How Hayao Miyazaki Made Me a Better Writer
Under the tutelage of the powerhouse director, I gained the tools I needed to finally finish my story.
I narrowly avoided a mental breakdown last night.
I was finally in front of my manuscript that I’ve been laboring with mentally between searching for stable employment, thinking of ways to monetize my content, and taking on odd jobs while I wait for one of these interviewers to call me back. I’d lacked the courage to face it up until this point because I had failed to properly produce a draft worth querying despite significant effort going toward the cause. But if I didn’t face it soon, it wouldn’t get done.
I sat there with my notes on what was happening in the story, what I remembered of it, and ideas for how to fix some of the more glaring problems; and promptly began to beat myself up for not being able to think of anything to fix said problems.
In the past I would have threatened to throw my computer, renounced writing, and proclaimed I was going to grow radishes instead. But fortunately for me (and my husband, who usually talks me off the ledge during these outbursts), last month I witnessed Hayao Miyazaki go through the exact same struggle; with not one, but two of his famed Studio Ghibli classics: Ponyo and The Wind Rises.
For those of you unfamiliar with Miyazaki-san’s work, he’s a powerhouse of Japanese animation. He’s often referred to as the Japanese Walt Disney (in my opinion Walt Disney is the American Hayao Miyazaki), with his films being known for strong spiritual and natural themes, strong female protagonists (read: not guns and heels), and depicting love in shades other than romance. They are memorable and beautiful, with stunning attention to detail and craft given to every single frame on screen. That’s because Hayao Miyazaki is an auteur style director, carefully going over every frame of the movie, and re-drawing them as necessary to ensure each frame captures the life and spirit of the characters he’s created.
The man is an award-winning director and so influential that when Disney was stuck on how to move Frozen and Coco (yes, Coco) along, they studied his films in order to deliver the stories our children (and me) repeatedly stream on Disney Plus.
He is… a legend.
And most legends are content to remain that way. Mythical creatures of superior intellect, leaving the rest of us to craft complex origin stories to explain where all that talent came from. Thankfully, Miyazaki-san is not like that. At the request of one very persistent director, Kaku Arakawa, we the people, were granted access into the mind and work process of the acclaimed filmmaker in the 4 part documentary 10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki.
The whole thing was eye-opening.
Studying at the master’s feet
I saw Miyazaki agonize over storyboards that weren’t flowing, argue with himself for not being able to produce ideas that were “good enough”, walk away from his work as it piled up because he was creatively stuck, and repeatedly grumble over how much of a pain wrestling with the story was. Arakawa could very well have been sitting with me in my own house during one of my drafting sessions.
Miyazaki was grouchy and short with people when he couldn’t figure something out, just like me. He took a nap when he got frustrated, just like me. And he was filled with anxiety and self-doubt the entire time, just like me. Seeing myself in him, made me take his lessons to heart, because I knew he understood me. I could trust him when he advised allowing the story to guide you rather than trying to guide the story; or taking time to be alone with your thoughts periodically; or — even more important — getting outside inspiration to help you when your creativity was running low, because these were the things he was using to get out of his slump.
I didn’t just read his advice somewhere, I actually saw him do those things.
The solution to my problem
Miyazaki-san had done what no other book on writing had effectively done for me before. He gave me the courage to struggle with my characters and story; to wrestle with them, and keep wrestling with them until they yielded me something good. And he let me know that it was ok to doubt myself and wallow in anxiety the entire way, so long as I kept wrestling.
So last night, as I called myself crazy, stupid, and a another number of harsh words for not realizing these plot holes and errors had been there the whole time; I didn’t use that as an excuse to give up. I stayed in the ring with my book and thought of an idea until I felt satisfied it was the right fix for the problem. I didn’t produce a total fix, but the fact that I am back in front of it again today, where normally I’d run and cite creative block, is a testament to the tutelage of Miyazaki-san.
I hope to meet him one day and tell him thanks for his masterclass of masterclasses.
But if I don’t, I’ll be sure to include a dedication to him (and Arawaka for being brave enough to film Miyazaki) once this thing finally makes it to print. Because without his teaching me how to tame the dragon of my imagination through patience and perseverance, it never would have been possible.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some more struggling to do.