How Hayao Miyazaki’s Films Continue to Take Us to the Skies

Few filmmakers can claim the same heights of whimsy, artistry and storytelling as writer-director Hayao Miyazaki, whose modern-day fables seem to prove that having one’s head in the clouds isn’t a fault, but a virtue — in more ways than one. From his 1988 breakthrough “My Neighbor Totoro” to his 2001 Oscar-winning animated feature, “Spirited Away,” the sky is one of Miyazaki’s favorite playgrounds, where flight is about more than just elevation; it’s about transcendence.

Characters in flight often traverse physical and spiritual realms. They move between worlds and states of being. And in the case of Miyazaki’s latest, “The Boy and the Heron,” flight even serves as a gateway between life and death.

Miyazaki’s protagonists are often children or young adults forced to confront the realities of a flawed world. These characters’ moments of awakening often arrive at the tail end of some grand, perhaps even perilous, adventure — and typically while they’re suspended in midair.

Chihiro and Haku, top, in “Spirited Away” and Kiki, bottom, in “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” each experience life-changing revelations in midair.

“Spirited Away” epitomizes Miyazaki’s body of work, combining folklore and magic with his meticulously hand-drawn illustrations. Its protagonist is Chihiro, a young girl who takes a job at a bathhouse for the spirits in order to save her parents, who’ve been transformed into pigs. Chihiro is at a point of transition: The film starts as her family is in the midst of moving to a new home, and Chihiro herself is at that preteen age where she swings between the fearful naïveté of childhood and the willfulness of adolescence. She’s forced to bear the responsibility of her fantastical circumstances and guide her family back to the human world.

Her moment of revelation occurs as she’s flying through the sky with Haku, a river spirit who can transform into a dragon. Chihiro recalls a childhood memory that reveals Haku’s true name, releasing him from the curse that binds him. The film, like so many of Miyazaki’s others, suggests that the key to maturing, and to becoming the hero of your own story, is retaining the childhood dreams, feelings, thoughts, ideas and memories that bring us back to our most intimate selves. In Miyazaki’s work, flight is not just about traversing distances but also moving through time: childhood to adulthood, past to present and future.

No artist has explored the contradictions of humanity as sympathetically and critically as the Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki.

Kiki, the young witch of “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” has a similar in-flight bildungsroman moment as she completes her witch training: When her friend is in mortal danger, she must overcome a bout of insecurity that has left her temporarily unable to fly. Squatting over a borrowed push broom in the street, Kiki gradually summons the power she needs to lift off; the bristles of the broom erupt, a wind lifts her up and she shoots through the sky anew.

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One of the most impressive feats of Miyazaki’s films is how organically they espouse the filmmaker’s politics without pandering or proselytizing. Miyazaki is a noted environmentalist and pacifist, and often writes heroes who find themselves caught in conflicts between nature and society. But outside of the wars among gods, animals, mystical creatures and men, Miyazaki almost always promises some kind of paradise to which his heroes must fly.

In “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” top, and “Castle in the Sky,” bottom, protagonist princesses fly to new worlds.

The hang-gliding, titular princess in “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” crash-lands into a vital discovery about the toxic postapocalyptic wasteland in which she lives: Beneath the polluted topsoil layer is a healthy underground that represents a renewed world everyone thought was extinct. Sheeta, the princess of “Castle in the Sky,” also flies off to a brave new world which exists in the form of Laputa, the hidden castle in the clouds. It’s a lost paradise where advanced technology meets nature, and is so far removed from the grounded world that most people believe it’s a myth.

Both Nausicaä and Sheeta have to fly through airborne battles to reach their utopias, each facing direct gunfire without backing down. They’re not the only ones; in Miyazaki’s movies, warfare often derails his characters’ literal and metaphorical flights of fancy.

Aircraft are literally and figuratively transportive.

“The Wind Rises,” Miyazaki’s historical drama about Japanese aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, opens with a dream sequence that begins with Jiro happily flying in a birdlike plane with “feathered” wings and ends with his plane destroyed by a menacing warship. This is a recurring theme in the film: Jiro’s dreams are where he builds planes of the future, and where he consults with his hero, the Italian engineer Giovanni Battista Caproni, whose dream-aircrafts are like flying cruise ships, places of leisure and fun.

One of the film’s most evocative images is of a young Jiro imagining planes flying through the starry night sky; he stares up without his glasses but can only see hazy snatches of starlight against the dark backdrop. His imagination compensates for his poor vision, and he sees a stunning landscape stretch above the night sky, which graduates from the smoky blueish-gray of the evening into bright clouds of greens and yellows with splashes of magenta that seem stolen from a sunset. All of the shades blend, billow and balloon upward in a watercolor dreamscape, and a handful of planes fly through, the scene suddenly transposed onto the young Jiro’s awed face.

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Flight is a magic reserved for dreamers like Jiro. His aircraft link his world of dreams, where he is free to create whatever he wants for whatever purpose, and his waking world, in which he’s forced to see his designs used for war. Flight means freedom, until humans manipulate it for their own gain.

Marco, the pig pilot of “Porco Rosso,” and Howl, the magician of “Howl’s Moving Castle,” both fly to outpace the conflicts around them. Marco finds himself constantly hounded by the fascist Italian government for not using his piloting expertise to serve their regime. He lives as a bounty hunter, because it’s the only way he can retain some semblance of freedom as a pilot without sacrificing his ideals. And Howl transforms into a bird at first to escape the calls of war.

In each case there’s a cost: At the end of “The Wind Rises,” Jiro watches his new plane soar through the sky but then immediately sees the destruction it will cause. Marco’s cynicism about humanity from his wartime exploits and early piloting years is what seems to have caused his swine transformation. And every time Howl transforms into a bird he nearly loses his humanity completely.

Birds and humans are of the same stock in many of Miyazaki’s films, including his latest, “The Boy and the Heron,” about a boy named Mahito who is lured by a heron to a timeless place between life and death to find his dead mother and his missing stepmother. The heron is actually a shapeshifting man, and the huge talking parakeets and pelicans that Mahito encounters in the other realm are like humans, trying to coexist within two different strata of this otherworldly society.

The birds and humans of “The Boy and the Heron” straddle worlds.

“The Boy and the Heron” arrives with Miyazaki at 82 years old and is his film that deals most explicitly, and consistently, with the theme of mortality. But the barrier between life and death is no less permeable than those between childhood and adulthood, or dreams and reality, or a world of perdition and a hidden paradise.

Miyazaki’s heroes are born into imperfect worlds where people get sick, die, wage war and cause destruction, but even in the filmmaker’s most cynical renderings of humanity, even when he reminds us of our worst impulses, his films are ultimately dreams of the most hopeful variety — like that classic dream we’ve all had some night or another … the dream of flying. Flying, Miyazaki tells us, is one of the few concrete ways humans can achieve a kind of transcendence, and this transcendence is beautiful. It allows us to see our true selves, our true potential. But he never fails to remind us: What goes up must come down. It’s up to us to determine how we’ll land.

Images via Studio Ghibli/Gkids

A correction was made on

Dec. 11, 2023

An earlier version of this article misstated the time period in which “Porco Rosso” is set. It takes place in the years between World War I and World War II, not during World War II.

Miyazaki’s protagonists are often children or young adults forced to confront the realities of a flawed world. These characters’ moments of awakening often arrive at the tail end of some grand, perhaps even perilous, adventure — and typically while they’re suspended in midair.

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