The Dark Music Video That Saved Miyazaki
Plus: animation news and a John Hubley ad.
We’re back with more from the Animation Obsessive newsletter. Here’s our slate:
1️⃣ The music video On Your Mark by Hayao Miyazaki.
2️⃣ International animation news.
3️⃣ [MEMBERS] Looking at a rare John Hubley commercial from 1966.
New here? It’s free to sign up for our Sunday issues — get them in your inbox weekly:
With that out of the way, let’s go!
1. Miyazaki’s music video
“I begin to hear of Ghibli as ‘sweet’ or ‘healing,’ and I get an urge to destroy it.”
Hayao Miyazaki spoke those words in the mid-1990s. He meant that he needed to subvert what the audience expected. If they saw Ghibli one way, it had to be another. “Should I just come to follow those expected images,” he said, “I’d be finished!”1
But pushing back against the impression of Ghibli’s work as “sweet” wasn’t just a contrarian move.
The truth is, Ghibli has always had an edge. My Neighbor Totoro premiered as a double feature with Grave of the Fireflies. Even Kiki’s Delivery Service has a real sense of melancholy. And these films were made against the backdrop of Miyazaki’s darkest, grisliest work — the manga version of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Viewing Ghibli as strictly soft and comforting misses something important.
In the mid-1990s, Miyazaki made this telling comment about creating Nausicaä and his films at the same time:
I won’t go so far as to say that because I had something as heavy as Nausicaä to work on, I deliberately created lighter works. I do think, however, that if I hadn’t had Nausicaä to work on I probably would have been floundering about, trying to incorporate somewhat more serious elements into the films. Of course, I can only say this in hindsight; at the time I didn’t feel this way, and just made such films because I thought it was the right thing to do.
The Nausicaä manga finally ended in 1994 — after more than a decade. Miyazaki no longer had it as an outlet. Combined with his frustration that the public had painted Ghibli into a corner, it’s no surprise that he responded with Princess Mononoke.
Before he could make that film, though, Miyazaki found himself on a detour into the world of music videos. In 1995, Ghibli released the musical short On Your Mark. It put Miyazaki’s films on a new trajectory. Without it, Mononoke might never have happened:
At the time, Miyazaki was stuck. He was developing Princess Mononoke out of a children’s storybook he’d published in 1980. The problem was that time had passed — and it no longer spoke to the modern world, according to producer Toshio Suzuki. Mononoke stalled for months.
Then Ghibli got an offer. Chage and Aska, a famous musical duo, wanted to do an animated video. They had, unrealistically, aimed for the best: Hayao Miyazaki. Their producer said that there wasn’t much chance, but he called Ghibli anyway. Toshio Suzuki answered. He hadn’t heard of the band.
And yet Suzuki ended up agreeing to the project, even though Ghibli hadn’t done anything like it before. “I had an intuition that this would change Miyazaki’s mood,” he later wrote.2
Miyazaki accepted. The video he produced is a thrilling adventure story set in a futuristic world. Many of Miyazaki’s visual ideas from films like Castle in the Sky appear. But it’s also very different from what Chage and Aska had probably expected.
The darkness and violence of the Nausicaä manga are here — almost like a proto-Mononoke. Miyazaki admitted to having “purposely distorted” the implication of the song’s title, On Your Mark, into something more sinister. And he snuck in “a lot of coded meanings” along the way.
Miyazaki once called this film “somewhat subversive.” That’s just one way to translate his words, though. Another version renders it as “filled with ill-will.”
He laughed after saying that. In reality, he’d pitched Chage and Aska from the start on a story that misinterpreted the song. They’d agreed. (Aska was shocked that they got to do the video at all.) And so Miyazaki crafted a post-apocalyptic dystopia with a cyberpunk feel. He insinuates the larger story through background details, like a sign for “bio-octopus salad.”
Miyazaki storyboarded On Your Mark himself — those drawings in the video above are all his. He created a world that owes a strong debt to Nausicaä, from the irradiated land to the crumbling cities. Even the murdered cultists at the start take their designs from the Nausicaä manga. (Plus, the bird woman looks like Nausicaä.) Miyazaki was now putting to film exactly the kind of story he’d been drawing all along.
