When Hayao Miyazaki Didn't Show Up for His Oscar
Plus: animation news worldwide.
We’re back! Welcome to another issue of the Animation Obsessive newsletter. Here’s what we’re doing today:
1 — that time Hayao Miyazaki boycotted the Oscars.
2 — the world’s animation news.
3 — the last word.
If you’re new around here, don’t forget to sign up! You have the option to receive our Sunday issues in your inbox for free, every week:
Enough about that — let’s go.
1. Miyazaki’s Oscar moment
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, the animation sphere has rallied in a big way.
Around one thousand people in Russian animation, including titans like Yuri Norstein, bravely condemned the war in an open letter. That was just the start — as our last issue detailed, animators worldwide have come out to support Ukraine. Boycotts are squeezing the Russian film and TV industry.
This overwhelming response, though, has raised questions. Why here? Why now? Or, as a reader asked last week, “Has the animation community ever stepped up like this for any other invasion?”
The answer is yes. Animation is bigger and more interconnected than ever, which increases its leverage, but animation and anti-war activism have a long history together. Let’s take a trip back to the mid-2000s — when Hayao Miyazaki didn’t show up for his Oscar.
Miyazaki has always been political. In the ‘60s, he was a Marxist and a union man, organizing against his bosses at Toei and infusing films like Horus: Prince of the Sun with far-left themes. Even when he broke with Marxism in the ‘80s, he remained a radical — and stayed influenced by many of the same ideas.
Princess Mononoke drew from Miyazaki’s disgust with the Gulf War and with Japan’s oppression of its native peoples.1 Meanwhile, Porco Rosso’s Japanese title translates roughly to Red Pig — which wasn’t a coincidence. “In making the film all this [disillusionment and regret] piled up,” Miyazaki said, “and I had the feeling that ‘I will be the last Red!’ And [the vision] became that of a single pig flying alone.”
To those who knew Miyazaki, it wasn’t a big surprise that the invasion of Iraq horrified him — or that he boycotted the United States in response.
It all happened during the rollout for Spirited Away. With its American release backed by Disney, the film had a major chance to win an Oscar — a first for Japanese animation. And then it did win, just as the Iraq War began. The timeline went something like this:
July 20, 2001 — Spirited Away opens in Japan.
September 20, 2002 — Spirited Away opens in the United States.
October 16, 2002 — The Iraq Resolution, authorizing an invasion, takes effect in the United States.
February 11, 2003 — Spirited Away is nominated for Best Animated Feature.
March 19, 2003 — The invasion of Iraq begins after months of buildup.
March 23, 2003 — Spirited Away wins Best Animated Feature.
Yet, at the ceremony, there was a surprise absence. “They looked around for Miyazaki to accept the prize,” reported The Japan Times, “but the director was not present.”
The reasons weren’t clear right away. Studio Ghibli claimed that Miyazaki was simply hard at work on a new film. In reality, though, he’d refused to travel to the United States on principle. To say that he was angry about the invasion is an understatement.
“I felt an intense rage,” Miyazaki recalled.
Toshio Suzuki, the producer of Spirited Away, concealed Miyazaki’s true motivations (“I didn’t want to visit a country that was bombing Iraq”). Suzuki felt the same way, and he didn’t attend the Oscars, either. But he wanted to keep the whole affair quiet. “At the time, my producer shut me up,” Miyazaki said.
So, when Miyazaki spoke about his historic Oscar victory, his words were pointed but careful. Within a few days of the ceremony, he’d released a note, written by hand, to explain his feelings:
It is regrettable that I cannot rejoice from my heart over the prize because of the deeply sad events taking place in the world.
However, I would like to give my heartfelt thanks to all my friends who have lent their effort in releasing Spirited Away in the United States and to all those who have shown their appreciation of the movie.
