Exploring the Timeless Worlds of Hayao Miyazaki

Priscilla Ahn was born in Pennsylvania and, like many of us, raised on Disney cartoons. But when she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music, she became engrossed in the works of Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, drawing some of her deepest inspiration from his compelling characters and vivid storytelling.

The unlikely result of this infatuation was Priscilla's musical contribution to When Marnie Was There, the final film by Miyazaki's production studio. How she got there is a fascinating journey fit for a Miyazki film itself.

When I say that Hayao Miyazaki's work has changed my life, I mean it in the most literal way. His name came into my life a few years after I moved to Los Angeles, at a backyard summer party in Santa Monica. I was 20 years old, impressionable, and hungry for new inspiration.

I am an avid lover of film and like most kids in the U.S., I was raised on Disney movies. (I've probably seen every Disney animation from Snow White to Tarzan at least 30 times.) I absolutely loved them. I wanted to look like every female character and experience every romantic Princess-Prince fantasy story they told to my little, budding heart. So, when my friend at the party heard that I loved animation, he recommended I watch some of Hayao Miyazaki's. I took his advice and rented Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away as soon as I could. I did not know what I was in for.

I was stunned, moved, enthralled, and in love. The animation itself is above and beyond anything I've ever experienced. The magical worlds he creates are unbelievable yet entirely believable, all at once. The stories he tells are not solely of love and romance, nor are they about pretty, perfectly proportioned teenage girls being saved by a handsome young Prince. Most of his works are about a young female girl, who is strong, compassionate, and beautiful inside and out, defining the word "heroine".

Clockwise from top left: Kiki from   Kiki’s Delivery Service  , Sophie from  Howl’s Moving Castle , San from   Princess Mononoke  , Sheeta from   Castle In The Sky  , Nausicaa  from  Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind  , Chihiro  from Spirited Away

Clockwise from top left: Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service, Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle, San from Princess Mononoke, Sheeta from Castle In The Sky, Nausicaa from Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind, Chihiro from Spirited Away

The girls in these films weren't just falling in love; they were saving the world. They were discovering themselves, and changing the lives around them. Unlike the Disney heroines, who I mostly wanted to look like, Miyazaki's heroines are the kind I wanted to be like.

For me, the epitome of all heroines is Princess Nausicaa from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. The film is a wonderful introduction to her tale, but the manga, that’s also by Miyazaki, is a full on account of her goodness, her struggles, the fears and flaws of all humankind, and her will to bring lightness to the darkest of places. This manga is essentially a graphic novel,and compares to reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy in its epic scope. Reading this book renewed my faith in humanity.

Even the "wicked witches" of his tales aren’t demonized. Instead, they are looked upon with compassion, revealing how non-threatening they actually are. For children to see that evil can be defeated with love is one of the most powerful lessons one can learn, and grow from. A lesson that even the hardest of tribulations in one’s life can be a beautiful opportunity to open our hearts and react with kindness instead of meanness, fear, or violence.

Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind are pretty intense and deep in the stories they tell — mankind destroying our precious Earth out of desire for money and power. Even Howl's Moving Castle, perhaps one of the more "romantic" of his films, integrates a very strong anti-war theme.  

His stories aren’t just rich and deep with beautiful messages that everyone of every age can learn from, but the characters he creates are also magical and unforgettable:

Kaonashi from  Spirited Away

Kaonashi from Spirited Away

Kodama from  Princess Mononoke

Kodama from Princess Mononoke

Jiji the cat from  Kiki's Delivery Service

Jiji the cat from Kiki's Delivery Service

The garden robot of  Castle In The Sky

The garden robot of Castle In The Sky

Calcifer the Fire Demon from  Howl's Moving Castle

Calcifer the Fire Demon from Howl's Moving Castle

And of course — perhaps Miyazaki's most famous, and beloved character — Totoro from   My Neighbor Totoro  , the giant, lovable, furry spirit of the forest

And of course — perhaps Miyazaki's most famous, and beloved character — Totoro from My Neighbor Totoro, the giant, lovable, furry spirit of the forest

After meeting these iconic creatures they become like familiar friends who take you, as the viewer, on a journey you’ll never forget.  

I know that if I had not fallen in love with Miyazaki's movies when I did, I never would have decided to sing John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" in Japanese (the theme song from Whisper of the Heart that Miyazaki wrote and produced) at my first concert in Japan. Doing so lead me to record a whole album of Japanese songs, including many from his films, and eventually led me to write my very own theme song for the final feature length animated film by Miyazaki and fellow-renowned film maker, Isao Takahata’s Studio Ghibli film studio. All of these things have changed my life forever, and they all began with Hayao Miyazaki.


If you have not yet experienced the beautiful world of Hayao Miyazaki, I — like my friend at the summer backyard party over a decade ago — highly implore you to do so. He just may change your life too.