Nov 1

JQ Magazine: Book Review — ‘Starting Point: 1979-1996’ by Hayao Miyazaki

"For those who enjoy the process and precision behind an art, Starting Point is a rare glimpse into an often-times enigmatic industry." (VIZ Media LLC)

“For those who enjoy the process and precision behind an art, Starting Point is a rare glimpse into an often-times enigmatic industry.” (VIZ Media LLC)

By Alexis Agliano Sanborn (Shimane-ken, 2009-11) for JQ magazine. Alexis is a graduate student of Harvard University’s Regional Studies—East Asia (RSEA) program, and currently works as an executive assistant at Asia Society in New York City.

Starting Point: 1979-1996, translated by Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt, is quite unlike its sequel, Turning Point: 1997-2008 (read JQ’s review here). Technical rather than creative, Starting Point shares renowned director Hayao Miyazaki’s recollections of his early days as an animator. The essays and interviews follow anime through production development, touching on the intricacies of character design, layout, and story adaptation. For those who enjoy the process and precision behind an art, Starting Point is a rare glimpse into an often-times enigmatic industry.

The first half of the work features essays on Miyazaki’s long hours in the studio, culture, and nature of Japan’s animation industry in the 1960s and 1970s. As Miyazaki notes, even then, anime was tied to media mix marketing. You didn’t just have manga; you had manga, then an anime, toys, merchandise, and spin-offs all fueling off each other. Says Miyazaki in a 1982 interview: “The world of anime makes its business out of themes like departing for new horizons or love, while pretending not to be conscious of [the] commercial reality.” In hindsight, these remarks prove ironic; the auteur’s Studio Ghibli having similarly succumbed to commercialization.

It isn’t just media mix that remains the same today: professional frustrations were high and work-life balance poor. Miyazaki, over the course of several essays, recounts the life of a young professional. He states: “When young, nearly all of us want to be taken seriously, as soon as possible….In fact, many of those who have not yet taken the plunge into the professional world…tend to speak endlessly about techniques, or concentrate on gaining as much knowledge as possible….In reality, however, once you enter this industry, the techniques required can be mastered very quickly.”

Simply put, no matter the background or pedigree, anyone with the capability and raw talent can become adept. But success can come all too quickly: “Once you’re in…you will be overwhelmed with work and you won’t have any time to study or learn for yourself.” The takeaway? Work hard and learn while you can—practical advice no matter the industry. Certainly insightful, these essays reminded me too much of reality. I was hoping to be transported and inspired, rather than my thoughts remaining decidedly in the real world. Wasn’t Miyazaki supposed to be about flights of fancy and imagination?

Every now and then you do get a whiff of escapism and creativity in his essays. As he says about animation: “It soothes the spirit of those who are disheartened and exhausted from dealing with the sharp edges of reality, or suffering from a nearsighted distortion of their emotions. When the audience is watching animation, they are apt to feel either light and cheerful or purified and refreshed.” This spirit has been evident since his early days working on Heidi, Girl of the Alps, Future Boy Conan, and Panda, Go Panda! Unfortunately, many of these series were never widely distributed in the United States, making these recollections difficult to relate to. Instead of the sweeping feeling of inspiration and excitement, Starting Point more often than not leaves you bogged down in technical details and not quite rose-tinged nostalgic ramblings.

It is the overabundance of technicality, tedium of work culture, and obscurity of the subject matter that makes this book dissatisfying. There was little creative, philosophical or theoretical discussion over Miyazaki’s early feature lengths films, such as The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, or Kiki’s Delivery Service. In general, the book was dry, although there was an oasis or two when Miyazaki would delve into the creativity and world-building.

For example, regarding the project plan for Laputa: Castle in the Sky, he described the world as such: “Humans are still masters…and it seems believable that they might change their own fates and carve their own ways in life….The machines in this world are not products of mass production, rather they still possess the inherent worth of handcrafted things.” It’s sentences like that which sustained my interest.

All in all, this book seemed technical rather than inspirational, like animation shop talk; the details and politics to a world somewhat bewildering to an outsider. Perhaps this is because many of the essays and interviews are from an earlier period of Miyazaki’s career, where he had less to ponder nostalgically and little inclination to delve into motivations and inspiration. History lessons are fewer, but not entirely lost. For Miyazaki fans, this work helps to flesh out another aspect to his personality, although for me it landed on the dry, rather curmudgeonly part.

For more JQ magazine book reviews, click here.

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