Even in Japan, Miyazaki avoided the swarm of reporters who descended on Studio Ghibli after the win. Suzuki held a press conference instead, telling those in attendance that Miyazaki couldn’t “bear to have media broadcasting his happy face.” Miyazaki refused to sugarcoat what was happening.
In fact, America’s invasion pained Miyazaki so badly that he dedicated his next film to opposing it.
Howl’s Moving Castle was “profoundly affected by the war in Iraq” and his “rage” over America’s actions, Miyazaki said. He confided to a Japanese newspaper that he “even made a slightly conscious effort to create a film that wouldn’t be very successful in the United States.”
At its core, the project is a protest. When it played at the Venice Film Festival, the head of the event said that Howl’s was “possibly the strongest anti-war statement” in the line-up that year. Even Suzuki had to admit its purpose, telling Reuters:
It relates to the world we’re living in today […] When we were making it, there was the Iraq war. In Japan we were not in a very good economic situation. From young to old, people are not very happy.
While reviews in the United States were positive, they were much more lukewarm than they’d been for Spirited Away. The film didn’t win an Oscar. But was it supposed to?
Hard times ask equally hard questions of artists. What counts as complicity? How vocal can, or should, your art be? When the Hugo Awards are sponsored by a major weapons manufacturer, like they were last year, how do you respond? What’s ethical in an era like ours? The answers can vary.
Back in the 2000s, though, Miyazaki found his own answers to questions like these. He refused to participate. He spoke out and, using his platform, made art that rose to the challenge of his time. Telling the Italian press about Ghibli’s initial plans for Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki said:
The world is changing enormously. […] Under these circumstances, you have to produce films that are consistent with the period, films that ask the right questions and give adequate answers to the audience, and also give them hope. As you can imagine, this is a somewhat pretentious and complicated goal.
2. Global animation news
Ukraine, Russia, war and animation
Russia’s all-out assault on Ukraine gets uglier by the day. We’ll spare you the details — you’ve seen your share already. What we’re covering is the ongoing involvement of animation in all of this.
In Hungary, a group of animators have come together to create Choose Peace, a haunting, collaborative protest animation. “Our video is intended to show our solidarity through our feelings,” they wrote, “and the links in the description are intended to show you the sources of assistance in our country.”
A stream of dissident, anti-war animation continues to come out of Russia, too, at real personal risk to its creators. The latest batch appeared on YouTube yesterday. Marge Dean, who leads the Women in Animation organization, published an open letter asking WIA members to spread this work far and wide. As she wrote:
This war is aggressive and unconscionable. We are seeing people from all corners of the world stand up in protest. Let’s use our expertise, art and collective soul to join the chorus.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine, another kind of cartoon surfaced. Mykola and Ivan is a two-and-a-half-minute short, very rapidly assembled by Ukrainian studios Animagrad and Mamahohotala, meant to help young children understand the conflict — and guard against Russian disinformation. The Russian-language version alone has already been viewed tens of thousands of times.
Alongside this, two initiatives in North America aim to support refugees. The Vancouver Institute of Media Arts has opened 25 scholarships for Ukrainians fleeing to Canada, including courses in 2D and 3D animation. And Kids Entertainment Professionals for Young Refugees is running a special fundraiser to support displaced children.
We’ve also got the fallout from the war in Russia, where the economic outlook is grim and the culture is increasingly isolated.
Russians lost access to Prime Video and Crunchyroll this week, joining a slew of other streamers and companies. Disney has halted all dealings with the country, although the hit there will be smaller — Ukraine and Russia together make up only 2% of Disney’s business. Notably, though, YouTube continues to allow Soyuzmultfilm to run its popular channel.
The Kremlin is responding to the economic crisis, oddly enough, by pulling out the Soviet playbook. It’s issuing huge bailouts and threatening to seize the assets of any company that leaves — including the likes of Apple. In other words, the Russian state would assume control of a vast section of the economy.
