Hayao Miyazaki’s films have been the cornerstone of my love for animation, and a warm blanket to return to when things get difficult. I can mark the seasons of my life by the particular films I’ve fallen into, though I adore them all. 2001’s Spirited Away and 1986’s Castle in the Sky were regular rewatches as I navigated middle school, feeling uprooted and unsure of myself, hoping to steal a bit of Chihiro’s stubborn resolve and Sheeta’s pluck. In high school, I loved 2008’s Ponyo, thanks to a relationship where we quoted the movie back and forth to each other. In my early 20s, I fell for 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle, which has become a constant in my life.
The opening of the Miyazaki retrospective “Hayao Miyazaki” at Los Angeles’ Academy Museum of Motion Pictures came at just the right time. After pandemic-related delays, the opening wound up coinciding with Spirited Away’s 20th anniversary. I arrived on its October opening weekend expecting to enjoy sketches and behind-the-scenes materials, along with experiential art pieces — insight into Miyazaki’s process I’d never gotten before, as the exhibit is the first retrospective of his work to debut in North America. I was not expecting the exhibit to be so affecting, even with my lifelong love of Studio Ghibli films. It was my first museum visit in two years, and well worth the trip.
The exhibition offers access to so much, with more than 300 objects on display. There are physical storyboards, reference illustrations, and hand-painted character designs and backdrops of all sorts, beautifully displayed. Scenes from classic Studio Ghibli films are projected in high-quality presentations on numerous screens interspersed throughout the exhibit, creating the effect of moving art. Some are even set in triptych. But it’s the way the curators set all these elements in conversation with each other, sorting theme by theme, that makes these pieces come to life. They’ve created an exhibition experience that felt like moving through narrative itself.
Each of these themes, and the art within, feels like opening a secret portal into Miyazaki’s head. The “Creating Characters” section is peppered with concept sketches of famous characters like Totoro and Kiki, the main characters of My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, respectively. In “Transformations,” I saw the storyboards of two iconic scenes — Howl transforming into his bird-like monstrous form, and Chihiro turning transparent, approaching the spa for the spirits — and tons of artwork from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
Though the Ghibli movie scenes are being screened in a size and quality that felt standard for a museum gallery, they’re inventively presented. Screens are peppered throughout the exhibit, intentionally woven into the broader schema of the gallery, defying the standard film alcoves at other museums. Projections are also part of the art installations, like at the end of a tunnel designed to feel like walking through Miyazaki’s worlds. This reflected the Academy Museum’s generally inventive use of screens; because the museum focuses on filmography, the exhibitions have a varied approach in how footage is presented.
It’s one thing to know, intellectually, that Miyazaki has done so much animation by hand, one painstakingly painted cel at a time. It is an altogether different experience to finally see his films in gallery quality, near their original reference drawings, and to really appreciate the artistry. I was never able to watch Miyazaki’s films in theaters before, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to walk right up to the projection to catch these details. I was finally able to closely admire the designs of the planes in The Wind Rises and Porco Rosso — which have the precision of an engineer’s sketches — as well as the striking density of Princess Mononoke’s Kodama-filled forests, and every gear in the lumbering castle-beast of Howl’s Moving Castle scenes.
These Howl portions of the retrospective felt like my collection of art books had come to life. I’ve always related most to Sophie, the dowdy hat-maker who wants nothing more than to fade into the backdrop. She gains confidence with the help of a delightfully bizarre found family: flame demon Calcifer, young wizard-in-training Markl, and titular Howl. The film gave me a heroine I could relate to, in the understated yet feisty woman whose compassion for others helped her win battles and eventually love herself. And the “Sophie’s cottage” scene, where Sophie emerges from the Castle’s magic door to a field of stunning blooms and the small cottage Howl gifts to her — that’s one of my favorite animated sequences of all time.
I happened to sit at a screening bench in the “Creating Worlds” gallery at the exact moment that scene was screened. I saw the field of flowers in exquisite detail, noticed the minute brush strokes that went into each petal, and felt the goosebumps rise in my arms as I daydreamed of my own little retreat — and the romantic ideal of someone enchanting a sea of blooms to make a meadow even more sublime. The scene has been an escape for me, for so many years.
The rest of the exhibit is filled with equal moments of delight. One wall is decked with dozens of classic Studio Ghibli posters. Miyazaki’s own desk is on display, behind protective glass. Interactive art pieces and lighting flesh out the whole experience. I lay on the sloped, green-carpeted floor of an installation, where my friends and I watched clouds drifting through the sky on a ceiling projection, feeling very much like Jiro and Naoko in The Wind Rises. I walked through a corridor to find the Mother Tree from Princess Mononoke.
I actually entered from the back, so it wasn’t until I headed out that I was able to enjoy the intentional entrance — designed to look like the cave Chihiro enters at the start of Spirited Away, the one that transports her into the alternate world of the spirits. Experienced at the end of my time in the exhibit, it felt equally effective, as a portal that signalled it was time for me to re-enter the ordinary, human world.
Admission to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is $25 for adults, $19 for those 62+, $15 for college students, and free for children 17 and below as well as museum members. The Hayao Miyazaki exhibition runs from Sept. 30, 2021 - June 5, 2022 and is included in the price of admission. The exhibition will not be going on tour.