Although Miyazaki structured On Your Mark to be interpretable in many ways, with no single meaning, he’s said quite a bit about it. He remarked in 1995:
Radiation has permeated the ground, making it impossible to live there. But it’s surrounded by greenery, like the area around Chernobyl. It has transformed nature into a sanctuary. The human beings have built a city underground where they live. […]
Anarchy would be widespread in such an age, and the authorities would be very conservative about any criticism of the establishment. […] What distracts people from these conditions are drugs, professional sports or religion; doesn’t this sound true? They all proliferate. In the kind of age I’m describing, it occurred to me that people might try to hide what they want to say from the authorities by expressing it in a song with coded words.
He believed that a similar future was coming. Miyazaki knew that the song’s title derived from the English phrase “on your mark, get set, go” — in other words, prepare yourself for what’s ahead.
But Miyazaki’s work has always been about hard-won hope. On Your Mark is no different. Despite the darkness, the film revolves around hope — a theme he portrays in a non-linear way. Even when the main characters fall to their deaths at the midpoint, it’s not over. Miyazaki’s storyboard makes reference to an “eternal recurrence” of events, which likewise ties into the lyrics.
“The timeline in this film doesn’t flow linearly,” one commentator has noted. “As with the lyrics, ‘We still don’t stop,’ [the characters] keep trying, no matter how many times they fail.”
The video was inspired partly by a Sega game that Miyazaki and the staff had played at an arcade not long before. Miyazaki got a rush out of it, despite complaining about it. He borrowed visual ideas from that game for On Your Mark — reportedly saying, “I can make a much better one than that of Sega.” Even the video’s looping, death-and-rebirth structure feels like it has roots in games.
After trying and failing endlessly, the two protagonists rescue the winged girl and drive, unprotected, into the radioactive wasteland to free her. This might be fatal for them. It probably is. But they push forward, despite everything.
In 1995, Miyazaki offered a cryptic comment about this moment. “[If] I had my own dream or hope — something that I refused to allow anyone else to touch — and without totally surrendering to the situation I let go of it,” he said, “I would want to let it go somewhere no one else could reach it. That is what this is.”
On Your Mark came together fast. Miyazaki started it around October 1994, and Ghibli animated it between January and May 1995. The studio was stretched thin — Whisper of the Heart was in production at the same time. Plus, this video was an early test run for CGI in the Ghibli pipeline. Despite running under seven minutes, On Your Mark cost roughly 100 million yen, close to $1 million at the time.
In July 1995, On Your Mark appeared beside Whisper of the Heart in theaters — a stark contrast to Yoshifumi Kondō’s quiet, whimsical piece. It was a bold decision, and not just for that reason. The Tokyo sarin attack had happened in March. On Your Mark’s imagery of cults and massacres led some at Ghibli to question whether to release it, but it went ahead.
The result holds a small but crucial place in Ghibli’s catalog. Ultimately, it changed something in Miyazaki. He got unstuck. “We could examine Princess Mononoke from a different point of view,” wrote Suzuki.
“The consequence: Miyazaki made up his mind to dump this half-baked Mononoke,” Suzuki remarked, “and start to make a brand-new version.”
What Mononoke became has almost nothing to do with the Mononoke of 1980. Instead, it feels a lot more like On Your Mark — embracing and pushing forward many of the ideas from the Nausicaä manga.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see Miyazaki’s long career as a series of inevitable events — an artist working hard to produce one film after another. That’s not how it happened. Miyazaki felt that his animation career was in ruins by the early ‘80s. When he made the Nausicaä film, the project almost fell apart. Things didn’t get much smoother from there.
And Miyazaki’s views were changing. The Nausicaä manga caused him to abandon Marxism in the ‘80s. The Tiananmen Square massacre shook his lifelong admiration for China. As the Yomiuri Shimbun reported in the mid-1990s, Miyazaki “once embraced the idealistic view that human beings could eventually find utopia” — but events like the fall of the Soviet Union destroyed that belief.
Yet Miyazaki continued, despite everything. Each time something threatened to derail him, even after his many retirements, Miyazaki has found his way back.
On Your Mark is both an expression of that reality and one of the concrete ways that Miyazaki did find his way back. It bridged the gap between the Miyazaki of Porco Rosso and the Miyazaki of Princess Mononoke. His films grew wilder, more freeform. He found a way to confront the issues that had left him in a rut — and to break away, once again, from what the audience expected.