At the same time, the government legalized patent theft toward any country it labels “unfriendly.” Plans to legalize software and film piracy are already underway. At this rate, international copyright law will be a dead letter in the Russian Federation, much as it was in the USSR. If so, that has big implications for the animation world going forward.
Cartoon Movie 2022: the results
As war continued in Ukraine, something else was happening this week in Bordeaux, France. That was Cartoon Movie 2022 — an event at the heart of the European co-production ecosystem. Here, investors decide what the animation of tomorrow might be.
As Animation Magazine reported, “57 projects were presented from 19 European countries.” One of the biggest winners was Melvile, a Franco-Belgian film with a dark, unique look. It’s based on a comic series — and it’s taking home the Eurimages Co-Production Development Award, which adds €20,000 to the film’s funding.
The most-attended project was from Ireland: Little Caribou, a feature film with a style that recalls early Cartoon Saloon. Next up was Marie-Louise, from France, which strongly resembles a Ghibli project. Its plot summary reads:
Summer 2022. Jeanne, 9‑years-old, spends her summer holidays with her grandfather Xavier in their family house. With no cell phone network or Internet, they are cut off from the world! The little city girl gets frustrated and depressed. Winter 1918. In the same house, another 9‑years-old girl, Marie-Louise, is keeping her diary. Now imagine that Jeanne discovers the notebooks of her great-great-grandmother and projects herself to meet her in 1918. A deep complicity will be born between the two young girls separated by a century during a perilous rescue adventure.
One of the biggest trends at the event? Animation for adults, which made up over one-third of all projects at Cartoon Movie this year. The percentage has climbed every year since 2019. “Professionals now seem convinced that a European animated film market aimed at young adults and adults can exist,” reported one outlet. “Now, the financiers have to follow.”
Beyond all that, Cartoon Movie 2022 also gave out awards for the preceding year of work. Director of the Year went to Jonas Poher Rasmussen, who helmed Flee.
Best of the rest
Looking for something really wonderful today? The Indian studio Ghost Animation is sharing gorgeous animated folktales on its Instagram account — check out How the Kangaroo Got Its Pouch, The Ugly Duckling and more.
Also in India — Bechain Nagri Studios just dropped an entertaining, three-and-a-half-minute teaser for its animated series The Myth of Data.
Fall of the Ibis King, the Irish film that blew us away last year, picked up yet another big award.
More Irish news — Screen Ireland launched a major initiative for animators, offering “mentorship programs, workshops, master classes, placements, networking opportunities and guidance to its selected applicants.”
A Swedish film company published a new report, based on over 700 interviews, on the state of European co-production. One takeaway? When making deals with American streamers, keep it small — don’t be “useful idiots.”
Cartoon Brew has a great write-up on Japan’s top animation school, Tokyo University of the Arts, featuring Koji Yamamura, Honami Yano and more.
The Chinese streamer Bilibili grew by 62% in 2021, but its operating losses ballooned. iQiyi is bleeding money, too. Some analysts are beginning to ask whether “long-video” streaming has a future in China.
The government of Indonesia revealed a number of plans to grow the country’s film and animation ecosystem. One official cited South Korea as the model.
In America, Disney paused donations to Florida politicians after criticism, including from The Animation Guild, that the company supports anti-gay legislation. If you’re out of the loop, here’s an explainer.
Lastly — as you know, Turning Red premiered Friday on Disney+.
3. Last word
That’s all for today! Thanks for reading.
If you want to support this newsletter, and help us improve its scope and depth, the best way is to become a paying subscriber.
Running the Animation Obsessive newsletter is costly — both in time and money. Each and every paying subscriber (member) is key to keeping it going.
In exchange, members get access to exclusive research. Our latest members-only issue dives deep into three classic commercials from the late 1950s — essentially a triple helping of our retro ad of the week segment. We hope you’ll consider checking it out.
See you again soon!
From Turning Point 1997–2008 and Starting Point 1979–1996. The latter collects Miyazaki’s essay against the Gulf War and Japan’s involvement in it.