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Lessons Learnt

Inspirational World Building: Creativity & Life Lessons from Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of animation Studio Ghibli, has captured the hearts of adults and children from around the world with films like My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and plenty more.

For me, Studio Ghibli is the only inspiration I’ll ever need in my life. If I ever need a creativity boost or a muse to think about, I’ll turn on one of the many Studio Ghibli classics (most likely Porco Rosso) and just let the gorgeous cinematography wash over me. Ten minutes of that and I’ll be ready to write.

Side note: in my dream home office, I would have Studio Ghibli films on loop, playing silently, with some lo-fi jazz vibes in the background.

I’ll always marvel at Hayao Miyazaki’s ability to create simple, but icredibly realistic hand-drawn animations, and weave in stories that have a profound effect on people from all age groups.

Anime may depict fictional worlds, but I nonetheless believe that at its core it must have a certain realism. Even if the world depicted is a lie, the trick is to make it seem as real as possible. Stated another way, the animator must fabricate a lie that seems so real viewers will think the world depicted might possibly exist.

Hayao Miyazaki’s World Picture | Dani Cavallaro

The fantasy realism of Studio Ghibli works is what really sets them apart from other animation studios; the merging of the wildly imaginative — Porco Rosso is a pig pilot with a penchant for good food and Milan, Howl’s Moving Castle is literally a castle that walks around — but remaining grounded in realism. Just little touches of humanity and details — the way Chihiro clasps her hands waiting nervously or how Prince Ashitaka hands his bowl for food.

As a longtime Hayao Miyazaki fan, I’ve learnt many valuable lessons about creativity, imagination, producing art, embracing stillness, and more from studying his career and watching Studio Ghibli films.

Lessons Learnt is a series by Balance the Grind profiling individuals, brands or companies that inspire us. For more profiles, check them out here.

Lesson 1: Creators create. Then create. And then create some more.

As an animator, filmmaker, screenwriter, author and manga artist, Hayao Miyazaki is the very definition of a creative machine. In addition to his prolific work at Studio Ghibili, he has also created and directed TV shows, produced short films, created manga works and authored several books.

Initially planning to retire after releasing The Wind Rises (his 2013 Oscar-nominated film), Miyazaki announced in 2017 that he would be coming out of retirement to direct How Do You Live?, expected to be released in 2023.

The truth is that Miyazaki will never retire. He’s a creator at his core and he’ll always be coming up with new ideas and producing creatives, whether or not he distributes them to the public is another matter.

When it comes to procrastinating, I’m never going down YouTube rabbit holes or scrolling mindlessly throuhg social media. I like to procrastinate in a way where I can lie to myself that I’m actually doing “productive” work — replying to non-urgent emails or checking analytics for the fourth time that day. But really, all I’m doing is just putting off the thing that I really should be doing — creating.

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Lesson 2: Embrace “Ma”

In a 2002 interview with Miyazaki, film critic Roger Ebert, noted to the director the scenes in his films where nothing is happening, those moments of stillness.

I told Miyazaki I love the “gratuitous motion” in his films; instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or they will sigh, or look in a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.

“We have a word for that in Japanese,” he said. “It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.”

Is that like the “pillow words” that separate phrases in Japanese poetry?

“I don’t think it’s like the pillow word.” He clapped his hands three or four times. “The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness, But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.”

Think about when Kiki is laying on the grass watching the clouds, the umbrella scene in My Neighbour Totoro, or when Chihiro and No-Face are on the train travelling to see Zeniba. These moments of “ma” are pockets of stillness littered throughout Miyazaki’s work.

In an article about ma, writer Jerrold McGrath describes it as: “The Japanese idea of ma is that we need to create interruptions or absences that allow for difference to be reconciled. Designing for ma is about creating moments of awareness and quiet.”

Creating moments of awareness and quiet seems especially relevant in today’s world, where notifications and social media updates flood your iPhone homescreen and the news cycle tends to leave you overwhelmed and filled with anxiety. With all this, it’s more important than everto create these moments of stillness and quiet in our lives.

You don’t always have to be going somewhere, you don’t always have to be doing something, you don’t always have to know what’s going on. Sometimes, the best thing for you to do is, well, nothing. Hit pause on your life for a second — let your mind wander, stare out the window, let yourself get bored, let yourself think, instead of just reacting to everything. You’ll be surprised at how much this can help to calm down stress and anxiety.

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Lesson 3: Nurturing your childhood imagination and creativity

Studio Ghibli films are widely renowned for their incredible world building, free-flowing stories and wildly imaginative animation; free of any boundaries. There’s a childlike creativity to Miyazaki’s work, where he appears unconstrainted and unlimited in his imagination.

So there was no surprise when I found out that Miyazaki finds inspiration in children:

I look at them and try to see things as they do. If I can do that, I can create universal appeal. The relationship is two-way. We get strength and encouragement from watching children. I consider it a blessing to be able to do that, and to make movies in this chaotic, testing world.

Hayao Miyazaki: Modern movies are too weird for me | The Independent

Sometimes I feel like I’ve grown up too much and lost all sense of my childhood imagination, something that I think is so important, especially when it comes to creativity and storytelling. I was watching my 2-year old, Frankie, play the other day. I was amazed at how he just naturally built a whole world around him, creating stories with his toys and coming up with these outrageous scenarios effortlessly.

As I watched him, I thought to myself, how do you retain that childlike curiosity, sense of wonder and imagination when you grow up? Can creativity be trained? Does your imagination inevitably reduce as your life becomes increasingly wrapped around more mundane, adult tasks?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I do know that there’s a lot more I can learn simply by watching and being around Frankie more.

Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist once we’ve grown up. – Pablo Picasso

Related note: if you’re interested in learning more about Studio Ghibli, here’s a fantastic video by Asher Isbrucker about the immersive realism so prevalent throughout their films:

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Balance The Grind gives me a platform to talk to these people about how they're achieving their ideal lifestyle. I'm inspired by the passion, the work ethic, the hustle; and these conversations motivate me to live life the way I want to live it.