This is a revised reprint of an article that first ran in our newsletter on October 14, 2021. It was exclusive to paying subscribers then — almost one year later, we’ve made it free to all.
2. Animation news worldwide
A Filipino animator draws eyes
Big news broke this week — first and foremost the Mario trailer.
Another major story, though, was the surprise virality of a made-for-television Scooby-Doo movie. Even the New York Times gave it a headline. The film’s title is Trick or Treat Scooby-Doo! — and its portrayal of Velma as gay generated attention on social media, in the press and on Google.
There’s a second, less-examined story buried beneath this one, though. When Trick or Treat blew up on Twitter, one of the things spreading the film was its unexpectedly technical animation — something Twitter adores. Sharing a clip, one user asked, “Can anybody tell me who animated this cut?”
Cut is a word used in the anime industry to refer to a shot of any length. It’s also used by foreigners in sakuga fan circles — groups that fixate on specific, often technical bits of animation. Seeing it used in reference to Scooby-Doo is almost surreal. But a hunt ensued for the animator behind these viral shots.
In the end, artist Krist Santos (credited as Kristofferson Santos) came forward, starting a Twitter account and sharing his work-in-progress animation from Trick or Treat. He’s from the Philippines — where many Hollywood cartoons, this film included, outsource their animation. Several of his tweets went viral, too.
It’s exciting to see a Filipino outsource animator in the spotlight like this. So, we contacted Santos by email and asked him about his background. He told us:
I’ve been animating for fifteen years. I’ve animated for projects from Disney, Warner Bros, DC, Nickelodeon, Universal Studios and many more. I’m one of the animators at Snipple Animation Studios [in Manila] who got lined up to work on this project, Scooby-Doo Trick or Treat, as a character animator.
Since joining Twitter, Santos has tweeted clips from his work on the Animaniacs and DuckTales reboots — noting that he contributed “many scenes” to the latter. For Trick or Treat, Santos animated several popular shots of the new character Coco Diablo. A few of them were based on layouts by American animation legend Dan Haskett.
We asked Santos about that, too. Here’s what he wrote:
I believe Mr. Dan Haskett picked some interesting scenes from the storyboards, drew over some panels of Coco Diablo and added more poses to suggest her energy and personality. Some of the Coco Diablo scenes I animated used his layout poses, and some didn’t. It was easy for me to figure out her personality and character with the help of Mr. Dan Haskett’s suggestion drawings.
Finally, we mentioned that Trick or Treat Scooby-Doo! has given its Filipino animators named credit, and asked how common this is. Santos replied:
We animators receive credit by name usually when we do a movie or a direct-to-video film. Oftentimes we don’t because we often do TV series projects. But it’s okay because having the opportunity to animate for TV shows and the fun that comes with it is more than enough credit.
We’re grateful to Santos for answering our questions. For more of his animation and insights, you can follow his Twitter account.
Best of the rest
We lost Yuriko Yamawaki (80), a Japanese illustrator with close ties to Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki has adapted her work on at least three separate occasions.
The first trailer is out for the French feature Ernest and Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia.
American voice actor Candi Milo (a veteran you’ve definitely heard before) has a good interview with Animation Magazine about her new memoir, growing up in a house that cared for mental patients and the difficulties of voicing Dexter.
Another good interview — Argentinian animator Daniel Duche talks about his country’s animation industry. Despite its high-quality output, he says that under-the-table employment is rampant, which leads to insecure conditions for workers.
American artist Erik Wiese (SpongeBob, The Mighty B!) posted a rare cache of his storyboards for the first episode of Danny Phantom.
The Chinese series All Saints Street will land on Crunchyroll in November. It comes from the team that created The Legend of Hei.
In America, the Warner/Discovery bleeding continues. “Both Craig of the Creek and its spin-off Jessica’s Big Little World had their episode orders cut in half today,” tweeted series co-creator Matt Burnett on October 7.
A hundred production workers at Bento Box Entertainment in America have unionized with The Animation Guild.
Lastly, we told the story of Michael Sporn’s Doctor De Soto — a delightful, Oscar-nominated adaptation of the William Steig book.
3. Retro ad of the week
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Animation Obsessive to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.