, and hopefully we will see more and more anime creators not always rely on the usual visual shorthand (sweatdrops, SD characters, etc). Shinbo tries, I think, though his own visual shorthands are already becoming repetitive. Masaaki Yuasa (Kaiba) is definitely getting there.


These are just a few reasons, mostly inspired by a satisfying watch of Toy Story 3. Feel free to add more, dispute my assertions, or offer counterpoints! I love anime in particular but I also love good storytelling and good animation in general, and in Pixar I think American film has a real treasure. It’s like our own Studio Ghibli, and one that regularly gives shoutouts to the real one too.

7 thoughts on “What Pixar and Miyazaki have in common (and what anime can learn from them)”

  1. I wouldn’t even bother comparing TV anime with the products Miyazaki or Pixar makes. It’s like comparing a spaceship with yacht. The cost of producing Toy Story 3, for example, has a budget of 190 million USD according to Wiki. The average 26-episode TV anime series have budgets at around 1-2 million USD…

    On the other hand, you can say this is true about movies in general, animated or not. Japan’s more mainstream products have the same kind of flaws you pointed out, but looking at films like Summer Wars or Mai Mai Miracles, I think their success (or lack their of) might also have to do with other factors. Just saying.

    1. I think that can be a fair point when it comes to things like animation quality–that’s something that can be easily affected by the budget, as well as time constraints and commercial pressures for TV shows. A lot of what I’m talking about, though, is really about storytelling quality: how the themes are expressed by plot and character, the tone adopted, etc. There are definitely differences in the kind of stories a TV series allows vs a film–it’s more like the difference between a novel and a short story in my mind–but both can have the kind of quality storytelling I see in Pixar and Miyazaki without necessarily having a high budget, or the constraints of a 90-120 minute running time. Monster, for instance, was a compelling exploration of evil, spread out (occasionally a bit thinly, yeah) over dozens of episodes. Fullmetal Alchemist is a shounen show with many younger fans, but contains some potent and wrenching portrayals of grief, the corruption of power, and anguish.

      In short I don’t think it’s the medium of TV that is limiting for the most part; it’s how the stuff is written.

  2. Excellent points. After Disney stopped producing the hand-drawn animated classics, Pixar is the only faith I have left for consistently good American animated movies. As much as I’m an anime fan, I think I like Pixar movies as a whole more than Ghibli movies.

    1. Miyazaki’s films have gotten somewhat less consistent as of late, at least since Princess Mononoke. However, his visual uniqueness is still unmatched. Pixar are great classical storytellers: their stories have clear three act structures and all the loose plot threads are tied up by the end. (It’s no accident: Lasseter made everyone on his team take Robert McKee’s famous screenwriting course, which is all about traditional structure.) That, I think, is a huge part of their consistency in creating moving stories.

  3. Yeah, I think studios will come and go – it’s the power of the person behind the dream that determines its success. I will also say, however, that I will watch anything Pixar or Miyazaki makes. I basically grew up watching their stuff.

  4. I think your message about medium is well taken. But just because two items exist within the same medium doesn’t mean they can be fairly comparable, or if it’s even meaningful to do so. Seems clear to me that your average anime does not set out to do the same things or tell the same sort of story as the average Pixar film.

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